'I Hid Myself Within Myself'

Studies reveal how girls' self-confidence crumbles during adolescence, while feminist therapy takes a different approach in allowing them to reclaim it.

When I was asked at 12 years old what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered "a sociology professor who advances women's place in society." At 16 I was asked the same question - right when I was reading Amos Oz's "My Michael," with its captivating descriptions of geomorphology. And so I answered "a geographer's secretary."

With only four years separating the two answers, what exactly happens during this period of time?

According to some feminist studies, between the ages of 11 and 16 girls' self-confidence crumbles. Groundbreaking American psychologist Carol Gilligan discovered in her research that young women experience a significant crisis once they understand that they are maturing in a masculine world, and that in order to fit in, they must silence their true voices to meet the norms.

When eight- to 10-year-old girls are asked about their lives, Gilligan writes, they offer clear answers and explain what is important to them. When the same girls are asked similar questions just a few years later, it seems they have lost their voice. The most common answer given is "I don't know." Their knowledge and strength are hidden under a cloak of niceness, in an attempt to fit the image of the so-called good girl: polite, sweet, pretty. In doing so, they lose significant parts of their personality and disregard these characteristics as they develop relationships with others.

Gilligan and other feminist psychologists began their research in this field decades ago. Are their findings still true today? Psychotherapist Anat Gur, whose recent article on the topic on her Hebrew blog (called "Reshimot" ) has been making waves, says that unfortunately the answer is yes.

"I was optimistic," she says. "I was sure that things would look different among today's young women, but that's not at all the case. It's true that advances have been made in many ways toward equality; there are more women in senior positions in the workforce, which wasn't true before. There are female pilots, for example. But America is always ahead of us, and what psychologists said there 15 years ago is true here today."

"They said permissiveness leaves young women out in the cold. Beyond the fact that sexually they mature five years younger than girls did a century ago, today's young women are the preferred sexual objects of our time; the desired body is that of an anorexic girl. A huge amount of pressure is exerted on girls - even their parents push them into dieting, while grown men see them as sexual objects."

Freud's psychological map

Gur's field of expertise is the psychology of gender. She is the author of "Women Abandoned" (in Hebrew, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2009 ), which discusses prostitution in particular. She was also a partner in the Anima Clinic for Women's Psychological Health and recently founded the Women's Therapy Center for self-help (www.wtc-anatgur.co.il; in Hebrew ).

Gur reveals how 18-year-old females from "normal families" very often sit in her office and say: "If only my parents had given me less freedom when I was 13 and had asked exactly what I was doing at night."

Social-cultural pressure, combined with the silencing of one's inner voice lead, Gur says, to "a feeling of being underground. All the wisdom and strength are buried underground." In her book "The Birth of Pleasure" (Knopf, 2002 ), Gilligan quotes from the diary of Anne Frank, who wrote, "I hid myself within myself."

The treatment offered by Gur is largely feminist, similar in spirit to that given at the Counseling Center for Women in Jerusalem and Ramat Gan (www.ccw.org.il ). It is hard to argue the fact that the field of psychoanalysis was developed at the end of the 19th century by a man who, though a genius, was naturally a product of his time. The psychological map he sketched for many years was based on a man; the woman was classified as "other." Much feminist criticism has been aimed at specific elements of Sigmund Freud's theories, for example "penis envy."

While it's true that therapists today do not approach women exactly as Freud did (or let us hope so, at least ), Gur has the courage to speak out. The norms of traditional psychology, she says, still percolate into treatment, even today.

"Society is still very masculine," she says. "We [feminists] want to create a different therapeutic space, in which it's possible to use our strength as powerful women so we can venture out into society and realize our expectations. Adolescence is a critical age for this [to take shape]."

In feminist therapy, the patient is a partner in the process, which is less hierarchical. Other approaches are also employed, in which the therapist is not a distant, all-knowing figure. Feminist therapy is especially characterized by the perspective of the patient within her social context: The problem that brought her to therapy, beyond being a personal problem, is affected by what goes on around her, by the circumstances of her life.

Depression, for example, is for many women a manifestation of their dissatisfaction with their place in life. When it comes to sexuality, if in the past it wasn't legitimate for women to express it, today some sense they are expected to be what is called liberated - to sleep around and throw partners aside the way men do. In both extremes, the woman is trapped by social expectations. Feminist therapy attempts to allow her to examine and clarify what suits her.

One feminist therapist tells the story, for example, of a woman abused by her partner. While the patient had been telling her psychologist, who she'd been seeing for years, about the situation, she never heard the word "abuse." If traditional psychotherapy directs some women to adjust to the conditions of their lives, feminist therapy helps them achieve change.

The bottom line? Many men and women have in recent years lost their faith in controversial, expensive, drawn-out psychological treatment. Nonetheless, it is sometimes necessary. If one decides to go to therapy, it is worth finding someone unlike the gender-blind sort most patients are exposed to (and sometimes escape from only by the skin of their teeth ).

Old, like new

One of the most critical and energetic feminist battles being fought right now is the call to abolish the statute of limitations on sex crimes, as well as to increase the penalties for them. Protest organizers argue that state prosecutors are mishandling cases in this area, for example by offering plea bargains to convicted rapists. Maya Vered-Lev, a victim of incest who went on a hunger strike, represents one extreme in this struggle.

At 9:00 P.M. this coming Saturday, a rally will be held at the Tel Aviv Museum plaza under the slogan "Girls and Boys Cannot be Abandoned" - a reference to the fact that the number of children suffering sexual abuse has been on the rise every year. The slogan may also have been selected because the boys and girls who fall victim to such terrible offenses are likely to strike a nerve with the general public.

Many entertainers are set to participate in the rally, including Ehud Banai, Dana Berger, Marina Maximilian Blumin, Ania Bukstein, Shira Geffen, Dafna & the Cookies, Dudi Levi, Mei Finegold and Dalia Shimko, who will host.