My Heroes: Women Who Help Girls Hit Their Stride

Sometimes being around teen girls can be pretty painful--all that excruciating awkwardness comes whooshing back. The giggles. The blushing. The word "like."

That's because being a teen girl is often painful. I remember. I was one, a rather long time ago, and a particularly scrawny, flat-chested, and knock-kneed one at that. I recall the near-constant self-consciousness of suddenly being a girl-woman getting noticed (or not) by equally idiotic teen boys who seemed, at the time, to be mostly sociopaths-in-training. Always, with the bra popping and the comments: "itty bitty titty committee," or if our problem was the opposite, the constant, google-eyed stares. How we came to eventually forgive you and willingly bestow our affections upon you guys, I will never be sure. (OK, I'll grant you, you guys can be pretty $#@% cute at times.Especially when you are lifting heavy sh** for us. Or rubbing our feet.)

Other than my own experience with the disease, I don't really know much about teenage girldom, except for my occasional and very rewarding experiences with the marvelous girl-campers of my friend Vali Forrister's Act Like a Grrrl program. Penetrate the wall of palpable insecurity (theirs and my own), and you're rewarded with a guileless enthusiasm for a world that's still unfolding, an unrestrained affection, and a fearless honesty that can, at times, be gut-wrenching. Because unfortunately, we're living in a world that doesn't let girls stay innocent for as long as I wish they could. Our society often sexualizes girls at a terribly young age; and then, of course, there are predators and abusers out there who prey on the most helpless among us. And every time I hear yet another terrible story from a lovely and amazing young girl who some bastard has harmed, I find myself on the verge of committing a violent crime.

I was lucky. I had a whirlwind mom who made sure I loved books and learning as much as she did and a devoted dad who saw no reason not to treat me just like the son-playmate he'd clearly always wanted. They turned me into a scrappy, nerdy little reader/point guard/center fielder with constantly skinned knees and a dog-eared copy of "Charlotte's Web" always within reach. A lot of the time I was too busy trying to perfect my free throw or devouring my beloved Peanuts comic books to worry too much about what I looked like or whether the boys noticed me.

What I love about Act Like a Grrrl and a program called Girls on the Run (the topic of this month's HER Heart profile) is that both nonprofits aim to make girls get so excited about achieving something that they will hopefully forget all about being so self-conscious, at least for a while. (It worked OK for me.) As you will read in the feature (see "Run for Their Lives," HER Nashville), GOTR trains third- to fifth- grade girls for a 5K race over the course of 12 weeks, sneaking in a few life lessons along the way. The girls talk with their adult-women coaches and running buddies about bullying, popularity, drugs, healthy eating, images of women in media, and all sorts of issues they're about to get smacked with as they launch into the twisted hellscape that is teenagerdom. And they get to accomplish something a lot of 8-11 year olds (or couch-potato American adults, for that matter) can't do - finish a 5k.

It's a chance for girls to get acknowledged for what they achieve, not what they look like, says GOTR Nashville director Jennifer Kimball. "Some girls don't even like to sweat," she laughs. But, she adds, the experience of completing a race gets them moving, gives them the momentum and mental strength to head in whatever direction they choose and achieve something they can be proud of.

To my mind, these are the kinds of values we should be talking about. So often, "values" becomes an over-politicized catchword for somebody's personal agenda and a way for cynical politicians to win easy votes from the credulous. And I understand the fear that's behind some of these "values" movements. Sometimes it feels like our society is in ruins, our families are in ruins. But the ways we choose to address this confuse me sometimes. Welfare checks aren't going to fix the epidemic of teens having babies they're not ready for, and of young women choosing abusive relationships with dangerous men. And neither is a federal gag order on honest sex education in schools. And I'm pretty sure that banning gay marriage and mandating the teaching of "intelligent design" in biology class will have no impact whatsoever on these problems. I'm perplexed about these priorities, when to me, there is little that's more important than helping our nation's young girls make better choices about their bodies and their lives. "Empowerment" has become a cliched term, but the idea behind it matters more than ever.

Did my mom know that's what she was doing every night when she read me "Goodnight Moon"? Did my dad realize that shooting hoops with me in the driveway might just insulate me against my own dangerous insecurities?

If young girls come to realize that their value lies not in their attractiveness or sexual power, but in their hard work, their interests, and their strong minds, in what they create and what they learn, maybe they won't be quite so vulnerable to young boys and men who are giving them those babies (and little else.) Needless to say, families are best equipped to teach these lessons. (Dads, throw football with your daughters! Teach them to fly a plane or fish or fix a motorcycle.)

But families can always use a little help from the Vali Forristers (of ALAG) and the Jennifer Kimballs (of GOTR) of this world.

And to all you daughter-free women who, like me, dote a bit too much on your pets: there are a whole lot of young girls out there who are eager to learn something from you. Sign up to go jogging with them through GOTR. Do a yoga class or a painting workshop for them at ALAG. Or, at the very least, bust out the checkbook.

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