“I’m not eating this weekend because the girls at school want to be skinny.” Emily, 9.
In 2004, after years of processing my own body image issues, and with a determination to have things be different for my daughters, I didn’t expect my own child to begin that steep slide into dieting misery so soon, if at all.
I took a few hours to recover from my little girl’s statement of deprivation, and then I came to the conclusion that if I really wanted things to be different, I would need to take action myself, and fast.
The conversation and research that followed opened my eyes to several truths:
Kids talk. And they are all affected by media messages (billboards, commercials, print ads, Hollywood glamour) about protruding stomachs, fat thighs, and jiggly arms.
Women talk. We do, and it’s a lot of self-criticism about protruding stomachs, fat thighs, and jiggly arms. And, we talk about other women in relationship to all those things, and about how she looked in that outfit. Constantly, constantly, constantly.
Conversations overheard about appearance become messages about what is acceptable, desirable, worthy of love, and they are more potent than any billboard costing 1,000’s of dollars to print, because they are personal—about real people we know—about ourselves. And, our girls are listening closely, all the time.
The seeds of self-esteem and self-image are planted long before girls approach puberty. Though criticism may be directed at others, and even if we only ever complement our little girls, they grow on the reality that criticism is just around corner if they grow into women of stomachs, thighs, and arms, of any type.
So what’s a mother to do? I wasn’t certain, but I was sure that I wouldn’t allow one more generation of women in my family to struggle with the self-hatred that comes from a legacy of criticism, peer pressure, never ending dieting, and debilitating low self-esteem.
I did have a hunch that in order to help make changes for my daughter and her friends, I needed to help make cognitive and emotional changes for moms, too. Because after all, we were all once girls who grew on those very messages. No one ever told us to stop listening.
And so, with mother-bear determination, I called health and wellness professionals in my Lexington community who seemed to carry some authority: pediatrician; nutritionist; psychotherapist; police-officer. And I asked them to become a part of the community that would influence and help raise healthy girls.
With professionals on board, Girls Rock!: Workshops for Girls and Moms, was born. We would all come together, pre-teen girls, mothers, and professionals, for a big empowering day of programming that would make all of us responsible for healthier language, relationship to self and friends, and habits at home.
But still, the kids in attendance would need real, up-close and personal role models to emulate—people they could think of as big sisters—the ultimate role models of omniscient authority to a girl.
So I recruited a diverse team of teenagers with leadership potential who seemed to defy what Mary Pipher identifies as one of our culture’s greatest tragedies, “Adolescence is when girls experience social pressure to put aside their authentic selves and to display only a small portion of their gifts.”
Something profound happened in our very first workshops when the Girls Rock! Teen Mentors spoke. They stood with confidence in front of girls, mothers, and professionals and said, “We are all different sizes, shapes, and ethnicities—this is what normal looks like—this is what pretty looks like”.
The young audience of girls listened closely, but the mothers and professionals were moved to tears.
And then it was clear. Hearing for the first time from people who represented our own youth, that beauty was never meant to be one-size-fits-all, opened the blinds and let the sun shine on the truth that we always were, and are right now, pretty enough and good enough, and that we are so much more.
Isn’t that what we really want for ourselves?
One workshop led to another, and another, and we became a non-profit and published a book (Click here to order), and I can report that my daughters now teens themselves, are Girls Rock! Mentors, today. Hallelujah.
Looking back now, it’s amazing to me that I could have pulled this off—recruiting and training teen leaders, finding passionate professionals and generous keynote speakers, and reaching out to other mothers and girls who would attend.
Technically, I didn’t know anything about running this kind of thing—I was driven intuitively, and I found that women both young and old could relate, so I kept going. I prayed that my daughters and their friends would benefit, and that I could send my girls to sleepovers knowing they would be influenced in positive ways.
Year after year, Girls Rock! continues to be one big community of volunteers and families showing up just because we have all been affected, are still affected by a ridiculously unfair standard. But most of all, we gather because we care about the development of self-esteem in girls.
Though there is undeniable power in pervasive cultural messages especially saturated by media today, there is something more powerful about women coming together to educate, heal, and find inspiration together. As girls and women we are a part of something that is much bigger—it’s called Sisterhood, The Women’s Lodge, the Feminine Divine.
This is a place anywhere and everywhere on this planet where females of every age, status, and background can gather to nurture one another with acceptance. It’s simple and it’s a magical thing to be a part of. It makes us grateful to have been born as girls.
So, it turns out that my years of healing before motherhood were just the very beginning for me. My young daughter’s fateful entry into self-doubt felt like familiar territory—I couldn’t have imagined it would provide me the drive to heal more deeply, nor to help find a solution for my community.
While the distance travelled to arrive to a place of peace is never easy with these issues, I’m feeling it’s been worth the journey so far.
Most of all, as my daughters grow into adulthood with perspective, confidence, self-esteem, I will say that I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Prayer has helped a lot too.
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