Top 3 Tips for Adult Advocates for Girls
By Julie Zeilinger
Powered By Girl is the media activism arm of Hardy Girls Healthy Women, and we are excited to be reading along with the HGHW Training Institute Summer Book Club selection of “A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism is Not a Dirty Word” by Julie Zeilinger.
Julie founded and edits The FBomb (thefbomb.org), a feminist blog and community for teens and young adults who care about their rights and want to be heard. The HGHW Training Institute is hosting a summer book club in the online learning community which is a great place for adults who work with girls to continue discussions started in our webinars and workshops. As part of the Summer Book Club, members of the online learning community are invited to an online chat with Julie Zeilinger to discuss her book. We’re excited about this great opportunity. Julie also was kind enough to share some of her insights with our entire blog community.
Top 3 Tips for Adult Advocates for Girls
by: Julie Zeilinger
Because of my position as founder and editor of The FBomb – a blog and community for teens and young adult women that promotes feminist principles – I have often been asked to speak publicly about my experience as a young woman today. I’ve spoken about my generation of young women’s relationships with our bodies, how we deal with discriminatory forces like sexual harassment and more generally about the issues we prioritize. No matter what the subject has been, however, every single time I’ve given a speech I am without fail approached afterwards by adult women who ask variations of the same question: how can I support and be an advocate for the young women in my life?
This question, which seems pretty straight forward, has often stumped me. The truth is there is no simple, clear-cut way to help the young women through the many trials we face on a daily basis. But here are a few tips I’ve gathered through my own experience and from observing the experiences of my friends and the FBomb community.
1. Make yourself available and listen.
I think adults often feel that to appear truly available to help young women they have to seem “cool.” I’ve witnessed many adults — in my life and in the lives of my friends—try to be a “cool aunt” figure. They believe if they use our slang, if they dress like us, or if they even condone certain behavior they responsibly shouldn’t all for the sake of appearing like a peer that we will be more prone to open up to them, to seek them out for support. Perhaps there are young women out there who feel more comfortable opening up to an adult they think of as more of a peer, but I think more often than not, young women turn to adults they feel can share wisdom, experience and answers.
Young women today face a lot of conflicting messages when growing up: we deal daily with paradigms that define our identities and it feels like we can’t win. We’re labeled sluts or prudes; we’re told we can be stupid and desirable or smart and unwanted – the list goes on. Adult advocates and allies may not be able to change this reality for us, but they can help provide context and share their own experiences with the same dichotomies. Young women need this not just on a practical level, but as proof that there is life past our adolescent confusion.
However, I am also a firm believer in the idea that for young women to make sense of the world around us, we have to come to solutions that are right for us on our own. This concept has been most saliently proven to me through the work I’ve done on my blog in regards to young girls and body image. The FBomb is based on submissions from young women all over the world, and over the past few years I’ve received countless submissions from young women about their struggles with their bodies. Whenever young women write about solutions they’ve found, they write variations of the same idea: it was not a boy, parent or friend telling them that they were beautiful that changed their mind, but rather they found they could only feel satisfied with their bodies when they truly embraced the feminist ideal of self-respect. It was only once they had a personal epiphany about how much more they could accomplish beyond a perfect body, about how much more they were worth than their appearance alone, that they stopped worrying about what they looked like.
I have talked with many adult advocates who feel endlessly frustrated by what they perceive as an inability to explain to the young women in their lives how to overcome such obstacles. I try to tell these women that though their efforts are valuable and commendable, perhaps they should focus less on explaining and concentrate more on listening. Because while problems like body image may be ones young women have to solve on their own, the path to doing so is long and arduous – feeling as though we can share that experience with somebody we respect and rely on can make that journey that much more manageable.
2. Be prepared to provide resources.
Sometimes, even when we have the best intentions, we’re unable to get through to those we want to help. I’ve experienced this many times in terms of feminism – it’s a concept and movement that is foreign to many of my friends. Especially after I first came to the movement, I felt compelled to share my passion with those I cared about. But I felt that no matter how many times or different ways I tried to explain the movement (“It’s really about equality, I swear!”) many people in my life were still dubious. A tactic I eventually found to be effective was providing different resources. For example, I passed around the book “Full Frontal Feminism” by Jessica Valenti, because I felt the book was able to explain the movement in a fun and approachable way – and in a way I couldn’t in a single discussion. Taking the example of body image above, I’ve shared the book “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters” by Courtney Martin with countless friends who struggled with body image issues, and many had their worlds rocked by her wisdom.
I think when trying to advocate for young women, it’s important to understand your limitations. If you’ve found resources that have helped you, chances are they will help the young women in your life as well and sometimes those resources can be the most powerful tool in your arsenal.
3. Put yourself on the frontlines of the fight for social change.
This tip may seem pretty sweeping and is obviously much easier said than done, but I believe that individual support systems and personal self-esteem only go so far. We live in a flawed culture that works to systematically hold women back in many ways. We can treat the symptoms, sure, but we also have to work to cure the disease and young women have been making great strides to this effect for years, it’s true. In the past few months alone we’ve watched Julia Bluhm, a fourteen year old activist, start a petition asking Seventeen magazine to feature just one unphotoshopped image in their magazine every month. Her petition was signed by hundreds of thousands of supporters and she was even able to have a positive meeting with the editor of Seventeen. This summer, three teen girls from New Jersey started a petition calling for a woman to moderate a presidential debate (a woman hasn’t moderated a debate in 20 years). Young women are making great strides, but we need widespread support. We need adults to take our activism seriously and to involve themselves as allies and partners. It’s one thing to profess support for young women, to lament the culture we live in and wish for a better reality, but it’s another thing entirely to get out there and try to create change.
Hardy Girls and Powered By Girl want to thank Julie for the thoughtful post about how adults can support and advocate for the young women in our lives. Looking for more ways to be an effective advocate for girls? Check out the HGHW Training Institute for webinars, workshops, and more.