Last summer, I was a paraprofessional in a middle school and I met a student who confided to me that she had been hospitalized for an eating disorder during the school year. She told me that all of her friends were skinny, and “so are all the people that I see on Instagram”. This discovery lead to an incredible amount of body shaming and an internal war, forever perpetrating in her mind about how she wasn’t good enough. It was heartbreaking, to say the least, and actually contributed to me switching the course of my career and pursing an occupation that could help young woman, like her. It was this interaction which lead me to want to volunteer in the program I did this semester, “Girl’s Talk”, in order to help re-define the ideas of beauty, self-respect, and feminism that these women are beginning to develop at twelve, thirteen, and fourteen years old.
This semester I devoted two afternoons a week working at a local middle school’s enrichment program. It was originally named “Beyoncé” and was targeted towards these young woman in hopes of exposing them to the importance of female empowerment at their young age. Every week we’d listen to a song written by Beyoncé, and examine the lyrics, trying to learn what it means to be a woman through the lens of her work; it was a definite hit with the students who rely on Ms. Knowles music and words like the Bible.
I had spent time before volunteering at this particular school in the past, but this experience was unlike any I had before. Adjusting to a curriculum where the focus was not entirely academic related was something that took me awhile to get adjusted to. Every week the students would learn new vocabulary words such as “feminism”, ” intersectionality”, or “consent”. These topics would elicit conversations that regarding the media and the lack of representation of women who they felt were similar to them in skin color, body types, or sexuality. It was essentially ten weeks of witnessing these young women and their journey towards self- discovery.
We are inarguably in an age where the celebration of feminism is at an all-time high. However, during the time I spent with the students, I began to learn that this scope of feminism that we see throughout the media is not all encompassing. Throughout several of the in-class discussions that I facilitated, the students discussed as to how many actors, and models, and musical artists that the students see look different from them. We had conversations revolving around the abundance of white actors that were nominated for the Oscars, to the lack of representation there is in the government. According to one of the students, after learning all of this information: “Why do white men have to do everything?!”
It is one thing to know this, and be discouraged by it, but it is a whole another thing see this discovery in the eyes of the youth. To rediscover alongside with them that things are not even and are not fair in this world we are living in. But perhaps the most powerful aspect of it all is realizing that it is going to take a whole lot more than complaining to fix any of these injustices.
The conversation about their social media usage was something that intrigued me the most. Many of them complained that it was unfair that their male classmates could post a picture of them shirtless and get heart-eyed emojis, whereas if they posted a picture in a cute sports bra, there would be rumors around their schools that they would be labeled as “sluts” by their male and female classmates. It’s dispersing to see as to how this double standard affects a group of free-thinking group of young woman. Especially as their perceptions of beauty, in addition to what they post, are undeniably influenced by the society around them.
It goes without saying, but I've had an awesome time facilitating some much needed discussions and jamming to Beyoncé with them. I have learned SO much in this short time, alone. Every week I would find myself getting excited to go into the classroom to hear the thoughts shared from both the students and the teacher who created the program. Being surrounded by powerful women, at all ages, is a wonderful, fierce, experience. If there are young women in your life, remind them of the importance of having kind hearts, fierce minds, and brave spirits to lead them forward in this world, just like the sign in their hallway says. That way, we can all see each other's halos ☺