In 2012, I had a writing group whose members were all girls. One week during this public library program, I read the group an essay by young adult author Maureen Johnson about the practice of photoshopping teen models in magazines, thinking that we would discuss her writing style. Instead, the group excitedly began to talk about beauty and body image, stereotyping, the pressures to look a certain way, and the gender bias they experienced. As I listened to them talk, I thought, "There's a program here." In 2014, I ran my first series of "Strong Girls School," a program for young adult girls that addresses beauty, body image, gender bias, self-esteem building, and other topics relevant to girls. It has been personally and professionally rewarding and I believe that this program is relevant and valuable for girls of all ages.
Creating the Program
Although it may seem a little daunting, it is actually easy to create a program like this. I do not have a background in psychology or social work, but I have experienced many of the same issues that the girls are going through and can provide education and awareness about issues and offer empathy. I certainly do not have all the answers, but in discussing the topics, the girls are often empowered to come up with their own suggestions and recommendations. The group members support one another in their challenges and I have seen many new friendships develop through their participation in the program. I recommend a small group size of six to eight girls in order to facilitate discussion but have run my program for as many as fourteen girls.
I typically use a combination of exercises, discussion, and YouTube videos in the program. Exercises include creating lists of positive and negative traits that are associated with men and women, looking through magazines geared toward girls and women and identifying underlying messages (and this can be expanded to encompass multiple types of media literacy), and watching videos of photoshopped models or TED Talks on a variety of topics. We often work on a related craft as we talk, since keeping the hands busy seems to facilitate discussion. Crafts have included vision boards, "I Am" boards of positive traits, bucket lists, gratitude journals, and Altoids tins filled with motivational quotes. I have very simple ground rules for group members—they must treat each other respectfully and not share each other's confidences—and there has never been a problem. Offer the program for a fixed number of sessions (I recommend six to eight) or as an ongoing club because new issues are always popping up.
A sample itinerary for a six-session "Strong Girls" program might look something like this:
- Session 1: Current status of women; gender bias & inequality; beauty, body image & media; and introduction to self-esteem
- Session 2: Self-esteem; negative self-talk & messages; and authentic self
- Session 3: Improving self-esteem continued
- Session 4: Friendships; cliques; and drama
- Session 5: Healthy relationships; dating violence; rape culture; and staying safe
- Session 6: Wrapping up; social media; and body language and presence
For more sessions, media literacy and bullying are two topics that I would recommend adding. If you choose to run it as a club, you can add extension activities such as book discussions, movie viewings, reader's theater, gratitude journals, and social activism projects.
Here are some resources to consider when getting started:
The Dove Self-Esteem Project at https://www.dove.com/us/en/dove-self-esteem-project.html. This website offers self-esteem building and body confidence resources for girls ages seven to seventeen. An inspirational video to watch is Niko Everett's "Meet Yourself: A User's Guide to Building Self-Esteem" (approximately ten minutes long) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOrzmFUJtrs.
A short, funny video that looks at childhood gender roles in adult life from BuzzFeed is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=381belOZreA. An additional video that challenges what it means to "do something like a girl" is available from Always at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjJQBjWYDTs.
Beauty and Body Image
About-Face (https://www.about-face.org/) is an organization whose goal is to teach women how to become aware of and counteract damaging media messages. Their website points to research from the American Psychological Association and other studies that recommend two strategies for dealing with the harmful effects of media—media literacy education and advocacy training for young women. The website includes a "Gallery of Offenders," media messages that they feel send harmful messages to women, with discussion questions for each advertisement and a rationale of why they believe the message is damaging.
Loveisrespect.org, from the National Domestic Violence Hotline, is a website that provides resources to educate young people about healthy and unhealthy relationships. There are educator toolkits for middle and high school, quizzes, and a relationship spectrum that identifies various behaviors as healthy, unhealthy, or abusive.
Many of the girls who participated were victims of bullying in the past or were being bullied at the time. Although most schools have a zero tolerance policy towards bullying, many bullies find a way to work around the system or the victims are too afraid to report it. Often, bystanders do not know how to help. The girlsguidetoendbullying.org features a comprehensive model for learning about bullying and addressing it, including how to recognize it, what to do if you witness it, and what to do if it is happening to you.
Examples of "I Am" boards are available via https://www.pinterest.com/pin/558939003726485256/. Instruction for affirmation stones that girls can use to set an intention for the day or to build confidence are available at http://www.sunhatsandwellieboots.com/2015/02/diy-pocket-sized-affirmation-stones-for.html.
Book Discussion Books
Popular by Maya Van Wagenen is a great choice for a "Strong Girls" book discussion. This memoir, written by fifteen-year-old Maya Van Wegenen, is authentic and relatable for girls. Maya, who was decidedly unpopular, embarked on a social experiment, following the advice contained in a 1950s book on how to be popular. The lessons that she learned about herself and the "popular" kids are inspirational and thought provoking.
The Gutsy Girl by Caroline Paul encourages girls to overcome the fears that she believes society instills in girls and become more adventurous. The book contains sidebars of "girl heroes" past and present and has directions for activities such as knot tying and keeping an adventure journal, making it ideal for a combination book discussion/extension activity.
What about Boys?
One potential concern about offering a gender-based program is that it excludes boys and we like to be inclusive. However, I have never received a single complaint and I believe that is because people recognize that this program is necessary and valuable. The issues affecting girls and women domestically and globally are receiving much media attention and rightly so. Would boys benefit from a similar program addressing issues unique to men? Absolutely, but since I am a woman, I believe that offering a program for boys would lack authenticity since I have never experienced those problems. If you can find someone to run a similar program for boys, I would highly recommend it.
Social change begins with individuals. By making girls aware of the challenges they may face and providing support and a safe space where they can discuss and exchange ideas, you could be helping them build the skills to overcome those obstacles. Just in doing what we do best—connecting people to information and to each other, you can play a role in that change.