The Secret Life of Teenage Girls

Movies, magazines, and TV tell girls they can be perfect--they can look pretty, stay thin, get good grades, do well in sports, go to a top college. In Washington's affluent suburbs, girls feel the pressure, and the competition can be mean and fierce.

By: Brooke Lea Foster

A blanket of clouds has hung over this Montgomery County high school for the past hour. But the girls on the sports field don't seem to notice--not until the sun breaks through.

Suddenly, the field-hockey practice becomes more charged. Girls are smacking into one another and whacking the ball. Sweat drips down their faces.

"She needs a pass," the coach yells at the field-hockey players. "Jenny, Jenny, get on it." The coach blows his whistle.

With ponytails bouncing, the girls run off the field toward the bleachers and drink from their water bottles. Sixteen-year-old Jenny follows. She is small but muscular. Her wavy brown hair is pulled back tight, held in place by two silver clips. She sits down to catch her breath.

Four girls sit down beside her without any acknowledgment. They start talking about a girl who pulled up at the 7-Eleven in a new Mustang. "I want a BMW," says a girl with long blondish hair. Another girl expresses her disappointment that she has only $5,000 to spend on a car.

"Don't worry," consoles the blonde, "your mom will give in and give you more money."

One girl points at another's nose. "Look at her. She got a nose job," she says.

The girl who had the operation points to the bridge of her nose. "No more knob," she says.

 

Jenny rolls her eyes and starts to walk over to where her best friend, Maggie, is talking with another friend. But she stops when she remembers they're no longer speaking. Maggie gave Jenny the cold shoulder when Jenny made the varsity team after only one year of experience. Later, Maggie told her on AOL's Instant Messenger--a program that lets members communicate instantly online--that she no longer wanted to be friends.

Jenny is saved from a momentary panic of not having anyone to talk to when the assistant coach starts to talk about uniforms for the next day's scrimmage. She tells the girls to wear a navy shirt and black shorts.

"Navy shirt and black shorts?" says one, scrunching her face. "That doesn't even match."

"You're not trying to make a fashion statement here," says the coach. After some talk, they decide on royal-blue shorts, blue socks, and a dark-colored shirt.

"And girls," the coach calls after them as they walk off the field toward their cars, "remember, your underwear should coordinate, too."

 

Picking up her bag and water bottle, Jenny walks across the football field toward the track. She waves to her boyfriend, a tall, gangly boy in a gray T-shirt soaked with sweat. Beside him, a dozen girls clap, spin, and march to music from a boom box. The girls are on the "pom" team--a group that mixes cheerleading and dance moves.

Jenny watches with a mixture of disgust and envy. The guys on the track team try not to stare as they run by.

Laura, a ruddy-faced girl with braces, approaches. "I have something so obnoxious to tell you," she says through the metal fence that divides the track from the football field. Laura is on the JV field-hockey team. She looks around to see who's listening.

"Jill's doing it again," she says. "She goes out of her way to make me feel bad. I was explaining something to everyone and she basically told me to shut up--in front of everyone."

"She is the team captain," sighs Jenny.

Jill approaches, with her bob of hair bouncing, and Jenny tells Laura she'll call her later.

Then Jenny, Jill, and Erin, another field-hockey player, hop in Erin's four-door sedan. They roll down the windows, open the sunroof, and drive away with the pop band Vertical Horizon blasting on the radio.

"Byeeeeeee," Erin yells out the window to a parking lot of cars and scattered kids.

 

When the car turns into Jenny's Potomac Development, they point to a guy walking down the sidewalk. "There's Bobby, the local drug dealer," Jenny says.

Inside her family's four-bedroom house, Jenny slumps into a chair. Her parents won't be home for about an hour. It isn't two minutes before the phone rings. When she answers, she mouths to me, "This is my ex," and hits the speaker button.

"How was your day?" Dave asks, his voice blaring through the kitchen. When she doesn't respond, he says playfully, "Jenny, are you masturbating again?" She laughs and explains that she's pouring a drink.

"Come on," he says, "ever since you didn't have sex with me you're such a horny bitch. Anyway, what did you do last night?"

"Todd came over," she says, "We watched a movie about giant sandworms."

"Oh, so that's what you call it," Dave jokes.

When they hang up, Jenny climbs the stairs to her room and explains her history with Dave. "Pretty much he took my hand and put it down his pants and was like, 'Do this or break up with me,' " she says. "I was like, 'Okay, but only if you put your hand over my hand.' " She says Dave broke up with her soon after and started to date one of her best friends.

Her open bedroom closet reveals the small dresses she wore as a baby, hanging next to the short shorts and tank tops she wears today. Theatrical and athletic awards are pinned to a bulletin board. Last year's yearbook is open on her bed.

Jenny is a virgin but says she thinks about having sex with her boyfriend. She misses her best friend, Maggie. She worries about the SATs. And when she thinks about it, she doesn't think guys are attracted to her. All of it hurts.

"When I was little, I would say, 'Hi, I'm Jenny,' " she says, now curled up in a ball on her bed surrounded by stuffed animals. "But what does 'Hi, I'm Jenny' mean to me now?"

 

A week later, Jenny wakes up for the first day of school. It will be the beginning of another 180 days of navigating through what she describes as fake smiles, whispers, cliques, SATs, dirty looks, and "good cries." Jenny is not depressed. She says she isn't unhappy. She thinks she's just a typical suburban teenage girl trying to be thin, keep a good group of friends, remain fairly popular, please her parents, and do well in sports.

If it sounds like a heavy load, it is. But Jenny would never tell her parents that. Behind the positive picture she paints for them, she thinks her life is hard. She feels "stuck" in how her friends define her. It's a world where a misstep could deem her a slut, where the way she looks could make or break her day.

It's shallow and it's stupid, she says. But it's her reality, so she deals with it. When she's home, Jenny admits to mostly showing her parents what they want to see.

"In front of them, I want to be a good little girl," she says. "I want to be innocent and have them show me off to their friends. I don't want to disappoint them."

That usually means she doesn't want to talk about what really went on in school that day.

She's part of a generation that has grown up at a time when young girls are getting more attention. In 1992, when she was eight, the first of the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation reports, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," was released. When she was ten, Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls hit the bookstores, chronicling the loss of girls' self-esteem. A genre of "girl-help" books followed, and teen magazines still print tons of essays by "hurting girls."

Jenny grew up with Nike ads showing women jumping over cliffs, telling them to "Just do it." Mentoring programs sprouted up. There were new programs to involve more girls in math and science. Working mothers tried to spoon-feed self-esteem at the breakfast table.

Girls seem to have made strides. They are doing better in school than boys. They go to college in greater numbers. Their participation on sports teams is at an all-time high. The message is: Girls can do anything. Girls should do everything.

 

But Jenny's world isn't simple. She says she goes through her day just trying to keep herself intact. She thinks a lot about who she thinks she is, who her parents want her to be, who she has to be in school.

Kerri-Lynn Kriz, a counselor at Langley High School in McLean, thinks Jenny's confusion stems a lot from the messages in popular culture. "There is a real confluence of factors putting pressure on girls: the media, parental expectations, societal expectations, not to mention the pressure girls put on each other," says Kriz.

"The atmosphere is so driven that sometimes it's at whatever cost. It can really leave a girl with an unstable sense of identity," she says.

For girls, 16 is the middle mark of adolescence. It's a time when girls are struggling to figure out who they are and build an identity--even though their world seems filled with contradictions.

Opportunities have gotten better for girls, "but in some ways it makes their lives more complicated," says Carol Kleinman, a psychiatrist in Chevy Chase. "Girls are told they can do anything they want. Then there are messages on the importance of beauty. It's just too much." Popular culture, she says, identifies what makes girls hurt and taps into those feelings to sell products.

Advertisements, commercials, movies, and music lyrics constantly remind girls of everything they're not. Girls internalize the messages and then compete with one another, says Kriz.

In the same way the women's movement made some women feel guilty for not being "superwomen," girls carry a burden from popular culture. Many feel the need to be a "superdaughter." In school, they try to be a "supergirl."

 

Trying to Be Perfect

 

Chelsea, a popular high-school junior from Potomac, says she's always stressed during the school year. "Since I've been little," she says, "my parents have said as long as I do my best they'll never be mad, just disappointed. But I've never gotten a B."

Chelsea admits that no one puts more pressure on her than she does. She tries to excel in school and athletics while fulfilling her parents' expectations and juggling a social life. She says she studies all day on Saturdays and Sundays so she can go out on weekend nights.

During the week, she'll often stay up past midnight to study, then get up early the next day, go through the school day, and put in 2 1/2 hours of soccer practice. At soccer she plays rough and can list a series of injuries: a broken nose, a concussion, torn ligaments. All of this will pay off, she thinks, when she applies to colleges.

Chelsea's parents both went to prestigious universities. She knows they want her to follow in their footsteps. Like many girls her age, Chelsea was in an SAT-tutoring course this past summer.

Chelsea is one of the smartest kids in her class, but she rarely raises her hand or speaks her mind. She's considered a top soccer player, yet she hates when people come to watch. "I always get worried I'm going to mess up," she says.

"My favorite thing to do during the school year is sleep," she says. "After everything is done, it feels good to go to bed."

 

Penny Peterson, the school psychologist at Whitman High School in Bethesda, says a lot of suburban girls are overachievers. Girls perceive messages differently than boys do, she says, putting stress on themselves.

This past year, Peterson was giving a talk to students, reminding them that they needed to complete 60 hours of service before graduation.

"Girls will sit there and immediately think I'm talking about them," she says. "After the meeting, a clutch of girls came up to me, asking, 'Did you mean me? Do I have enough?' Meanwhile, the boys are on their way out the door."

According to Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan, authors of Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development, those feelings of perpetual inadequacy--the need to be beautiful, smart, skinny, sexy, and virginal all at once--develop in girls' early years.

"Those are all external labels," says Peterson. And those labels create "an emptiness inside that starts really early."

The culture doesn't help. If it's not 18-year-old Britney Spears dancing in a diamond thong and singing, "I'm not that innocent," it's the deep-feeling Joey Potter sneering at "slutty" Jen on the WB show Dawson's Creek. Magazines like Seventeen and CosmoGirl are filled with ads showing bony models and articles on how to shed pounds.

The Internet has given girls access to information about everything from breast enlargement to birth control to a look into the "perfect" lives of television stars. Popular culture sings songs of who girls should be. The standard keeps getting harder to attain.

"We have real scripts in the way we view the sexes. And the stress for excellence is demanding on girls," says Penny Peterson. "Their internal message says, 'Inadequate, inadequate.' If they can't be captain of the soccer team or head of the yearbook, they'll jockey for whatever place they can get."

For Chelsea, the quest to be perfect extends farther than school smarts and athletic know-how. Those elements count more in her parent's world than in Chelsea's. To her, whether or not she's good at sports is just another way to be labeled by her peers.

The real jockeying between girls isn't over grades or leadership positions. More often, girls say, it's about a great figure or a hot boyfriend. Chelsea's life is a lot about her relationships with her friends. And the competition to be pretty and popular, wear trendy clothes, drive the nice car, and have the good-looking boyfriend can be brutal.

"We make each other miserable," says Jenny.

 

Piecing Together a Me

 

Sitting at a table in front of the Starbucks at Cabin John Shopping Center in Potomac is 16-year-old Amy. She and her friends often stop by here to see who's hanging around and, if they're lucky, to find out what's going on that night.

Amy has the curves of a mature woman, but her spirit is girlish: eyes that open wide when she speaks, cheeks rosy enough to distract from the pimples on her forehead.

"Being perfect became a priority," she says. "When I started ninth grade, there was so much competition. I was so intimidated by the other girls' bodies and their looks. They were all so pretty."

That first week of ninth grade, Amy asked her mother to take her to the mall to buy new clothes. She bought clothes from trendy stores and went to school the next day trying hard to blend in. Her reflection in the mirror, even with the new clothes, wasn't enough. Not only were the girls in the pages of her YM magazine skinny and beautiful, but the girls in her school were, too.

"I started to compare myself to them," she says. "I kept thinking, I'll never get a boyfriend."

Amy began dieting and cutting out fats. When she goes out to dinner, she won't finish her meal or will skip dessert. "It's hard when you have friends that are completely skinny," she says.

Like most girls, it's easy for Amy to list flaws in her looks. In ninth grade it was the worst, but sometimes she still picks herself apart: her hair is unmanageable, her thighs are fat. And she tends to look at other girls in the same way.

Mimi Nichter, author of Fat Talk, calls this "verbal dismemberment." While popular culture teaches girls to see their bodies as pieces, Nichter says, the constant critiquing of those pieces is also a way to fit in. If two friends criticize others, it allies them. And when they criticize themselves, they're making it clear they don't think they're perfect. If they don't take part in the self-bashing, Nichter says, they might not be accepted by their friends.

 

Irene, a 15-year-old cheerleader from Bethesda, says girls compare themselves to one another constantly. "My legs are too straight and I'm one of the flattest girls in my school," she complains. "I think it's one reason not many guys like me."

When she and her friends go to the mall, Irene says, she is always looking at the other girls, deciding what she thinks of their figures and how she compares. Some girls will go through their yearbooks, look at each picture, and point out the faults of each girl.

Girls worry what others are saying so much that it creates a sort of schizophrenia among them, says school psychologist Penny Peterson. In a conversation between two teenage girls, the topic went from the cellulite on one girl's thighs to their disgust for a girl walking by in short shorts to their insecurities in having small breasts.

Carol Weston, author of Girltalk, a book that gives advice to teens, calls this "emotional hazing."

"It's the survival of the fittest," says Weston. "If you can convince yourself that your Steve Madden shoes are better than another girl's no-name brand, it can make you feel really safe. Girls feel scrutinized, so then they go out to scrutinize."

The Internet is another outlet for the mean-spirited talk. Each night from about 11 through the early morning, lots of girls log on to AOL's Instant Messenger. They compare who wore what, who did what with whom, any other gossip. One reason Instant Messenger is popular is that users can carry on several conversations at once and say things they might not in person.

That's why one girl's best friend chose to tell her she hated her online. She felt she could criticize her openly: You're conceited, her friend wrote. Those words would be harder to say over the phone.

 

Even the seemingly flawless are not immune from the race to be perfect. One of the girls Amy compares herself to is her classmate Amanda.

Amanda has classic good looks: Her face is long and angular, her light-brown hair falls smoothly down her back, and she walks the school halls with confidence.

Amanda has her own set of imperfections and insecurities. She says she takes part in a fair share of criticizing other girls, too.

"Maybe we do it because it makes us feel better," says Amanda. One friend is so pretty "that just being around her makes me feel bad about myself." Amanda will think things like "Are my thighs fat? Her shirt's cooler. Guys like her more." A natural reaction is to pick the other girl apart.

The fact that she's slim isn't always good. It's hard for Amanda to make friends because girls can't get past her looks. Girls come up to her and say things like "You're so thin, I could break you." And one friendship is strained by the fact that the friend is anorexic and jealous of Amanda's body.

"I feel bad that other girls compare themselves to me," Amanda says, "but I look good in school every day because people expect me to. I'm sure there are people who think I'm perfect because I do well and can eat whatever I want. Sometimes I think it would be easier to be larger."

Then, of course, Amanda wouldn't be happy. Though she is five-foot-five and 105 pounds, Amanda watches her weight as much as anyone. This past summer, she noticed when she gained three pounds.

"And if I'm so perfect," she says, "why don't I have a boyfriend?"

The self-esteem lows aren't as bad when a girl gets a boyfriend. Once a boy is interested, the catty comments don't seem to matter as much.

Amanda's classmate Amy got her first boyfriend late into her freshman year. At the time, she thought of him as a trophy. She sees herself as two people: the "insecure Amy" she was before they met and the more "confident Amy" she was after.

Like Amanda, she needs the validation that she's pretty, regardless of how her friends make her feel. Amy has constructed her self-esteem around how many boys are interested in her.

"This past summer really boosted my ego," she says. "I was working at a camp, and three of the guys I worked with asked me out."

The downside is that when she doesn't have a boyfriend, Amy is back into the insecure world of being a girl.

 

Who Can You Trust?

 

In the cramped office of a neighborhood pool, one of Amy's best friends, Sara, rolls over on a couch and stretches. Lifeguarding here all summer has turned her hair a golden blond. Today it's raining. Sara, 16, took a nap to pass the time of her six-hour shift.

While they've been close friends for two years, Sara and Amy have gone through periods of not speaking--mostly because the competition between the two is fierce. Sara is pretty and skinny--a constant reminder to Amy of what she feels she's not.

"It almost feels like there's no point in getting dressed in the morning," says Amy, "because I'll never look like that."

Problems between the two intensified when guys came into the picture. First Sara fooled around with Amy's brother and lied about it. Then Sara was supposed to sleep over at Amy's but left to go out with one of Amy's brother's friends.

Sara told Amy she fell asleep on her front stoop. But Amy found out later Sara got drunk and hooked up--the term used to describe anything from kissing to oral sex--with the guy she was with. "Some girls feel accomplished if they get an older guy," explains Amy. "She felt bad and promised she wouldn't ever lie to me again."

The low point came when Sara secretly started seeing Amy's boyfriend. Sara's ex went into her e-mail account and read messages between the two and told Amy.

"Now I have a new boyfriend," Amy says, "and the last thing I want to do is introduce him to Sara."

One student at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville heard a rumor from a friend that her boyfriend was cheating on her. He swore it wasn't true, but she broke up with him right away. Later, she found out his new girlfriend had started the rumor. Dozens of stories like this exist.

Why the hurtful manipulation?

Mostly because it makes a girl feel powerful if she can control the way another girl feels about herself, says Penny Peterson. And the manipulation begins long before they're assigned a locker in high school.

In a study by the University of Minnesota of 383 fourth- and fifth-graders, researchers found that a significant number of girls were already "relationally victimized"--harmed through hurtful manipulation like excluding one from a social group.

The study also concluded that this sort of emotional hijacking is damaging to girls--the equivalent of being physically bullied for boys. And it begins so young that by the age of 16, girls are used to distrusting one another.

 

Sara, with a history of deceiving Amy, mistrusts her friends, too. Two teammates on the cross-country team always complain about each other to her. "I always wonder," she says, "are they complaining about me to each other too?"

But Sara says if she thinks about it too much she'll drive herself crazy--and won't trust anyone.

"I never know what my friends really think about me," she says. "Girls will talk to you and not really like you. Maybe they're just trying to get something out of me. Or I'm convenient. At the same time, I don't know who I'd be without them."

Or without her boyfriends. Sara's been with her current boyfriend for a little over a month. They met at a house party in Potomac. When the party got packed, she and Jeff went upstairs "to talk" in the bathroom. She stayed out drinking with friends that night until 5 AM, sleeping for just a few hours before waking up to go to SAT prep. "I still felt a little drunk at class," she laughs.

Sara lost her virginity two years ago. "I was a sophomore, he was a senior," she says. "All of the guys see fresh meat. At the time, I thought it was just fine." She admits now it was too much too soon.

Amy waited longer because her last boyfriend slept with a lot of girls. She was worried about getting a sexually transmitted disease and was uncomfortable talking to him about it. When she decided it was time to have sex with him, she found out he and Sara were spending time together.

This sort of backstabbing and competition is not new. It's one reason men look back fondly on their high-school years while many women cringe.

Amy and Sara are always dredging up a contest for one to beat the other in.

"I was just talking to Sara about doing it," says Amy. "She wants to do it with her boyfriend, and it makes me want to do it with mine. It's funny because after two months, she went far and I thought, 'What a whore!' But then I got a boyfriend, and now I'm doing the same thing."

 

Different "Faces"

Many girls struggle internally from the competition. And they let few people inside. To cope and gain a sense of control in their lives, some girls may experiment with alcohol and drugs or develop an eating disorder.

Heather, a 16-year-old cross-country runner with wispy blond hair framing her face, never tells her friends when she's upset. "There's no point," she says.

Tonight, she's spending another Friday night at her friend Chelsea's house with the rest of their clique--composed of several guys and one other girl. They often end up in Chelsea's basement, but only after driving around for an hour, stopping by Travilah Square shopping center on Darnestown Road in Rockville, and assuring each other there isn't a party.

On a "good" night, the kids drink, smoke, and "roll"--the term used when they consume the drug Ecstasy. At some friends' houses, they push cases of beer through the basement window. On a "bad" night, they'll watch television and, out of boredom, tease each other. Chelsea says it's all in good fun.

What Chelsea doesn't notice is how hurt her friend Heather is when the joke's on her.

Heather has a learning disability, and while she is both pretty and popular, she has to take a special-education class to compensate. She has a 3.85 GPA, which she emphasizes "is not in any honors or AP classes."

When the joking starts up, the laughter sometimes surrounds how smart Chelsea is and how dumb Heather is. So despite her good grades, the only person Heather sees is the person her friends make fun of. And she thinks Chelsea laughs on purpose.

"I'm not that bright," she says, staring down at her unpainted fingernails. "So they laugh. And Chelsea is like, 'It's okay, Heather.' But she's there laughing, too."

To escape the joking around, Heather goes into the back room of Chelsea's basement. She lies on the floor and stares at the ceiling. She thinks about how she wants to be a different person, how she is stuck because it's so hard to make new friends. Her dream is to transfer to a new school where she would stay quiet so as not to sound so stupid.

"That's when I go home, yell at my mom, put on Eminem, and go to sleep," she says. "He raps about how everything sucks, and that's how I feel."

 

DRIVING IN HER BLACK SUV, HEATHER says her parents suspected she was feeling down and sent her to a psychologist. When Heather couldn't relate to him, she talked to her brother instead. It helped a little. But mostly, she just started acting happier around her parents, even though she didn't feel better.

Many girls admit to showing different faces to different people. Often, it's an aggressive one to their coach, an innocent one to their parents, an agreeable one to their boyfriend, and a mostly sweet one to other girls. Heather would go to school each day smiling. It was a way to uphold her "perfect" persona. But inside she felt like she was dying.

"I stopped going out in the middle of last year," she says. "Everyone just thought I was tired from basketball season. When two friends found out what was really going on, they were shocked."

Part of their shock probably came from the face they saw on the court and in class: a girl who smiled and went on her way. Everyone would stress over exams, and Heather would shrug them off. Behind the shrug was a girl convinced she wasn't smart. A girl who figured if she pretended not to try, no one would expect much. Classmates would be surprised, she says, if they knew how much she really cared.

"I may seem unbreakable to people," she says. "But I don't want to seem vulnerable. It makes me feel like I have more control over what people say about me and what they think about me."

Psychologist Penny Peterson has a different take. "There is a real need for recognition. And the ultimate goal is to feel loved," she says. "If you don't, you'll decide to wear the raciest clothes or get a bad boyfriend."

And that's what Heather did. She barely talked to Chelsea all summer. She decided she would never truly be perfect, so she gave up trying. Instead, she made friends with some of the "druggies." They accept her for who she is, she says.

Her mother, like most parents, suspects there is a side of her daughter she can't see. But the last people girls want to talk to or admit anything to are their parents.

"My mom will chase me around the kitchen and try to look into my eyes," Heather says. "But I haven't even done anything. She doesn't realize I can take care of myself. If a bad situation comes up, I'll know how to handle it."

 

Fast Times, Fast Cars

Money plays a role in painting the perfect persona. It helps girls "look" good even if they're not especially pretty, athletic, or smart. But if the standard is set by the rich, it makes "keeping up" difficult.

Parked in the driveway of Stacey's split-level home is an economy-size car her parents plan to give her. She is 15 and just got her learner's permit. Though grateful for the car, she says she'll be embarrassed to drive it to school.

At Whitman High School, the parking lot is dotted with SUVs, Mercedes sedans, and Stacey's favorite car, the BMW Z3. In Stacey's eyes, pulling up in anything but that isn't cool.

"I want to try to crash it," she jokes about her less-than-impressive model. "I'm like, 'Why won't you trade it in for a better car?' But my dad thinks it's fine. Maybe someone will bump into me."

Inside the house, a few steps up from the living room, is Stacey's bedroom. Clothes are piled on a desk chair, knickknacks on bookshelves, kicked-off socks at the bottom of a rumpled bedspread. Also on the bed is a sketchbook, open to a charcoal drawing of a dripping candle. A few pages before that are drawings of shirts, skirts, and strappy dresses.

"You can definitely tell the popular kids by the way they dress," she says, flipping through the pages. Stacey went to private school before transferring to Whitman in tenth grade. "In private school, everyone wore uniforms so you couldn't tell who was rich or poor. But in public school, you can tell right away."

Stacey says rich girls have "an attitude, a way about them." And while many girls aspire to be the perfect teens they see in magazines and on television, those whose parents adorn them with credit cards can afford to buy the accessories: name-brand clothes, a hot car, and a cell phone.

One girl admits that so much money is thrown around on the weekends that some nights she can't afford to go out. Between dinner ($10 to $20), movies ($8), and alcohol or marijuana ($10 to $20), the costs of a Saturday night can add up. Guys often supply the beer or the weed, and girls just show up and enjoy it--though Stacey abstains. She also likes that boys don't compete. Her relationships with her guy friends are more relaxed.

"They make me feel wild," she says. The previous weekend they drove down a Bethesda street with a speaker announcer telling people they needed to evacuate their homes. "It's like an adrenaline rush to be around them. Girls are, like, girly. You have to talk about stuff and have sleepovers."

 

Sex and the 16-year-old

 

Most of the girls interviewed didn't begin to explore their sexuality until high school. Perhaps the change is not so much in the sexual acts they're doing but in an earlier awareness of their sexuality from movies, television shows, and popular music.

This might explain why girls are sophisticated about sex by the age of 16. Their self-esteem may rise if they get a boyfriend, but according to the girls, they don't need a commitment for a self-esteem boost. For them, it's a competition, in which how many boys you hook up with determines your self-worth.

Stacey has hooked up a number of times. So has Sara. Amanda got drunk at a party this past year and fooled around with a random classmate. Their sexuality is just another piece of the puzzle--another way to feel like Joey does when Pacey Witter looks at her longingly on Dawson's Creek.

"Parents would be really surprised," says Amanda, "that their little girls are out having sex to feel better about themselves."

"Some girls get their esteem from athletics, grades, or being a contributor to their church," says Peterson. "If you don't have that external validation source, you're going to look elsewhere."

If fellow classmates knew Stacey, Sara, and Amanda hooked up casually with boys, they would describe them as "sluts" or "walking STDs." Mostly, girls will talk about their sexuality with only a close girlfriend or two. Even then, it's considered top-secret.

 

Sitting on her bed and smoothing out the wrinkles of her comforter, Jenny says, "If I did it, I wouldn't tell anyone. It would shed such a negative light on me."

Jenny also prefers not to talk about the stress of the upcoming year, namely college applications. It does have an upside: It's something to focus on other than her breast size or what boy likes her.

Jenny knows college is also a ticket away from her superficial world. Her older brother is in college, and Jenny has come to see firsthand that everyone has a second act.

She also knows that coming of age in high-achieving suburban high schools is especially difficult. Girls have always competed with one another, but popular culture has heightened the rivalry. Our cultural pace has quickened, too.

Parents are no longer just working--they're working harder and longer, often skipping family dinners. Between cellular phones and the Internet, girls have grown accustomed to instant gratification. "It has stepped up the pace of life," says Langley counselor Kerri-Lynn Kriz. "Efficiency in technology tends to parallel the lifestyle. If you're trying to achieve, it speeds that up too."

And girls are trying to keep up. It used to be just getting into college was good, but now it's what college you get in to. At one time being slender was the ideal; now girls lust after the bony frames of Calista Flockhart and Kate Moss. And today, when girls aren't everything, they tend to think they're nothing.

"Girls love to focus on who they are so much that they get lost in it," says psychiatrist Carol Kleinman.

Author Carol Weston has answered thousands of letters from girls. Her advice to them: "Life will get easier, I promise."