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Teen girls’ self-image needs more than just ‘You go, girl!&#821

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–With Madonna, Mariah Carey and Ally McBeal seen as today’s “new feminists,” teenage girls need the “vital role” church youth groups can exert in developing their self-worth.
Pointers for nurturing teenage girls’ self-worth are relayed in an article in Youth Ministry Update, April 1999, published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The writer is Susan West Richardson, a high school media and theater teacher in Nashville, Tenn., and mother of two daughters — one a teen, the other a pre-teen.
“The exuberance of today’s young feminists’ rallying cry — ‘You go, girl!’ — is a positive one,” Richardson concedes, but then urges church youth leaders: “Work to see that it goes beyond the image and is supported by development of true self-worth and individual acceptance.”
For teen girls today, Richardson recounts, “The current image of the in-charge female as represented in many of the teen magazines includes the unwritten footnote: ‘And you must be tall, skinny, and beautiful with a somewhat vacuous look.’”
With “a more lean, tubular form” now popular, and girls becoming “more concerned about body image at a younger and younger age,” Richardson notes that girls’ teenage years are also when they begin to lose confidence in themselves.
“[N]o matter how much you tell a preadolescent or adolescent that it doesn’t matter how she looks on the outside, [or] that how she looks on the inside is what counts, the images all around her contradict that,” Richardson writes, citing “a constant bombardment in a variety of media based on carefully researched teen demographics.”
From current research, Richardson notes:
— Among boys the same age, there’s “a general lack of interest in their own body types, but they are very specific in what they see as the perfect female body type.”
— Despite differences in social, economic or ethnic background, all teens, whether they admit it or not, want to be “cool,” according to Teen Research Unlimited. The organization’s research notes four different categories of teens, with the largest group being “conformers” who just want to fit in. They look up to “influencers,” who are popular kids and trendsetters. The other two groups are “edge” and “passive” teens. “Edge” teens like being on the edge and are rebellious and independent, while “passive” teens care little about trends and are uncomfortable about being different.
— 89 percent of girls now use computers, and one in four teens is on the Internet an average of six hours per week, where contemporary feminist messages abound.
— Movies are highly popular with teens, eclipsing even having a boyfriend or girlfriend. “And since the purchasing power of the teenage girl has made itself felt in Hollywood, Hollywood is responding with more of the desired images,” as are music videos, Richardson writes.
Church youth groups need to step in to provide “a lot of balance,” Richardson writes.
Among her suggestions:
— “Designate one area of the youth room as the Media Wall. During one of your youth times provide magazines, newspapers, posters (etc.), or ask the students to bring these. Lead the group in a discussion about how so many of the images for young people are carefully designed to get them to buy products. … [The] images are attractive, but are they realistic? Prompt the students to talk about this. Then go on a hunt to debunk the images. Have youth go through the materials brought and cut out and tape images to the wall. Then create signs to go along with the pictures, such as ‘Needs a Life,’ ‘Please Don’t Feed the Models,’ ‘What’s So Super About a Super Model?’ ‘Life’s Too Short to Look Perfect’ and ‘Doesn’t Exist on This Planet.’”
— “Have ‘I Like You Because …’ sessions … periodically during youth activities. When the youth are in a circle, … hold your hand over one person at a time. Begin, ‘I really like Annie because she always speaks to me, even when I’m not in a great mood.’ Then prompt others to give one reason why they like Annie. Not everyone needs to say something, but it is important that you make sure something is said about everyone. Of course, there will be silly comments, but the important thing is that everyone hears that they are liked. Sometimes just saying that someone is liked makes all the difference to a girl — for 24 hours anyway, and sometimes it’s just about getting through those next 24 hours.”
— “Plan projects that help youth discover their gifts. Celebrate these and plan ways to emphasize the gifts. For those girls who are still struggling to find what their gifts are, who they think they are, where they connect — if they haven’t begun to fill in those blanks, it becomes too easy to fill them with the images that they always see in front of them.”
— “Look for women in your church membership who would be good mentors for girls in your youth group. Ask them to serve and assign them to a girl each. Explain that if the mentor can spend talking time at least once a week with the girl, she becomes a positive, real image for that girl in achieving a balance of images.”
— “Make a checklist for yourself: whom do you ask to do things or answer questions in the group? Make sure that everyone is getting a chance for some kind of recognition.”
— “Fight images with images. Instead of the latest skinny model stuck on the wall, there’s a whole bunch of happy kids. Invest in a Polaroid camera. Cameras are on sale periodically, as is film. Take a lot of photographs. Perhaps across from the Media Wall have your (Church Name) Media Wall. Let the photos add up of good times together at church or on youth trips. Let the students take photographs home, and encourage them to put them up in their rooms.”
— “Depending on your youth budget, you may want to blow up some of the photographs to poster size to decorate the youth room. This can be a fairly expensive venture, but it is a good way to celebrate the group.”
— “Let the youth make ‘All About Me’ books. They may have done these when younger, but we never outgrow the need to show where we are now. In the books, create places for photographs, lists of ‘favorites,’ self-portraits, a place to write about dreams or goals for the year. Maybe the church year can begin each year with everyone in youth doing one of these books. They can compare them to the previous year’s and laugh about photos as well as how their ‘favorites’ have changed. But, most importantly, the books are a way to say, ‘This is who I am … . This is what I like about me.’”
— “If possible, invest in a video camera or borrow one or rent one to use with the youth group. Designate a cameraperson for different youth events and document the events with moving images as well as the still images already discussed. Eventually, the youth group will have quite a library of positive images to review and enjoy.”
Youth Ministry Update is a quarterly LifeWay publication relaying facts and trends relevant to youth ministry. Subscription information may be obtained by calling 1-800-458-2772.