Radical Psychology
Volume Nine, Issue 1

Whispers and Roars:  A Feminist Analysis of the Anesthetization of Girls’ Anger

Dr. Cheryl van Daalen-Smith *

Introduction: Whispers and Roars

    There is value in listening to one’s inner voice -- the voice that whispers ‘you are good and have intrinsic value’. Anger whispers too. Its whispers illuminate injustices shedding light on the otherwise invalidated. Anger travels with whispers that can -- if heard -- enable authentic self-knowing. In my experience, affirmed anger emancipates the roar of girls’ authentically boisterous selves, and frees them from the confines of narrow gender-role prescriptions. That girls are lured into narrow gender roles before they truly develop an authentic self-defined selfhood is not new. But to cover anger with a shroud of shame in the name of femininity, and to anesthetize chemically and/or socially an emotion meant to be a signal, is an injustice that must be named and collectively challenged.

The Chameleon Study

    I had been a school nurse for many years, and during that time, I became increasingly concerned about the all too common practice of medicating young women’s anger, sadness, and anxiety. This “pill-for-every-ill” approach was becoming so commonplace that I realized I could no longer remain silent and therefore complicit in what could only be considered to be the chemical restraining of female youth.  Upon reflection, I realized that the majority of young women with whom I had worked were either on prescription antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications (many of which have not been proven safe for children or adolescents) -- or had been strongly encouraged to take them by their physicians when feeling emotional. It was this critique of the overmedication and anesthetization of girls and young women that led me into a two-year national study entitled Living as a Chameleon which sought to explore this phenomenon.

    Initially, it was my intention to expose the overmedicating of girls and young women, and the pharmaceutical industries’ possible role in perpetuating damaging messages to girls and about girls. But I kept returning to questions regarding what it was that brought girls to their doctors in the first place. What was going on? Why were so many of their visits ending with a prescription? What were their actual needs? What was common in their lived experiences? I came to realize something profound; this realization cemented my decision to initiate a project that would give voice to girls’ and young women’s anger. In all the years that I sat beside girls and young women as a school nurse, I was privileged to listen as girls described their anger. Stories of dismissal, rejection, harassment, abuse, depression, addiction, and denied rights are just some of the anger stories I was both privileged and angered to hear. They came to their school nurse to be heard, affirmed, and respected. They left experiencing, sometimes for the first time, an opportunity to speak about their lives from a position of authority and to speak of their anger without fear of judgment, relational disruption, dismissal, or pathologization. I was never a subscriber to the belief that girls needed to learn anger management.

    I decided to conduct a study that would explore and expose the lived experience of anger among diverse girls and young Canadian women aged 14 to 24; the study had a particular emphasis on (a) what generates girls’ anger; (b) their experiences surrounding the expression of anger; (c) their relationship with this emotion and (d) how their lived experience of anger affects their emotional well being or mental health. Sixty-five girls and young women between the ages of 14 and 24 were consulted either in focus groups or in one-to-one interviews. The girls were invited to draw on aesthetic representations of anger, as a starting point, in order to assist them to find words to describe something that, for many, had no language. The two years spent meeting with girls across Canada was enlightening and forms the basis for this feminist commentary regarding the anesthetization of girls’ anger (van Daalen-Smith, 2008).

Anger- Setting the Context

Anger is a fundamental message that something needs attention in our interpersonal contexts ... and how women and girls learn to feel, think and behave around this crucial emotion deserves our exploration (Cox, Stabb and Brukner, 1999, p xii).

    Much has been written of late about girls and anger. But most newspaper opinion pieces have been misleading to say the least. Anger continues to be erroneously equated with aggression, an error that contributes to the silencing of this all-important emotion. Girls are never supposed to be angry -- this is clear from the continued and escalating pathologization of this emotion when exhibited by girls. And so this commentary must begin with a critical distinction. Anger is an emotion while aggression is a form of behaviour. Anger is a human emotion. It is not hostility, aggression nor violence. For centuries anger “was considered a sin, a weakness, and a madness to be avoided or contained” (Thomas, 1993, p. 390). In fact it is still listed as one of the seven deadly sins along side covetousness, envy, gluttony, lust, pride, and sloth (Worldbook Multi Media Encyclopedia, 2001). Around the time of Freud, the western view of anger began to change. Not only was the suppression of anger now deemed harmful, suppressed anger or anger turned inward was widely viewed  as a factor in the prevalence of depression in women (Thomas, 1993).

Emotions provide us with important information about what is going on around and within us. Emotions are messages about our experiences and the experiences of others. Cox, Stabb and Bruckner (1999) view emotions as mobilizers around injustice and have argued that anger has a pivotal role in enabling self-definition. Carol Gilligan (1990) views anger as “the political emotion par excellence -- the bellwether of oppression, injustice, bad treatment [and] the clue that something is wrong in the emotional surround” (p. 527). Jean Baker Miller (1985) has argued that “women’s assigned subordinate position generates anger” (p. 1).  She further states that subordinates (including women) are made to feel that they are at fault for feeling angry, and that there is no cause for the anger.  The conclusion to be made is that there must be something wrong with them. Women, she argues, have been convinced that being a woman means being completely without anger; hence being angry will predictably feel threatening to a woman’s sense of self, especially if it is wrapped up in notions of hegemonic femininity. Miller (1985) believes that years of repressing one’s anger lead to depression, perceived unworthiness, passivity, and poor health.

Dana Jack (1991) suggests that, “a woman’s anger stems from (a) unmet relational needs; (b) self blame for giving up her own needs and goals for the sake of a relationship with a man; and (c) the prescription of behaviors and a “feminine” identity including requirements to be selfless, self sacrificing, emotionless and good” (pp. 179-80). Similarly, in It hurts most around the heart, Thomas, Smucker and Droppleman (1998) argue that anger is rooted in emotional pain and treatment that is unfair and disrespectful. Miller (1985) believes that rather than anger itself, it is the constraints on both the expression and recognition of anger by women that is problematic. She believes that “our culture continually produces anger both at the social level and during the course of individual psychological development” (p. 181). Being in a subordinate position will, according to Miller (1985), constantly generate anger -- anger that is unwanted and dismissed by the dominant group. Miller (1985) believes that the recognition of and the expression of anger  are key in the initiating the resolution of depression in women.

For these reasons, among others, anger is not something to be managed, or avoided. It is something to be understood and listened to. Building on the work of Judith Duerk (1989), it may be understood that anger is a gift. It brings with it the chance to strike root in deeper ground within oneself, forcing one to listen to the voice of the self within. Anger comes as a gift asking that a young woman recognize the not-so-quiet, steady voice of her own truth.

Feminist Perspectives on Anger in the Lives of Girls and Young Women

There has been substantive feminist interest in anger as experienced by girls and women. For example, in Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development, Brown and Gilligan (1992) interviewed over 100 girls aged 7 to18 over a period of four years; they found that a majority of the girls interviewed had received the same messages and responses as women receive about anger, just as Miller (1985) had earlier proposed. Several girls spoke about “giving over” their strong feelings of frustration, anger, or fears of abandonment to “happy endings” (Brown and Gilligan, 1992, p. 47). The girls and young women further reported needing to or being expected to retract, dismiss, or deny their desires based on their experiences of both subtle and overt suggestions to reframe or dismiss their “perceived” needs. When asked, the girls suggested that one of the most fundamental sources of their anger was the experience of abuses of power over them on the part of adults. As well, like the women Miller (1985) spoke of, these girls also expressed a fear of losing relationships if they stuck to their true feelings -- feelings that were most often received as unacceptable.

    In her doctoral dissertation, Brown (1989) found that, in adolescence, girls begin to aspire to attaining the impossible ideal of the “perfect girl”; one that appears to be free from “un-loving features”. Brown (1989) discusses a central lesson that an adolescent girl learns about how to be the perfect girl: she does not get angry. Anger, Brown (1989) explains, is an emotion that makes girls vulnerable to isolation and criticism. Brown (1989) suggests that the constant psychological strain experienced by girls to be good and therefore banish all traces of unacceptable anger, is a key root cause of many of the ailments including depression, eating disorders and cutting. For instance, in depression, a woman’s burying of her protest and unhappy submission to her prescribed yet devalued gender role may play a large role in producing her outward signs or symptoms, namely lethargy, flatness, disordered eating, or risk taking behaviors.

    Brown (1998) demonstrated that both girls’ resistance and their anger stems from enforced conventional femininity. She also found clear examples supporting the notion that girls do indeed understand the basis of anger, at least for some part of their developmental journey, when they were being themselves and when they were pretending, performing or impersonating the right kind of girl in order to maintain relationships or satisfy someone else's definition of “appropriate” behavior for girls. According to Brown (1998), they became astute observers and judges of hypocrisy in themselves and others.

    Brown (1998) believes that girls’ and young women’s anger must be expressed in order to ensure psychological health. She wishes that all of us would encourage girls’ strong feelings, (e.g., Go ahead and get pissed!) and take seriously their social critique of their life circumstances and the world around them. She believes that girls’ open resistance to the “psychological and physical denigration inherent in dominant cultural definitions of femininity is disturbing; and it is disruptive, and to many, frightening” (p. xii).  She sternly tells adult women, that when we turn away from girls’ anger, it sends a confusing and dangerous message: the same message we’ve received about our own anger and its antecedents. Encouraging girls’ anger and all the politics surrounding its causes and its oppression, she concludes, is a radical act with potentially transformative consequences.

The Anesthetization of Girls’ Anger -- Key Findings

Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we as we can to each other (Rich, 1979, p.190).

     What was supposed to be a project tapping into girls’ wisdom pertaining to anger turned into an opportunity for girls to begin to think about anger. Not only had all these girls and young women never been asked to think about and embrace their lived experience of anger, they had never discovered their relationship with this emotion nor its association with many experiences along their life path.   

     I came to understand that, in order to speak from their knowing, I needed to ask them about themselves and their life path. The questions in the inquiry emerged as the study did, (i.e. one focus group built on the next and one interview developed from another). Questions like “do you think girls and young women experience anger?” shifted to “Tell me about your relationship with anger” or “Lets talk a little about what's happening in your life right now and how that's linked to anger” or “Tell me about your life and your relationship with anger”. What emerged were stories of abuse, neglect, pain, longing, forced inauthenticity, marginalization and frustration. In order for them to speak about themselves, we often had to start from a place off-centre from anger, for anger was unknown, uncharted and anxiety producing. Never wanting to lead each dialogue, I had to engage the girls in dialogue about their lives and eventually ask them to tie it to anger. The ties, however, were almost always loose and uncertain: “I don’t even know how to think about anger” (Severin, participant).

Anger Generators

      What were the sources of anger for the participants? Injustices were paramount: they experienced gender-based expectations, being socially othered, judged, made to feel not good enough and not important, and not being listened to or taken seriously. They had little or no agency in their lives or in their interpersonal relationships. In other words, their rights were infringed upon if not denied. The majority of the time when the young women told stories of anger it was about their needs being discounted, feeling unappreciated and treated as unimportant. More than anything, what generated anger for these girls was the constant experience of being judged. A participant stated: “I’m afraid of how other people are going to react” (Belinda, participant). The girls whose lives informed this project were judged for their thoughts, actions, sexualities, disabilities, parental status, race, appearance, adherence to familial and/or gender based expectations, or style of expression of anger.
      Many of the participants described confusion and doubt about the emotion itself including its validity at the source or its validity in expression. They were more often than not made to feel that it was wrong. Due to the reaction of others, they came to experience anger along with fear and shame. Their relationship with anger can best be described as that of doubt, anxiety, guilt, poor insight, a lack of language and an inability to define it comprehensively, as well as fear and shame. Their relationship with anger soon became one of finding diversions for it, because of its negative anxiety producing quality for them: “Anger is an unsettling emotion that makes me upset. I just want to know how to deal with it” (Virginnia, participant).

       It was the troubling paradox associated with expressing anger that best illuminated the anesthetization of girls’ anger. Whether a girl expresses or doesn’t express anger, the consequences bring with it serious negative implications. The decision to express oneself or not is a catch-22 situation leaving the girls and young women in this study with an additional source of denied agency in their lives. Either way, the outcome for the participants was disconnection from not only the emotion itself but also an eventual self-silencing. If they did speak of their anger, they were judged, viewed as mentally unstable or called a bitch; the participants always experienced disruption in the given relationship within which the anger was generated. The lesson learned around anger is powerful -- don’t be, as is explained by Elsie:

I never wanted to be seen as a bad girl and was extremely afraid. So I kept it all in. I think that people in authority positions or who are older just tend to want to take the easy way out with girls. They don’t let them express their true emotions. Instead we are just pulled apart and expected to act appropriately (Elsie, participant).

     The overall lived experience of anger for girls included being disbelieved, discredited, punished, pathologized, and feeling confusion, loss and disenfranchisement. A participant, Peck, told me “I’ve had a lot of people telling me that I’m not very good. It’s had an impact”. A central theme emerging in these girls’ experiences with anger was that of injustices and denied rights; these were central to the generation of their anger. A powerful catch-22 associated with the expression of anger emerged as the central reason for the anesthetization of their anger. Because their lived experience of anger arose within the context of relationships, and since anger was more often than not experienced as a relationship disruptor, the girls and young women learned to self-silence. They learned to get along and “give up relationship for the sake of relationships” (Brown and Gilligan, 1992). They soon became disconnected from this emotion, for Western culture reveals no language to girls that allows them to describe their lived experience of it.

We’re supposed to be polite and pleasant or fall into a pile of tears. We’re not allowed to get physical when we vent our anger. We have to be the feminine version -- in a corner crying. I hate that (Virginnia, participant).

There is no language. We have words like frustration or “she’s anal retentive”. That’s what we use to co-opt what anger is supposed to be. And so I think that, because we don’t have language, we act out and that in itself is a language. Young girls grow up using language that doesn’t help them define what it is (Anne, participant).

    The girls had very little insight into the sources of anger or its validity. To them, anger was something to be feared, avoided or doubted: “Until recently, I never really thought much of myself and I never really thought that my opinions or my anger meant much” (Paula, participant). “I feel small when I’m angry” (Elsie, participant).

     Participating in the study was the first time the participants had been invited to speak about their anger and they reported a beneficial impact from having time either in focus groups or in one-to-one meetings to explore anger and their relationship with it. They spoke of coming away knowing that they had a right to feel angry, a right to express it; the experience was a beginning point in their understanding of the politics surrounding anger for women.
Discussion: Denied Anger Denies Authenticity

Some girls and young women must detour their direct, honest relationship with anger in favor of some less authentic experience or expression. These compromises to genuine, spontaneous affect become ingrained in ways of knowing -- cloudy lenses through which to view self and the world at large (Cox, Stabb and Bruckner, 1999, p. 3).

     My findings have identified common threads across the lived experiences of anger in the lives of the young women who participated in this study. These include: injustices, denied rights, a lack of agency, the catch-22 of anger expression, their disconnected relationship with anger and the value they articulated in having an opportunity to explore anger from an anger affirming standpoint. From the findings, three issues emerge as central to understanding the mental health impact of the lived experience of anger for young women. Firstly, the pervasiveness of oppression stands out as key to understanding anger for young women. Secondly, knowing the sources of their anger, but also of what they are able to do with it, is critical. Lastly, and most crucially, the findings demonstrate that denied authenticity was linked to the most serious mental health consequences of the lived experience of anger for young women.

The Pervasiveness of Oppression

    From source, to expression and to impact, a key defining factor of girls’ lived experience of anger is that of oppression. Oppression serves to marginalize those considered to be “other”, such as females, lesbians, and racialized women, among others, and dismisses them as insignificant, unimportant, invisible, different, of less value and not normal (Gerrard and Javed, 1998). The oppression experienced by the girls came in many forms at each stage of their experience with anger. This included being ignored, dismissed, silenced, rejected, controlled, disbelieved, constantly being compared to others, devalued, victimized, scrutinized, judged, made to feel not good enough, not important, not listened to or taken seriously; they believed that they had little or no agency in their lives or in their interpersonal relationships. In other words, their rights were infringed upon if not denied.

All through grade school, all the outings, field trips and gym class I was excluded. I was the only kid with a disability in the school so I was kinda set aside from everything else. The teachers said “oh well”. This affected me for a long time. I was angry but imagine a kid in a wheel chair getting angry? I’d probably have been put in a room (Joan, participant).

    The majority of the time when the young women told stories of anger it was about their needs being discounted, feeling unappreciated, being treated as unimportant, rarely if ever, being listened to and having no agency. “When I’ve expressed things that make me angry in the past, usually the other person gets upset and angry too. And the issue doesn’t go anywhere but in circles” (Gail, participant).

Societal marginalization is another form of oppression, and many of the participants were marginalized either because of their gender, race, ability, appearance, sexual orientation, or because they were pregnant or were young mothers. Gender role expectations and prescribed femininity for girls and young women are other forms of oppression stemming from a patriarchal culture. Girls learn that they must sacrifice themselves by caring for others and maintaining relationships, being inauthentic (i.e. being agreeable when one is not feeling that way), and avoiding anger and conflict (Tolman and Porche, 1999, p. 5). I would argue that the defining one’s self in relation to her connections to others, is yet another example of strict gender based expectations for girls and women as was also explained by scholars at the Stone Center. Bepko and Krestan (1990) identified a Code of Goodness which, they believe, females are socialized to live by. The code includes (a) being attractive; (b) being a lady (a good woman stays in control); (c) being unselfish and of service; (d) making relationships work; and (d) being competent without complaint. To be a lady and stay in control is directly related to the societal constraints placed on the expression of anger for girls and women. The expectation to make relationships work also influences girl’s and women’s ability to express their anger in relationships, thus leading to eventual self silencing.

Keepers of the Drum: The Centrality of Relationships and the Eventual Process of Self-Silencing

    For the 65 girls whose lives inform this commentary, the lived experience of anger arose and played out within the context of relationships. The injustices and denied rights stemmed from participants’ relationships with teachers, parents, friends and partners. During my time spent with the Native young women’s group, they taught me that within the Native family, women are expected to be “keepers of the drum”.

We have to be strong. I find that in households it’s the women who have to be strong because they are the keepers of the drum. The ones who are supposed to keep all the people together, make everything okay, to keep the family together and to be brave (Paula, participant).

Gilligan (1982) demonstrated that girls are taught to define themselves in terms of their relationships and that mental health disturbances arise from disconnections in relationships. It makes sense, then, that girls and young women will avoid relationship disruptions in order to avoid relational losses. And so, many girls silence their anger in order to prevent any further disruptions in their relational surround.

    The lived experience of anger in the lives of the girls and young women in this study led to an eventual process of self-silencing.  The experience of being devalued, dismissed, judged, ignored, disrespected and having many of their human/child rights violated led to anger. In attempts to speak of their anger and its source, the young women were pathologized or medicated by the health care system, disbelieved, criticized and further marginalized. “Girls and women are anesthetized by the fear of what others think of them” (Regina, participant).

    Because of  the way in which their anger was received, their relationship with this emotion became one of fear, shame, doubt, self-loathing, internalized pathologization, guilt and self-silencing. They learned to “stuff it away”, disregard it, divert it into other things, and not say anything. “For me, it’s easier to let things go (Virginnia, participant).

 The Role of Anger in Knowing Self

      Emotions provide us with important information about what is going on around and within us. Emotions are messages about our experiences. “Emotions provide important information about the self in relation to the environment and direct our awareness to what is personally relevant in order to mobilize the self for action” (Greenberg and Safran, 1989 cited in Cox, Stabb and Bruckner, 1999, p. 4).

    Anger is an emotion of authentic self-knowing. It is a political emotion, in that it has self-protective qualities. Its suppression is also political and, in my view, is rooted in a misogynist culture that fears the angry (i.e. powerful) girl, young woman or woman. For the participants in this study, anger arose within the context of their relationships and given that girls and women are socialized to define themselves in relation to others, and that any relationship disruptions create emotional distress, anger produces fear and trepidation. In addition, gender role prescriptions rooted in a patriarchal western culture place expectations on girls and young women to attend to relationships at the cost of self. Within the context of relationships, injustices, denied agency and denied rights were what generated anger for the participants in this study. If they “chose” to speak of their anger, they were met with further dismissal and negative repercussions, not the least of which was further relationship disruption. Soon, their relationship with anger became one of fear. “Society thinks that you are crazy and that you should be calm and not show anger. Otherwise you’re a bitch or are rude” (Yvonne, participant).

    Over time, the participants spoke of the decision to just let things go, that their anger would get diverted elsewhere, or that it would be displaced onto the wrong targets. They rarely knew how to describe their anger, its source, or its impact, and this represented a disconnection from it. Because anger is a message about self, and aids in self knowing, it is my argument that the overall lived experience of anger in the lives of the participants in this study leads to an erosion in their ability to live authentically particularly within the context of interpersonal relationships. To be disconnected from anger, is to be disconnected from self. “The ultimate loss is the loss of the self never known” (Peck, participant).

Living as a Chameleon: The Outcome of Anesthetized Anger

Girls stop being and start seeming (Pipher, 1994, p. 23).

Chameleon Photo

     A chameleon is an interesting creature: it is one that, in my view, captures the mental health impact of anesthetizing girls’ anger. Chameleons change themselves in order to blend in and protect themselves from harm. They become undetectable through a process of constant change. They move quietly and cautiously with their eyes darting every which way in an almost frantic attempt to read their ever-changing surroundings. Ultra adaptive, a chameleon lives not for its own colour but for the colour of its surroundings. A chameleon is the ultimate metaphor for being other-defined, not self-defined (van Daalen-Smith, 2008).

     Like the chameleon, the young women in this study learned to be highly adaptive and to monitor their relationships out of fear of disruption; they learned to blend in, be quiet and adapt themselves in order to protect themselves from harm. “I tried to be a chameleon and blend in” (Anne participant).Over time, the experience of loss, dismissal, and reprisal stemming from attempts to reveal their anger led to disconnection from the emotion. Eventually when the participants experienced anger, they felt fear and guilt. This fear and guilt leads to self-silencing surrounding their anger and its source. Over time, the participants became disconnected from the emotion, and in so doing, became disconnected from their own sense of needs and feelings. To be disconnected from the message of anger, creates a disconnect to self and eventually denies one’s ability to be authentic to self and/or authentic-in-relationship.

     The eventual mental health impact of anesthetizing anger was a denial of authenticity of knowing themselves and being themselves. Instead they learned to live as gender-prescribed chameleons: adapting, quieting, ignoring, diverting, and suppressing, so as to avoid being judged and being seen in order to blend in safely.

So What’s the Problem? A Patriarchal Fear of Women’s Power
    Girls’ lived experience of anger is, in my view, an experience that stems from a patriarchal social system that denies women power. Anger is an emotion of power: to know it is to know self, and to act upon it is to have agency, self-knowledge and power. This is dangerous in a culture that has been built upon a hierarchical power base in which, through compulsory heterosexuality and systemic misogyny, girls and women have been led to believe that they are inferior and that their selfhood is entirely rooted in their affiliations with the dominant sex. Anger is just one of many experiences controlled and affected by patriarchal pressures. The same denial of knowing can be said for knowing ones’ sexual desires (Tolman, 1991), sexual orientation (Zemsky, 1991) or one’s abilities (Robinson and Ward, 1991). Anger, women’s’ sexuality, and women’s’ capabilities are all about power and women’s power is dangerous to a patriarchal culture.

    Patriarchy maintains itself through oppression. For girls, the experience of anger is one of oppression. Oppression generates it, and oppression denies its expression. The dismissal of their needs, the continual scrutiny under which they live and the denial of an opinion -- especially if oppositional -- are all parts of a system of subordination; and this continued subordination reinforces the message to girls and young women that their needs are not important -- nor are they.

    To maintain girls’ relationship with anger as one of confusion, trepidation and fear keeps young women in their assigned place: they remain subordinate and other-defined. Eventually, young women become complicit in their own subordination as they learn to self-silence and their core self becomes other to their masked self. The hyper-vigilance of a chameleon is not unlike the constant adaptation the young women learned through their lived experience of anger. Anger is key in self-definition, in self-protection, and in agency, power and lived authenticity. Girls’, young women’s and women’s anger threatens patriarchy. The very gender role constraints that teach girls and women to suppress, divert, or doubt their anger are the same constraints that maintain women’s subordinate position in the home, in intimate heterosexual relationships, and in society in general.

Hearing the Whispers, Affirming the Roars

Girls are forced to be subordinates to the self they are supposed to be (van Daalen-Smith, 2004).

    To be anesthetized is to induce a loss of sensitivity to pain in all or a part of the body. It is known as a state of apathy or mindlessness and is related to or produces a loss of sensation and unconsciousness. To be unconscious is to be unaware of something -- unable to see, hear or otherwise sense what is going on. To be conscious, however, is to be aware of something and to attach importance to it. It means to be capable of thinking, choosing and perceiving. It is to be awake (Encarta World English Dictionary, 2004).

   In this section, I outline five key recommendations gleaned from the focus groups and interviews with diverse Canadian girls conducted as part of this study. These recommendations include the necessity to reframe anger, to root anger in the political, to stand beside and bear witness, to practice introspection surrounding our own beliefs and values about anger, and to practice feminist consciousness-raising. These are key strategies that all of us can employ as we confront the anesthetization of girls anger, awaken the whispers and affirm the roars.

Reframing Anger

     The first recommendation that emerges from the experience of asking girls and young women to speak of their lived experience of anger pertains to the necessity to reframe anger from that of something that is sinful, negative and wrong, to something that is valuable, important and that brings with it a chance for authenticity. As long as girls are told that anger is bad, a sin, a sign of mental instability or is violent, girls will continue to be disconnected from it. To know one’s anger is to know one’s self, for anger brings with it a message about what we need, believe we ought to be, and how we are experiencing the world and our relationships. The emotion of anger is a gift:  it tells us that something is wrong and that our needs are not being met. It is not anger in and of itself that is wrong, negative, or sinful. Anger must be unhinged from aggression since the latter is a type of behaviour while the former is an emotion.

    To reframe anger as a valuable emotion with an important message has far reaching mental health and relational implications. Girls’ and women’s mental health is linked to an inner sense of connection with others, and “psychological crises in women’s lives stem from disconnections” (Brown and Gilligan, 1992, p. 3). To continue to view anger as something negative reinforces the vehement expectation to suppress it and doubt its validity.

Shifting the Lens:  Rooting Anger in the Political

    Anger is political. Girls’ anger arises within a societal context, and the power relations within that context necessitate our attention and critical analysis. In other words ‘the personal is political’. Feminist social worker Helen Levine (1989) believes that “ the helping professions have historically located the key source of most personal pain and trouble within the individual ... and accordingly, the emphasis in practice, regardless of intention, is focused upon individual pathology ... deficits of personality... and ultimately upon adjustment at the personal level” (p. 247-8). The sources of anger, the options afforded regarding its expression, and the repercussions of action all arise within a social structure that privileges its silencing.

    The Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW) recognizes the important role social work plays in changing damaging social structures. Its Code of Ethics (OCSWSSW, 2008) states that a social worker or social service worker shall advocate for change that is in the best interests of the client, and for the overall benefit of society, the environment and the global community. To shift the lens on anger to its political roots is wholly congruent with the scope of practice of helping professionals such as social workers.

    The rigidity of prescribed roles and behaviors for girls and women -- involving caring for and about others as well as looking pretty for boys and men -- makes for predictable identity confusion, anger and depression. Research has demonstrated that girls who conform to societal prescriptions for behavior were more popular, less neurotic, happier, and better adjusted than non-conforming girls. Levine (1989) agrees about the predictability of emotional difficulty for women who do not conform, but adds that inevitably whether or not girls or women conform, they are caught in a vicious catch-22 situation: conform and lose yourself; do not conform and lose credibility and social acceptance. “The inevitable conflicts created by the severely circumscribed life patterns set for girls and women result in pronounced personal difficulties at one point or another in our lives” (p. 238). She astutely argues that learning to be female demands that we give up the self, and thus what generates anger for girls is political and so is what girls and young women are allowed to do with it.

Bearing Witness … Standing Beside

     Asking girls and young women about their anger, its antecedents, and affirming their stories is to bear witness to a girl’s life as she interprets it. However, to stand beside requires a bit more of us. According to Brown (1998), when adult women turn away from girls’ anger, it sends a confusing and dangerous message. Turning away from girls’ anger, especially when in a powerful position as a helping professional, reinforces the silencing, and, in my view, is complicit in the erosion of girl’s boisterous selves during early adolescence. Encouraging girls’ anger and all the politics surrounding its causes and its oppression, Brown (1998) states, is a radical act with potentially transformative consequences.

     The girls I met over the span of two years expressed a desire for someone to listen and not leave their side as they expressed their anger. When I asked the participants how nurses and other helping professionals could best support them around their anger they asked that they not be judged, that they believed and that they be allowed to be angry. They wanted the nurse to demonstrate that she cares, believes them, takes them seriously and does not see them as weak or sick. Therefore to stand beside and to bear witness, is a key recommendation; it is also central to all the recommendations put forth by the participants of this study.

Introspection as an Ethical Imperative

    Before we can listen to, affirm and enable insight and development in the girls and young women we seek to support, we ourselves must be introspective about our own anger. The College of Nurses of Ontario (CNO) (2007) and the College of Psychologists of Ontario (CPO) (2009) have guidelines for professional ethical practice for their members. Applicable to my recommendation surrounding introspection is the CNO’s (2007) directive to “clarify one’s own values in client situations and identify where a conflict of one’s own values interferes with the care of clients” (p. 7). The CPO (2009) calls for its members to ensure professional objectivity. Girl-serving professionals need to be in touch with not only their own anger but also, in the course of listening and bearing witness, they must be in touch with how the story is affecting them and whether they are still bearing witness or are being triggered about their own lives. In any interpersonal communication this occurs, but given that anger is taboo, rarely discussed, and misunderstood, we must be diligent in our introspection before assisting girls and young women to know and affirm their anger. Critical reflection on all professional dialogues is an imperative not new to nursing, psychology or other girl-serving professions. However, given that anger and its reception are critical to mental health, I believe the necessity to be introspective and critically reflective is even higher. If we are not clear about our relationship with anger, we can unknowingly impinge on girls’ lives by imposing our own un-checked values on them. Not only is this potentially maleficent but, in my view, it is unethical.

Feminist Consciousness-Raising with Girls

Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience.  Our future depends on the sanity of each we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other. (Rich, 1979, p.190)

    A key feminist intervention in working with girls and young women is that of feminist consciousness-raising (CR). First-wave North American feminist Hogie Wyckoff  (1977) wrote of the importance of women coming together in order to understand their own lives within the context of other women’s lives. Betsy Warrior (1970) envisioned CR assisting women “to clean out their heads, uncork their anger, learn to understand other women and discover that their personal problems are not only theirs” (p. 253). We must teach girls how to identify what generates anger for them and help them to believe it and affirm it. The girls who participated in and informed this study unanimously felt that it was beneficial to come together in a climate of respect that was free of judgment. By having the opportunity to meet together, several of the focus groups evolved into CR groups. For example, the queer group quickly established itself into a CR group with remarkably astute analyses, while the young mother’s group emerged into a discussion group where listening partners were established. The Native young women’s group and the young women with spina bifida group both transformed themselves into CR groups as the focus shifted from question and answer sessions to free dialogue and to trust and affirmation of one another. The experience of coming together gave them the opportunity to be heard and also to learn about other girls. By listening to one another they felt that they were somehow not alone. They learned that they were normal. “I had a chance to speak. It taught me to understand my anger better. It’s an outlet” (Mandy, participant). Another participant stated, “I feel its ok to express anger now and not just shove it down. I didn’t want to express it before because it wasn’t acceptable. We never had the okay-ness we’ve had here” (Helvi, participant).
Now is the Time

The path is the goal. If there’s any possibility for enlightenment, it’s right now, not at some future time. Now is the time. This very moment is the perfect teacher. Pema Chodron (2005).

     Girls need us now, perhaps more than we imagine. Let us meet them at the 'crossroads' that Brown and Gilligan (1992) speak of. Let’s actually head them off at the so-called pass and encourage girls to resist conforming to damaging notions of femininity. A feminist presence is not as palpable as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Let us change that. Let us make sure that every girl, over the course of her life, has someone who gives her permission to question ‘the way it is’, who helps her to confront confusing expectations, to rename experiences for which she has blamed herself, and to reframe herself as a capable person worthy of respect, dignity and self-expression. Let us join together with the goal of ensuring that every girl hears her own inner whispers, trusts her roars of injustice, indignity and denied self-definition. Now is the time for change. Imagine how your life might have been different if this had happened for you.


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Biographical note:

Dr. Cheryl van Daalen-Smith is a feminist nurse and girls’ health scholar. Her years as a school health nurse and a public health nurse fuel her scholarly interest in exposing the risks associated with narrow gender role expectations for girls (and boys). She teaches Canada’s only pediatric nursing course rooted in the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Children, is an advocate for children’s rights in health care settings and is currently researching women’s lived experiences of electroshock. She is an associate professor at York University in the School of Nursing, with a cross appointment in both the school of Women’s Studies and the Children’s Studies Program. She is currently leading an initiative to found a Centre for Studies in Girlhood at York University.