Friday, July 31, 2009

The Comfort of My Sister's Arms

“Is solace anywhere more comforting than in the arms of a sister?”
Alice Walker

This week, six of our council directors met with me and Amy Way, a PhD. student at Arizona State University to learn about the new components in our re-write of the Girls on the Run curriculum. The conversation was lively, to say the least. I had several professional and personal revelations over the course of our two days together…one of which is how much the new curriculum in many ways reflects a new me.

Back when I started Girls on the Run, I had not yet found the words to articulate the power of our program. I did, however, coin a phrase which explains the experience that most women share at about the time of puberty. We call it "The Girl Box."

The Girl Box is the imaginary place that girls go around middle school where we begin to morph into what we think we should be instead of who we really are. The specific messages of the Girl Box vary but the overarching theme of these messages are rooted in the belief that girls and women are incapable (based on a number of perceived deficits that have been handed down and are deeply entrenched into our collective psyches) of determining their own destiny and therefore require those who are perceived as capable (usually those in the dominant think-group) to do that for them.

As founder of Girls on the Run, I am fortunate to have had literally hundreds of conversations with women about the Girl Box. One conclusion upon which I’ve landed and only recently been able to articulate is how complex the Girl Box really is. What is considered a Girl Box behavior by one woman is NOT considered a Girl Box behavior by another. For example, I personally would not find empowerment through participating in the pageant process yet many of my "sisters" participate in that process and genuinely feel empowered by it. For me, aging naturally is a sign of authenticity and empowerment; whereas for someone else feeling and being empowered may mean using a variety of anti-aging techniques including plastic surgery. Each of us has a perception of what is considered an “in the Girl Box behavior” and what is considered an “out of the Girl Box behavior” based on the unique set of Girl Box messages handed to us by our circumstances and life stories.

The issue with having so many variations on what the messages of the Girl Box are, makes it very challenging for our gender to collectively come together around any one issue. This variation in perception not only creates a lack of unity between us, but furthers the stereotypes that portray us as “mean girls”, “gossip girls” and as “backstabbing bitches.” We can’t agree on what being a woman has to do with being ourselves, plain and simple. If we can’t agree, we can’t mobilize a movement. We can’t express a unified voice, thus allowing the dominant think-group to remain in control which in some instances/cultures/belief systems put our "sisters" into extremely dangerous circumstances.

There is, however, one thing of which I am absolutely certain and over which there is no dispute among women: spending time with the girls in Girls on the Run is a source of empowerment. Every week I get cards, letters and emails from women sharing how Girls on the Run has touched their lives.

• “I had no idea what a people pleaser I was, until I started coaching Girls on the Run. The lesson on “standing up for myself” took my awareness up a notch and is pushing me to apply what we teach the girls, to my own life. How liberating to know that I can actually choose who I want to spend time with.”

• “It’s really hard to look an 8 year old girl in the eyes and tell her she is beautiful and worthy just the way she is, and not feel that way about myself. The truth is, my girls are teaching me where my power really comes from.”

• “In theory, I knew that reading gossip magazines was not good for a person, but I had no idea how much they were influencing the view I have of myself until we did the lesson on “Tuning into a New Message.” How funny is it that a group of 6th graders taught me that I don’t have to view those magazines, much less purchase them. Thank you SO much!”

Over the years, I’ve met many, many women. Each of us brings to this world our own stories, our own experiences, our own Girl Box. And over the years when I have taken the time to listen, I realize that what I really want is to embrace a deep level of tenderness toward all of my sisters…I yearn to obtain a welcoming understanding that what we all want really, is to feel beautiful, fully accepted and unconditionally loved just as we are and where we are in our own personal evolution.

I want to keep it personal…to open my mind to understand what drives a woman. I want to learn from her the pain and joy that brought her here. I want to provide for every woman, regardless of the barriers, power differential, institutions, belief systems and stereotypes she is battling in her own life, an opportunity to feel worthy, whole and warmed.

I want to share with her the love, power and self-worth I feel every time I see the rare, raw and wonderful in an 8 year old girl’s eyes as she stands there delicately balanced on the starting line of her own life story.

I want to welcome her to the world of Girls on the Run, where she is safely encouraged to explore, evolve and question her way to self-worth, contentment and empowerment in her way…in her own time and at her own pace.

What were the specific messages of your Girl Box and how have those shown up in your behavior? How have they changed as you have grown older? How are the messages of your Girl Box different from other women you’ve known? How have your perceptions of the Girl Box influenced your view of other women and their actions? Let me know at

1 comment:

  1. I think the Girl Box is more universally understood and experienced. I think the Woman Box is complex, layered, and has different meanings for all of us.

    As Women we are all so inspired to be able to touch the Girls in our lives and go back to "where it all began" as we try to unravel for ourselves the Boxes we live in now.