Talking to Teens: It's OK to Be Unique
My blogger friend Heather from Hangry Pants described toxic people in the most eloquent way: She called them Flower Cutters. Flower Cutters are people who are quick to slam you, to make you feel small and worthless with a cruel remark. A perfect example of a Flower Cutter statement, according to Heather, is, “You are soooo lucky you can eat all that chocolate cake and not get fat. I would be like a WHALE!” Snip, snip. Thanks for cutting my flower.
While writing the second Operation Beautiful book (the first Operation Beautiful book was geared towards adults), I spoke to hundreds of tweens and teens. Time and again, the girls expressed to me one singular urge: to fit in and avoid the wrath of the Flower Cutters.
A girl named Meagan related: “I definitely wasn't towards the top of the cool-kid food chain. I was just a little more shy, a bit more chubby, and a smidge more awkward.” A nine-year-old Jewish girl named Sari expressed her desire to be more like her friends at school, describing how other students made fun of her around Christmas. A teen named Katie said, “When I asked myself what I didn’t like about my body, I had to laugh. My legs, my hips, my arms, my stomach, my face, my butt; the list goes on and on. I have always been the biggest girl in class.”
More than anything, in middle and high school, girls want to erase what makes them an individual and mimic their peers. Different is bad, they say. Being like everyone else makes you popular.
I could sympathize with the girls. I recall wanting a specific top because it was the "cool" top that everyone else was wearing; I wanted to be blonde because all the popular girls were blonde; I asked my mom if I could wear make-up because all the boys liked it; I didn’t want to be in the Geography Club because I would be the only girl -– and I would stick out like a sore thumb. I didn’t want to stand out –- I wanted to blend in.
Denise Martz, a clinical psychologist at Appalachian State University, says this experience is common but potentially dangerous. “Teens are social creatures, and fitting in with peers is a normal way to become unique from parents and family,” she notes. “Add puberty and the beginnings of sexual attraction to the formula, and physical appearance becomes a focal point for teens. The sad reality is that humans do make first impressions based on others' appearance. It is no wonder teens can become appearance-oriented. Females tend to place much more of their self-esteem on their body image esteem than males, which makes girls at greater risk for body image issues and eating disorders.”
So –- how can we teach our daughters that it’s okay to be unique?
- Let them develop their own passions: Helicopter parents are often disappointed to find their meddling ways only backfire, creating kids who aren’t truly passionate about anything. Instead of pushing kids to do certain activities, encourage them to develop passions for particular causes or sports and allow them autonomy to thrive. One fun way to help a teen discover her talents and passions is to try out a new volunteering opportunity every month. Check out volunteermatch.com to get started.
- Place emphasis on efforts and achievements, not appearance: Reinforce the idea that it’s what you do that makes you worthy -– not what you look like. By offering compliments about their personality, you’ll help them understand that their most valuable asset is on the inside.
- Turn off the television: Nearly ¾ of young women say their ideal body type is strongly influenced by celebrities and models on television and in print media. And of course, this body type is uniformly thin, blonde, and Photoshop-perfect. Try other confidence-boosting activities –- like taking Body Pump classes at the gym -– to show teens that strong women come in many different shapes and sizes.
- It’s okay to say no: One symptom of the "fitting in" complex is bending over backwards to accommodate others. Many women -– young and old -– struggle with saying "no" nicely and firmly. Show teens that it’s okay to decline; after all, what better way to reassert your independence? The secrets to an effective "no" are 1) say it with a smile; 2) do not back down; 3) offer the simplest of irrefutable explanations –- you just don’t have time; and 4) if nagged, say you will think about it some more and get back to them later.
- Encourage Operation Beautiful in schools: Talk to the principal or a school administrator about getting approval for an Operation Beautiful day at you teen’s school. Posting the positive messages reinforces the idea that unique is beautiful, in addition to alleviating the power of bullies, cliques, and Flower Cutters.
Individuality is a funny thing -– after running away from it for so long, most women end up embracing our uniqueness by the time we reach adulthood. After all, having a little "something-something" extra makes us desirable employees or mates.
The trick is seeing our unique skills as something to be cherished, not something to be tucked away. Flower Cutters be damned!
More Own Your Beauty on BlogHer
- Clothes Are Not for Hiding Flaws.
- 15 Things That Make You Feel Old (and Young)
- The Eating Disorder Brain Tries to Strike Again
Own Your Beauty is a groundbreaking, year-long movement bringing women together to change the conversation about what beauty means. Our mission: to encourage and remind grown women that it is never too late to learn to love one's self and influence the lives of those around us - our mothers, friends, children, neighbors. We can shift our minds and hearts and change the path we follow in the pursuit of authentic beauty.
Caitlin Boyle blogs at Operation Beautiful.