Several years ago I was a middle school science teacher and my husband was a youth minister. My life was spent working with students, particularly young women. Middle School has always been one of my favorite ages. There is still a sense of delight and awe about new experiences, accompanied by an increased capacity to consider deeper meaning and relationships. This combination creates a wonderful opportunity to engage young women about who they are becoming and where they place their value. When I taught however, I also noticed girls this age became much more self-conscious if they laughed too loudly or reacted too quickly. A growing concern about their appearance often kept them from enjoying experiences that a year or two earlier they would have enjoyed tremendously. Hesitancy and a subdued demeanor became common observable characteristics for many young women as they progressed through middle school.
This is very different than my youngest daughter who loves to put on a dress and spin around with her arms up. She calls them her “twirly” skirts. She laughs out loud, plays without reserve, climbs over anything and sings loudly for no reason at all. There is virtually no concern for how she is perceived. (Almost to a fault!) The innocent joy that we see in the life of a little girl often vanishes as girls get older. Some of this can be attributed to coming of age but it goes further than that. According to Mary Pipher, author of “Reviving Ophelia” there is a challenge of raising girls in a media saturated culture. She states, “Girls stop being and start seeming.” “Vibrant confident girls become shy, doubting young women.” She goes on to give this startling observation, “ Girls stop thinking, “Who am I?” and “What do I want?” and start thinking, “What must I do to please others?” Much of her book unveils that part of the problem is our daughters, granddaughters, nieces, and friends become aware of the need to conform to an appearance consistent with that found in the media. They lose the freedom to be who they are and start feeling pressure to be who they think they should be.
As women, we identify with this difficulty all too well and can relate with the challenge of feeling like we must live up to the physical ideal portrayed in the culture. Although we know the images we see are unrealistic, we are still discouraged as we compare ourselves. This pressure is worse for someone in middle school and younger. The statistics reveal how alarming this reality is for young women:
- Over 80% of ten year olds are afraid of being fat.
- 40-70% of girls are dissatisfied with two or more parts of their body.
- At the age of twelve a girl’s self esteem plummets compared to that of boys.
- Over half of all middle school girls are unhappy with their bodies. By the age of 17, the number rises to 78% percent.
- At age 17, the average girl has seen more than 50,000 commercial images aimed at her appearance!
These studies further show that although our girls know that pictures on social media or in magazines are unrealistic, 60% of young women strive to look like them. One study observed although girls know there is something wrong with an over emphasis on physical appearance this knowledge does not affect change in their behavior. The narrative of our culture is simply too strong:
- You will be happy and content if you look a certain way
- You will be socially acceptable if you look a certain way
- Your value comes from your appearance
Our girls need a new narrative in which they can grow and discover the beauty of their own bodies and enjoy how they have been made. A narrative in which their identity is not based on an unrealistic, artificial standard but rather rooted in what is true, real, and beautiful. Shouldn’t our ten year olds still find joy in twirling in a skirt rather than worrying about a number on the scale?
This kind of change will ultimately come from our lives and how we live them. Our girls need to see a different narrative lived out, not just be told there is one. Words are simply not enough. The next several blog posts will consider how we can create a narrative that promotes healthy flourishing for our girls. This starts in our homes, schools and churches as we collectively seek the welfare of our young women, teaching them and modeling for them how to enjoy the minds and bodies we have been given.