It’s Hard to be a Girl

I was honored to be the keynote speaker at a teen girls’ empowerment workshop this past weekend. Coincidentally, the workshop was the day after I attended the Los Angeles Woman’s March.  Regardless of your politics or beliefs, the sheer volume of people who showed up for the march proves what I saw written on so many signs:  “women’s rights are human rights.” The number of teenaged girls who showed up for the workshop on the day of a huge rainstorm — which for us weather spoiled Angelenos means we cease knowing how to function (myself included!) — furthered this feeling.

My keynote was entitled, “It’s Hard to be a Girl.” I started by talking about how hard it is to be a teen in general, given constant social media pressure, academic stress, and parental expectations. I know I wouldn’t want to do it again!

However, teen girls face certain challenges that teen boys may not. I apologized for stereotyping, and acknowledged that not all girls felt this way — and some girls don’t identify with their gender or any gender.

Whenever I speak, I try to involve the audience — both as a means of engagement and to measure whether I’m on target.   Fortunately, the girls and I were on the same page, and I loved that they felt safe enough to bring up issues like sexual orientation, depression, and “slut shaming.” Other pressures that came up were friendship issues — it was unanimous that girls can be meaner and cattier than boys — and societal expectations to look a certain way.

It has been shown that girl’s self-esteem decreases at age 12 and doesn’t go up again until age 21. That’s a lot of years to feel bad; no wonder anxiety, depression, and suicide rates are higher in teenage girls. But I don’t think all is lost. As always, self-esteem begins at home.

Many resonated with the Lily Myer’s slam poetry “Shrinking Woman,” which talks about the intergenerational contagion of women needing to be thin. While we can’t always control what our girls are exposed to or hear from their peers, we can control what we say or don’t say at home. When we obsess about how we look or don’t eat this or that, our girls pick it up and start worrying about their appearance at younger and younger ages.

The Huffington Post released an article this week saying that girls start doubting their brilliance as young as 6. How many of our girls “dumb it down” because it’s not cool to be smart? These girls definitely nodded their heads in agreement when I brought this up. No wonder women are underrepresented in engineering careers! We can help this by not labeling our girls solely by their appearance, and encouraging effort even when things are hard.  We perpetuate certain stereotypes by assuming certain activities are gender specific.

Many also identified with girls need to say “I’m sorry,” even it had nothing to do with them. Somehow “sorry” makes us seem more likeable or not as pushy. Pantene made a great video exemplifying that point. As a therapist, mother, and woman, I was shocked how many times I fall prey to this once I started taking notice.   I encourage you to pay attention to this, and challenge whether or not your “sorry” is truly warranted.

My presentation ended by showing the Always campaign #likeagirl.  I challenged the girls to write their gender confining experiences on a notecard, and rip them up. The act of ripping and throwing away can be very therapeutic as it gives one a sense of control. Try it sometime!

So what can we do as parents to keep our daughters’ self-esteem from dipping dangerously low?

Pay attention to our words and actions. How often do we talk about weight and appearance? How many times do we apologize for things we shouldn’t?

Teach and model being kind to one another. I have found that often mean girls have mean moms. Our kids are watching our every move, so be careful what you say. It’s always amazing to me that my kids don’t hear me ask them to clean up, but they definitely hear EVERYTHING I don’t want them to.

Value our girls for their intelligence and kindness, not their physical appearance.When we notice girls’ looks before anything else, we teach them that looks are more important than her other qualities. Anea Bogue, writer and creator of REAL girl, says “Challenge yourself to match every compliment you give about your daughter’s appearance with at least two compliments about something non-appearance based, and do the same for other girls who cross your path — your daughter’s friends, nieces, etc.”

Encourage her to stand up for her values and beliefs.  Make sure she knows SHE and her feelings are important.

Stay connected. Show interest in her passions. Let her know she is loved no matter what. As much as teens crave peer approval, they care about their parent’s opinion of them too.


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