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

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Shush Girl

“I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat…”

Rebecca West

Sometimes I need to just lighten up. But this one has really set me off…set me off so much that I’ve got to write about it.

3OH!3, a duo pop band from Colorado is making the Top 40 rounds with a song entitled, Don’t Trust Me. I have to admit that I’m a pop radio listener. If you pulled some songs off my I-Pod you would find everything from the Weather Girls, Jonas Brothers and a few Britney Spears hits.

But this one…this one has gotta go. “Shush girl, shut your lips. Do the Helen Keller, and talk with your hips.”

Where do I start? With the Helen Keller comment or the implications that girls should just shut up and be nothing more than sexual objects, conquests or empty, soul-less shells.

Do I start with my Girls on the Run friend Shelley? When Shelley entered fourth grade, she was embarrassed so badly by the response of her peers to a question she said in Math class, that she stopped talking.

Or do I begin with Sharkira…my fourth grade friend who was beaten and neglected so badly by her parents that she stopped speaking. Speaking where she lived only got her cigarette burns, a slap across the face or “time out” for hours, in a dark closet.

What about my smart friend Britney, sexually abused by her father through middle school. The voice of that pain remained dormant until the pattern repeated itself with her husband and beautiful daughter. The fear even then of speaking up on her daughter’s behalf was overwhelming…requiring weeks to overcome and even more weeks to gather the courage to seek help.

What about Joanie, a Girls on the Run coach. Two-thirds of the way through our program she mustered up enough strength to collect her belongings, her two children and leave an abusive husband.

Then there is Rebecca, who cried out no, so many times that her rapist permanently silenced her with a gun to the back of her throat.

What about Sarah, only now at age 35, is recovering from her experience as a victim of sex trafficking--only now able to talk about the fear, pain and brutality of her captors. Purposely addicted to drugs by her abductors, she spent her teens and early twenties, silenced by the drugs and beaten by her owners.

Or maybe I talk about Natia, raped in her small Ethiopian village at age 13. She was too young to birth a baby, torn from the inside out, reeking now of urine and feces and discarded from her community for speaking out against this heinous crime…by simply begging for medical treatment.

Yeah…maybe I do need to lighten up, but right now, right this minute, if you go on the internet, google the lyrics to this song, you will see literally hundreds of videos of little girls, teens and young women, dancing, performing and shouting out this phrase, either unaware or uncaring of its implications.

Women make up at least half of the population. We also have fathers, brothers and other men in our lives that would cry out in anger if any one of us were silenced, deafened or blinded by abuse, violence or any institutionalized form of sexism.

But we don’t see the connections, between lyrics and words like this and the continuum of circumstances that demoralize us, demean us and leave us without our voices.

I won’t watch 3OH!3 , listen to them, or talk about them ever again and invite you to do the same. Our power comes not only from our increasing awareness of how sexism is institutionalized in our music, videos and entertainment, but the building momentum, I see through my work with Girls on the Run, to consciously and intentionally turn it off.

So now, it’s done. I’m done. Story over, book closed. These lyrics are no longer.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Climbing Out of the Girl Box

Yesterday marked a very important day in my life. July 7th, 1993 was the day my life changed. Couple that anniversary with the fact that I am in the middle of updating our Girls on the Run curriculum and I'm filled with an amalgam of emotions...many that leave me both word-less and word-full at the same time. Wordless because I'm focused on completing the Girls on the Run curriculum re-write by Friday. Word-full because of the importance of July 7th in my life.

To honor this special day and also honor the curriculum work I'm currently focusing on for this week, rather than create something new and in the moment for this blog-space, I'm going to pull up something I wrote in my book, "Girls on Track: A Parent's Guide to Inspiring our Daughters to Achieve a Lifetime of Self-Esteem and Healthy Living.".

So here goes. Happy "Girls on the Run Day"!

"I was in sixth grade when the Girl Box began to wedge its way over my body and spirit. Sixth grade was a tough year.

Eleanor Jones was my best friend then. We were the two new girls at a school where most kids had started kindergarten together.

The thing that distinguished us from each other, however, was that Eleanor was getting breasts and I wasn't. We were new, and all the boys were noticing Eleanor.

That's when I started to want to be somebody else. Anybody but me. My charming personality just wasn't getting it. Neither was my intelligence, my humor, or even my athleticism. None of that was working. The boys just wanted to pop Eleanor's bra strap, chase her, and be in her company. I happened to be in their company because I was friends with Eleanor. That was the only reason. I felt like the third wheel all the time--even when I wasn't with her.

In sixth grade, it didn't seem as if the boys were interested in what I could do. They didn't want to play the same way they had just the summer before. They wanted to pop bra straps and chase Eleanor around the playground. I didn't understand what I had done wrong. I was still funny, considerate, and friendly. I was bright, witty, and athletic. But I wasn't Eleanor. I wasn't what Eleanor represented.

And so I reluctantly let them lower the Girl Box over me. It was suffocating in there.

I was a prime candidate for the Girl Box. I was the fourth of four, nine years younger than the one before me. My mom was an alcoholic and my father worked a lot. Everyone in my house seemed to want to be somewhere other than where they were. My sister Helen was my primary caregiver. She taught me to read. She took me on dates with her and tried her best to protect me from the chaos of our home.

Somewhere around fourth grade, the memories shut off--the pain went underground. The psyche does some pretty amazing protective things, especially for children when the hurt is too great.

It was not until my mom had her breakdown a year later that my memories returned. Dr. Thomas came to our house, my father came home from work, and they all talked very secretly in the guest bedroom. My mother hit what folks in the treatment world call bottom.

That was May of 1970. I'm happy to say, from that day forward, my relationship with my mother, flourished...the laughter returned to our house. We made family trips out West, spent weekends together staying up and snuggling. We made up for lost time. I absolutely loved my mom's company and would opt for it over that of my friends. My mother became my best friend.

But inside lay many lost memories, the shame that we never really talked about. And as I grew both physically and emotionally, that shame started to show up in all kinds of ways.

So as painful as it was, the Girl Box actually felt sort of right. It was the only place that affirmed what I believed to be true. The message of the Girl Box is do more, be more, give more--because we are never good enough, never pretty enough, never smart enough, never sexy enough...never enough. Girls and women in the darkness of that box never celebrate what we are but are constantly seeking what we are not. We give away our very souls to anyone who will love us. People pleasing becomes a way of life. Life becomes a series of performances rather than experiences. Our words are not our own. There is a set script.

Coping with the Girl Box has many ways of showing up. It may be an obsession with appearance or a fear of failure. We may fear success, and sabotage every opportunity to get it. We might defer to boys in the classroom or men in the workplace. Some of us spend our entire lives trying to please others and forget ourselves. We fix people, clean up after others, take care of disputes--we spend so much time taking care of others that we lose ourselves in the process. More extreme coping mechanisms include food, sex, drug, plastic surgery and material addictions.

In 1976, I took my first drink. I also bought my first pair of running shoes.

Oh...the power of both.

When I was under the influence of alcohol, the shame magically went away and I felt beautiful, flirtatious, witty, and fearless. I was comfortable in the stifling Girl Box--shameless and free to be something I was not. I could fake the script, play the part, be what the Girl Box wanted me to what YOU wanted me to be.

But...when I ran, oh the wonder...the meditation, my mind cleared and the experience allowed me to focus on the sound of my steps, the rhythm of my breathing, and the air passing over my body. I sweated; sometimes I would grunt and groan with exertion and I didn't care that it wasn't feminine. I felt beautiful, whole and powerful. I felt real, alive and connected.

But eventually addiction won out. On July 6th, 1993. I hit bottom. I was empty, silent and deafened by the cycle of shame that now held me captive. The lid to the Girl Box was seven feet above me, when I placed a last-ditch call to my sister. "Lift me out, please somebody, anybody! I can be no longer..."

My sister had heard this from me many times and, as always, she was patient: "Molly, just sleep on it. Promise me that you will just sleep on it--see how you feel in the morning."

I hung up the phone, curled up on the couch and lay there in the despair, in the silence and the darkness of the Girl Box, and knew that nothing short of a miracle would pull me out of that wished-for sleep.

The following evening, July 7th, somehow, I dragged myself out the door and by rote hit the pavement for a run. The air was electric with a coming thunderstorm, the wind blowing the leaves of the trees upside down and causing the dirt on the street to swirl up. Rounding the last corner of a six-mile run onto East Boulevard, I was on the last stretch of road toward the apartment where I was staying. Everything was in sync, my breathing, the float of my steps on the pavement, my relaxed arms, my speed--and as I approached the intersection of Kenilworth and East Boulevard I moved to a space of total effortlessness and breathlessness, overcome with the moment.

Something was happening--something so real, so raw, so momentous, it forced me to stop dead in my tracks at that intersection. The sounds of the city floated to the background, the street disappeared, and like tunnel vision I became fixated on the way the sun filtered through the leaves on the trees. casting the most distinct shadows on the pavement at my feet. I could hear my breathing, my heartbeat in my ears; feel the sweat flowing across my temples and down my back and chest; a surge of strength , power, presence lit me up--and in that instant my life changed. Call it what you want, but the darkness of the shame I had hidden away inside was warmed by a light of such power that for that moment I just was: present, pure, and worthwhile.

I was, if only for a moment, free of the Girl Box.

I still can't believe it. Sixteen years ago, I was empty, without purpose, alcoholic, and emotionally bankrupt. day, one run, one moment, a building thunderstorm, and my life's path was dramatically shifted. The calling was strong and pulled me right into its powerful tentacles."

My story is only mine and is still in the making. I am never fully out of the Girl Box. It is a process, a peeling back of the layers to reveal the gem beneath. When I am afraid, tense, tired or angry I may go back inside, but I'm trying and I am always in search of a greater level of awareness. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of stories of the women, men and girls who are drawn to this program. None more extraordinary or glamorous than another. But uniquely theirs and now universally ours. The phenomenal growth of Girls on the Run can be broken down into small moments, like snapshots along a timeline. Yet, when I consider each of those moments...those stories...together, they fit perfectly like the pieces of a puzzle or the patches on a quilt. The cobblestones of our stories emerge upon the Girls on the Run path and magically take me, our program, our coaches, volunteers, corporate sponsors and the girls we serve to our next steps, singly and together,toward a new level of awareness.

The gratitude is overwhelming. To have known such despair--paralyzed by my fear back then. And now--well, now I am not fearful anymore. I've learned that if I just take a step forward, as we teach the girls in our program to bravely do, the cobblestones will, without fail, always appear.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Funny the Way It Is

"Funny the way it is, if you think about it
Somebody’s going hungry and someone else is eating out
Funny the way it is, not right or wrong
Somebody’s heart is broken and it becomes your favorite song"

Dave Matthews

Stories. We all have them. We have our stories, stories about our friends, our children, our partners.

I’m always struck by the stories of our girls. This year I had the opportunity to attend at least half a dozen of our New Balance Girls on the Run 5k’s around the nation. Every girl, every mother, every father, every coach, every council director has a story for their day. An empty, often unoccupied physical space is transformed for several hours into a space in time where memories are made and life’s chapters unfold. A starting line, balloons, music, finish line barriers and volunteers magically arrive a couple of hours before the stories begin.

That's where I met Maddie. She is in Girls on the Run.

She had just completed her first twelve-week session. She has a school of tiny freckles swimming across her nose and stands about four feet high—she’s tiny, even for a third grader. She has dirty-blond hair down to her waist that she always wears loose.

Maddie's mom pulled me to the side, moments before the run started to share with me that she and her husband had separated two weeks before the final New Balance Girls on the Run 5k. He moved out, for reasons Maddie doesn’t understand now—though she may one day, mothers’ can’t explain the details of that story to a third grader.

Maddie can’t put words to the separation yet, though she knows that her life is different—that her mom is sad and her dad is gone—and, while the voice of it hasn’t come to her yet, the expression in her eyes can’t hide the fear, the lack of understanding, the feeling of suspended time, the unsettling of it all.

Maddie’s mom and dad came to watch her run in her big event. They saw their little girl finish her first 5k. They saw determination in her eyes—a blessed substitute for the anxiety she had carried there lately. I saw Maddie’s mom cry and watched her father try to be stoic. But they were there for her to support that little-girl spirit, to watch this child-soul float across the three miles of asphalt.

I took their picture at the finish line—all three of them. Maddie's dad asked me to take it, Maddie sandwiched in the middle.

I wonder what expression the lens caught. Did it see the truth behind their eyes—their love for her little life and the turmoil of their own?

Maddie will remember that day—that story—forever. Mom and Dad came together for her. They put aside their own drama to watch her do something that allowed her girl-spirit to rise above the confusion—for 3.1 miles anyway—to jointly welcome her to the finish line in spite of the angst between the two of them.

That story will be memorialized in the photo that I had the privilege of taking. My hands captured that picture, framed it in the lens, held the camera steady, and directed...

“One two, three, cheese.”

Five minutes of my life and years of theirs.

"Lying in the park on a beautiful day,
sunshine in the grass, and the children play.
Siren’s passing, fire engine red,
someone’s house is burning down on a day like this?"

Dave Matthews