Helping our teen girls shine

I often have mums of teen girls speak to me about how worried they are about their daughters. They often have girls struggling with school pressures, body image and friendship conflict.

Many of them are self-harming, which is a coping mechanism that is not only alarming, it is sad. Our world is nastier now than when today’s mums were teens. There’s so much more pressure to conform to popular plastic perceptions of how to be a woman. Add to that the increase in online bullying, blatant sexualisation, pornography and the saturation of fashion and makeup advertising, and many girls are drowning in disillusionment and insecurity.

So how we can better help all girls shine?

Be yourself – unique, different and shining.

The adolescent journey from being a child to finally becoming an adult is confusing, challenging and very bumpy. For girls, this time of transition is particularly daunting as they experience changes on all levels while living in a modern world full of messages about how girls are supposed to look and behave.

The pressure to look ‘sexy’ starts in childhood with padded bras, G strings and high heel shoes that fit being available to kids younger and younger, rather than being the stuff of dress ups. The pageant movement from the US blatantly steals young girls’ childhoods and makes them appear as glorified mini adults even with waxed eyebrows, heavy makeup and spray tans.

This is where the pressure begins for girls and by early adolescence (from 10-11) the unique brain changes that are a normal part of adolescent development can create havoc with how girls see themselves. The brain pruning activity they’ll undergo also means that adolescents see things from a distorted perspective, a bit like looking at life through a cracked windscreen. Often this means seeing ourselves in a more negative way than we did before the brain pruning happened.

I remember suddenly starting to hate myself and my body during adolescence. I didn’t just hate my big bottom, I hated all of me — even the bits that were ok!! I was a young teen well before there were countless magazines and websites, music videos, reality TV (we didn’t even have DVDs for that matter!), computers or smart phones. This was definitely before Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram too and it was still tough for me. So today with the massive avalanche of images of ‘perfect’ faces, bodies and fashion, today’s girls are often drowning in a sense of failure and inadequacy.

As my friend Dannielle Miller tells girls everywhere:

“You’’ll never look like the girl in the magazine. Even the girl in the magazine doesn’t look like the girl in the magazine.” — Dannielle Miller

When girls develop their sense of self via external means, such as physical appearance, what kind of mobile phone they have and how many friends they have on Snapchat, they begin to skate on the thin ice of insecurity that can plague them for life. It is very disturbing to hear about the high numbers of adolescent girls in America who are having breast augmentations before they are 18 years of age. Even more disturbing are the stories of adolescents who are having Botox to remove small lines. This quest for perfection that the airbrushed images of models have set up is dangerous. There is no perfect person, and certainly no perfect adolescent. The pressure to be flawless and behave in a socially accepted way at all times is impossible.

I am sure there are many teen girls who wish they could look like Miranda Kerr? Well the only person who can do that is Miranda. Only she has the genes from her parents that create her to be her unique self. Only Miranda — who takes care of what she eats and how often she exercises — can look to be the best expression of herself. Plus most of her images are air brushed or photoshopped to appear even more ‘perfect’. Miranda’s book Treasure Yourself  shares a lot of inspiration with young girls about their own inner beauty and has a lovely emphasis on finding your unique gifts… showing that there is much more to life than skin-deep beauty.

My first tip for teen girls out there in today’s world is to strive to accept the body you have — it will have some great points and some things that are not so great. Instead of striving for perfection, strive to be strong and fit and healthy, and take care of your body by eating well, drinking plenty of water and getting enough sleep and exercise.

In my counselling work I often worked with very beautiful women in their 30s and 40s who really had a struggle in life to be seen for being anything other than a pretty face or body. You are a one-off, completely unique and not supposed to look like anyone else. Remember the saying:

Be yourself — everyone else is taken!

My second tip is for girls to find a way to accept that they are an artwork in progress, that they are unique and not like anyone else, even their sisters (if they have any). I have two sisters who have smaller feet and hands than me and for much of my life I have compared myself to their slighter builds. I felt like a large elephant when I was near my sisters during my bumpy ride to adulthood, and it took years for me to accept that I am not meant to be the same build and size as them.

My generous bottom is also very much me. Even when I starved myself in my late teen years, I not only became more miserable and, yes, slimmer and bony, but my bottom essentially stayed the same size. So another tip is to avoid the “compare and despair” game that Dannielle Miller again talks about, and find a way to accept your unique body type. Finding ways to dress that take the best advantage of your unique shape and are comfortable can be very helpful during adolescence. If only I knew about body types and the power of colour in making me look the best I can when I was young.

Every girl can choose clothes that enhance their shape and reflect their personality – and that’s why stylists make such a good living! I know certain colours make me look washed out and ill, while others make me shine. This is another way to help you allow your real self to shine — choosing colours that enhance your eyes or your skin colour. Maybe work together with your best friends to explore style and colour and this will allow you to feel better being you.

Finally and most importantly girls need to embrace the qualities that come from within us — character qualities like loyalty, compassion, courage, integrity, empathy and even healthy ambition.

We are so much more than a physical body and our unique strengths when embellished and worked on can bring us joy, happiness and a sense of success. Athletic ability, artistic ability, musical ability, academic smarts, leadership ability are all possible strengths that teen girls can celebrate — the list is endless. I love the new shift towards celebrating women who want to be fit and strong — yep even if it means being sweaty and looking hot and flustered!

Every one of us has a ‘spark’ something that puts a sparkle in our eyes, makes us lose all sense of time and simply makes us happy. Adolescence can dampen that spark with all the pressures to do well academically, to look a certain way and to ‘belong’ with a peer group – help your girls keep alive something they have loved from childhood, even if it doesn’t fit with any of the pressures they have. It could be a love of netball, basketball, swimming, dance,  maybe a love of cooking, sewing, knitting, photography, playing guitar, drums, fixing up cars, home decorating or maybe caring for pets, growing veges, babysitting, flowers, bird watching, bushwalking, surfing, riding motor bikes, karate, helping in the shed, or around the farm or garden—…the list of possibilities is endless.

Having mastery and doing well in one area of your life flows into other areas and can help teens build self-belief, inner confidence and self-worth at a time of confusion and enormous change.

It can be helpful to explore biographies and life stories of strong, capable women both from now and in the past. There are so many women in our world who have shown how to be the best expression of themselves — former Australian Governor General Quentin Bryce, former world surfer Layne Beachley, ‘soul surfer’ Bethany Hamilton who lost her arm in a shark attack and kept going, climate activist Greta Thunberg, Jessica Watson who became the youngest person to sail solo and unassisted around the world, human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, Olympic athlete Cathy Freeman and World tennis champion Ash Barty or Australia’s most decorated Paralympian of all time Ellie Cole. Further back in history Anne Frank, Helen Keller, Marie Curie, Indira Ghandi and Joan of Arc just to name a few.

To help our girls to find and embrace their true potential they need to be guided with good information rather than the shallow, celebrity-driven dribble that drowns them today. A great place to start is with Dannielle Miller’s work. Through Enlighten Education she offers a range of positive resources which include inspiring phone wallpapers, stickers to go on the mirror to remind them about stereotypes of socially constructed beauty and of course excellent books for girls —including The Girl With a Butterfly Tattoo and Loveability (which helps navigate the tricky terrain of love during teen years).

You might also be interested to take a listen to this extract from an interview I recorded with Dannielle for my online course, Adolescence Unplugged:

For Christian girls I recommend Sharon Witt’s Girl Talk and Girl Wise Books which you can find here. Rebecca Sparrow has also written a great book called Ask Me Anything and she also has an excellent list of resources for teen and tween girls on her website. Michelle Mitchell’s Everyday Resilience Journal is also fab, as is Claire Eaton’s wonderful ROC and Rise book.

Then please remind your girls to be a good friend. Having a safe sisterhood is a protective factor in terms of resilience and to have that our girls need to remember to speak nicely to their friends, smile at them, include them, acknowledge them and be kind and thoughtful to them. Help their friends to find their unique strengths and encourage them when they have dark moody days as all of us have. Friendships help girls to feel safe, valued and accepted as they are. When we feel supported by good friends we will automatically feel better about ourselves.

Finally surround your girls with wonderful juicy wise women — the ancient need for good ‘aunties’ who encourage, inspire, laugh, sing and dance and who support all mums on this crazy unpredictable dance of life.

They don’t have to be related biologically however they do need to love unconditionally. This is a huge key to helping all our girls to shine.

I hope this helps mums and dads who have teen girls. My DVD/video on demand seminar about adolescence, Saving Our Adolescents,  would also help with better understanding how teens see the world and how to better support them.

Also maybe take a look at my TEDx TALK which I gave for teens 15+ in the hopes it might ignite a spark of possibility.

And finally, I’d encourage every mum to sit down with her teen girl and watch this wonderful re-imagining of Helen Reddy’s iconic song I Am Woman from some of Australia’s best female singer songwriters, put together for the ABC series, Judith Lucy is All Woman: