Miss Representation (Part 1): Teaching Young Women About Self-Worth and Confidence

I apologize in advance for the very lengthy post. Thanks to Netlfix and my wonderful job which gives us off tons of holidays, I had the opportunity to watch a film called Miss Representation last Monday. It’s a documentary that discusses how mainstream media impacts how women are seen and heard in today’s world. There is a large focus on how poor representations of women limit our ability to lead and work our way into influential positions. It was one of those nerdy moments that made the feminist inside me scream! How are we letting our young women be so negatively effected and held down? I mean, this isn’t the 1950s anymore! We deserve leadership positions just as much as the man next to us. So, in honor of this wonderful movie I’ll be writing a multi-segment post about some of the key things I got out of this. The most pressing idea that I’d like to start with is the idea of self-worth and how many of our young girls don’t have any.

Yes, we can!

Yes, we can!

Now, I have a confession to make. I struggled with self-worth and, subsequently, bulimia for about half of my college career. If any of my friends or family are reading this, it’s probably the first time you’ve ever known (sorry, I dealt with it in my own way and I’m all better now! By better I mean actively working daily to create a healthy lifestyle for myself and family).

I’ve had issues with food my whole life. My family wasn’t exactly what you’d call healthy eaters and I have a very strong tendency to binge eat (which is possibly genetic based on my research, but who knows). Boxes of cookies aren’t allowed in my house because I can’t responsibly eat them and they’re gone in two days. After problems with my ex-boyfriend, including him cheating on me, my self-worth dropped to zero. I didn’t feel worthy of anything, was stressed about my relationship and school, and quickly turned to food. But overeating turned to guilt and I started the negative cycle of binging and purging.

It took a slightly inebriated confession to my old roommate to finally get my head on straight. I made the decision that my health was more important than anything else and went to see a counselor. Lots of sessions later (and still periodic ones now) I was able to beat this awful illness that effects so many. I even got the chance to intern at an eating disorder unit my senior year of college which opened up my eyes to the devastating effect of low self-worth, trauma, stress, unrealistic expectations, and bullying.

While not all women will go to the extremes of anorexia or bulimia, many young women (and men!) have disordered eating patterns. Even after I stopped my binge-purge cycles, I can’t say that my relationship with food got any better until I met my husband. Despite all of this, I was a rather well-functioning eating disordered person (kind of like those people who you would consider well-functioning alcoholics). I was able to continue to succeed, put on a smile, and pretend that everything was okay. Little did anyone know, I was fighting my own battle behind the scenes.  Now, don’t get me wrong, most times things were ok and I was able to build up my self-confidence fairly quickly with support (this relates back to my ability to be fairly resilient which I’ll discuss in a later post). While it may not have been apparent that it was affecting who I truly was due to my ability to bounce back and keep moving against the odds, looking back I was definitely not reaching my full potential. I was selling myself short in more ways than one.

The sad thing is that many girls go through this daily in different ways. Perhaps it’s not an eating disorder, but it could be choosing not to run for class council because they don’t think they’re popular enough. They may not try out for a sports team because they’re too worried they’ll fail and disappoint their parents. Lack of confidence and diminished self-worth come in all shapes and sizes and deeply impact a youth’s ability to be happy. It’s something that needs to be dealt with, and quickly.

How do we build up self-worth and confidence? It’s a question I’ve heard, and asked, a million and one times. Miss Representation asked it too, but unfortunately there’s no easy answer. One way to start, though, is to ignore the media and focus on role models. If we want to grow leaders, we first need to ensure that our young women have confidence and understand their self-worth. This starts at home and in school. It starts by telling a little girl she can be whatever she wants one day whether it’s a mother, teacher, a physicist, a video game creator, the damn president, or a mother who is also a physicist, likes video games, and happens to later become the president. No dream is too small to reach and there are no little boxes filled with “female” roles. Remind them that they can do whatever they want if they try hard enough!

But, there’s still a huge lingering question that needs to be answered? Where are all the positive female leaders and the ones that are around, why are they treated differently than men? If you pay attention to the media, the idea that male leaders are different than female leaders is clear. It’s hard to be a powerful woman without a focus on your beauty or your bitchiness. Take, for example, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. Regardless of your party lines, both of these women are strong, powerful leaders who get crucified in the media for different reasons. Hillary Clinton is portrayed as a homely looking bitch (pardon my language) that succeeds because she acts like a man. On the other hand, Sarah Palin is portrayed as a beautiful ditz. More focus is placed on her looks than her politics or skills. However, both women are clearly extremely smart and capable, but are bogged down by the media and the old school idea that women are too emotional to be leaders. It impacts their effectiveness and gives young women a negative image of someone who should be their role model.

Sarah Palin vs. Hillary Clinton

Sarah Palin vs. Hillary Clinton

What does this mean for our youth today? It means we need more strong, female role models to help combat this negative feedback. They don’t have to be high profile like Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg. They could be a mother, a grandmother, or a teacher. Honestly, it could be the cool cat lady next door who teaches yoga if she’s modeling appropriate behavior and reminding young women that there’s more to success than your looks. Teach them the value of education, standing up for what you believe in, and being your true self. The more we promote self-worth and positive self-image, the better off our young women will be. Not only will this help create a wonderful group of girls who value all of their assets, it will build a cohort of future leaders looking to succeed in many areas in life.

Once you create one self-confident, fabulous woman, she’s likely to help others walk down that same path. And quite frankly, that’s what we need.  Less Barbie, more GI Jane. Let’s teach these girls to kick butt in school, in the office, and in their personal lives. They are our future and we need to make sure they have every chance to succeed despite the pressure!

Take the pledge. I ask you to take the pledge and promise to help at least one young woman learn the value of herself and her skills. Show her all the things she brings to the table and guide her in the direction of success. I plan on doing this with my two nieces (who already have lots of positive women in their lives, but hey, let’s add one more) and hopefully I’m helping many young women on here start to learn their worth as well. While the world won’t change tomorrow, we can each help one girl start to think about how she can change the world. I can’t wait to see what that place looks likes!

Now it’s your turn. How do you feel about the media’s portrayal of women in leadership and how can we promote positive self-image among our up and coming youth?

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