With all the talk about "girl gangs" and "squads," it's time to look at how those female friendships develop, and why they're so essential. To examine this more completely, we need to know what happens to girls when they surround themselves with other girls.
The importance of these same-sex relationships and female-identifying environments cannot be overstated. Research published by The Royal Society suggested that the interpersonal dynamics of developing kinship with other women begins young, and is not only crucial for a girl's development, but also for the human race as a whole. It is absolutely true that gender is a spectrum, and that there is no need to be exclusionary when identifying who is or is not female, but it is also true that historically, a binary has been placed on humans by society, and therefore development is impacted. This study shows women (as compared to men) have been historically more reliant upon one another for a variety of reasons, from childcare to protection to health. Historically, women have been regarded as the caretakers, the midwives, the nurses, and the keepers of the home. This means that from an early age, girls learn that their biggest champions, and those they can trust the most with their safety and happiness, are other women.
I know that when I am struggling, when I need a sounding board, a helping hand, or even just a warm chat, I call one of my girlfriends. When girls surround themselves by other girls, they empower one another. Yes, competition exists between girls in the same way it exists between all humans — we are, after all, trying to secure the same finite resources. But according to the study, when girls surround themselves with other girls, even if they are in competition, they are also in concert.
Dr. Dara Bushman, a licensed psychotherapist, tells Romper that this is feeling of connection with other girls and women is real, and essential. "Water seeks its own level," she says. "You are only as strong as those around you. Not because they complete you or make you better, but because when you are in a good place and filled with strength, you will choose other strongs to hang with." With your "girl gang," you can be yourself, Dr. Bushman says, adding: "You feel a sense of authentic connection not contingent on your status or stage in your life." This is huge for kids just learning the world. So much of their lives are out of their hands, so they need those relationships that are representative of where they are at that time. "There is a natural flow and progression and a mutual respect," says Dr. Bushman. "There do not feel like any pressures or expectations. The relationship is built on individual strengths and attributes."
Aligning each girl's strengths helps them form tight bonds that build confidence. Since it's the winter, and therefore cookie season, I would be remiss if I did not call us to consider the most famous girl group: the Girl Scouts of America. These girls are shrewd competitors. Each troop is set on victory, and they will stake out the best spot in the mall, the biggest sweet tooth (me), and the best Facebook campaigns they can launch to sell those cookies. But, they're also all working toward one goal — the empowerment of girls. Each member of a troop works to support every other member so that they might continue having the experiences that the Girl Scouts provide. They are making friends and building bonds that could last a lifetime, and even if they lose touch with their Daisy Troop members, they are learning the power of female friendship and how to navigate the sometimes complicated structures of competition and structured environments.
Through the experience of being in an all-girl group like the Girl Scouts, or even an all-girls school, sports team, or playgroup, girls learn to speak up for themselves. And in these types of learning environments they're more likely to be comfortable with their own successes and taking credit for them, according to the National Education Association (NEA). This is because when boys and girls are educated or grouped together, girls have been conditioned to be more silent, and their confidence diminishes.
And there are real mental health benefits as well. The Seattle Times reported that when women are feeling low or down, it's not men they seek out, it's other women: "At least 22 studies have shown that having [female] social support decreases the heart-racing, blood-pressure-boosting responses that humans and other social animals have to stress and the hormones it sends surging."
From the time we are children, until long after our own children are grown, we as women seek the company of women... for rest, for rejuvenation, for mutual respect and admiration. For girls, it's just the beginning.
Dr. Dara Bushman, a licensed psychotherapist