Picture a girl who is 12 years old. A girl with short, spiky, gelled hair. And braces. A girl who stands already at 6 feet tall, a head above most of her teachers. A girl described as “gangly” by others and as “ugly” by her own words. A girl who has less than a drop of self-confidence, desperately looking for validation.
That girl was me.
If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would think, “I don’t really care as long as I’m pretty.” I truly believed that the worth of a woman was dependent on her level of attractiveness. I got so much attention when I was younger. I was so cute before, but now, at 12, my cuteness abandoned me. No more “awwwws.” No more pinched cheeks. No more attention.
I felt worthless.
How many hours did I spend glaring at the mirror and naming my flaws? Nose too big. Thighs too wide. Too damn tall. And what if I added that to how many days I spent comparing myself to airbrushed images? Her skin so perfect. Her curves just right. What if we multiply that by every girl in our society who has responded in kind to the pressure to be physically beautiful? The self-harm. The isolation. The plastic surgery. I can’t even begin doing the math for that equation.
We all know the mainstream media deserves a lot of the blame. Thin, beautiful, white women grace magazine covers. The movies I grew up with depicted women as the love interest for the leading man with no real story of her own. Songs on the radio told the story of heartbroken girls, doomed to unhappiness because they lost their man. That’s old news. But how are we, as everyday people, reinforcing these messages? I believe it’s in how we praise our girls.
I was sitting on a park bench in Berkeley when I saw a little girl, no more than 5, in a bright yellow dress skip-walking down the path, wildly swinging the hand of her grown up. She yell-sang a song about “froggies” on a log. Every time she sang the words “hop-hop” it was accompanied by, you guessed it, two big jumps and an eruption of giggles.
I heard a lady a few benches before me say to her, “Well, aren’t you the cutest girl I ever did see?” I watched as a couple passing the girl stopped to tell her, “You look so pretty in your yellow dress!” She beamed at the compliments and flitted her hand as she sang, “Thank youuuuuuuuu!”
In my years of working with youth, I learned that young people (and all people, really) respond best to positive reinforcement. Celebrating behavior tends to make kids want to repeat that behavior. So, when the majority of celebrations girls hear directly correlate to their appearance, it can have devastating effects. It strengthens the idea that for a girl to be valued, she must look a certain way. So. Much. Pressure. Pressure to be something you cannot control. Pressure that manifests in self-harm, self-hatred, and unhealthy competitive behavior between girls.
At Go Girls! Camp, we work with awareness to celebrate our girls for what she can DO! What she can MAKE! What she can DISCOVER! So when the yellow-clad girl passed my bench I made a point to take another route.
“Did you make up that amazing song you’re singing?” I asked.
She gave a little nod and smile as she twisted the hem of her dress.
“That is one of the coolest songs I ever heard. I love froggies!” (The last part was yell-sung in the same tune she had made up.)
“Thank you! Me too!” she squealed and went hop-hopping away.
I know that the lady on the bench and the couple in the park who praised that little girl were only trying to be nice. To make her feel good. I get it. The truth is… she was cute. She oozed with adorable-ness. It can be hard not to celebrate that.
Appearance, to an extent, is luck of the draw. You can’t control your hair type. The shape of your nose. The fullness of your lips. Your bone structure. These things are not ACCOMPLISHMENTS, they are something you HAVE. Where is the power in finding validation through that? Is it not more empowering to be validated about something you CAN control? Like what you do? What you think? What you imagine? And no matter how much outward beauty one possesses, it will fade. Our society pushes women to find worth in something that will inevitably fail them in the future. It makes me heart-sick how we set up our girls to grow into women full of emotional turmoil. With time, youthful beauty may fade, but knowledge grows. Skills strengthen. Discoveries deepen.
I am not suggesting we never praise girls for their appearance. I am suggesting that we validate them for other things more often, especially the first time we meet them.
I spent so much time as a girl hating myself for looking a certain way. Imagine if I had used that time to learn. To grow. To try new things. To build skills. I wish I could hold 12 year old Hannah and tell her these things. I wish I could whisper to her that she is just right as she is. I wish I could praise her for what an amazing athlete she is. How fun and adventurous she is. How easily she can make people laugh. How much power she has within her.
I know these things now. How did I learn to love myself? Through a lot of suffering and mistakes. Like hurting myself. Like starving my body. Like a nose job at 16. Like addiction. I punished myself because I couldn’t DO anything to be pretty. I didn’t understand I was just right already. That I was worthy of my own love.
This is why I do what I do. I dedicate my time, my energy, and my gifts to help girls love themselves. The funny thing is, I don’t have the power to just hand them self-love. All girls have that love inside them already. I just work to help them unlock it. And never lose the key.
Give a girl in your life a compliment on something other than how she looks. Ask her what she is proud of that she can do or that she can accomplish. Take one small, easy step to help unlock her personal power. How did she respond? Share with us!