It’s a great time to be an American woman, right? Girls today can realistically consider every option as they map out their futures. They can run for president, be a professional athlete, CEO, mother, or combination of these. And little girls believe they can do anything. Just ask the nearest preschooler.
But then the world seems to chip away at the confidence of these girls when they hit middle school, that awkward time when many adolescents struggle to find their voices. Once confident girls are suddenly aware they can’t measure up to the airbrushed definition of beauty celebrated in glossy ads featuring skinny and voluptuous models. Cattiness and cliques compound the problem for many girls who find themselves sitting alone at lunch when they desperately want to belong.
Enter Lindsey Williams, a nineteen-year-old Western Michigan University student who is doing her part to help young women help themselves and each other. This weekend, Williams will host the “I Am Woman” seminar for girls in grades six through twelve and their mothers. The event will feature a presentation by Patti Criswell, a Kalamazoo-based social worker, WMU adjunct professor, and author of six American Girl books.
“This is a way to teach girls that ‘You’re not alone,’” Williams said. “Because you do feel like you’re alone.”
Williams did. Her family moved from Kalamazoo to Rockford when she was in eighth grade, and Williams struggled to find her groove at her new school. She was frustrated by the way girls would cut each other down and fight over boys.
“My mom was a huge part of getting me through that time,” Williams said, recalling how great it felt to have a safe place to come home to.
Her mother repeatedly told her to “teach them, not tell them,” and she took that message to heart.
Since 2006, when Williams was in her junior year of high school, she has hosted seminars for mothers and daughters in hopes that participants would bond and develop a support system for one another. This is the last year she’ll organize the seminar, funded by a grant from the Nokomis Foundation, because of living in Kalamazoo, but she’s hopeful someone might step forward to keep it going.
“I didn’t really blossom until I found something that I was passionate about and inspired by,” she said, explaining her commitment to social justice and feminist issues.
This is key, said Criswell, forty-three, who met Williams at a women’s conference.
Turbulent Teen Years
While there are plenty of community resources to build girls’ self-esteem through elementary school, many girls experience a drop in confidence when entering their teens.
“Body image is absolutely huge,” Criswell said.
And Criswell observed young women today tend to be more passive than those from her generation.
“I think my generation was more likely to speak up,” she said. “We were coming off the women’s movement.” She said that “women need to speak up” when someone is calling a friend by a negative name. Criswell said it’s not enough to arm little girls with “girl power” messages. They also need to learn how to stand up for one another.
Tools for Change
At Saturday’s seminar, Criswell said she plans to help girls find their voice and build a bridge between girls and their moms. She recommends moms bank their time with their children. Invest as much as possible throughout their childhood, so they know you’ll be there when they need you as young adults.
She said parents of teenagers are kind of “on call” all the time. Teens are more independent and like space, but when they need you it is often right away.
“Build traditions into your daily life, not just Christmas,” Criswell said, explaining this can be as simple as stopping for breakfast on the way to school once a week or joining a mother-daughter book club.
Parents can strengthen their relationship with their kids if they have fun with them, play cards, invite their friends over, and make their home a welcoming and easy place to be, Criswell said.
With honest and open communication, moms can express their concerns about the peer pressure and social situations they worry about. Meanwhile, daughters can offer their moms reassurance they know how to handle those situations and ask for help when they can’t.
“Letting go is an inherently difficult process,” Criswell said, adding that it is possible to do so while “staying close.”
The mother of a thirteen-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son, Criswell has spent her career counseling girls and families. She said it is a myth that mother-daughter relationships have to be awful, but “it’s true that it will be uncomfortable,” she said. Criswell and her daughter have been in a book club together for nearly five years.
“I love these girls,” Criswell said about the group that includes girls from different schools. “All those girls know they can come to me anytime, and my daughter knows she has all those other moms she can go to.”
Many books have been written in the past decade about girls and self-esteem. One of the newer ones was inspired by the young girls reading books about princesses being rescued by a prince.
Atlanta author Susan Johnston got tired of the little girls in her life reading books about girls waiting to be rescued, so she co-wrote a book called Princess Bubble with her best friend, Kimberly Webb, to remind girls it’s possible to be a happy, well-adjusted princess without being rescued.
“These girls were so worried about having the acceptance of a young boy, and that just broke my heart,” Johnston said.
A single woman who has stood up in seventeen weddings, Johnston said the book aims to get a positive message out to girls and give their moms a reminder that they don’t need to wait for a prince to make them happy, either.
“You can read it at six or thirty-six,” Johnston said, adding that she wants all girls to know, “Sometimes, life isn’t how you pictured. It can be even better.”
By Jennifer Ackerman-Haywood, The Grand Rapids Press