We know the next generation of leaders will comprise more women than at any time in history. Yet, far too many girls still face significant obstacles to their health and well-being and leadership potential. Girls are innately powerful. But as they are repeatedly confronted with ingrained biases, discrimination, and inequitable systems, their confidence and sense of self is threatened and is slowly (and sometimes quickly) eroded. Informed by our proven work to help girls thrive, we know that one crucial support girls need to rise up as leaders is a positive self image.
What is self image
Simply put, self image is how you view yourself. It goes beyond your physical appearance to include your entire view of yourself and perceptions of your worth, capabilities, contributions, and place in the world. It is through this lens that we form and build relationships and perceive and interact with others. Certainly society and culture play a significant role in self image. From an early age, young people receive limiting and harmful messages about how girls and boys should behave and be treated. In many cases, girls learn that you are your looks, and that being agreeable equates to being good.
When girls have a healthy, positive self image they understand their inherent value and worth. Girls are comfortable and appreciative of themselves. They recognize it’s okay to be different and stand out from the crowd. They believe they are capable of doing good things, and they strive for progress not perfection. They feel good about themselves and so make decisions that support their healthy development.
Self image affects every aspect of a girl’s well-being. We know that girls with positive self-image are confident and optimistic about the future. They have the courage to try new things, persist when things get difficult, and are not defined by their mistakes but instead learn from them. Because they are accepting of themselves, they also appreciate and value other people’s differences.
Threats to positive self image
To lead and thrive, girls need to be emotionally strong. Yet the prevalence of depression and anxiety is increasing among teen girls in the U.S. Some 14 to 20 percent of girls are diagnosed with a mood disorder, twice the prevalence of such diagnoses for boys. In the U.S., suicide rates for teen girls have doubled from 2007 to 2015.
The rise of poor mental health can be partially attributed to the increased use of digital and social media, which has paved the way for cyberbullying, both anonymous and among peers and “friends.” Remarks and messages that usually have more to do with cruelty than truth can be circulated with a simple “click” and further erode a girl’s self-image and confidence. In addition, exposure to sexualized, distorted or digitally altered images of women’s bodies shared online also negatively impact girls.
Research on body image found that as early as age 11, girls start to experience self-objectification and have a sense that their body is the most valuable part of who they are. These traits are linked to real harms for girls including depression, eating disorders, and an overall sense of feeling unsafe.
Girls are also at higher risk of sexual harassment. By the 12th grade, 62 percent of girls as compared to 39 percent of boys report they experienced sexual harassment during the school year. Girls are also four times more likely than boys to experience sexual abuse. Sexual violence, in all its many forms, compromises girls’ physical and mental health. It’s causing them to question themselves, their worth, personal sovereignty and power.
The portrayal and representation of women in media influences how girls see themselves. By high school graduation, kids have spent more time in front of the television than they have the classroom. What they see is female characters with unrealistic bodies, less screen time and speaking roles than male characters, and a lack of women playing characters with STEM careers. The real-life gender leadership gap in the workplace, government, sports and entertainment also has a pronounced effect on girls’ self-image. Girls are receiving very clear messages about their potential and their value.
How to build positive self image in girls
Girls from all backgrounds have this in common. During their early childhood years, girls have talent and confidence to spare. But as they get older, many begin to question their worth and abilities. The good news is there’s something we can do about it. One critical belief we can instill in girls is that they are unique, multi-dimensional people; not simply what she looks like or how well she does in school or how many friends she has. Take notice and affirm in her traits like problem-solving, assertiveness, bravery, empathy, responsibility, and independent thinking.
Help girls discover their strengths and provide them opportunities to build confidence in doing things that come naturally to them. We must also encourage girls to take risks and understand the difference between progress and perfection. Participating in science programs is a great way to do that. Through STEM programming at Girls Inc., girls make big, interesting, messy mistakes that show them to not be afraid to try new things and that learning from mistakes can lead to better results.
Because we know body image continues to be a real concern for girls, help facilitate activities that build a healthy appreciation of her body like sports, exercise, dance, play. Help her to understand the effects of media messages on girls and women. Media literacy skills help girls feel better more empowered when viewing media images of women’s bodies. It is also important that girls be informed of their bodies and sexual health, having access to age-appropriate information that allows them to make informed decisions.
How a girl thinks and feels about herself directly influences her capacity to lead in life. Together we can help girls see that there is no limit to their potential and that they can make valuable contributions to the world. Stay connected with Girls Inc. so we can share more about what girls need to grow up strong, smart, and bold.