Of course girls feel miserable. They can’t move freely in the world | Suzanne Moore

Another day, another headline about the unhappiness of girls. The latest one is from a survey that finds a “sharp decline in the happiness of young women and girls”. The Girlguiding organisation found that only 25% of girls between the ages of seven and 21 are “very happy”. Whereas in 2009, 41% said they were. The older they are, the unhappier they become: 27% of 17- to 21-year-olds said they did not feel happy, whereas as in 2009 only 11% did.

What does this mean? How do we measure happiness? Who is very happy or expects to be? What teenager is bouncing round with sheer joy? Who declares themselves happy all the time?

We know already – don’t we? – that there are epidemic proportions of self-harm and eating disorders among girls. We know that everyone talks more openly about anxiety and depression, but actually the resources are not there to deal with it. If you want counselling on the NHS, you may wait up to a year for six sessions of CBT. Therapists working in schools are the first to be hit by budget cuts. They are considered dispensable. Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) is completely over-stretched.

So young people are left with little more than a soup of self-help advice about eating well, running, and somehow loving themselves, when clearly, for all the duck pouts and sucked-in tummies, many young women judge themselves to be so imperfect as to have already failed the invisible test of acceptable femininity.

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I am not sure we need surveys to confirm to female unhappiness. It is there in every conversation, if we want to listen. When high-profile women speak out about their own pain, they are cheered on. Lily Allen has recently, in an interview with this paper, and Ruth Davidson has even shown us her scars. Are we shocked that these powerful, successful women have felt as low as it possible to feel at certain times in their lives? Female power it seems has always to be linked to female fragility is some shape or form. We are not invincible, say these women: #MeToo not just to sexual assault but to the feelings of wanting to obliterate the pain. They are applauded for their bravery, and for the fact really that they have survived.

And this is what I really think: asking girls whether they are happy (and boys too, but this is a survey about girls), when so many clearly aren’t, gets us only so far. We should ask them how they survive. The twin evils of social media and exam pressure are always blamed. Both of these things are spoken about as though nothing can be done about them. Girls simply have to negotiate a world knowing they don’t look like a Kardashian, and that without the right grades they will be written off at 16.

Exam pressure has got worse because the exit strategies that were in place if school was not the best time of your life (it rarely is) have been closed. The decimation of further education is government policy. A-levels have been so mucked about with, no one quite knows how they work. These are the years when we could give kids a break, but no: that part of education is now as linear, narrow, uncreative and joyless as the rest.

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As for social media and the nastiness that girls experience through it, again this does not exist in a vacuum. Why do they spend so much time online anyway? Because they feel unsafe in the outside world? Is this some mass delusion? “More than half of those aged 13 to 21 have felt unsafe walking home alone, experienced harassment or know someone who has, and nearly half feel unsafe using public transport,” the survey states.

This is an astonishing statistic. Yes, we must be much more aware of mental health issues, but this … this is a social issue. Girls do not feel safe in the outside world. Let’s name why: male violence.

Female unhappiness in not new. Freud’s patients presented as mute or with all kinds of strange paralyses. These were read as unresolved complexes from early childhood. Yet these women could not speak out or move freely in the society in which they lived. Now we have young women self-harming, self-loathing and feeling underconfident, and still they cannot move freely in the world.

All of us should be unhappy that in 2018 our young women feel unsafe. And alone. And unloved. I think of that Janis Ian song At Seventeen. She sang: “And those of us with ravaged faces/lacking in the social graces/Desperately remained at home/inventing lovers on the phone … it isn’t all it seems at 17.”

She sang that in 1975. All these years later, I watch the 17-year-olds I know and I wonder how much has really changed.

Suzanne Moore is a Guardian columnist

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