Teens Mentoring Teens

"In my experience, the Teen Mentor Program has been a constant anchor of mutual support. Although our discussions and projects focus mainly on concerns relating to food and body image, I have gained a sense of personal strength and confidence through this program that transcends any singular issue." -- Katy, age 18

In 2011, we brought together a small group of teens from Boston-area schools to work on the issues of self-confidence, body image and the effects of the media on sense of self. With the help of the Harris Center staff, the Teen Mentors have learned to talk openly about the process of accepting oneself and one's body. They feel supported as they ask questions that every girl faces when she builds her identity: "Am I okay?" "Am I pretty enough?" "Can I love myself the way I am?" By coming together to discuss this self-acceptance, they have begun to accomplish it.

In meetings with our staff, the Teen Mentors identify sources of stress in their communities -- such as bullying and pressure to achieve at the highest level -- that may contribute to negative self-image. They ask themselves, "In view of these stresses, how can we help our peers feel self-confident?" Then the girls transform their ideas into action; they work with the Harris Center staff and with each other to create eating disorder awareness projects in their own communities. That is, they learn to guide and educate their schoolmates in the area of body image and self-esteem, and through serving as mentors they strengthen their leadership skills.

On Feb. 13, 2012, four of our Teen Mentors gave a presentation to a ninth grade class. The first speakers were ninth graders Fiona and Juliet, who described the Teen Mentor Program and showed slides comparing original female media images with those that had been computer enhanced -- "Photoshopped" -- to look super-thin. Both girls were pleasantly surprised when one classmate after another offered comments about the pictures. It was clear and very exciting that the theme of their presentation -- that ultra-thin female media images do not represent the real bodies of real women -- had caught on!

Next, two senior mentors, Callie and Katy, outlined the advocacy projects they were conducting in their own schools, including plans for a "Fat Talk Free Week." Almost in unison, the ninth graders asked, "What's that?" And so began the seniors' lively description of the national campaign aimed at celebrating inner beauty and at reducing comments -- such as "If I could only lose 10 pounds..." and "I hate my thighs" -- that have become standard fare among today's youth. The information about "Fat Talk Free Week" sparked immediate enthusiasm from the vast majority of ninth graders, including the boys. As a result, the ninth grade is leading the school's first "Fat Talk Free" campaign, during which Fiona and Juliet will give a presentation to the entire school, explaining what fat talk is and why it is important not to engage in it.

Katy is hard at work on her advocacy project, which will come to fruition in May 2012. She is organizing a panel discussion featuring high school students: someone who had a friend suffering from an eating disorder, an athlete, a male student. The panelists will share their perspectives on pressures that can lead to negative self-image. They will also encourage participation from the audience, which will include not only students, but parents and school faculty as well.

In addition to creating eating disorder awareness projects in their schools, our Teen Mentors engage in group discussions with prominent speakers we bring in for our Annual Public Forum on Body Image and the Media. The day before our 2012 Forum, for example, the girls met with Vogue Italia editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani, with whom they shared their thoughts on the pressures facing young women today. In response, Franca advised, "Girls, you have to be fighters. Fight to define and be recognized by your own standards of beauty, of happiness, of success. Don't just accept yourself, embrace yourself. But remember that you can't do it on your own." For our Mentors, Franca's wisdom resonated throughout the group meeting, throughout the next day's Forum, and beyond.

The girls offer extremely positive feedback about their program. For example, recent Teen Mentor alumna Melissa wrote, "The mentor group was a breath of fresh air for me because I could be honest about my fears, worries, and experiences. I felt it was a safe place for me to talk."

Laura said, "The Mentor Program has given me the power and the tools to attack the lifelong damage that can be caused when girls hate their bodies."

Our Teen Mentor Program has grown in popularity each year and we anticipate that it will become a model program. Helping high school students to feel good about themselves and empowering them to mentor their peers about the importance of self-acceptance hold the promise of improved lives for teens everywhere.