By Leah Ariniello – I had forgotten. I had forgotten how girls cut each other to the quick with their words, creating an avalanche of self-doubts. I had forgotten how girls take each other down without any kind of physical force, simply by what they say. I had forgotten the depth of sadness I felt during childhood when a girl made a negative comment about my appearance, “Your arms are hairy like a boys,” and another time about my smarts, “Wow, you are sooooo slow at the multiplication tables. Is your brain working?”
And then I remembered. I remembered just how mean some girls can be to each other. I was with my daughter, then five, helping her Girl Scout troop. Shortly after reciting the Girl Scout Law, which includes the promise to be “considerate and caring,” the troop was asked to draw a picture for an activity. I witnessed a girl lean toward the girl next to her, point at her drawing and whisper in a sneering tone, “That’s wrong. Your picture is stupid.” I heard stories from my daughter about girls telling other girls that they smell, their hair looks funny, and “No, you will not be invited to my birthday party. I just don’t really like you.”
I worried about how this everyday girl-to-girl meanness can beat down a girl’s self esteem. I began to worry. I worried about how this everyday girl-to-girl meanness can beat down a girl’s self esteem. In a second grade activity, my daughter’s Girl Scout troop had to create a bracelet out of colored beads. Each color represented a skill they were good at, including various school subjects, sports or art. A large group of girls, however, spent the entire session talking about how they were not good at sports or math or science or reading or art. They were not good at anything.
And I worried that this girl-to-girl meanness is worse than it was when I grew up. Eventually I learned to cocoon myself with a nice group of friends who encouraged me and lifted my feelings of self-worth. But now with social media, it seems that the goal is to have hundreds of friends no matter the quality. My older son has an Instagram account, which provides a glimpse of what’s coming for my daughter. The tween girl’s Instagram bio often reads “help me reach my goal of 100 friends.” And then with these 100 “friends” they play confidence killer games like “Eliminate,” which involves the posting of photos of several girls with the request to vote on who should be removed. A negative vote equals an updated screen shot with a big X drawn through a girl’s selfie or self-esteem. How does a girl weather that negativity?
My daughter is now eight and I think I have one answer. Run. No, not run and hide (although sometimes tempting). But pick up those little feet and move. Run to feel powerful. Run to feel strong. Run to feel like a girl, a strong girl who won’t be taken down by words.
Sports have benefits beyond improving physical health. Girls who play them have higher levels of confidence, self-esteem and lower levels of depression, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation founded by former tennis pro, Billie Jean King. Girls who play sports also have a more positive body image and experience higher feelings of well-being than girls who do not play. But what if no particular sport speaks to your daughter at a young age?
Well, anyone can run. You don’t even have to run very fast. You can walk and run and run and walk. In fact, my mom completed quite a few marathons in her 50s with a walk-run technique. This led me to sign my daughter up in September for Girls on the Run, which I also help coach. The non-profit program has groups across the United States and Canada and inspires girls in 3rd through 8th grade “to be joyful, healthy and confident,” with lessons that involve empowering activities and training.
Over the season the girls collect a bead for each quarter mile they run. These beads are physical proof of their strength, proof that they have clocked enough miles to equal a marathon or more by the end of their training. And then to cap off each season they cross the finish line of a Girls on the Run celebratory 5K.
The confidence this creates is bullet proof. I see it in the team and I see it up close in my daughter. I see her strength as she runs and collects beads, showing me her latest additions with a flying karate kick jump on our walk home from a lesson. And I see it when she tells me the story of a classmate who remarked that out of eight girls she’s her eighth favorite. As she tells me, she sits up straighter and I can see that she is karate kicking those words away. Those words can eat her dust, because she can run like a girl.