The pressure of perfection

Support girls' goals with tools to build their self-esteem

Middle-school girls participate in an empowerment exercise during the Live Your Dreams Girls' Conference in Poughkeepsie held last November

Social media's ever-present eyes. Peer judgements. Stereotypes.

By the time most girls in our society reach middle school, the pressures of prying eyes and unjust expectations has taken a toll on their self-esteem. Many are left with a diminished sense of their value and who they are, adversely affecting their ability to make and meet goals.

In fact, seven-in-ten girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with friends and family members, according to Real Girls, Real Pressure: A National Report on the State of Self-Esteem, commissioned by the Dove Self-Esteem Fund.

Lori Scolaro is co-chair of the Live Your Dream Girls' Conference, an annual event held by the Poughkeepsie branch of the American Association of University Women and the Association of Women at Dutchess Community College (AAUW).

"The conference provides a forum for girls of diverse background to nurture a vision for the future," said Scolaro, who works at the college and is member of the AAUW. "Self-development is a big piece of how they can affect the world. A lot of times girls are fixed on beauty and clothes. The event is about helping them realize how much potential they have to affect the world just by being who they are."

Held last November at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, the daylong event included workshops and round-table discussions for about 75 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade girls and some of their parents. The agenda centered on heightening the girls' self-awareness and personal connection to the world, with each session led by prominent women in the community and facilitated by AAUW members and college co-eds, all volunteers.

Deborah Keesler of Pawling attended the conference with her seventh-grade daughter and a friend  of her daughter's. It was the second time Keesler and her daughter participated in the event.

"It's always nice to see a program for young women," said Keesler of the conference. "It's out of the ordinary and offers the opportunity for the girls to visit a college campus and meet women from all walks of life. It gives them a sense of (what's available) and is helping them build their place in the world. It all fits into a greater picture."

During the event's parent program, Keesler heard youth talk about their day-to-day lives, including their perspective on connecting with friends, family, communities and the world at-large via social media and their cellphones, around-the-clock.

Keesler said that while her daughter is self-directed and already has targeted a career involving aeronautics, she enjoyed connecting with the conference's leaders, mentors and other attendees. The event also re-affirmed her belief that that part of the world - her career choice - is accessible, reasonable and real. It also increased her awareness of STEM and other opportunities.   

As well, Keesler saw that her daughter's friend, blossomed as the day went on.

"She came back full of energy," said Keesler. "She had the opportunity to write in her journal and couldn't wait to raise her hand and share what was in her journal. By the end of the day, the girls were jumping up to participate." 

READ MORE: Parents talk about their daughters' dreams  

Social worker and parent of three youngsters, Laura Bagnarol, is the founder of Be Big Be Brave, an empowerment initiative based in Hopewell Junction that provides recreational and educational programs and workshops, mainly for girls.

"Without confidence, girls will have a hard time reaching any goal and so if we, as parents and educators want to support them in achieving their goals, we must offer them ways to build their confidence," said Bagnarol.  

    While she finds the societal problems that challenge girls to be nationally universal, including a lack of confidence, sexual assault/harassment, substance abuse, cyberbullying and mental health issues like depression and anxiety, Bagnarol believes youth sports and empowerment programs can help counter their negative effects.

"It's looking at how important it is to remember not what our bodies look like but what our bodies can do and putting the focus back on that; reminding girls of their strengths and to use those strengths for good," she said.

Part of that includes being brave enough to support each other, whether it's speaking up when witnessing bullying or otherwise being empathetic toward others. Another component is the negative side of social media, where harsh comments can have adversely affect teens' self-esteem. Aside from personal exchanges are outside messages, which Bagnarol talks with girls about, such as song lyrics they hear.

"I don't' think the answer is just to take their phones away," she said of social media's power. "We need to continue to have conversations and use teaching moments; we, ourselves, have to be present and have conversations with them."

Locally, she said, the Hudson Valley is lucky to have the support of community-based youth programs, such as those offered through schools, such as the Wappingers School District, including her daughter's school, Fishkill Elementary. 

"It's all about shattering gender stereotypes," said Bagnarol. "It matters, what you're doing in life."

READ MORE: Important conversations to have with your daughter

Anusha Mehar of the Newburgh Free Library is the outreach coordinator for its Newburgh Girls Code Club (NGCC) that educates groups of 15 girls aged 10-to-18 on coding and career opportunities through STEM learning. Funded by the Rowley Family Foundation, the NGCC follows the national Girls Who Code organization, giving the NGCC access to online coding tutorials and other resources, along with inspiring role models.

The NGCC's 12-week, seasonal program is led by peer and career mentors, including people with positions in the field.

"In addition to directly teaching our girls how to code and empowering them with hard skill in differ code languages...we allow them the opportunity to pursue what (area of expertise) speaks most powerfully to them," said Mehar.

Currently, she said, although the technical job sector is one of the fastest growing in the nation, only 30 percent of those jobs belong to women. For women of color, the percentage drops; more so for women in the sector's leadership positions.

Among the projects in completed, beta stages by the NGCC's participants are an app for the City of Newburgh, where the streets' potholes are geo-tagged for future repair, and an online-positivity bank with uplifting messages to help inspire teens going through challenges.

"These are learned skills for wherever you go in this sector," said Mehar, including divergent facets in business. "Tech touches every sector nowadays," she said. "Banking, mindfulness, healing - there's almost no sector that's not interwoven with technology."

What's more, because coding involves undergoing many failed tries before reaching successful ones, learning the technology teaches girls how to overcome frustrations by pushing through false starts and problem-solving.   

"There really is a tremendous amount of opportunity," said Mehar. "This program is empowering them and showing them the model of people who look like them in the sector."

Empowerment Programs for Girls:  
• Live Your Dreams Girls' Conference,
• Be Big, Be Brave,
• Newburgh Girls Code Club,

Karen Maserjian Shan was the editor for Hudson Valley Parent