“Who Am I?”: The Girl Problem
Madison was your typical girlie girl, long, blond hair, giggles, and flirtation. Eleven years old when she started Unleashed, I noticed she talked—a lot—about looks, weight, and boys. She had more curves than many of her classmates, and she knew it, flaunting them in belly shirts and tight tank tops. Most girls adopt a persona at this age, whether it is “the athlete” or “the mean girl” or “the class clown,” because they are unaware of who they are. Madison was trying on the role of “sexy girl.”
As the weeks progressed, I noticed a marked decrease in her comments about makeup, eating disorders, and cute football players. She attended an animal rescue and worked with potential adoptive parents; I even named a puppy after her to honor the stellar job she did writing and organizing a skit on dog euthanasia for a schoolwide presentation. Madison began to realize the impact she could have on the world—and that that impact had nothing to do with her looks. One day she told me, “I love Elle Woods—she’s so powerful.” Elle Woods is a pink-obsessed sorority girl played by Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde,
who strategically enrolls at Harvard Law School to win back her ex-boyfriend. To an outsider, Madison’s comment might seem worrisome, but I was thrilled. I told her, “I agree! Elle is a fabulous role model for girls because she’s so much more than her veneer. She was passionate about a cause and enlisted her fellow sorority girls to get things done.” Unleashed helped Madison find a way to blend her girlishness with a sense of power and, like Elle, became a modern-day feminist.
Adolescence is the stage of life most marked by identity development. The overriding quest is to answer the daunting question “Who am I?” At no other time in a woman’s life will she face as many physiological, psychological, cognitive, and social-emotional changes as during her adolescent years. Newly acquired reasoning skills, hormonal fluctuations, and differences in her social milieu thrust a young girl full speed ahead into self-discovery and experimentation. But this exciting new phase of development is complicated by other factors that make it surprisingly difficult for a girl to answer the question “Who am I?” Our society is largely male dominated, deeming men’s experiences and developments the prototypes for cultural norms. In 2015, girls and women still struggle to establish a strong sense of self in an environment flooded with pressure to conform to expectations that disregard the uniqueness of a female’s experience. The developmental theories studied in school by the next generation of psychologists remain largely based on the clinical observations and research of men such as Kohlberg, Freud, Erikson, and Piaget, who either minimize gender differences or go as far as viewing females as deviants from the norm. Erikson states, when discussing the adolescent girl, “Female identity is held in abeyance while attracting men.”1
Freud believed the superego (an individual’s executive functioning) was compromised in women, labeling them incapable of having a sense of justice as compared to men. And
Piaget, who exerted tremendous influence on our educational system, discussed how girls lack respect for rules because they are willing to make exceptions if necessary (adding that respect for rules is highly correlated to morality). What meaning does this have for girls and women? As girls embark on their journey to discover their passions, values, and strengths, they confront the harsh reality that they may need to morph their identities to assimilate and succeed.
We live in a world that places great emphasis on autonomy, independence and self-sufficiency. But a relational, interconnected approach is the cornerstone of a female’s psychological health and growth. Researchers such as Carol Gilligan and Peggy Orenstein continuously report women’s and girls’ identities are defined in accordance with relationships, intimacy, and communities, motivated by a sense of connection to their world; empathy and mutuality are instrumental to their functioning. These vast differences in psychological models of health result in the distortion of a woman’s experience as pathological or insufficient. Societal perceptions dampen our females’ ability to develop authentic identities; instead of asking themselves “Who am I?” the question becomes “Who am I supposed to be?”
Worsening matters, middle school girls are not used to having leadership programs designed specifically for them. Most after-school programs focus on elementary-school children or high school and college women, rendering middle school a developmental purgatory. (According to the Afterschool Alliance, nearly 4 million sixth through eighth graders find themselves unsupervised after school.)2
There is a popular misconception about this group: People categorize middle school girls as oppositional, difficult to work with, and hard to engage. The media depicts them as self-involved, superficial, materialistic mean girls. Even psychologists and teachers confess to reluctantly working with sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade girls,
easily overwhelmed by sassy retorts, vacillation from one emotional state to another, or being stonewalled with silence.
But what others tag as oppositional, I view as feisty, passionate, and eager to experiment. In my eyes, these girls are diamonds in the rough: unique, possessing great potential, and capable of shining brilliantly when succeeding. What they need is a trusted adviser to actively listen to their ideas and thoughts, empathize with their experiences, and guide and navigate them as they weather the storm. Our girls need adults who will provide them with opportunities to take risks and embrace ownership of projects for which they care deeply. Given the right tools, middle school girls will fly.
Unleashed fills a void created by society, providing girls with a forum to develop a strong sense of self. The organization is largely based upon my model of power, developed from the research I conducted studying powerful women (which will be discussed at greater length in chapter 4). The model integrates personal power, relational power, and assertive power to form a triumvirate, each component as critical as the others. Developing a strong identity and an authentic sense of self is largely contingent upon strengthening a girl’s personal power. Its basic tenets include identifying and leveraging values, strengths, passions, and needs; tapping into empathy and emotional intelligence; strengthening self-esteem and confidence; and increasing self-awareness and insight.
“What do you think Unleashed is about?” I ask the group in our first meeting.
“Puppies!” shouts back Tess, a ten-year-old redhead wearing a tank top and blue Converse high-tops. “Doggy rescue!” calls out Maia, a twelve-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses and wavy brunette hair. It is my job to fill in the blanks: “Yes, it’s all of that . . . and more. It’s about being a powerful girl and having a voice. It’s about fighting
for something you believe in. It’s about a concept called social justice and why animal welfare and rights are much more important than you might think. And it’s about learning how to work well with other girls while you learn so much about yourself.” Within minutes of the first session, they are already learning, absorbing information, but this is unlike any education received in school.
On that first day of Unleashed, the classroom hums with energy and excitement. The air is filled with both promise and hesitation: The girls know they will be working with dogs, but they have no idea about the personal transformation they are about to undergo. For most of them, this will be their first experience where their opinions will be heard, their points of view valued, and their leadership skills utilized.
“I’m Stacey,” I say, introducing myself. “I’m the founder of Unleashed, and the reason I’m here is because I believe girls deserve to have a voice.” My words are often met with skeptical looks, and I can practically see the words scrolling across their foreheads like a news ticker on the bottom of a television screen: “Who is this woman? And how do I know I can trust her?” It is depressing to say, but by the age of nine or ten, girls have already been forced to put up with being patronized, condescended to, or treated as “less than” by teachers, parents, and society at large. With few exceptions, they have had at least one experience where an adult, consciously or not, behaved differently toward them than they would a boy. It could be as overt as being denied the opportunity to try out for a sport because they are not male, or more subtle, such as when they report feeling passed over by teachers to serve as leaders of group projects. So now, to have a stranger telling them she believes in them, that they have the power to make a change in the world? They simply do not trust that it is possible.
Unleashed is an all-female program for a reason: Not only does society hinder girls’ quest for an authentic identity, it fails to provide girls and women with opportunities to be different; it also reinforces the building of fences between various groups and the establishment of cliques. During the first few sessions of Unleashed, many of the girls, ranging in age from fifth to eighth grade, are strangers, despite sitting next to each other in algebra or passing by one another in the hallway daily.
From the popular cheerleader or soccer star to the computer whiz, an Unleashed team encompasses many different types of girls with one common passion: animal rights. Yet they feel intimidated by one another. The Unleashed philosophy is to align with the developmental trajectory of women, their need for community and relationships, fostering a sense of sisterhood.
Middle school girls are greatly in need of this intimacy with and connections to others. Girls thrive in supportive social settings, experiencing autonomy in a different way from boys; they are able to better assert their independence when they feel connected; and attachment to others is a vital component of their identity. Without these strong connections, girls and women feel isolated and dissatisfied. While some might view dependency and interrelatedness as weaknesses, I strongly adhere to the notion that women and girls assume a position of strength when they are able to create a shared experience among them. Ultimately, when females defy the need to conform to gender biases and stereotypes, ignoring the shoulds and shouldn’ts placed before them, a strong sense of self will ensue.
Keeping in line with girls’ need for shared experiences, every Unleashed session launches with a Check In. Not only does the Check In serve as a transition from school to social-justice mode, it also functions in several other capacities. First, it offers me a snapshot of the girls’
personalities. On the first day, I can get a sense of who is willing to take a risk and speak up first, versus those who are reluctant to even whisper their name and grade aloud. For every girl who craves the spotlight and takes the floor with ease—“I’m Gemma! I’m eleven years old and I have a Goldendoodle named Cookie at home and a little brother named Asher and last week my mom let me see Justin Bieber in concert and OMG we had fourteenth-row seats!”—there is one who rarely participates in school because she fears raising her hand and using her voice. These initial impressions help me establish individualized goals to enhance each girl’s personal power. As sessions progress, Check In allows me to pose a provocative question to inspire the girls to dig deeper, think critically about issues that impact them, and discuss what it feels like to be female—the challenges faced and how to manage them effectively. Check In conveys the message that Unleashed was designed as a space to develop and hone their sense of power, to figure out who they are, how they relate to others, and to build their dreams for the future. Middle school girls need an outlet to openly express their confusion about identity (who they are and whom they are supposed to be); articulating their ideas and challenges aloud each week helps them clarify their self-perceptions in the context of their peers’ experiences.
Unfortunately, opportunities for girls to speak about their unique experiences of being a female in today’s world are limited. Check In often lasts for a half hour because girls crave a forum to explore issues that are not addressed in school. As they become aware that their feelings are not abnormal, it sets a tone to deeply explore who they are based on strengths, how they describe themselves, and their visions for the future. By the end of the program, Check In responses reflect an identity that is much more crystallized than in the beginning sessions.
Identifying Values in the Search for Self
Identifying, leveraging, and aligning behavior with values is critical for our current and future generations of powerful women. A girl’s identity is largely predicated on her core values. As she experiments, faces new situations, and is exposed to new ideas and information, she constantly reevaluates her decisions. Observing this, one might perceive a middle school girl as fickle or noncommittal; she seems to be constantly changing her mind about friends, clothing style, music, and interests. But this process is a prerequisite for crystallizing a strong sense of self; in its absence she resigns herself to accepting the personality characteristics she first tests out, never knowing what could have been if she continued her search.
Up until now, girls have mirrored their parents’ values, accepting them as truth. During adolescence, they begin questioning those values and rethinking if those values make sense to them. Defiance is a healthy part of identity development as they establish themselves as separate individuals who are capable of having their own thoughts and opinions. As they mature, it will be essential to keep their sense of self intact by refusing to veer from what is most important.
Many times I have heard women recount situations where they compromised their values because of pressure to conform. Our goal in Unleashed is to lay the groundwork for the girls to develop mental templates so they are equipped to manage adversity throughout their lives. During one session, I hand out a sheet of paper that lists fifty values—family, beauty, education, honesty, self-confidence—and ask the girls to circle those that appeal to them, gradually narrowing it down to their top five. What values resonate most with them and how do they manifest those in various aspects of their lives? I explain that powerful and ethical leaders know their values, align their
behavior to correspond to those values, and recognize when they are straying. Most girls tell me they have never even thought about what is most important to them, let alone prioritized their principles. When we debrief their insights, they openly discuss how much they have learned about themselves, and they now see how their values can be similar yet different from those of other girls without destroying their relationships. Over the twelve weeks, we strive for increased self-awareness, which has a direct, positive effect on identity and sense of self.
Without the ability to engage in “aha” moments and identify and articulate their values, girls will continuously rethink what is important to them. An integral piece of personal power, values shape a girl’s identity; they serve as a launching pad, enabling them to venture out into the world and guiding them in their decision-making. Without a strong sense of self, girls will struggle to define who they are, repeatedly becoming stuck in conflict and self-doubt. They tend to conform and assimilate to cultural norms versus defying the status quo, and they are more inclined to tolerate unhappiness rather than to make a change. Lastly, they continue to experience an unhealthy relationship with power and control.
How the Pressure to Achieve Diminishes the Search for Self
The middle school years can be incredibly daunting. The world has never been an easy place for young girls, but today’s environment is likely the toughest it has ever been due to advances in and access to technology, earlier onset of puberty, dramatic shifts in the family system, and a culture where children are encouraged to act mature before their time. Our younger generation faces issues such as bullying
and popularity, pressure to conform, academic stress, distorted body image, and perfectionism and is at risk of drinking and premature sexual activity.
As we now know, all of this is happening during a pivotal time of identity development, as girls struggle to develop an authentic sense of self. Compounding the fragile state of middle school girls today, these youth are, as I said before, the “forgotten population,” with most after-school programming targeted at elementary and high school students. And despite all of these factors conspiring against them, young girls are often raised with the belief that one day they can and should “have it all”—a happy family, high-powered career, bustling personal life. A recent survey by Junior Achievement USA found that half of teen girls say they feel either “a lot” or overwhelming pressure to succeed in academics, no matter the cost.3
They experience anxiety over achievement (73 percent of sixth through eighth graders), appearance (74 percent), fitting in (64 percent), and getting along with their parents (32 percent).4
These types of early influences during childhood and adolescence lay the foundation for future perceptions of power and how they will influence experiences and behavior. Some girls grow up believing overachievement is the only solution, compensating for low self-esteem and feeling powerless. Others are similar to a highly prestigious lawyer I interviewed, transferring their self-criticism to other women, forming a generalized opinion that men are more capable of being in powerful positions. Not until women begin to feel confident and competent in their own abilities can they acknowledge the value proposition (inherent worth) in other females, debunking the male-supremacy theory. This is a critical milestone in establishing a strong, authentic identity.
Many experts believe early adolescence—particularly from ten to twelve years old—is the ideal time to formally introduce a girl to the concept of leadership. The middle school brain is developing at exponential speed, rendering her interpersonal relationships, academic pursuits, and involvement in art, music, and sports more likely to stay with her, or at least resurface, later in life.5
The more she practices these skills in early adolescence, whether it is arguing on the debate team, advocating for someone more vulnerable, empathizing with the plight of a friend, or expressing her emotions, the better equipped she will be to reenact them during adulthood. Analogous to learning how to ride a bicycle, learning how to lead will be impossible for her to forget.
Girls could then use their strong sense of self as a launching pad, enabling them to venture out into the world, develop intimate connections, feel secure about themselves, and continuously make a difference for others and themselves.
Creating a Safe Space to Foster a Brave Sense of Self
Our culture repeatedly minimizes the degree to which it directly and indirectly shortchanges our middle school girls. Girls this age need access to supportive environments that will continuously permit them to be authentic, experiment with new skills, and gain unconditional acceptance while forming close intimate relationships. These settings generate a sense of security, act as a container for girls to share emotions, fail without repercussions, process thoughts and ideas, and engage in age-appropriate questioning, frustration, and setbacks. Adolescence is a transitional phase, bridging girls from
childhood to young adulthood. Underestimating the significance of this rite of passage is detrimental—girls feel that they are devalued, not taken seriously, and their needs are insignificant.
Girls this age also covet a safe space where they can discuss real-life issues—a place where they can share what is bothering them with others and feel listened to and not judged.6
Unleashed was designed to serve as a container, an emotionally and physically secure base that encourages girls to be honest and authentic. Middle school girls often need emotional refueling, a place that is positive and optimistic where they can gain recognition and acceptance, subsequently bolstering self-esteem. So real is the need that the Population Council has labeled it “urgent,” stating that “by developing new interventions that seek to give girls ‘a safe space of their own’ . . . we will begin to positively influence the life trajectory of adolescent girls.”7
Girls internalize this sense of security, symbolically carrying it with them and drawing upon it when feeling uncertain. During sessions, girls report how they have transferred the self-awareness they have developed in Unleashed to other contexts of their lives. Some even report that when facing a dilemma, they think about what a teammate or coach might say if she was there. Our girls recognize that they can act independently, take greater risks in their world, and showcase their true selves because they have an accepting community readily available to them.
But just as important as it is to encourage the expression of emotions and ideas, it is equally crucial to set limits and establish boundaries if an environment is to feel safe. In Unleashed, girls share their innermost thoughts, allowing themselves to be vulnerable; they need to trust that they will not be criticized or judged. By the end of the three months, they truly believe their team will accept them
regardless of who they are, regardless of their differences or blind spots (“Nobody is perfect” is another Unleashed philosophy).
Development is not linear; there are stops and starts, setbacks and movements forward. A middle school girl who appears to be making leaps and bounds in identity development might suddenly seem to regress, wanting to crawl into her parent’s lap or play with her favorite childhood toys, longing to be younger again. It can be confusing to adults: one minute, these preteens want to be perceived as older and capable of more responsibility; the very next, they are clamoring to climb into bed with their mom. During one session, a bubbly twelve-year-old named Chrissy who often enjoyed the limelight volunteered to participate in an exercise as the other members observed:
Chrissy was asked to reveal a secret that she keeps hidden. We were ten sessions in and nearing graduation, and she was feeling safe and comfortable enough to reveal “I still play with Barbie dolls.” Some outsiders might think this sounds childish, but it’s perfectly normal for a sixth grader to be playing with dolls; during the emotionally and physically tumultuous middle school years, it’s not uncommon to want to revert back to childhood a bit and feel taken care of and protected. Chrissy cringed as she stated this, fearful of being judged by the group. But she waited, and what transpired was indeed magical: One seventh grader spoke about her own American Girl doll collection, which she still loved and refused to put away. Other sixth graders revealed how they wished they could still play with their dolls but their parents had given them away. Nobody in the room responded negatively or thought Chrissy’s Barbies were strange. In fact, the consensus was that they wanted to feel as they did in earlier childhood. Chrissy would never have shared intimate information as she did unless she truly felt safe. She would have kept her Barbie dolls a secret, harboring a perception
that her regression was shameful and not the norm for a girl her age. This not only impacts identity but also perpetuates a pattern that continues throughout life: shame, doubt, and the need to keep “dirty little secrets” hidden. The silencing of needs or thwarting of aspects of self will manifest when there is no place to be authentic.
Finding Their Passion
I always say, “Passion and purpose . . . that’s what girls and women are made of,” as a way of reframing the age-old “sugar and spice and everything nice” mantra. What I have observed time and time again in my research and consulting work is that passion is a requirement for the majority of women. Central to both their identity and sense of self is the ability to articulate and change those issues that inspire them; if they don’t feel engaged with a cause, they will opt out. (Men, on the other hand, are socialized to pursue a linear career that is as lucrative as possible, regardless of whether they are passionate about the cause. This stems from their preconceived image of the male as the major breadwinner.) Unsurprisingly, my research examining power showed that when women are attached to a cause, they are willing to take risks, defy the status quo, be the lone voice in the room, and use their power effectively.
Unleashed is predicated upon the girls’ passion for animal welfare and rights; without it they would not choose to embark on a transformative personal journey. Girls are much more willing to examine who they are, explore aspects of themselves they have never considered, stretch outside their comfort zone, and receive feedback when it is presented as the necessary leadership skills that will strengthen their capacity to advocate for the dogs. There is a method to my madness: Unleashed leverages the girls’ passion for puppies, inspiring
them to channel their newly found sense of injustice into making a difference, and, at the same time, feeling powerful. Girls embrace a sense of purpose at a time when things might be confusing to them; the world as they once knew it is dramatically changing. Not only does it give them a sense that they are needed and valued, it also allows them to focus on something external rather than the changes taking place in their bodies and minds.
Most important, their passion becomes a catalyst for the development of personal power and a strong sense of self. As their self-awareness deepens, a shift occurs. Girls will say, “This program isn’t about the puppies, it’s about us.” Fast-forward to graduation when the girls, now considered experts, sit on a panel, discussing Unleashed in front of parents, school faculty, donors, and Unleashed board members. When asked, “What has been the best part of the program?” girls’ responses include “The sisterhood”; “I learned I can make a difference”; and “I feel powerful”—without any mention of the puppies.
Society has failed girls and women by making it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to develop an authentic, untainted sense of self. Our culture remains largely focused on the male experience, erroneously characterizing autonomy and self-sufficiency as the norm. That’s not surprising considering that, even tracing back to the Bible, men have historically assumed the majority of leadership positions, taking ownership of business, politics, religion, and more.
But what if the reverse were true? What if traits such as empathy, intimacy, and mutuality were considered signs of overall psychological health and well-being? What if women felt emboldened to defy stereotypes and not succumb to the male point of view? What if our girls learned to craft a strong sense of self from an early age, recognizing their values and aligning with them versus veering away out of
fear of being seen as dependent, overly emotional, passive, or irrational? Maybe we wouldn’t have so many women who, despite outward appearances, are afraid to truly succeed; who grapple with insecurity and self-doubt; who suffer from a scarcity of authentic leadership positions in law, medicine, finance, academia, government, and corporate America. Maybe women wouldn’t still be purchasing 6 million self-help books a year (74 percent of all self-help books sold),8
and making sixty-nine cents for every dollar a male CEO makes.9
By offering safe spaces to grow and experiment, easing the widespread pressure to overachieve, and helping them to name and contemplate their values and passions, we can enable middle school girls to give an answer—too-often highly elusive—to the basic question “Who am I?”
The feminist movement is far from over, glass ceilings still exist, and women are still afraid to truly seize their power. Now is the time to give girls and women permission to be themselves, to have big aspirations, and to own their potential. If we keep adjusting our values and beliefs to fit in with male-focused societal norms, it will be our demise. Cultural change is daunting, but we owe it to ourselves, our daughters and students, our feminist leaders of the past, and our change-makers of the future to make the effort.
1. One of my favorite questions to pose during Check In is “If you were sixty-five years old and sitting on a park bench and a stranger sat down next to you and asked you about your life, what would you tell them?” In response, I have heard everything from “I discovered a cure for cancer” or “I’m a vet with a humongous house and six rescued dogs” to the simpler “I graduated college” or “I lived a happy and peaceful life.” Aspirations and dreams are significant aspects of developing a sense of self. On the girls’ path to defining who they are, the chance to venture down a variety of roads will only broaden their horizons. Try posing this question in a casual setting (during mealtime or while running errands if you are a parent, as a writing assignment or during an advisory session if you are a teacher), and be sure to follow up by asking the girl what she thinks her answers reveal about the type of person she hopes to become. Share your own responses, serving as a role model and acknowledging the differences in and equal value of individuals’ aspirations, hopes, and dreams.
2. Girls need and deserve female-centric safe spaces to develop, mature, and cultivate intimate relationships with other girls and women. Think about an average day of the middle school girl in your life: Are there opportunities for her to develop a sense of sisterhood? Is she spending time in any all-female environments where she can interact with different types of females and tap into her passions?
Examples include athletic teams, Girl Scouts, same-sex camps or activities, or even community-service opportunities to help younger girls.
3. Designate one technology-free (no cell phones, computers, iPads, or TV) night a week to enjoy dinner as a family. Use this as an opportunity to prompt reflection about passions, values, and strengths. Pose a question similar to one in an Unleashed Check In: “What was the best part of your day and the most challenging?” or “What was something that happened today that you are proud of?” Be sure to respond to your own questions as part of this activity. As you begin to spark these conversations regularly, look for patterns and themes in the dialogue: You may find your girl mentions collaboration or socialization consistently as a high point of her day, or that may be her largest challenge. She may be proud of helping a partner study for a test or standing up for someone else despite being afraid to do so. Acknowledge the information you are observing and provide reinforcement and support when needed; for example, “Wow, that was amazing how you got to work together with someone you didn’t know before. It might have been awkward in the beginning, but what did you learn from that?” or “You really love being creative. I noticed that last week when you told me about your art class and now this week in writing. I can’t wait to see what else you do with your imagination . . . not everyone is so creative!”