“Hey sexy…want to come home with me?”
It was 7 a.m. I was on the way to work. I felt sick as I entered the subway station, like a stranger had just undressed me with his eyes. His words were actually harmless, but the way he looked at me made me feel dirty.
I was 23 and teaching at a middle school in New York City. The girls in the school—who were probably closer to my age than many of the other teachers—often crowded around my desk, probably because I seemed—and looked—more like an older sister than a teacher. They talked to me very openly about things that were going on in their lives, including being catcalled on the street. It was one thing for me, an adult woman, to have to deal with such behavior. My reaction was clear—I didn’t like it. For my students, girls emerging into their sexuality, it was much more complex. There was definitely a part of them that didn’t like being catcalled, but there was another part that felt complimented, appreciative of the sexual attention from older men, even if it felt creepy.
We talked often, about many things, including competition, peer pressure, sexuality, stress, and the media. As they spoke, I heard relief in their voices. As I listened, I remembered my own adolescence, and I cringed. I remembered how my friends were nice one day and mean the next, and how I never really felt comfortable in my own skin. When my students asked me if we could have an all-girls class, I agreed.
But I was nervous. I was just emerging from my own adolescence and I thought they’d think that I had the answers. I knew that the challenges they were facing were serious, and I understood that I didn’t know what to tell them. But I also saw that they trusted me, and that more than anything, they needed to be heard. I understood that in a safe space, they could share with one another and see that the challenges they faced as emerging young women were not uniquely theirs. These challenges are universal.
The girls in the group were a diverse mix and they likely would not have come together to talk if not for this forum. It was easy for the girls to open up about struggles they all shared. Conversations about media and body image broke the ice and fostered a sense of safety. Influences that would otherwise eat away at our self-confidence became a basis for us to come together and share honestly, without judgement.
Images affect how we act and dress. Girls my age in particular are going through a stage of uncertainty and just want to fit in. Trying to be like the images we see, especially in the media, seems like the perfect way to fit in. I think the media shows us as brainless, pretty objects for boys to boss around and have sex with.
Together, we explored the awful combination of the deep adolescent desire to fit in and the painful impact of our endless judgements of one another, and worst of all, of ourselves. After some time together, the girls were even able to discuss the social dynamics that pitted them against each other the moment they stepped out of the class.
I felt that the key to happiness was to be part of the “popular” clique in our school. I started trying to be friends with this clique, but it backfired. Some days I would think, “Hey, I think they’re starting to like me,” and the next day, when they completely excluded me, purposely, from their plans, I would think that I was inadequate, that something was wrong with me. I remember trying so hard, and failing. They would never invite me to go anywhere with them, and I remember asking if I could come…I once asked if I could go to the movies with them and one girl answered, “Well, the movies are a public place, and we can’t STOP you from going. And we can’t STOP you from sitting with us…” and I knew that meant I wasn’t wanted, and I would go back to feeling inadequate.
It was really powerful for the “mean girls” to hear the impact of their behavior. It was even more powerful to hear the “victims” standing up and giving voice to their experiences. These conversations had an effect that reverberated throughout our school.
I understood that our work was invaluable. I saw what it did for students, and I felt the echo of this impact in myself. I, too, was young, and though I was obviously in a different stage of life, I also struggled to accept my body; I didn’t fully understand how to embrace or express my sexuality; I often found myself feeling insecure. But the most important thing I had—which my students often did not—was deep, meaningful relationships with women friends, with whom I could talk openly, without judgment.
I was lucky. Adolescent girls often find their friendships on shaky ground—just when they need them most.
I learned volumes from my experience with this first group of girls, particularly about the impact of giving voice to our shared struggles. At the request of the father of a former student, I even wrote a book, “Beautiful,” which is coming out next month. And now, I run Beautiful Project, an international movement dedicated to cultivating self-confidence in women and girls. It is the outgrowth of the experience of discovering the power of talking about our challenges, the power of celebrating our triumphs—together.