My 10-year-old daughter and her friends recently attended a kind of "positive body image" party, intended to reaffirm -- or in some cases, introduce -- their positive sense of self, realistic and self-affirming definitions of beauty, their connections through their friendships and their desire to continue these relationships to build up rather than tear down each other's feelings of self-worth. It was designed as a means to anchor their inherent sense of self-esteem through the upcoming -- and traditionally self-esteem-sucking -- tween and teen years. It was the first of its kind in this local meeting place for people dealing with eating disorders and other body image/self-esteem-based negative and injurious behaviors.
An older teenage girl at the center was invited to help out the day of our event. She graciously and courageously agreed, and in retrospect her presence contributed overwhelmingly to the success of the party. While the adults who organized and led the event were the driving forces, it has become evident -- at least with my daughter -- that the wisdom taken to her heart comes, for the most part, from older girls.
The party involved fun-based exercises to help the girls discover and reinforce what they love about themselves and each other. It also included the teenage girl talking to them about what makes them special. They each created a collage of what they like most about themselves, and each was given a journal with questions on the pages, such as, "What do I value most about my friends?" and "Who can I talk to if I have a problem?" They were encouraged to continue journaling in the future. The girls had a wonderful time, and hopefully learned a lot about themselves -- without being lectured to do so.
A week or so prior to the party, the woman in charge of it thought to ask older teen girls and women, "What do you wish someone had said to you when you were 10, or 12, or 14?" She wrote down the responses, brought them to our party, put them in a hat and let the teenage girl use them to initiate discussion among the younger girls. The dialog was tremendous.
It affirms for me what I've suspected for many years: We need to encourage our older teenage girls to see our younger girls for what they themselves once were -- on the precipice between self-acceptance and self-loathing, needing the encouragement of the older girls they so admire and respect. We need to remind our older girls how important their words and actions are to the young ones and train them (through programs such as The Body Positive) how to mentor effectively -- how to tell young girls, "You really are okay."
I wish someone would have said that I wasn't the only one who plucked out my eyelashes, which was something with which I suffered in silence from second grade until I was 38. One day I looked down to see my 9-month-old son playing with his eyelashes and panicked that I'd passed it on to him; only then did I look it up to see if it was something real. I also wish someone -- and specifically an older girl, because everyone knows mothers say nice things because they have to -- would have told me that someday I would love my red hair and freckles, or that body shape has nothing to do with having friends and being happy. Or that this, too, will pass.
If we were truly able to pass down these pieces of wisdom we've accumulated through the years, the "if only I knew then what I know now" pearls, if we were able to teach our older girls to mentor our younger girls in that way, with the advice and knowledge that we've acquired, what kind of impact could we have on our future generations? I'm wondering, if we were to put these thoughts into a hat for our young ones, what do you wish someone had said to you?