Greta Thunberg and the Secret Power of Teen Girls

4min read

Teenage girls have it very hard.

Anyone who has ever been one knows this instinctively. Navigating your newfound emergence into the contradictory social and sexual politics and expectations, where your body is weaponized against you and your value dictated by its degree of conformity to a Barbie doll, where you're either a slut if you have sex or a prude if you don't, where eating disorders are tacitly encouraged and you're constantly told to be quiet, be small and meek and always complaisant, and stay out of the way – it's a lot. Their argot is maligned, their speaking habits policed, their manner of dress demeaned and insulted as vanity, and their interests automatically deemed shallow, frivolous, and intellectually deficient by their mere association with them. In short, being a teenage girl isn't easy.

But Greta Thunberg, named this month as TIME Magazine's Person of the Year at the young age of sixteen – smack in the middle of some of the most difficult and complicated years a girl can have – is proving something we've long ignored: that teen girls are amazingly influential drivers of cultural change.

This is documentable. To cite one of my favorite examples, we need only look at the English language, which teenage girls have been on the bleeding edge of defining for literally hundreds of years, as linguist Gretchen McCulloch argues. You may remember the way mallrats and Valley girls were derided back in the 1980's for using "totally," you know the way we totally all do now. And it's so much more fundamental than that; the demise of words like "ye" and the shift from "hath" and "doth" to "has" and "does" are all first documented in the personal letters of teenage girls hundreds of years ago. It's so well-documented to the point of being actively a cliché; women, far more than men, drive innovation in how we speak to each other, and even what we speak about.

That's been true in the twenty-first century as well; the place feminism has in our public debates owes itself to young women hanging out on the internet and sharing their experiences. And so it should come as absolutely zero surprise that the leading light of this day and age's climate change movement is a teenage girl who is 100% finished with being dismissed and insulted – even by the president.

Greta amazes me. I think of myself as a pretty future-oriented, driven, focused person, but I didn't have a fraction the initiative, follow-through, and bravery she has, singlehandedly turning the solitary protest into a global following behind a voice that presidents, prime ministers, and princes all must acknowledge. And she's done it in less than two years.

Perhaps that's a testament to the anxieties of the age; climate change looms for younger generations in a way those of us who won't live to see its most devastating consequences probably can't entirely understand. Similarly, the last twenty years have been the story of declining faith in institutional responsibility, and that's true on all sides of the political spectrum. From clergy sex abuse scandals to the Iraq War to Brexit to the "liberal media elite" and Donald Trump, we've been buffeted on all sides as the ongoing crisis of the twenty-first century has unfolded around us. And it is undoubtedly true that Greta tapped into that. There would be no public movement without a public ready and willing to join.

But I would be remiss if I failed to highlight how remarkable it is that it's been spearheaded by the clarity and resolve of a teenage girl. She's succeeded where every climate activist group, every climate lobbyist, and every politician has failed by galvanizing public opinion into public, clear-throated, take-no-prisoners action.

Greta is also unbelievably canny. She has had the foresight to know that putting her up on a pedestal gives you permission to ignore the things she's actually saying and to keep the focus, as much as she's capable, on her generation rather than on her. She's spoken, forcefully, about how the people who will be most affected by rising temperatures are the ones without the power to do anything about it. In other words, she is beholden to no one and doesn't give a single damn about what you think about her. Or even what I think about her.

She's been compared to Joan of Arc, which isn't much of a reach; both teenage girls who stuck their heads in where they were profoundly unwelcome to force through action. And both did it from positions of profound social weakness; if women are second-class citizens, girls are doubly, with all the burdens of girlhood atop those of youth. Yet despite that, she is fomenting rebellion and anger and, thank goodness, hope.

It's theorized that the reason young women drive language change is because women learn language from their peers and men learn it from their mothers. That women, historically, build stronger and broader social networks, and so are able to exercise under-the-radar influence. Maybe both of those things are at play here, too: that young women are uniquely situated to internalize new facts, new politics, new ideas, and then to mobilize those things into action. That's a power history has willfully ignored, and which we, in the slimmest of silver linings, are lucky to have the opportunity to witness on a grand scale.

If nothing else, I am grateful for that.

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How This CEO Is Using Your Period To Prevent Chronic Diseases

With so many groundbreaking medical advances being revealed to the world every single day, you would imagine there would be some advancement on the plethora of many female-prevalent diseases (think female cancers, Alzheimer's, depression, heart conditions etc.) that women are fighting every single day.

For Anna Villarreal and her team, there frankly wasn't enough being done. In turn, she developed a method that diagnoses these diseases earlier than traditional methods, using a pretty untraditional method in itself: through your menstrual blood.

Getting from point A to point B wasn't so easy though. Villarreal was battling a disease herself and through that experience. “I wondered if there was a way to test menstrual blood for female specific diseases," she says. "Perhaps my situation could have been prevented or at least better managed. This led me to begin researching menstrual blood as a diagnostic source. For reasons the scientific and medical community do not fully understand, certain diseases impact women differently than men. The research shows that clinical trials have a disproportionate focus on male research subjects despite clear evidence that many diseases impact more women than men."

There's also no denying that gap in women's healthcare in clinical research involving female subjects - which is exactly what inspired Villarreal to launch her company, LifeStory Health. She says that, “with my personal experience everything was brought full circle."

“There is a challenge and a need in the medical community for more sex-specific research. I believe the omission of females as research subjects is putting women's health at risk and we need to fuel a conversation that will improve women's healthcare.,"

-Anna Villarreal

Her brand new biotech company is committed to changing the women's healthcare market through technology, innovation and vocalization and through extensive research and testing. She is working to develop the first ever, non-invasive, menstrual blood diagnostic and has partnered with a top Boston-area University on research and has won awards from The International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Northeastern University's RISE.

How does it work exactly? Proteins are discovered in menstrual blood that can quickly and easily detect, manage and track diseases in women, resulting in diseases that can be earlier detected, treated and even prevented in the first place. The menstrual blood is easy to collect and since it's a relatively unexplored diagnostic it's honestly a really revolutionary concept, too.

So far, the reactions of this innovative research has been nothing but excitement. “The reactions have been incredibly positive." she shares with SWAAY. “Currently, menstrual blood is discarded as bio waste, but it could carry the potential for new breakthroughs in diagnosis. When I educate women on the lack of female subjects used in research and clinical trials, they are surprised and very excited at the prospect that LifeStory Health may provide a solution and the key to early detection."

To give a doctor's input, and a little bit more of an explanation as to why this really works, Dr. Pat Salber, MD, and Founder of The Doctor Weighs In comments: “researchers have been studying stem cells derived from menstrual blood for more than a decade. Stem cells are cells that have the capability of differentiating into different types of tissues. There are two major types of stem cells, embryonic and adult. Adult stem cells have a more limited differentiation potential, but avoid the ethical issues that have surrounded research with embryonic stem cells. Stem cells from menstrual blood are adult stem cells."

These stem cells are so important when it comes to new findings. “Stem cells serve as the backbone of research in the field of regenerative medicine – the focus which is to grow tissues, such as skin, to repair burn and other types of serious skin wounds.

A certain type of stem cell, known as mesenchymal stem cells (MenSCs) derived from menstrual blood has been found to both grow well in the lab and have the capability to differentiate in various cell types, including skin. In addition to being used to grow tissues, their properties can be studied that will elucidate many different aspects of cell function," Dr. Salber explains.

To show the outpour of support for her efforts and this major girl power research, Villarreal remarks, “women are volunteering their samples happily report the arrival of their periods by giving samples to our lab announcing “de-identified sample number XXX arrived today!" It's a far cry from the stereotype of when “it's that time of the month."

How are these collections being done? “Although it might sound odd to collect menstrual blood, plastic cups have been developed to use in the collection process. This is similar to menstrual products, called menstrual cups, that have been on the market for many years," Dr. Salber says.

Equally shocking and innovative, this might be something that becomes more common practice in the future. And according to Dr. Salber, women may be able to not only use the menstrual blood for early detection, but be able to store the stem cells from it to help treat future diseases. “Companies are working to commercialize the use of menstrual blood stem cells. One company, for example, is offering a patented service to store menstrual blood stem cells for use in tissue generation if the need arises."