Steve Biddulph … says anxiety is on the rise. Photo: Steve Lunam
WOMEN must engage in a "more active feminism" to rescue the present generation of girls who are in crisis and having their anxiety exploited, says the parenting expert and therapist Steve Biddulph.
The bestselling author of Raising Boys, who helped a generation of parents rear their sons, has now turned his attention to girls, with his new book, Raising Girls.
"Girls' mental health is going over a cliff," Biddulph told Fairfax Media. "It is at crisis point … we've got to help each other's girls."
Biddulph embarked on his farewell Australian book tour on Friday evening, giving a sold-out talk at Danebank Anglican School For Girls in Hurstville. At 60, Biddulph said he has wearied of the relentless travel his popular parenting talks entail and is going back to teaching therapists in Tasmania.
"I'm about to retire [but] I want to light a fire under the girl question," Biddulph said. "People are waking up to this around the world. There is a movement to save girls."
Having just returned from a speaking tour of Britain, Biddulph said he had assumed girls were doing fine until parents started asking him six years ago for help with their daughters.
Now he quotes alarming statistics to emphasise his point - anxiety and depression has doubled among girls, self-harm has increased 60 per cent, and 13 per cent suffer an eating disorder. One-fifth of girls are now having their first sexual experience at 14, and in the last year girls overtook boys in the binge-drinking stakes.
He blames the deterioration in girls' mental health on the corporate world exploiting adolescent female anxiety to make money.
"Twelve years ago marketers deliberately went after pre-teen girls, knowing if you get them then they will buy a lot of stuff in their teen years," he said. "Girls are very aware of fitting in. Advertisers want to make [a girl] anxious about her hair, her skin, her figure. Is she cool enough?"
To counter the sometimes insidious effects of advertising and peer group pressure (often via social media), Biddulph wants women to reach out to girls.
"The number of older women in girls' lives has dramatically dropped away in the last 50 years. When you're 14 you don't want to talk to your mum very much, and if you've only got your peer group, they're pretty brainless."
Biddulph said aunts need to become more involved in their nieces' lives as confidantes, and mothers should model positive behaviours like healthy body image. Girls should be encouraged to spend time with women they admire.
He cites a group of British mothers who started an adolescent girls' support group for their daughters.
"I want to start a more active feminism, to help girls see what their options are," Biddulph said, noting the original feminist mantra of ''girls can do anything'' has been reduced to a choice between supermodel, movie star or pop singer.
Biddulph said girls need mothers who are available to listen to them, fathers who are gentle and make their daughters feel special, and boundaries for social media.