This Sunday, October 11th, the world recognizes the International Day of the Girl established by the United Nations. According to the U.N., “the world is home to more than 1.1 billion girls under age 18, who are poised to become the largest generation of female leaders, entrepreneurs and change-makers the world has ever seen.” Girls of this generation face more opportunity than ever, thanks to the many brave women who have gone before them, working to break gender discrimination barriers. But the reality remains that there still are too many false and negative messages that are communicated against females that both boys and girls continue to receive from a very young age. These negative stereotypes against women and girls of all ages do not promote a strong sense of self-confidence, image, or self-love, and actually contribute to a culture where claimed ignorance of the violence against women is far too often tolerated. Today, we encourage our readers to find ways to shift ingrained cultural blinders of female gender discrimination and to begin cultivating a stronger sense of self and healthy female identity in our girls.
In solidarity with what the International Day of the Girl stands for, The M3ND Project wants to highlight how to build up this emerging generation of young women. Together we can help them become confident, assertive, mindful and physically and emotionally healthy, no matter what path they choose. Whether you are a teacher, mother, father, mentor, coach, etc., you have a duty to combat the negative messages being conveyed to the girls in your community from internal sources such as school dress codes that don’t allow girls to wear pants and outside sources like the media. It is important to understand that when girls are minimized in these ways it thwarts the healthy formation of their self-identity. It is our responsibility to foster the development of girls with the resilience, self-esteem and assurance they can depend on when facing any challenge life may throw their way.
Here are some powerful ways to encourage girls and to promote a healthy cultural exchange about the feminine experience.
Words of Affirmation
It is good for girls to hear that they are pretty and beautiful. However, it is important to remember when the only type of compliment someone receives focuses on their physical appearance, they risk concluding their power comes from their bodies and may believe their looks are the most or only valuable quality about them. Girls’ worth is found in so much more than their looks. We do not want to send the message that young women have to look a certain way in order to be successful or accepted. If girls depend too heavily on receiving physical praise, then hearing criticisms or put-downs about their appearance can cause them to feel unsure and unable to cope because they have been taught that their looks are what matters.
Making a point to give compliments like, “You did such a good job on that project,” or, “Your conviction about this issue is commendable”or “You’re an incredible athlete,“ “You make a great leader,” “I love being with you because you have a strong mind”, or “you are a joy to be around,” are all examples of words of affirmation that can instill a sense of self worth that do not have to do with appearance.
Growing up hearing meaningful compliments and learning not to come into agreement with criticisms that negate a positive self identity strengthens girls and will make them more mindful about how they respond to the words that are spoken to them. Learning that they do not need to agree with negative labels placed upon them helps them to stop and respond differently and might protect them from putting up with the attacks of any verbally abusive person. Because abusers very often appear to be sweet at the start of a relationship, girls may have a hard time recognizing the red flags they see in their significant other, even when they know that the way they are being spoken to is not loving. Girls who are taught early on through verbal affirmation that they are worthy of love, respect and support, and that they are not required to agree or remain silent in response to negative treatment may be able to more easily recognize when a partner is not caring for them in the way they deserve. In time, hopefully they will either address the needed changes or remove themselves from the situation.
Learning when and how to set healthy boundaries is another way to help prevent abusive and destructive relationships. In both friendships and romantic relationships, boundaries can help ensure that a girl does not lose herself and her identity to anyone. Learning when and how to say “no” is something that will need to be practiced for a lifetime and can be started at a very young age. Being able to set healthy boundaries often starts with a healthy self-image which cannot be accomplished without adult support. Working with the girls in your community to teach them their worth and that they have the power to decide and implement healthy boundaries within their relationships are important gifts you can give them.
As we all know, far too often girls’ boundaries are tested when physical or sexual advances are made within a relationship. Tragically, many women have felt coerced into unsafe dating or premature sexual situations because they did not feel that it would be kind to say “no” or speak up to set boundaries to secure their emotional and physical preferences. Empowering girls to respect their gut and use the power of their voice in communicating how they are feeling about a situation can prevent them entering or remaining in settings where they do not feel safe. One common mistake adults make is to minimize feelings of young people. Our youth needs to experience validation from adults and be allowed to process their emotions which will allow them to feel confident in their self identity and about the conclusions they draw.
Learning appropriate boundaries is not limited to sexual or physical situations. One of the most damaging forms of domestic violence is emotional abuse. M3ND has developed a list of terms and definitions describing abusive emotional behaviors that can help victims and others recognize the confusing nature of emotional abuse. Knowing these behaviors and understanding that they’re harmful will help girls develop a strong emotional vocabulary as well as identify unhealthy actions. Cultivating an awareness of healthy and unhealthy communications may give them important knowledge about the way they express themselves and to walk away from those who are harmful.
Listen and Learn
An integral part of building a strong sense of self is being able to use your voice. Especially for girls, there are still many situations in which their words are automatically discounted over a man’s solely because they are female. We can teach our girls that their voice matters by giving them our undivided attention when they speak, asking thoughtful questions, and providing meaningful feedback that shows you value and affirm their perspective.
Sometimes, girls grow up learning to speak in a way that sounds less confident because they have heard that being too assertive means that they are bossy and undesirable or not fun to be around. If you hear the girls around you trying to soften their words by saying things like, “This might not make sense, but…” or, “I could be wrong,” when expressing a thought or idea, lovingly challenge them not to use that type of language and to stand on what they have said with confidence.
It’s so crucial to encourage girls to use the full power of their voices at an early age because we need women to contribute to every area of society, including the workplace, at home, government, church, etc. It is difficult to continue making inroads for women where they are underrepresented, so teaching girls early on that their ideas, perspectives and voices matter and are needed can make a major difference in creating a world that is safer for women.
It’s important for us all to acknowledge that feminine traits are not weak or inferior to masculine traits or other characteristics. It’s important to speak out against innuendos or snide remarks that imply that women are weak or that it’s an insult to have feminine traits (regardless of one’s gender). We have seen examples of abusive relationships where feminine strengths are used against them, making them feel inferior or incapable. It is okay to feel emotion, to express emotion, to be passionate, loving, motherly and empathetic. These qualities are positive and need to be embraced and encouraged.
How often have we heard coaches yell, “stop running like a girl!” in a derogatory manner? Or heard people say, “you fight like a girl”, “stop crying like a girl” to insult the person on the receiving end? Comments such as these feed into the negative stereotype that feminine identity is bad. Embracing the feminine within is a process to be championed starting at an early age.
Young women by their very nature are strong, nurturing, passionate, and loving. Sadly some choose to take advantage of that very nature to care about and for others. This can often lead girls to a place where they feel that they must sacrifice their needs in order to please people that they encounter within their life. We can help combat this by encouraging young women to feel secure in their identity. This can be accomplished starting at an early age by urging them to contemplate and voice what they want about small things. It can be as simple as what color shirt they want to wear that day, where they want to go for dinner, or being honest about when they’re upset or how they are feeling. Children will doubt themselves if their expressions are not encouraged. As they get older, it’s important to cheer girls on to speak up thoughtfully and respectfully even to authority figures and to learn to advocate for themselves. They need to understand that they have a voice worthy of being heard.
Encouraging girls to speak their minds confidently and respectfully is an invaluable tool with significant implications that will help them feel more empowered to express what they want in future severe situations.
To help celebrate the International Day of the Girl and create a better tomorrow for the girls coming behind us, we ask that you would share this blog on your social media and spread awareness of how we can empower the emerging generation of young women and spur the conversation of how to love girls well.