Literature Study GuidesThe Second SexVolume 2 Part 1 Chapter 2 Summary

The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Volume 2, Part 1, Chapter 2 : Lived Experience (Formative Years) | Summary



In Chapter 2, "The Girl," the separation between boys and girls is exacerbated as the girl succumbs to the hormonal challenges that come with menses. She is often in physical pain, emotional distress, and experiences mood swings. According to Beauvoir, her body is turned into a "screen between [herself] and the world." She becomes a stranger to a self whose body is out of control. She is also a "stranger to the rest of the world."

While the boy at 13 is aggressive, competitive, and ready to put his body on the line to preserve his freedom, a girl's body is more fragile, and she is less likely to engage in competitive athletic activities. Beauvoir writes that a girl, detached from her childhood past, seems to be in a period of discomfort and transition, during which she "is consumed by ... waiting for Man." And marriage is not only "an honorable and less strenuous career than many others," it enables her to realize her sexuality and maternity, as well as attain social dignity.

While the young man's erotic drives confirm his pride in his body, the girl's body challenges her well-being, emotional and physical: "Puberty means ... problems arise ... The anguish of being a woman eats away at the female body," according to Beauvoir.

Girl's timidity is attributed to her physical fragility. Boys have access to violence that confirms the power of their choices. From puberty, girls lose ground in artistic and intellectual pursuits. The disparity is seen in part as lack of encouragement from teachers, but also lack of ambition. Beauvoir says that "she becomes an object ... she is existing outside of herself." It is unclear whether she wants to be beautiful as the attractive other, or beautiful for herself. Both are likely the case.

Confusion, trauma, and secrets to hide her distress are characteristic of the girl's transition to womanhood. At 16, she has experienced many uncomfortable episodes: puberty, menses, arousal, fear, and disgust. Makeup, padded bras, false eyelashes compete with extreme modesty, guilty lies, and secrets. Many girls' earliest sexual encounters are with older girls or women, placing their trust in their own sex rather than with men. Thus the adolescent girl, in an age of hope and ambition, finds herself passive and dependent.

The other side to her complicated vulnerability is her openness, her ability to dream. The adolescent girl is susceptible to beauty in the natural world, in loving friendships, and in the arts. She feels passionately, having dreamed of love at least since puberty.

Finally, according to Beauvoir, a girl's "character and behavior express her situation: if it changes, the adolescent girl's attitude also changes." As it becomes possible for girls to take their futures into their own hands, as they become involved in sports, studies, politics, they are less preoccupied with sexual conflicts and dreams of love. Still, even as she becomes more independent, a girl leaves room in her life for love. That is, she is not stuck between, but ensnared, on the double hooks of an enhancing subjectivity, and her devotion to her destiny as a woman.


Although the contemporary reader may resist the descriptions of the lives of girls and women that seem old fashioned, they should keep in mind that for the balance of the world's population, much of what was true in 1949 is still the case. For the bastions of enlightened change—primarily among the educated middle classes in the Western world—the situations may seem archaic. Still, even as laws of agnation are defunct, the global economy is patriarchal. And even as the old social structures and prejudices fail, the girl born today is raised by a mother and grandmother whose habits are of another time and—given the dispersal of population in the 21st century—often another place. The baby girl born in the 21st century does not know her mother had it worse. She grows and develops according to the practices of her time. Medical and law schools in America, for example, are now evenly divided in their student population between men and women. On the other hand, working women still handle most of the parenting duties.

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