The Challenges of Raising Girls Today

Smiling Teen Sisters

Creative Commons License photo credit: PinkStock Photos!

As a parent, how many times have you found yourself thinking, “Wow, things sure have changed since I was a kid!”?

As a mom, I compare my experience with girls growing up today. Some of the statistics certainly paint a bleak picture:

  • In 2006, more that 84% of girls believed they had to be thin to be popular – up from 75% in 2000 (Girls, Inc., 2006)
  • 39.4% of female Texas high school students report depressive symptoms, such as feeling sad or hopeless. (Department of Health and Human Services, 2005)
  • Seven in ten girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with friends and family members. (Dove Self-Esteem Fund study 2008)
  • In Texas, 3 in 10 girls get pregnant at least once by the age of 18. (National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy 2004)

It can be easy to feel helpless in the face of these grim numbers, but, luckily, we have several organizations in Austin dedicated to working with girls to reverse these trends. Among them is GENaustin, a nonprofit formed in the late 90s by 12 concerned moms who read the book Reviving Ophelia, which documented the huge drop in self-esteem that occurs in girls in early adolescence.

After a town hall-type meeting the moms organized that drew over a hundred concerned parents, what was then called The Ophelia Project was born. The organization, which changed its name to the Girls’ Empowerment Network (GENaustin) started with afterschool groups for girls to discuss topics such as body image, bullying and relationships. The girls’ groups grew into a peer mentoring afterschool program called clubGEN, in which high school “big sisters” visited middle schools weekly to present activities from a curriculum developed by the high school girls with help from experts. Now, through several programs GENaustin serves over 2,000 girls annually in nine Texas school districts and statewide through its annual conference.

I grew up in Austin and found out about the organization after college when I moved back here to live. One of the founding mothers lives across the street from my parents and encouraged me to get involved. At first I became a volunteer and then worked at GENaustin, managing clubGEN and working with other programs. Learning more about how tough it is to be a girl now, I was happy to be part of the solution.
AdvertisementSo, what role can we play as parents and adults who care about girls? Here are three things GENaustin suggests we can do to help our girls grow into healthy, confident young women:

Model Healthy Behaviors As difficult as it might be, don’t let your daughters hear you criticizing your own body. Even when it isn’t directed at them, hearing you put yourself down will make them think more harshly about their own bodies. Instead, celebrate your body, and your daughters, for its strength, its utility and the amazing things it does every day.

Talk to your Daughters about the Media Take the time to have conversations about things they see in magazines, in movies and on television. Talk about how unrealistic these images are, and that even the women on covers of magazines don’t look like that in real life. As Cindy Crawford once said, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.”

Compliment your Daughter on her Accomplishments Make sure your daughter knows how proud you are of her for her successes, her artistic efforts, her academic achievements or whatever it is that she does that makes her happy. It’s very important that from a young age to encourage girls to develop a sense of esteem and value that comes not from what they look like but from what they can accomplish.

If you are looking for a chance to bond with your daughter and come away informed and inspired, GENaustin is sponsoring an all-day, statewide conference on November 12th at Austin High called We Are Girls. Girls in 5th-12th grades and their parents can attend sessions on body image, media literacy, nutrition, fitness and a variety of topics related to maintaining healthy self-esteem. This year’s keynote speaker is Rosalind Wiseman, who wrote the book Queen Bees and Wannabees. This year’s conference will have a track especially for dads and will include sessions in Spanish.

I have attended the conference the past few years and can speak first hand about the amazing energy and enthusiasm of the girls and adults who attend. The conference is absolutely buzzing, and girls have the opportunity to choose from workshops such as “The Media and Me”, “Jewelry Design”, “Yoga for Better Body Image”, “Girls Who Mean Business” and “Chica TV”. The conference is state-wide and has grown so much that it will be held this year at Austin High school.  Scholarships and group rates are available.

Being a girl today might be hard, but it’s nice to know we have some resources locally to help make girlhood a little easier.

If you have daughters, what concerns you most about what they encounter growing up today? Has your daughter been bullied or talked in a negative way about her body or weight? What do you try to do to help your daughter be self-confident? Do you find yourself criticizing your own body in front of your children (raising hand)?

Written by: Nicole Basham

About Nicole Basham 793 Articles
A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 10-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau's words, her mission is to "suck out all the marrow of life", or in her son's words, to cultivate in him a love of "advenchers".

5 Comments on The Challenges of Raising Girls Today

  1. I try to avoid criticizing my body but I also have a problem with the “all women are beautiful” concept as much as any self-esteem-without-merit concept, because I think these are, in the end, more damaging than helpful. Not everybody is gorgeous. Not everybody is musically gifted. Not everybody is good at art. Not everybody is good at sports. But everybody is good at something.

    Men aren’t expected to find their “inner beauty” or “inner handsomeness”. Men and boys aren’t told to constantly evaluate themselves and come out with a positive answer or else be told they MUST be positive about their image. Men and boys get lots of crap about how to look as well, yes, but nobody expects a man or boy to demand to be be considered attractive when they are not. In fact, our society ridicules men for doing so in ways that are expected of women: a man-girdle is a joke, but women are pressured to use them. A toupee is also a joke and hair colouring for men is marketed in a subtle way compared to the “OMG you will die if anyone sees a gray hair!” marketing at women.

    No, I reject the notion that girls ought to be seeking self-esteem in their looks. Some of them will be thin and what society has deemed “pretty” and some will not. Believe me, as a fat lady, no amount of me saying I’m hot in hip-huggers is going to make it true. I choose instead to not give a damn about my looks and demand to be considered for my brains and talents instead. I reject people – mostly other women – who insist that I pretend to love how I look. I don’t love how I look but neither do I hate it; it is immaterial to who I am.

    I say let’s get more girls to consider that way of looking at it instead. Because I promise you, filling their heads with “you really are pretty” when they’re not is just going to make them unhappy later. If you must talk about looks, say person-neutral things like, “There’s nothing wrong with that sweater,” or “That skirt has a good flutter to it” or “That haircut frames your face well.” None of that attaches a value to them as a person.

    Or better yet, leave looks out of it entirely. See this article for tips on how to leave looks out of conversations with girls:

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I would love to speak to you more about how I can help market both this event and GENAustin in general. I run a female-focused advertising/marketing firm and would love to get behind this cause in any way. My daughter is too young for this event, but I am already worrying about how to instill in her more self-esteem than I had growing up (and still struggle with).

    I never say “I feel fat” in front of her, or use the word “fat” at all unless I spell it…and I need to stop that soon because she is learning to read now. This is a cause very near and dear to my heart and I applaud you for getting involved.

    Did you happen to catch Miss Representation on OWN last week? It was about this exact thing and the statistics were very depressing indeed.

    Thanks again. Great post.

    Zeehive Creative

  3. Kimberly, thanks for including that Huffington Post article. That is a really great piece. I agree that taking the focus off looks entirely is a good idea. I have pretty much stopped commenting on something tied to appearance with adults and kids, now that I recognize it’s so loaded.

    Stefani, I’m glad the post resonated with you, and I know GENaustin would love the help!

    I did catch Miss Representation last week at UT. You are right, it had some really awful statistics as well. I hope it’s another way to shine a light on why our culture can make girlhood even harder.

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