Suffering for love

The making of the modern girl part 2: sex, relationships and marriage; In the second part of our examination of the attitudes of Nineties girl, Tricia Kreitman discusses the changing nature of teenage problems while, below, schoolgirls tell of their own emotional experiences
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Over the 11 years that I have been advice columnist for Mizz, nearly a quarter of a million letters have landed on my doormat - and weighed on my mind. Some problems are perennial; ignorance and confusion over body shape and sex. And I still have letters from girls, several months pregnant, begging me not to say they should tell someone, somehow hoping I will make the problem disappear. But in the early years, there were letters about career hopes, plans for marriage and requests for advice on the rituals of dating and engagements. This pattern has changed, and I now see a distinct polarisation in the image and the problems of the modern girl.

The media presents us with the bright, sassy, in-yer-face ladette. She's part of a race of super-heroines, who know what they want and have no fear of taking it. Not for them the role of the Kleenex ad - they don't need the tissues because they're not waiting in for the phone to ring. Nor are they awaiting an engagement ring. Many of them have cynical but, in their eyes, realistic views of marriage, having seen their parents and step-parents struggle through agonising breakdowns and break-ups. Boys are there to be enjoyed, not understood, and certainly not captured. Girls travel in packs and their self-confidence springs from sisterhood and the assumption that if life offers a bum deal they will just pick themselves up and try out a different direction.

The super-heroine writes to me about problems with her friends, the ebb and flow of peer relations and the struggle for emotional independence from her family. If boys are mentioned, it's only in passing. Or they ask: "How can I tell him that his love is suffocating me and I need my freedom?"

But there is another story out there. Most of my post-bag comes from a different population of girls, one far quieter. But it's often the silence of desperation. Over these years I've seen an increase in depression; not "normal" teenage moodiness, but the 20-page letter detailing severe depression and serial suicide attempts. Girls tell me how they cut themselves or abuse their bodies with starvation or purging because nothing else makes them feel real or whole. They take on their parents' problems and worry that they haven't been able to prevent them. Often their letters are anonymous but they want someone to listen to their pain. They'd like to have it taken away but can't imagine confiding in anyone face to face because who would accept them or take them seriously once they knew what they were really like?

One 13-year-old wrote me a suicide note because the bullying at school had become too much. She hadn't felt able to confide in her mother who herself was in despair after the walkout of her live-in lover. These girls are isolated and impotent. They have a fear of close relationships because they've already seen harm and hopelessness. Their expectation of rejection is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Where the super-heroine hunts and takes pleasure, sexual and otherwise, from the opposite sex, these girls also see a temporary but important use for boys. Many of them want to get pregnant. They don't want to play happy families and they see no long-term role for men in their life. But they crave someone to give them unconditional love and assume that the solution is a baby. This isn't a positive choice to have kids early and get on with life later, but an acceptance of a lack of future where motherhood just might offer fulfilment and a marker of existence.

If this is the reality of life in the late Nineties, can we honestly offer them any more to hope for? And if (as I hope) my letters give me a skewed vision of the modern girl, is there a silent middle mass between these extremes? Are there teenage girls out there swapping beauty hints, swatting for exams, going on dates and dreaming of a career and a marriage of equals? And, if so, are they the ones fooling themselves?

The author is advice columnist for `Mizz' magazine and a director of Brook Advisory Centres for Young People.

The thoughts of students at Redborne Upper School and Community College in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, an LEA mixed comprehensive with 1,000 students aged 13-18

Rachel Sanders, 13

She would like a career in science

"I've had six boyfriends, but only one was serious - it lasted about a month. My favourite pin-ups are Keanu Reeves and Brad Pitt, because they're really good-looking. If I see someone who's horny, I don't mind walking up and introducing myself. I once asked a boy out on holiday: he said `yes', but we lived so far apart, we broke up. Most of the boys in our year are immature - always messing around, putting pins on people's chairs, things like that. I have more fun hanging out with my friends than with a boy. I can be myself more, but I still like the idea of having a boyfriend who thinks I'm different to everyone else; someone who likes me especially.

"I think 16 is the right age to have sex - maybe a bit younger. One of my friends has slept with four people but other girls have teased her and called her a slag so she regrets it. I think you should at least be going out with a boy before you sleep with him, and you should discuss it first, not have a one-night stand at a party. It's a bit more special than that. The thought of sex does scare me a bit - I don't want to make a fool of myself. I learn most about it from friends and magazines like 19 and Just Seventeen, though Just Seventeen is a bit immature. My sister's 10 and she reads it.

"I want to get married, as I'd like to spend most of my life with a person I love. I'd like to have two children in the same sort of age group. I'd have a career first but I'd stop work for a few years while they were young - then get a child-minder in. I think my parents have quite a good marriage, but I'd expect my husband to do more than my dad does around the house. My dad does nothing except, occasionally, the ironing. In my marriage, we'd make up a rota so we shared everything."

Louise Wilson, 15

She is taking 10 GCSEs and hopes to become a nurse

"A lot of girls my age are pressured into having sex by boys before they're ready. It sounds corny, but it's definitely true. `If you love me, you'd sleep with me', is the exact line they use. I'm looking out for someone special and I'm not going to give in until I find him. The risk of having a baby young scares me to death. Also, cervical cancer, Aids and stuff like that scares me, too.

"My mum told me the facts about sex, seriously, straight, with no cover- up. But the nitty-gritty came from magazines. I stopped reading them in the end, because it got so disgusting - `Position of the Fortnight' and all that kind of stuff. You don't find out much from friends, really.

"At the moment, among my friends, it's cool to have an older boyfriend. Blokes our age still aren't ready for relationships. One of my friends has been with her boyfriend a year , and that's put me off going out with anyone. He's so possessive and she's always in tears. I'd like to have someone who lets me have my own mind and be the person I want to be.

"I want to get married and have children. I've seen how a stable family works with my parents, but I want to live a bit first and I've got lots of plans. I want to be a nurse, and it's not worth letting a boyfriend get in the way at this stage. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have someone to be that special person who really likes just me. But at the moment, it seems too much like hard work. It would be all right if I could set down the rules. I'd quite fancy a `weekend boyfriend' who didn't get in a mood and didn't care if I didn't want to see him in the week. Mum said that there must be a boy who wants a girlfriend just for the weekends!"

Michelle Sheehan, 17

She is taking A-levels after getting 10 GCSEs, nine of which were As. She hopes to study French or Spanish and Business at university

"I've been going out with Paul for about six months and it's the most serious relationship I've ever had. I think I love him. I can't say definitely that I do because I don't know what `love' is, but I want to be with him all the time. When we're apart, I feel really depressed. It can be quite nice to go out with my friends for a change, but only if I'm going to see Paul afterwards.

"I like him particularly because he's good-looking, but also because he's really nice and clever. He's different from other boys - it sounds funny, but he's more like a girl. I can talk to him about loads of things, and he's not so worried about his image. We see each other one or two nights in the week, and then over the weekends. And we're always together at school, often getting told off for holding hands. I don't see why - we're not hurting anyone.

"I'm not bothered about getting married, but I definitely want to share my life with someone and have children. Having a career is all very well and feminist, but if I had to choose between the two, having a family is a lot more real. If all you've had is a career by the time you're old, you'll be on your own.

"I don't think there's any right age to have sex - about half my friends have now. There's more pressure to do it when you're younger. No one's bothered about that any more. Paul's the sort of person I'd want to marry, but we don't talk about the future. We're both going off to university, so it may be difficult to stay together. I can't imagine breaking up with him, but I don't know if it's going to last forever. I hope it will, but in another way, I hope it won't. I want to have a life first, see a bit of the big, bad world."