It isn't easy growing up as a girl. How many of us has seen once strong, confident and brave girls hit 13 and turn into cowering puddles of insecurity? It certainly happened to me and I'm only hitting my stride in my 40's!
Somehow, some way, society, (some) teachers, boys, parents and puberty, among many other things, leave us sensing we better fit in or fade away rather than stand out and show off. Shut up rather than speak up and tone down our talents -- especially if they run in the intelligence category -- rather than excel! All that former bravado dwindles and our inner light doesn't show back up again until midlife (and only then in some of us).
With adolescence and hormones comes that feeling of not fitting in -- being awkward, weird, definitely not comfortable in your own skin -- and the sooner we can help young women "find themselves" from the inside out, the quicker their confidence will return and stay throughout their lives, built on a real solid foundation of accomplishment, achievement and challenges met and mastered, while still feeling like a girl.
If you know a girl in trouble or just a girl with a spark of brilliance hidden inside her, the good news is that there are more and more community organizations popping up here and there doing fantastic work helping girls grow up healthy, smart and strong all the time.
Here are some of my favorites:
With the motto of "Improving the World One Girl at a Time," Girl Power! is accomplishing just that. Girls throughout Miami have their eyes opened up to the strength that they have within them and are given the opportunity to turn their lives around with after-school programs and summer camps in classes like B.A.R.T. (Being a Responsible Teen) and Welcome to Womanhood Ceremony (love that name!). These young women learn how to develop that all-important positive self-image and talk about how to set goals and strive to achieve them (I can think of plenty of adults that could benefit from those classes, too). Working with mentors (you could become one too!), these girls enjoy and embrace life and see all the potential life holds for them ahead in activities that include dance classes, journaling, etiquette classes, math and science tutoring, conflict resolution, arts, drama, yoga and meditation workshops, college tours and service learning trips. Ashley Griffin credits Girl Power! with making a huge difference in her life: "I wish I wasn't growing up, only because I want to be a part of Girl Power forever." Since its inception, Girl Power! has helped reduce the suspension rate of its participants by 85% and the arrest rate by an amazing 90%!
Cecilia Clarke was inspired by her grandmother's courageous act of whipping off her petticoat on a crowded trolley car to warm a freezing infant -- a pretty scandalous act in 1902. So, she named the Sadie Nash Leadership Project (SNLP) after her focusing on just that, social justice and leadership. Far from being a dull classroom experience, girls learn empowerment skills that range from how to write an underground zine to exposing our culture's unattainable images of beauty. Available classes explore movement arts, women's global health issues and strategies to resist oppression, examining each kid's own sense of privilege and power. "It's the kind of coursework that shifts perspective, and empowers these girls to change and open their lives.," their website writes. "Nashers," as they are known, are out in the NYC community working for causes that are meaningful to them, raising awareness about sexual assault, developing resource websites for victims of domestic violence and creating documentaries about teen unemployment and many more projects with the idea that no action is too small, if effective.
Girls Inc., my personal organization of choice in this list of amazing charities, is motivated to change girl's lives, inspiring them to be strong, smart and bold. One of the great things about Girl's Inc is they have a network of local chapters in about 350 cities across the U.S. and Canada. They also have a range of programs. Their "economic literacy" program really empowers girls, who often grow up feeling less confident about their ability to manage money than boys. Blame old stereotypes that women are supposed to be caregivers and men are supposed to "provide," but sadly, schools don't exactly always help matters when teachers turning to boys more often than girls for math and science answers. Add in the unfortunate and pervasive economic inequities between men and women, and you can see why it's critical that we start teaching girls about controlling their financial futures. At Girls Inc., girls learn everything from how to write checks to how to use credit cards and manage their first paychecks. There are even classes on philanthropy and the stock market, lessons in investing and saving money, plus other classes like healthy ways to manage stress and how to deflect peer pressure. I'm so excited to support all their programs, including the media literacy program that teaches girls how to really analyze what they see and hear in the media, separating myth (and photo-shopping) from reality!
As a competitive ballroom dancer/student, I know how much dance can help one develop confidence, self-esteem and learn about how to be disciplined and a maintain a core set of standards of excellence for oneself that, in fact, carries over into all areas of your life. National Dance Institute (NDI) was founded in 1976 by ballet star Jacques d'Amboise and partners with New York City schools to teach dance during the school day. Even if you don't have a child in school, I think you know that music and the arts are disappearing from our curriculums, a truly sad fact of life. NDI gets kids dancing, moving and performing -- and most of these young students are from low-income communities where these opportunities would never be possible otherwise. In fact, no child pays a single penny for any of NDI core programs. This year, NDI dancers are learning about the dance heritage of New Orleans, performing at Symphony Space and collaborating with classical composers to bring their music to life through the art of dance. NDI serves all children including those with physical and cognitive challenges, blind and deaf children, and English language learners.
At Girls on the Run (GOTR), it is indeed running that inspires and motivates 8- to 13 year-old girls, encouraging lifelong health and fitness and building confidence. But beyond running, attendees learn serious life lessons off track. Over the course of a 12-week session, the girls talk about tough issues that face teens (and pre-teens) like eating disorders, Internet safety, dating and cyber-bullying, for instance. As one GOTR participant said, "Girls on the Run could make any girl fearless, because when you're surrounded by people you trust, respect and care for, nothing can hold you back from being the most beautiful person you have grown to be." The program culminates with a celebratory 5K. If you've ever challenged yourself to a run of any length, you know how exhilarating it is to complete a race -- now just imagine how that feels when you're 12 or 13. Pretty awesome. Visit the website to find a GOTR council in your area, or if there isn't one in your area, start one!
For girls who think they may want to express themselves in the direction of rock n' roll, Willie Mae Rock Camp is heaven. This non-profit music and mentoring program empowers girls (and women too) through music education, volunteerism and activities that foster self-respect, leadership and collaboration. Have you ever been in a band? Then you know that it's about getting along, communicating, celebrating your bandmate's strengths and coming together! Ok, if you've REALLY ever been in a band, you know it's all about dealing with constant frustration, lateness and missed rehearsals! Nevertheless, singing and playing an instrument is, like dancing or sports, an amazing tool toward building confidence and strength. And there's just nothing like a gal with a bass or a set of drumsticks! Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls operates a summer day camp, after-school programs and community events in New York City. And ladies, check out the three-day music and mentoring program for us grown-up would-be rockers... it's never too late!
I was recently asked by a young woman in her early 20's about starting on Botox to prematurely prevent aging. I nearly passed out. What are we doing to women that they are so afraid of looking normal and more consumed with appearance than actions? As a small business owner and entrepreneur who also happens to be a woman in a ridiculously competitive industry, I have, over the years, had to face my deepest insecurities -- and I'm not talking about age spots here. My sincere wish is to encourage as many girls and young women as I can to do the same... face their insecurities head-on, learn to stand on their own and become the strong, independent, truly beautiful (flaws and all) young women they are, inside and out, not letting anyone else dictate how they feel about themselves. As they must navigate adolescence and also adulthood alone, we need to remind them of that light that glowed so strong in their early childhoods. Show them how to sparkle rather than minimize their power. And indeed, we have to help each other, every day, become the women we are underneath all our insecurities that can so easily hold us all back and keep us stuck. We all battle our demons our whole lives, but the key is to stay in the battle, get in the game, every day, and not give up!