Column: What we teach young girls matters

Moving the focus away from girls’ appearance builds strong women.

Once a week, I spend my afternoon at a local elementary school herding third through fifth grade girls around a small track, attempting to teach them important lessons about life and running. As an assistant coach for Girls on the Run, I’m learning a lot about young girls and what they think about the world.

But I can’t help but feel the weight of responsibility as a role model for these girls. I wonder what kinds of messages they get from television, movies, music and the Internet. I worry that even at 9 years old, some of them already recognize imperfections in their bodies. I also wonder what their goals and aspirations are, and I hope they are as big as can be.

Teaching young girls how to be strong and independent is something I’m really passionate about. Societal expectations for girls begin before they’re even born: Everything for baby girls is pink and delicate.

As they get older, the toy aisle becomes a barrage of traditional gender norms. Dolls with unrealistic body dimensions fill the shelves. Most of these dolls are wearing heavy makeup and little clothing. And it doesn’t take long for a Disney princess to become a little girl’s hero. There’s a theme here: Everything is focused on appearance.

Even my favorite toy line, American Girl, is moving away from its classic historical characters. All three of the original historical characters have been phased out: Felicity the colonial girl, Kirsten the pioneer girl and Samantha of the Victorian period; making room for an ever-expanding “My American Girl” line of customizable dolls that are designed to look “just like you.” While the historical characters each have their own series of books, the “My American Girl” dolls’ fun comes in changing their clothes. Instead of reading about Felicity dealing with the politics of the Revolutionary War or following Samantha while she helps her orphaned friend at the turn of the 20th century, girls are now trying to decide what outfit their doll should wear.

Luckily, people are taking notice of this toy trend. The popular new toy, Goldie Blox, was designed by a female engineer as a way to teach girls basic engineering principles. The toy is brilliant because it reaches girls through reading, which research has shown is an effective tool for engaging girls in play.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer and author of the book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” has a simple suggestion for how to encourage girls to become leaders as they grow up: Stop calling them bossy. Used to describe a girl who asserts herself, its connotation is negative. Girls are told not to be bossy, while boys are praised for exhibiting the same behaviors. In effect, we are telling young girls that leadership is not a positive behavior.

With all of this pressure to be good role models for young girls, it can seem daunting to interact with them. I feel it every Thursday at Girls on the Run. I feel it when I see my younger female cousins, ranging in age from eighth grade to kindergarten.

I’ve got a simple strategy for how to have a positive interaction with a young girl: Don’t say anything about her appearance.

Think about how many times you’ve seen a girl, at any age, and greeted her with a compliment about her appearance.

“I love your shoes!” may seem innocent enough. It’s an attempt to be friendly and strike up a conversation. It’s almost an instinctual response, but it’s powerful. By commenting on her outwardly appearance, we’re sending a message that what girls look like is important. On the contrary, boys’ appearances are rarely noted.

We have to give girls the power to fight traditional gender stereotypes, and that starts with even the most basic of interactions.

What should you say instead? Anything. My personal favorite is to strike up a conversation about school. I practice this strategy at Girls on the Run. I ask what her favorite subject is and what book she is reading.

I’m constantly aware of the impact I can have on these girls. During my second week of practice, we went outside and ran. I spent about 25 minutes running around the track, checking on the girls throughout the workout. When we headed inside at the end of practice, one of the girls asked me if I was sweating. I was, I told her. I had just run for a long time!

It might seem like a silly conversation, but it could have a big impact. That girl saw me work hard. She saw me sweat. And she saw me not worry about what I looked like afterward. Maybe, just maybe, she’ll worry a little bit less about what she looks like and more about what she’s achieving.

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