Just two days have passed since the heartbreaking events in a
small town in New England, just miles from where I grew up as a child and where
high school friends are now raising their families. Yet, one doesn't need to live
near the scene of such a tragic, unthinkable act of violence to confront the disbelief and
anguish facing the children and families in that community, for we can all
imagine ourselves in the village of Sandy Hook, CT. We all remember what it was
like to be a small child in a bustling classroom full of color and wonder.
My daughters, Josie (12) and Sophie (15) knew about the
event in Connecticut before they even got off the school bus on Friday. Growing up today in a hyperconnected, play-by-play world offers little chance for reflection, ponder or protection of a harsh reality. Facebook updates, tweets from Justin
Bieber and Rianna, and Instagrams of affirmations sped through the social networks
like wildfire, before parents could even absorb the news and figure out how to
discuss it at home.
My seventh grader, stealing some moments on my iPad to check
her Instagram profile on Friday evening flashed before me an image of a (supposed)
child’s note to parents while in a school lockdown along the lines of “I’m sorry I was a bad kid.” “He was shot minutes
later!” she exclaimed. Ooookay, then. Opportunity
for discussion about misinformation, why she took my iPad without asking, and
reviewing again which friends she’s connected to, I thought. (Best to find a
quiet moment over the weekend for that.) Not minutes later my teen came home
from a friend’s house, walked past us parents who muted the TV. “I hate this
story,” she announced as she stomped off to bed. Yah, me too.
Earlier in the week Sophie had
babysat for two little girls, who wanted extra hugs before bedtime; it was a
moment she delighted in (they are about the same ages as my girls once were, pictured here). Part of growing up is to realize you have the
privilege and power to comfort and care as a basic human condition. This is
especially so when it happens outside the family. The world becomes bigger and
you discover that you can make a
difference in other people's lives, even for a moment.
While parents regroup and muster up inner calm to engage
with their kids, teenagers are already digesting and coping with the news online and offline. The hard part to witness is how my
teens are beginning to believe “This happens all the time now.” Now, as in their short lifetime. That’s how I understood it from my Josie.
Last year, I received a text from Sophie, an ‘I love you’ in
the middle of the day. I thought
it was a joke, given that we were in a phase where I was just too uncool to
relate to. It turned out the middle school was presenting Rachel’s Challenge to the 8th
graders, a nonprofit organization created after the death of Rachel Joy Scott,
a teen victim in the Columbine school shooting. The mission is to educate
students about bullying, create safe environments for students, and to initiate
a chain reaction of kindness. Sadly, since that school presentation a number of
tragic public events have occurred; the most recent being the July shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, on opening night of The Dark Knight. The anticipation of going to an opening
night has for many teens (and parents) been stripped away as one of the joys
of adolescence. Who could trust anyone dressed in character now?
Of course, based on sheer risk facts and numbers, these mass
shootings are rare events. Yet, they punch a deep wound in the national psyche
and foster an unrelenting low-grade anxiety in our homes and schools. Teens turn to their friends, though,
for support and comfort. Parents
can be there for them, guide them, even unplug the media at home as best as
possible, but it’s friends they turn to. It’s with friends that teens can talk to
or not. No heavy discussion. They just can be.
Yet, when things are too big and too awful to fully comprehend,
what can friends do to support each other? Here are some things I’ve observed from
the teens in my life and those I’ve come to know in my practice:
Do nothing. Just hang out and find comfort in
the presence of trusted friends. Practicing mindfulness – or being fully
present in the moment without judging yourself or others. This is a skill to be
nurtured by one self and among others.
Do something small. Reach out; engage in an act
of kindness; show your friends and family that you care. Bake brownies or do a
chore you would otherwise avoid.
Do something big. Step outside of yourself and be courageous… something that
might make you a bit uncomfortable even if you know it's the right thing to do.
Say hello to someone you typically might not pay attention to or reach out to
someone who is otherwise invisible. Stand up to someone who’s ridiculing or
bullying another person. Or, stand up for yourself.
Practice Gratitude. Everyday brings gifts if you
pay attention to the wonder of your world. Even in dark times there are moments of joy, delight, hope, and
serendipity in nature, at home, or with friends.
Avoid comparing yourself. This is really hard to practice in a
world of judgment and perfectionism. Many of us measure self-worth through our perceptions and culutral expectations, i.e., what you believe others might think about you – like comparing what we
look like, our body image, what we have or don’t have, who deserves more or
less, or feeling like you have no
right to complain or be sad compared to others.These are the seeds of
self-doubt and shame. It takes daily practice
to be aware of and fend off unhelpful social comparisons.
Show compassion. First, have empathy for yourself. Know that you are worthy, loveable, and
irreplaceable. Then, sprinkle that kindness and compassion onto others. How do you show empathy for yourself?
Create. Draw, paint, write, sing, dance,
build. Use your imagination to express
your feelings, thoughts, desires and hopes. Being creative allows you to immerse yourselves in the present
moment and in the beauty and ingenuity of your mind to imagine new ideas, things
Volunteer. Be involved in something that goes
beyond just clocking in community service hours in order to graduate. Don’t do the minimal, but try to
stretch yourself a bit farther. You’ll likely find that you get more out of volunteering than you
Be hopeful. While the world will bring sorrow and joy, disappointment and
triumph, all of us will experience conflict, grief, pain and loss. It’s how we learn to cope with challenges
that enable us to have the grit to soldier on. Hope allows us to imagine
something better or wonderful, to set goals and persevere. What do you hope for
yourself? For others?
connected. Human beings are wired for connection and belonging. It’s when those
connections breakdown or disappear that suffering ensues. Ask for help; offer
help. Reach out your hand. We’re all in this together …in one way or another.
And for parents? Can you model for your child these ways of being in the world? After all, they soak in everything about you, no matter what you say. Be the person you want your kids to be.
Summer has arrived, schools here in New England we are seeing clusters of teenage girls worshiping the sun. It is with some releif that the school year has ended, in particular that the drama of my daughter's 8th grade dance is over. The "Social", in many ways, marked the end of their middle school social careers. That they survived emotionally is, of course, something to celebrate.
Yet, the pressure to conform or to stand out in some admirable way is still paramount when it comes to social events. Scouring teen fashion magazines, hitting the malls, begging for more allowance or more babysitting gigs to drum up the cash for manicures, up-dos, eyebrow waxes and tanning lotions, these teen girls were on a mission. And it’s expensive.
The 8th grade guys, on the other hand, had it relatively easy: khaki shorts or neat jeans, and maybe a new shirt—untucked, of course—that cost all of $20. In truth the girls dress up for, well, each other—not the guys. That is clear.
One wonders why the pressure to look stunning at 14 is so extreme. It’s not like it's the prom. Yet, one has only to look at the fashion rags or Tumblr sites. A recent tweet on my daughters’ feed (which she knows I “spot check” from time to time) reads “the girls on tumblr >>> want to be them" or “Jealous of all the girls who can wear no make-up & still look gorgeous.” Really, honey?
But I was once a teen and so I get it. I really really loved my Seventeen magazines. I so clearly remember my favorite cover girl in violet hues that I spent an hour online trying to locate it (I found it on eBay as a vintage item!). It shows model Lissane Falk in braids with an innocence that would not grace a cover today.
So unrealistic are the cultural standards for beauty now and so insidious are the consequences for some girls (e.g., unhealthy dieting, body image issues, depression, eating disorders) that bottom up and top down efforts are starting to converge. In June 17 international editors of Vogue committed to doing something about the unrealistic requirements for fashion models, including a ban of hiring models under age 16. Vogue editor, Anna Wintour, in her letter from the editor states (June 2012 issue):
“Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) with the support of Vogue announced its Health Initiative, which was created to encourage everyone in this country who works in fashion—editors, designers, photographers, and casting directors alike—to share the responsibility of fostering a climate where a vital and healthy physique is lauded and encouraged….”
And in a curious defense of the industry, the editor goes on to write:
“Fashion has often been (wrongly) held up as an active agent in making women want to be excruciatingly thin, ignoring the complex genetic and psychosocial factors that contribute to eating disorders. Knee-jerk condemnation of many of the girls working today who are naturally blessed with slim bodies and exercise and eat well to maintain them is to be scrupulously avoided. So, too, is ignoring the way that obesity levels are rocketing upward, especially among the young, paving the way for all sorts of problems in the future. Making a stand with the Health Initiative signals renewed efforts to make our ideal of beauty a healthy one.”
It’s certainly a start for the fashion industry to commit to the health of their models, but if you look at the June issue of Vogue glorifying the physiques of Olympian athletes, one still has to wonder about what exactly is being promoted. It is but a rare few who reach elite levels in sports, just as it is the rare few who land in the pages of fashion magazines because they are “naturally blessed with slim bodies.” Oh, to have models like Lisanne Falk again.
Teens are Demanding the Truth
More compelling and heartening are the efforts by teenage girls sprouting petitions demanding the fashion industry to make clear to readers that their spreads have been photo-shopped and to show “real” girls. Earlier this spring an 8th grader from Maine, Julia Bluhm, started a petition on Change.org entitled Seventeen Magazine: Give Girls Images of Real Girls, which reached 83,000 signatures in part due to some excellent media coverage. This inspired the "Keep It Real" challenge on Facebook which invited teen girls to post unphotoshopped images during the last week of June. The winner will be on a billboard in NYC. So succesful was this campaign the editor of Seventeen Magazine, Ann Shoket and her staff, committed to showing unaltered images of teen models. Two other teens, Carina and Emma, inspired by Julia's success are now petitioning Teen Vogue to do the same. (Vote here.)
Do Girls Need Warning Labels?
At BodiMojo, our teen interns have jumped on the voting bandwagon. And, we recenlty wrote about a 16 year old, Natalia Dinsmore, who started a similar petition (see BodiMojo interview) calling Fashion Industries: A notice which advocates truth in advertising, suggesting a warning label for consumers on the risks of exposure to unrealistic images of beauty. It’s a very compelling idea from a teenager and it’s with some good science to support it. According to numerous studies, exposure to fashion magazines and other forms of media can makes some girls feel terrible about their physical appearance and self-esteem.
How Can We Make our Messages Stick?
In our household we don’t have fashion magazine subscriptions. My daughter is already reading them at friend’s houses or viewing them on blogs. While this may be a band-aid solution, there is no reason to amplify the exposure of unrealistic beauty images at home (They haven't asked for the magazines, either).
It is not bad to covet the fashion media. After all, it is a source for trends that can help girls and women find their own sense of style or learn self-care tips that might not otherwise be taught at home. (Seventeen helped me discover my own style and teach me how to find makeup for my skin tone, after all.) But at the same time, girls need to understand that their beauty is about who they are and not what they look like. Seventeen just made a bold move.
I think I'll reconsider a Seventeen subscription for my daughters.
No information in this blog is intended to diagnose or treat any health or mental health condition. The opinions expressed here are my own. If you have concerns about a personal issue please seek a consultation with a doctor.