Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Art of Self Loyalty: Standing Up for Young Girls

Last week I wrote about self loyalty. I quoted Pascal Mercier: [Self loyalty is] not a feeling… but a will, a decision, a partisanship of the soul. … The duty not to run away from yourself…The willingness to stand for yourself even if you do not like yourself. The problem, as already outlined, is we are not taught to do this. Rather, there is an outward focus that supports our departure from inner partisanship. Nowhere is this more apparent, it seems, than with young girls.

A new study from the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that [g]irls between the ages of nine and 16 face body shaming and lack of confidence at more than double the rate of young boys. One-in-five Canadians (21 per cent) know a girl who says she’s fat and an almost equal amount (18 per cent) know one who says she’s on a diet. Moreover, 17 per cent of Canadians know a girl who thinks she is ugly, compared to only 7 per cent of Canadians who know a boy that feels this way.

The first time I felt ashamed of my body was in Brownies. I was nine years old. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking I looked like a sack of potatoes tied in the middle. I even spoke it aloud.  No one disputed it. It began a long journey of diets and over exercising.

Forty three years ago I unknowingly abandoned myself. Not feeling good in who I was—most likely a reaction to the family situation—and not understanding why I felt that way, I did what only seemed natural: I compared myself to others and found a lack.  Ironically, it wasn’t TV stars or magazine starlets that struck me as the paragon of perfection but the line drawings of the willowy girls in my Brownie handbook. I wasn’t like them, an impossible feat in anyone’s guidelines, and therefore was wrong, inadequate; a failure.

Four decades later I can still hear the echoes of those inner struggles. Oh, I know how to manage them and they no longer control my life but when feeling stressed or at a loss they can, even now, make enough noise to make me wonder, if only for a moment, if I am good enough. And while I feel vulnerable in stating those thoughts, I also know that I am not alone in feeling this way.   

So how can we support young girls to stand up for themselves, have inner loyalty, and not abandon self as I did back then? 

The Canadian Women’s Foundation offers the following Top 7 Dos and DONTs for parents in what they call nurturing resilience.  I call it fostering self loyalty but hey, as long as the message gets out.

1.    DON’T bite your tongue.
If people say things you disagree with or treat you in a disrespectful way, speak up. She [your daughter or any young woman] needs to know it’s okay to stand up for herself, even at the risk of hurting someone’s feelings or causing disagreement.

2.    DON’T talk about how fat you look.
Never criticize your appearance in front of her or make negative comments about the way she or other females look. Let her know you value people’s inner qualities - like curiosity and courage - more than outward appearance.

3.    DON’T put yourself down.
Never make jokes about how incompetent you are, or make light of your own skills and abilities. She will learn to minimize her own accomplishments and may lower her future ambitions.

4.    DO let her lead.
When choosing school or social activities, ask her opinion and provide genuine choice. Rather than saying, “Do you want to take dance or singing?” ask open-ended questions like, “What interests you these days?”

5.    DO let her take risks.
Assuming her physical or mental health isn’t at stake, try not to be over-protective. Don’t rob her of the chance to be accountable for her own decisions and to learn from her own mistakes. If she fails, congratulate her for trying but don’t rescue her.

6.    DO validate her experience.
If she has ‘negative’ feelings or is having problems with her friends, don’t say “It’s not that bad” or try to cheer her up. Listen with respect, acknowledge that things sound difficult, and ask if there is anything you can do. Don’t pressure her to talk when she doesn’t want to. Instead, find lighthearted ways to strengthen your connection with her, like going for a walk or bike ride. If she is having problems with friends, encourage her to think more critically about the situation; suggest she pretend she is watching the conflict on TV or in a movie; what motivations and solutions does she see? If she is in genuine distress, get outside help.

7.    DO provide fair and consistent structure.
Presented in the spirit of love and caring, rules help young people feel protected and connected. Adolescents are less likely to engage in problem behaviours when adults know what they’re doing, and who they’re with. Set clear expectations for behaviour related to attending school, doing homework, sharing chores, and abiding by curfews.

 And, I would be amiss if I didn’t mention my good friend, Carla Webb and her program, Empowered byHorses. Yes, I am biased, but I think she does excellent work in empowering young girls to be, and to appreciate, who they are.


  1. Good do's and don't's! Girls *are* watching the women in their lives for cues on how to act and how to think about themselves. They *are* paying attention, and they are heavily influenced by the behavior of adult women. I would reinforce the call to talk about ourselves respectfully and focus on our inner qualities and gifts. There's enough pressure on girls as it is. Nice post!

  2. Thanks Kristen. And, if I may add, the negative repercussions of not mirroring self respect are far too great. They are enduring and insidious in both the child and adult.