By Megan McChesney
Quote sites across the Internet credit Dr. Maya Angelou as saying, “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” Turns out she didn’t say it (don’t believe everything you read! See below for more on this), but it’s a fantastic notion and a nice sentiment. That said, when a young girl is in the thick of those blurry days surrounding puberty, it can be hard to know just how to do that. On the one hand, she wants to stand out; on the other, she wants to fit in. And, through this struggle, she also has endless sources — media, peers, family — trying to influence her decisions. It’s enough to test even the most self-assured. Here are five things you and your girls can do to ensure that they successfully grab the world by the lapels and kick ass.
Debbie Gordon, founder and managing director of Toronto-based Mediacs, a company that offers media awareness workshops to parents and students, and consultant for Dove, estimates that Canadian kids see 26,000 commercials every year, and that’s just on TV. But ads and media aren’t just selling products; they’re selling the idea of how young girls should look and act. This is why, in her workshops, Gordon touches on the messages broadcast by everything from dolls to video games, and asks young girls to consider when they start feeling the impact of these messages. “This is really where the penny drops for girls,” says Gordon. “At what age do girls start to realize that there is this other person inside who can be sexual? And what are the media messages we see about hyper-sexualized girls, and why would they want to portray themselves that way? Well, because they seem to be the girls who get all the attention.” Most girls will say that this sexual awareness starts around eight or nine years of age. And it’s not so much that young girls shouldn’t be exposed to the media (and that’s impossible anyway); it’s more a matter of teaching them what to accept as reality and reject as fiction.
“What you want them to do is be a little more skeptical about what they’re seeing,” says Gordon. And how exactly do you help them do that? “The first thing that you need to do is spend time together,” she adds. “You can’t simply treat media as a babysitter.” Then, you start talking about what you’re seeing together. “Make a comment and own up to that comment,” suggests Cheryl-Lynn Roberts, a Montreal-based counsellor for Kids’ Help Phone. ““I feel this when I see that.’ Maybe the child won’t feel the same way, but it’s still planting the seed for her to think about it.” It could be simply observing how editing may have made a female character on a reality show appear dumb, or how an image on the cover of a magazine was likely Photoshopped. It’s possible they will reject what you’re saying, but it demonstrates that media messages shouldn’t be taken at face value. “A lot of youth say they are desensitized to media messages, and they have no impact,” says Roberts. “I have a hard time accepting that.”
It seems like the girls of today, and their pop icons, are more concerned with appearance than ever. Girls arrive at grade school with elaborate makeup and Louis Vuitton bags hanging off their arms. Short skirts and skin-tight shirts are frequent pre-teen wardrobe staples. The concerned discussions about “young Hollywood” (read: Britney, Paris, Lindsay, etc.) have reached almost fever pitch. Maybe we’re being fuddy-duddies — every generation prior has thought their youth were increasingly crude and lacking a moral compass — but it doesn’t take much to recognize that young pop stars who frequently flash their lady bits and regularly end up in rehab (or jail) are probably not the best role models for our future female leaders.
So, who is? Gordon offers Lisa Simpson from the wildly popular The Simpsons cartoon as a wonderful role model for young girls. “She knows her own mind and she delivers such wonderful irony compared to her brother and her father. She’s logical, she has such wonderful wisdom and it’s not what we would expect of a young girl.” Gordon has even gone so far to say that Lisa Simpson is one of the last feminists on television today. “I think she’s a wonderful feminist because she’s confident, she has wonderful self-esteem, she has a point of view, she has values. And despite her family, she’s a wonderfully strong character.” And though Gordon concedes that we’re dealing with a satirical, fictional character here, and that the show should thus be taken with a grain of salt, storytelling like The Simpsons can actually be used as an ironic device to deliver some of the truisms that exist in our society around gender.
For live-action options, Gordon says that, when asked, girls will mention the TV characters Raven of That’s So Raven and Hannah Montana as healthy, positive role models. And adult role models are just as important. Women like actress Natalie Portman can deliver the glam factor that some girls love, but without the reckless behaviour. Portman is very involved with a number of charities, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Afghanistan Relief Organization.
And don’t underestimate the impact of mom as a role model for young girls. Research from the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty indicates that moms have the biggest impact on girls in terms of beauty and body image — that’s above media, other girls and celebrities. Your daughter is watching how you treat yourself, so be nice.
Talk to your girls about who they look up to and why. She doesn’t need to reject Paris completely if she loves her, but help your daughter to understand what makes someone worthy of admiration, and what’s just a glossy finish.
Young girls often put friends first, and they sometimes do so at the expense of their own wants and needs. But making up her own mind can be one of your daughter’s most useful ways to build self-esteem, as it helps to cement who she is from the inside out. Dr. Brian Cram, psychiatrist and medical director of the Calgary Eating Disorder Program, suggests that it’s sometimes as simple as “treating ourselves as one of our best friends. Many of us are free with compliments to our friends, stingy with criticism, but treat ourselves the opposite. How do we like ourselves if all we do is put ourselves down?”
Two-time Olympic gold medal winner and hockey commentator Cassie Campbell highlights that self-knowledge led to her current success. It’s this need for self-reflection that has contributed to Campbell’s latest role: spokesperson for Anne’s Diary, a secure online community specifically for young girls. In the face of resistance and teasing, Campbell continued to play hockey because she loved it. “I knew it was healthy for me, and I loved it, so I didn’t listen,” says Campbell. “I think respect is so huge for young girls. You have to respect other people, but more importantly, you have to respect yourself.” And without spending time thinking about what she wants, it can be easy to just go along with whatever friends are saying.
Diaries and journals are a way for young girls to reflect on their feelings, as are other forms of artistic expression: painting, dancing, music, etc. Sometimes all it takes is saying no to an evening with friends and spending time home alone doodling or listening to music. While developing friendships is an important part of growing up, sometimes being alone is just as valuable.
And don’t confuse websites like Facebook and MySpace with diaries: these can be fantastic social tools, provided girls know how to use them responsibly (i.e., they don’t publish compromising personal details, don’t participate in “Am I Hot or Not” rating systems or allow access to strangers), but it’s a very different experience to summarize thoughts for no one but oneself.
For most people, to feel like an outsider is one of the biggest deflators of self-esteem. No matter who they are, everyone likes to feel like they belong to a group of some description (even if it’s a group of outsiders). “It doesn’t matter what it is — computer club, chess club or gymnastics,” says Dr. Cram. “It helps them feel like they belong and they’re not alone. That’s a huge thing, to feel that you belong.” To bond with peers who have similar interests isn’t just about having fun — though it often is fun — it’s also about expanding the social network. And because most teams and clubs are open to everyone, chances are that young girls will meet all kinds of different people, which will open their minds and diversify their group of friends (rarely a bad thing when trying to figure yourself out).
Many young girls can develop healthy self-esteem by participating in team sports. Teams of all kinds can create a spirit of camaraderie, belonging and mutual support. “Women in general need to do more of that — we need to be there for each other,” says Campbell. “Being on a hockey team — we aren’t all best friends, but we love each other and we’ll be there for each other.”
And that is an important distinction to learn: that friendship and respect can exist outside of one another. Some girls tolerate being treated very badly by so-called friends at the fear of becoming an outcast, but participating in some kind of group activity can demonstrate that a girl doesn’t have to tolerate unkind treatment, and that there are many who will treat her as she deserves: with respect and consideration.
An extracurricular activity may help a young girl take pride in qualities within herself that she doesn’t have the chance to express in other circumstances. A girl on a soccer team, for example, will be valued for her strength and stamina, while a girl in a debating club will be praised for being quick-witted and articulate.
Yes, volunteering is about helping others. But the idea that it’s a selfless act isn’t true at all. Of course, it provides help to those who need it, but it can also make a young girl feel needed, which can directly contribute to a high self-esteem. “If you volunteer, you don’t feel pressure to perform,” observes Roberts. “People are always saying “thank you so much’ and you walk out of there feeling 10 feet tall.”
Because volunteers are so necessary and so appreciated, not even the smallest action goes unnoticed. And that kind of attention can make a person feel very valued. Even if part of the reward of donating your time is being proud of yourself, that little self-pat-on-the-back is another step towards believing that you’re a good person. It can be taking an afternoon to participate in a local park clean-up, participating in a local library’s weekly after-school reading program or even spending time with seniors in a home. Whatever the activity, the reward will be the same.
Not only that, volunteering can get young girls out of what can be a very small world. “It can impact that “me’ generation — there’s a much, much bigger world than The O.C. and The Hills,” adds Gordon. The tendency for girls this age to be preoccupied with the concerns of their peers or the trends set by media personalities can sometimes create a very insular view of how things work. But volunteering can demonstrate three things: first, that there are many people in every community who are in need; second, that everyone has the power to help them; and three, the world is a big place — certainly big enough to accept every young girl just as she is.
Managing editor Megan McChesney used each of these techniques, plus the support of a loving family, to get through her own adolescent self-esteem issues.