Thursday, October 25, 2007

What Girls Say About Self-Esteem

Last Wednesday I attended a presentation called “What Girls Say,” about self esteem, body image and holistic health. Sponsored by Girl Scouts of the USA and Women’s Policy, Inc., it had representatives, researchers, and a panel of girls explain the increasing pressure on young girls today and what the public and legislature can do to alleviate it.

With iPods, TV, movies etc, young women are constantly in touch with the media, so it’s no surprise that the body image issue is on the rise. As the presentation pointed out, media strongly influence girls, consciously and subconsciously, and sexual images on television are being seen by younger and younger viewers. These messages are stressing girls to become more appealing to boys. “Do we want our girls to be Bratz girls?” Rep. Debbie Wasserman asked, alluding to the scantly dressed, stereotypical “girl power” dolls geared towards preteens.

Being 18, I grew up with a generation of girls who were eager to do just that: grow up. I was about 8-years old when Britney Spears came out with her first hit “Baby, Hit Me One More Time.” Playing with dolls was a thing of the past and dancing with mini skirts and a short tee was considered cool. My mother was surprised by how fast I and the other girls my age were growing up, but at the time I thought nothing of it. Now that I’m older, I look back and realize how in some ways I did grow up fast and other girls are too. I and the rest of the audience were shocked when Rep. Wasserman shared a story concerning her 8-year-old daughter. One day she tried on a pair of pants and asked her mother “Do these make me look fat?”

Another problem is that there is a lot of pressure for young girls to succeed in every aspect. “[There is the] pressure to be everything to everyone all the time,” explained Judy Shoenberg, Director of Research and Outreach at the Girl Scout Research Institute. However, girls are more concerned with “fitting in,” finding a group of friends to which they feel that they belong. In the research at the Girl Scout Research Institute, most of the girls who were surveyed admitted that their number one worry was what their peers thought of them. It is because of this fear, that at a time when girls should be able to trust one another, they are often bullied and sometimes respond by bulling others. Kimberlee Salmond, Senior Researcher for Research & Outcomes and the Girl Scout Research Institute, warned the room that “Parents shouldn’t brush [the bullying] off. It truly affects the girls and their parents should talk to them.”

I found girls to be especially brutal in middle school. While many girls were teased because of their weight gain, I was constantly picked apart for my small, skinny bone structure. Even by my friends I was nicknamed “Stick.” Luckily, as I grew older the teasing subsided. For whatever reason, people dropped “Stick” and matured, becoming interested in more serious issues. It was because of the bullying that I had cared so much about my body image. When the bullying subsided I focused less on how I looked because I wasn’t constantly being reminded of it. Due to my experience, I was surprised by the fact that women became more focused on their body image in high school, college, and even later on in life. When I asked Shoenberg and Salmond about this they pointed out that it is different for everyone. While I had my mother to spill out my feelings and frustrations to, other girls do not have someone to confide in. If they don’t build confidence or become comfortable with their body image then it only gets worse. As Salmond explained, “It gets bad in college because [the issue] never goes away.”

Organizations like Girl Scouts help girls feel better about themselves physically and emotionally. When asked whether they had been a member of or involved in Girl Scouts, most of the female attendees raised their hands. Although I was never a member of an organization like Girl Scouts, after seeing so many powerful women who were influenced by it, perhaps more of these kinds of organizations can help girls who need that support while growing up. Someday these girls could be the women that were sitting in that room, all they need is someone to talk to. Looking back I really owe my mom a lot for always being there for me, it was because of her that I’m on my way to leading a successful and less stressful life. As for Rep. Wasserman’s daughter, I’m sure that despite the media and the pressure she too will turn out alright. How can she not with a mother who rushes out to fly back and help with the troop’s scrapbooks?

--Liisa Rajala

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