Friday, January 27, 2012

Girls, Sports and Self-Esteem (part 1)

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the topics of girls, sports and self-esteem and how these things intersect.   I’m interested in exploring how parents can best support girls in sport and the upside of sport: increased self-esteem, healthier body image, preventing depression and anxiety.  But I also want to challenge the downside and talk about what parents should do when sports may be contributing to unhealthy body image or increasing risk for an eating disorder.   Too much to say in one post – so this is going to be a series!

I thought I would start with a lengthy and deeply personal disclaimer:

I have never actually played on a sports team outside of gym class in elementary school.  In fact I grew up pretty much believing that there were people who were built to do sports and people who weren’t.   Mostly this was a split down gender lines but even among my girlhood friends there were a few that just seemed to be meant to run around a track or spike a volleyball over a net.  

This was the 70’s and happily sport has become much more accessible to girls in the decades since.  However this was not just an accessibility issue in terms of funding for girls sports teams or the fact that I lived in a rural part of the country with fewer options.  It was also about issues like exclusion and body image.   You’ve all heard the story from women before me… I was the kid picked last for every team even in gym class.   I never seemed to have that kinesthetic learning link between brain and limb that seemed so natural for other kids and I was more than a little afraid of getting a volleyball or baseball in the face.  

Gym class at my elementary school involved rotating through the same activities year after year.  In winter we played volleyball, basketball and did gymnastics. In spring we played soccer and baseball and had a track meet.   Most of those classes were dedicated to lining up, choosing our teams and heading out to play.  I don’t recall being taught skills or having the sport broken down to small manageable parts in order to understand it.  There was never a time that our gym teacher, Mr. M., separated the athletes from those of us that were struggling to understand the sport and took us off to do some teaching and learning.  He clearly favored the kids who already knew what they were doing. In retrospect I realize he was re-living his own boyish athletic fantasies through how he teamed up with the cool talented kids and bullied the rest of us. I learned to stay out of the way and to pretend I didn't care.  

I wasn’t a sedentary child.  I had to cross a huge field to get to my best friend’s house and I happily ran the whole way as often as I was allowed to.  We had a back yard pool and I swam like a fish from the day the cover came off in spring until the day it went back on in late fall.  I ran around with my dog, rode a bike, pulled weeds & picked beans in the garden, skated on a pond and took every chance I had to camp and paddle a canoe.   I even got pretty good at shooting baskets because we had a hoop beside the garage; I had good aim and a competitive younger brother which led to endless games of “21”.

However I learned early on that the world was divided into those who could play sports and those who could not.  Gym classes were almost always a source of shame and something just to be tolerated. There was an exception.  In sixth grade, I was getting taller and stronger and suddenly developed an interest in basketball.  Shooting hoops had paid off.  I saw myself as having potential. I even dreamed of going out for the girls basketball team the following year although I was almost embarrassed to think it could be possible. 

And then came the grade six “basketball-a-thon”…  24 hours of hanging out at school, playing basketball with intermittent sleep and meal breaks… all to raise money for our class trip to Niagara Falls.    I had a blast and for the first time in my life I successfully took the ball away from another girl.  Except instead of being allowed to feel pride that I had finally figured out how this game worked, I was humiliated by Mr. M. He yelled at me for being too aggressive and not giving the other girl a chance with the ball.   My first proud sporty moment was quickly forgotten. Just to seal the deal…  I was given some feedback that guaranteed I wouldn’t take another chance like that again.  I was at a birthday party and birthday girl’s dad tried to remember where we had met.  I mentioned seeing him at the basketball-a-thon. He responded:  “Oh I do remember you.  I saw you play.  You weren’t very good.”     It is 34 years later and I still feel the sting of that remark.  Those were the words and the voice that replayed in my brain for years whenever I even considered joining in a spontaneous game of any kind.  

Physical Education was only an elective course when I entered my Ontario high school in 1979.  I never signed up.   As my high school years progressed I was shocked to find out that that the girls went sailing and took dance lessons – that it was not all volleyball and soccer.    Regardless, I made it through four years of high school without a single Phys Ed class and never once had to risk being part of a team or a sport of any kind.   My body image was also dangerously poor during these years. Body image is as much about how one feels in their body as how they feel about their appearance.  I can’t help but wonder if I had learned some skills, learned to feel confidence and take pleasure in what my body could do, if I would have been less preoccupied with how I looked.

Earlier in my career when I was more involved in eating disorder prevention work and I delivered body image workshops, I advocated for different levels of Phys Ed class.  If kids can do different levels of math based on their future career plans, why are there not Phys Ed classes for athletes and separate ones for kids who just need to learn basic skills, build endurance, take a few safe risks and learn to love moving their bodies?   I also believe that kids who aren’t the natural athletes and don’t play on teams should be learning movement that can stay with them for a lifetime… activities like yoga, walking, or belly dance.  I was well in to my adult life before I discovered that all the things I loved to do most - canoeing, camping, and swimming – counted as sport but had just never been presented to me that way.

So back to my disclaimer… I was the girl who didn’t play sports. I stopped trying because I didn’t want to be shamed again.   I had been told clearly…  I wasn’t any good. It never occurred to me that being “good” wasn’t the only reason to play.  I set aside the fact that I had been having fun, getting stronger, learning something new and enjoying the teamwork.    So my disclaimer is that I know first hand that sports can be a source of shame, a source of exclusion and confusion.  I really know nothing about what it is to be a girl who plays sports – but I know everything about how being excluded from sports can negatively impact self-esteem and body image.  

Several studies have shown that a critical transition time for both boys and girls is the year they move from grade school to junior high or middle school.  However, the same studies show that girl’s self-esteem declines three times as often as it does for boys during these transition years.  In Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, psychologist Mary Piper says that in early adolescence, "girls' lose their resiliency and optimism and become less curious and inclined to take risks" and they lose, "their assertive, energetic and 'tomboyish' personalities" as they, "become more deferential, self-critical and depressed".  It is not surprising then that a study by the Women’s Sports Foundation (1998) showed that during those same years, girls drop out of sports six times more often than boys do.

Future posts in this series will focus on the evidence of why sport is good for girls and how we can keep them connected to their bodies in adolescence. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Media Literacy at Home

Media is everywhere... it is almost the air our children breathe.  Most parents assume their kids know more about media then they do. The term 'media literacy' refers to the full range of knowledge and skills children need in order to access, analyze, communicate and create within the media milieu that makes up a significant portion of their world. If our children could only read but they couldn't write or they could not understand what they read or how a story was constructed - we would not consider them literate.   

Media literacy includes skills in using media, understanding how images and stories are constructed and a critical understanding of how media is controlled and which stories are told.  There are plenty of good websites with a comprehensive overview of how to help our kids build these skills.  I'm just going to talk about a few simple ways that parents can bring media literacy into every day conversations.

Talking with children about what they are viewing and commenting on story lines, stereotypical images and harmful messages has shown to be an effective way that parents can engage in media literacy.  Even the American Psychological Association recommends that parents and other family members "help girls interpret sexualizing cultural messages in ways that mitigate or prevent harm."  Your older teen might not appreciate your comment on every negative or unhealthy message in her favorite show but she might be willing to discuss the overall theme in a story line and how it makes her feel.  

With younger kids, make a game out of being advertising investigators:
  • Count how many ads you see in an hour of television viewing with your family, including product placements in the show itself.  Discuss together how product placement and commercials might actually affect which story lines are being told.
  • Notice which ads are directed at boys and which ones are directed at girls. Ask your kids how they know. What are the cues? Ask them what would happend if they were interested in the toy being advertised to the "other" gender.
  • Ask your kids if the boys and girls in commercials, movies or TV shows dress and act like real kids they know.  

You and your teen may want to comb through a fashion magazine and count the ads. How many pages of ads are there versus actual articles or fashion spreads?  Explain that the real profit to the magazine company doesn't come from sales of magazines but of sales for advertising space.  Teach her to notice how the articles often reflect the items being advertised.  Play investigator again and challenge her to find the ad that "goes with" the article.   Is there a diet ad that follows the article on swimsuits?  What about the ad for a headache medication right after the article on managing migraines?   Wonder aloud if magazines intend to make women and girls feel unattractive or not good enough the way they are.  Discuss with your daughter who actually profits from girls feeling badly about themselves and always feeling driven to pursue the latest diet or beauty product.

To begin talking with girls about the unrealistic images in advertising... the Evolution video is a great place to start.  Since it was first launched by the Dove Self-Esteem Fund over five years ago,  most adults have seen this but we have a whole new generation of young girls who can benefit.  My own daughter references this video when she wants to make a point about how fake advertising can be.

A creative guy named Jesse Rosten went viral a couple of weeks ago with his humorous look at how photo shopping is the new beauty regimen.  This one is appropirate for sharing with older teens and a great jumping off point for a conversation about unrealistic beauty expectations and how advertising distorts our perceptions. Check it out here:  Fotoshop by Adobe

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What Pop Culture is Teaching Our Girls*

When my then-seven-year-old daughter came home from daycare singing the sexualized lyrics to T-Pain’s  “Apple Bottom Jeans”, I was reminded how pop culture can reach right past parents’ best intentions and pull their children into its compelling grasp. That song had a great beat and did celebrate the female body … the curvier the better. While that in itself might not be such a horrible message for my daughter, the rest of the lyrics did nothing to promote female empowerment or tell her that her value lies in something outside her body as a sexual object.

Every generation has its own pressures and prescribed standards of beauty and female behavior. Madonna was wearing her bra as outerwear 25 years ago, and many of my favorite ’80s rock music had equally raunchy lyrics that promoted indiscriminate sex and drug abuse. So why does pop culture seem to have a stronger and more negative influence on self-esteem today? Is it the sheer volume of it? Is it the increased pressures also exerted by an ever-growing diet-and-beauty industry?

As reported in the Journal of Adolescence in 1997 as well as in the European Eating Disorders Review in 2003, when college-age women look at fashion magazines, their scores on body image and self-esteem tests plummet. According to the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2003, when preteen girls read those same magazines, they are five times more likely to develop eating disorders within the next five years.

Even without glossy fashion spreads and weight-loss-focused articles, I see girls growing up in a culture saturated with what are impossibly thin images of female ideals. The precocious teenagers who star in children’s television shows, the clothing lines that include thongs, and sexualized T-shirt messages for pre teens all communicate and promote specific values about beauty and gender expectations.  

These are tough messages even for an adult to sift through. Plenty of intelligent, skilled women struggle with their self-esteem and body image against the onslaught of pressures to look and act a certain way.  Midlife women are told to resist aging and aim to look a decade younger, no matter how much time or money it costs them. New mothers are supposed to strive for near-impossible “yummy mommy” status. This translates to a message that all mothers should be fashionable and sexy while disguising all evidence of the honorable work of mothering. None of these messages take into account the inevitable lack of sleep, and the unsexy reality of dirty diapers and spit-up on clothes.

Television plays its role, too. Girl culture, as it is lived out on popular TV shows, promotes an underlying value that it’s what’s outside that really counts. On TV a girl can be mean, vicious or vacuously stupid, but if she is wearing the right clothing or has the prettiest hair, she may still be the most popular. This tactic is constantly repeated in the endless “reality” show competitions that highlight women vying for male attention.

Perhaps the most significant factor that sets current pop culture apart from that of the last generation is new media. Advertising images reach children and teens through video games, the Internet, and their cell phones. While I can appreciate social networking sites as a fantastic tool for self-expression and maintaining relationships, these sites are also fertile ground for bullying and harassment.  Some web sites give girls the tools to post hurtful messages, rank friends, or rate each other’s appearance in photos. Many of their online communications mimic the blunt and often cruel evaluations in gossip blogs or celebrity magazines. 

Girls were sometimes mean on the playgrounds of my childhood, too, but the relational aggression that occurs today is more powerful and potentially damaging to self-esteem. Research shows that if the perpetrator isn’t face to face with her victim, she is less likely to feel remorse or empathy. Down the line, that is not good for her sense of self-worth either.

Who is responsible for the self-esteem of girls and women? Blaming pop culture is easy – and mostly accurate – but we can’t stop there. As adults we choose what we want to consume from the pop culture smorgasbord. We choose where to shop, what companies to support and what magazines we read. I think we should be better role models to the girls in our lives by demonstrating female friendships that are genuine and compassionate and by refusing to be preoccupied with body size, unrealistic images of beauty, and other qualities idealized by the media.

* This post has been edited from one that originally appeared as an editorial for the Dove Self-Esteem Fund in 2008

My next post will offer tips on promoting media literacy & challenging the pop culture messaging at home.

Monday, January 09, 2012

8 Tips for Nurturing Your Own Self-Esteem

Self-esteem begins in childhood.  We learn that we are worthy and how to love ourselves through the actions and the words of those around us.  Early self-esteem theory, developed by psychologist Charles Cooley 110 years ago, places this responsibility squarely on the shoulders of parents.  I  believe that, today, the influences come from everywhere.  

Children are exposed to media messaging at a very young age.  Gender-expression expectations are presented early and often in every clothing and toy store and by almost every television show and commercial. Numerous caregivers and other external influences are a part of our children’s lives from a very young age.

Healthy self-esteem depends on getting consistent messages that one is worthy, capable and loveable.  This includes being allowed to be who we inherently are… regardless of gender expression, sexual orientation, introversion or extroversion, being bookish or sporty... without judgment or shaming.  

Self-esteem flourishes when we are taught skills to cope with life’s everyday problems like conflict and communication or we know how to express our emotions effectively.   We need to be able to try things out and to make mistakes as an opportunity for growth. 

When parents or teachers correct a child,  they point out the mistake and support him to make a better choice or try a different tactic next time.  Ideally we don’t shame him for trying or for getting it wrong; children should learn that that everyone makes mistakes but is still worthy of love and appreciation.

As adults we have to take that responsibility on for ourselves.  If we didn’t get what we needed in the past – it is not too late to give it to ourselves today.

Here are some tips to get started:

  • Find a picture of yourself as a child and write that child a letter.  What did she or he need to hear?  Can you give her those messages today?  Post the picture somewhere to remind you that the child inside needs ongoing nurturing.
  • Notice your self-talk.  Is it unkind or untrue?  Do you use words like “stupid” “ugly” or “loser” in your daily dialogue with yourself? .  Practice interrupting your negative self-talk and replacing it with something gentler. Begin to speak with kindness as if you were someone you loved.  
  • Seek counselling or a support group to learn more about self-esteem and why you may be struggling with yours.  If you have a history of trauma or abuse, you can not heal your broken sense of self alone and you deserve the help of a caring professional.  
  • Let go of perfectionism.  Striving to be perfect makes us lonely and adds unnecessary stress to daily life.   When you need to be perfect it is awfully hard to try something new and is likely to lead to procrastination or constant dissatisfaction no matter how hard you work at something.   I recommend reading The Gifts of Imperfection by BrenĂ© Brown
  • Make a list of things you are reasonably good at.  It can include skills like fixing your bike, ironing a pair of pants or presenting a legal brief. It might include being a supportive friend, a witty conversationalist or a generous volunteer.   Start with 10 things you are reasonably good at and try to add a few things each week to your list. 
  •   Stop filtering out the positive and only hearing  the negative.  A close friend of mine calls this her “amnesia for success”.  At one time she could rattle off a list of her mistakes, disappointments and paths not taken but she was hard pressed to tell you any of her amazing achievements or recognize their value next to the achievements of someone else.   If you complete a project at work and you have two negative critiques and eight positive ones, do you go home and dwell on the negative? Do you find yourself going over and over what you should have done differently?   Do you manage to convince yourself that your project failed and that everyone knows it?  It is time to give fair and equal airtime to the positive feedback and instead of getting hung up in self-doubt, use the gift of the negative feedback to improve your work next time.   Consider keeping a running list of every compliment or positive feedback you are given. 
  • Pursue new interests and passions.  What used to rock your world when you were a kid?  What might your passion be today? If you could add one thing to your life what would it be? As adults we cite time constraints, responsibilities, money and many other blocks to the idea of pursuing what we love. I am not suggesting you quit your day job to follow your dream but simply start building in an hour or two a week doing something that engages you at the core and makes you truly happy  
  • Keep a gratitude journal (with a nod to Oprah who I think originally came up with this idea).  It works for me!   Jot down a few things each day that you are grateful for in your life – big things and little ones.  Your list might include cafĂ© lattes, a trustworthy hairstylist, the good health of your children,  mobility, the internet, your best friend, a movie that made you laugh out loud.  Be sure to include things about yourself on the list.  I am grateful for my ability to support a friend in crisis, my welcoming smile, big feet, and my optimistic nature.   While cultivating a daily attitude of gratitude it is harder to find time for negative thoughts and you may begin to see your worth in a new light. 

Saturday, January 07, 2012

10 Tips for Fostering Girl's Self-Esteem

  • Let her know that her opinions count and that she is valued for her contributions to family, school, and community.
  • Praise her efforts, achievements, and perseverance more often than her appearance.
  • Encourage communication, decision-making, and problem-solving skills; these equip her with genuine solutions to life’s challenges.
  • Prepare her for normal growth spurts in height and weight during puberty.
  • Explain that we don’t have infinite control over our bodies, which resist manipulation through dieting and over exercising.
  • Promote positive female friendships; discourage competition or comparisons based on weight or appearance.
  • Encourage her to diversify friendships so she is better prepared to weather the normal ebb and flow in relationships
  • Increase responsibilities such as volunteering, dog walking, or independent financial decisions in order to foster self-worth.
  • Consume media together and teach her to question what she reads, views, and hears.
  • Point out the strengths and the beauty of women of all sizes and diverse appearances.
These tips originally appeared in print in Alive Magazine (July, 2008)  as part of a longer article I wrote titled Moms Matter Most for Self-Esteem

Suggested reading:
(I've linked to for ease and book description but I encourage you to shop at your local independent book store!)

Friday, January 06, 2012

Self-Esteem Defined

Self-esteem may seem like an overused buzzword today.  Various social problems are blamed on “too much self esteem” as if liking one’s self is the same as an attitude of entitlement or something closer to narcissism.  I think self-esteem is simply the ability to respect and appreciate one’s self; sadly too many people are walking around without that ability and it has devastating consequences.   Self-esteem is essential for good mental health. 

Psychologist and author Glenn Schiraldi demonstrates in The Self-Esteem Workbook that self-esteem is as a healthy mindset situated between self-defeating shame and self-defeating pride.

He explains that those who experience self-defeating pride think they are better and more important than others as a person. Self-defeating shame on the other hand means believing you are less valuable than others.  Both types of people have an unrealistic view of their core worth that is rooted in insecurity; both types also view others in a comparative and competitive way. Someone always has to be on top and someone has to be below. 

Those with self-esteem believe they are neither more or less worthy than others.  They recognize they have faults but like themselves anyway.  They see themselves as capable and can learn from their mistakes.  This doesn't mean a lack of healthy competition such as in a soccer game or a class debate - but it does mean that the winner and loser don't tie their sense of self-worth to the outcomes of those events. 

I appreciate the often repeated Gloria Steinem quote  “Self-Esteem isn’t everything; it’s just that there is nothing without it”.    Without self-esteem, we are more susceptible to substance abuse, remaining in an unhealthy relationship, inflicting abuse on others, eating disorders, poor communication patterns (aggressiveness, defensiveness, criticism of others), dependency, loneliness, anxiety and depression.   I’ve noticed that even the most seemingly successful people - those who are held in high esteem by others because of their accomplishments, their skill or even their beauty are still not capable of happiness or enjoying their own successes when they don’t have self-esteem.

I’ve facilitated dozens of self-esteem workshops with girls.  Girls tell me that when they feel more confident, strong and valuable to themselves; they are better able to stand up to people who put them down; they are more likely to value qualities outside their physical appearance; and they are likely to make better decisions about things like smoking, drugs or sex.   Girls with self-esteem tend to be more willing to take healthy and appropriate risks to experience things outside their comfort zone, but are also more likely to ask for help when they need it.

Although early childhood has a strong influence on self-esteem, it also develops and evolves throughout our lives. Self-esteem is a learned trait; everyone can learn skills to strengthen and enhance it. 

            come back tomorrow for my 10 Tips for Fostering Girl’s Self-Esteem

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Welcome to my blog!

I am passionate about raising strong empowered girls and creating a body-accepting, more loving culture that is healthier for all genders. I've been engaged with girls as a counsellor, health educator, group facilitator, parent, community volunteer and friend for well over two decades. Before that, I was a girl.  I  expect my posts will be gentle at times... encouraging self-care and practicing kindness with ourselves and others. I also expect my posts will be angry at times as I use this opportunity to critique the onslaught of damaging messages that girls and women face in our culture. I also hope to draw on ideas that myself and other parents are trying out, in order to raise our kids in a healthy way in this new media age. I may post about mornings volunteering at a food bank or evenings spent cheering on girls softball. I expect to share the heartache that I feel when girls I care about struggle with tough issues. I may share about my work as an eating disorder counsellor or encourage you to sign a petition when an advertiser sexually exploits children to sell a product. Think of this as idea-soup. A bowl of rich meaty ideas, complimented with a subtle broth, chunky vitamin laden vegetables (they are good for you!)  and a whole lot of spice.

In my role as a self-esteem expert for the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, I wrote a number of editorials & blog posts for the Dove channel on a couple of years ago.  This site is no longer available so I plan to  repost some of my favourites here.

I'm excited about this new endeavour and look forward to meeting readers, sharing ideas and sparking a self-esteem revolution!