“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.” — Marilyn Monroe
In a culture that esteems appearance over character and makes girls feel they aren’t good enough, pretty enough or rich enough, arming them with a healthy dose of self-esteem is more important than ever.
In today’s world of peer pressure and hyper-messaging from TV, magazines and music, self-criticism and an obsession with outward appearance are epidemic among young girls. The Canadian Women’s Health Network reports a staggering 90% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance in some way. Equally worrying, 49% of girls aged eight to 10 and 59% of girls aged 11 and 12 are concerned about being fat or overweight.
As far back as 2003, Teen magazine reported that 35% of girls aged six to 12 had been on at least one diet, and that 50 to 70% of normal weight girls believed they were overweight. Young girls are continually exposed to images that portray an unnatural standard of beauty that is airbrushed and altered to perfection.
By the time a girl reaches 17, she will have been bombarded with some 250,000 commercial messages. How can we cultivate self-confidence in girls while this ‘beast’ of a movement is slowly eroding their self-esteem and making them feel they don’t measure up?
Girls with a strong sense of self are more likely to try new things, to have confidence in their abilities and to risk making a mistake in order to learn and grow. They are comfortable with the way they look, know they are not perfect, but like themselves anyway. Girls with high self-esteem have healthy friendships and expect their friends to treat them with respect.
Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty has made a significant impact on beauty stereotypes, offering women and girls an alternative definition of beauty that is confident, healthy and strong. The Dove Self-Esteem program encourages girls to open up regarding their feelings about themselves and to recognize their beauty.
Through group discussion, videos and activities, girls learn to celebrate their uniqueness. In My Community Garden Activity, they write about what make them beautiful – from the foods they eat to the values they hold, from their countries of origin to the languages they speak.
In the Self-Esteem Bubble, they draw a bubble and within it write down things that make them feel good about themselves, from physical attributes to character traits. On the outside of the bubble, they write down negative influences such as teasing, name-calling, or peer pressure to be or do something they don’t want. The more they put into the self-esteem bubble, the stronger it will be and the more capable of keeping out negative influences.
The Dove Self-Esteem campaign also shares media secrets and tricks that make models camera-perfect. Girls learn that most media images are airbrushed and computer-enhanced, and are therefore not true reflections of real life. A video entitled “Evolution” sees a young woman transformed for a make-up commercial. Computer enhancement changes the shape of her face by elongating her neck, raising her eyebrows, erasing any blemishes and making her eyes bigger. Magically, the computer creates a completely different person! The take-home message? Rather than aspire to look like the unreal models on TV and in magazines, be happy in your own skin and be happy being you.
Schools and communities are discovering another confidence-building program. Designed to build self-respect and healthy lifestyles in girls aged eight to 13, Girls on The Run combines training for a non-competitive 5km run with an interactive curriculum that addresses physical, emotional, mental and social well-being. The 10-week program arms girls with tools to manage life’s challenges, such as gossip, bullying and establishing healthy friendships.
A registered charity in Ontario, Girls on The Run inspires girls to be happy, healthy and confident through a fun, experience-based curriculum. This two-tiered program – Girls on the Run for girls in grades three to five and Girls on the Track for girls in grades six to eight – addresses issues unique to the struggles and challenges faced by girls at each of these life stages.
Executive Director and CEO, Rina DeDonato, explains: “Running on its own is extremely empowering. When combined with a curriculum that addresses key issues for young girls, you have a recipe for success. For young girls, there’s a lot to deal with in a short period of time, like peer influences and pop stars, and at their age there is so much messaging from shows, commercials and magazines. It is a pivotal age when girls are very influenced by the messaging around them. We try to get them to connect with their internal beauty, to say ‘I am OK with who I am,’ and to stay true to themselves.”
Girls on the Run offers a spring program from April to June, and due to high demand, a fall program is being launched this year.
York Region schools are also teaching children the importance of positive character traits in relation to their peers and teachers. Educators are learning that school is about a lot more than learning the ABCs: it’s about learning to be fair, to take the initiative and to show empathy. Children in elementary school are being recognized among their peers for showing respect, and for being courageous and optimistic.
Student recognition is shifting from focusing solely on grade performance to character evaluations, resulting in more positive peer relations. By focusing on character, schools are building awareness among children of the importance of relationships, of being accepted for good character instead of looks or fashion sense.
Kate Richardson, a grade six teacher at Harry Bowes Public School in Stouffville, believes the focus on character traits in the school environment helps kids identify their gifts and strengths. “Character traits are important because they focus on the internal, not the external, person. This makes kids think about how their gifts and talents can be aligned with their school, and how they can bring them together to make a difference in the world.”
Richardson encourages her class to show respect for each other by using positive talk and by learning to work together. “Kids need to respect and care for one another. They don’t have to be best friends, but they have to care. This makes the classroom a positive place and a positive experience.” It’s also a great way to prepare children for the real world.
Despite the heavy influence of media messaging on young girls, when asked who has had the most powerful influence on their self-esteem and ideas of beauty, Dove researchers discovered girls don’t list sports figures or celebrities. The majority of girls worldwide say their adult female mentors – mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts and teachers – have the biggest influence on their ideas of beauty.
At a time when our daughters are heavily influenced by messaging and peer pressure, we must remind them to connect with their internal beauty and not try to be something they are not. Helping them redefine beauty on their own terms is a great first step towards cultivating self-esteem.
We must also remind ourselves that our own messaging is being heard loud and clear. Complaining that you hate your hair, that you are too fat or that you need to go on a diet are all corrosive comments being internalized by our daughters. As female mentors, changing our own messaging will dramatically influence girls looking to us for cues on how to treat themselves.
To learn more about Girls on The Run in your community, or to become a coach, go to www.girlsontherun.ca to find a link to more details and to an application to bring the program to your school or community center. To learn more about the Dove Self-Esteem Campaign, visit www.dove.ca.
Tiffany Moffatt is a Dove Self-Esteem Campaign workshop facilitator in York Region.