There is arguably no more challenging or unsettling a life stage than that of the budding adolescent girl growing up in our culture in modern times.
Adolescent girls are inundated with messages of how their self-worth and place in the pecking order is based on their bodies — and how their bodies compare not just to their peers but to the top supermodels on earth. They are overloaded with messages that what they wear can make or break their access to the next level of social acceptance. Whether they are "in" or "out" is often determined by other girls, usually without them knowing anything was wrong.
They are much crueler to one another than most boys will ever be to them. The worst is when we learn how cruel they can be to themselves.
There is also a myth that they are taught at a young age — a myth that dominates their psyche as they awaken to their budding sexuality. It is perhaps best called the "Cinderella Myth." It is the story that someday their prince will come; that someday a man will come and find in them their true beauty which was held captive by their competitors (always other girls or women!) or which they never knew they possessed. Then it is his love, his kiss, which will awaken them and set them free . . . which will complete them.
How many times has the story been told? How often is this plot line played out in movies, books, and television shows? How often is it reinforced in school, at home and, yes, even in camp — from their counselors who spend an hour primping in the mirror every night off and from the peers and counselors who make a big deal of looking just right for the big dance! It all sends and reinforces the message.
Thus they fight amongst themselves, lie to one another, say hurtful things to one another as they scramble to be at the top of the pack — the right pack, the "popular crowd" — to be attractive to the right boys and to attract to them their Prince Charming.
Being so dependent upon external validation and so vulnerable to peer attacks leads most girls to be massively insecure. We joke about their inability to go to the bathroom alone — to go anywhere alone! They can't make decisions without first taking into account the opinions of others and the social consequences that might come upon them. By thirteen most of them have begun to create and fortify a secret world from their parents, knowing their parents would never understand nor approve of some of the choices they make to fit in and stay with the pack — especially regarding how "far" they'll go sexually with boys. Recent movies like "13" (a true story written by one of the film's stars) reveals the startling truth of how sexually active they are. Camp directors wince at the thought of their campers engaging in this dangerous behavior and deny that it's possible. At the end of the season they have to admit they were wrong.
Of the many recent books written about the "mean girl" phenomena, few offer resolution to this pattern of behaviors. Many suggest support groups for adult women who survived the horrors of their adolescent girlhood and are still haunted by the insecurity. Therapy groups for girls with eating disorders are popping up everywhere. Camps regularly receive notes from the psychologists who are working with them at younger and younger ages. So much of this takes such a defeatist, reactive approach!
It Doesn't Have to Be This Way!
Young women can find a new direction — a totally different way of approaching their lives. When they do, the results are stunning.
To accomplish this, we must first and foremost define what that new way of living is. We must essentially recreate a reality for girls in which they wake up each morning and feel good about themselves and are filled with an abundant sense of possibilities. We must teach them the skills, the mind-set, the awareness they'll need to make the choices to make this new reality, become their reality.
In retreats at camp with girls of this age, I begin, "Imagine what it would be like if you knew in all certainty that:
What would that be like?
All listen, intently. All fully realize I mean what I say when I say that it is possible.
You must create reference experiences for them — experiences that once they've had them, they now know what's possible and thus can no longer say "it can't be done." Then girls can begin to choose to do what it takes to make their lives this way, all the time, even — especially — at home.
You must act with great intention to offer your campers a whole different kind of learning than they get in traditional culture. It takes role models who live it and demonstrate it consistently. It takes a willingness to put the time in to teach them how to communicate — positively and cleanly with one another. It takes the willingness to put in the time to teach them how to use this new approach each time the old stimulus comes up, reminding them constantly that they have a choice. It takes a willingness to ban any negative comments about each other's bodies. It takes a willingness to intervene each time they say something negative about their own bodies.
Nowhere can this be more easily or effectively done than in camps, but it requires going the distance. Camps cannot be content thinking that because the girls are happier at camp than at home things at camp must be great. The camps that are having success in moving girls effectively in this new direction are using a multifaceted approach.
Some of the things these camps do in common are:
The Key to Success
The key to this whole process is to be uncompromisingly intentional about how we work with girls of this age and to believe it is totally possible for them to learn what it takes to become happy, healthy, and centered young women. With this attitude and this approach, success — though it may take time and much effort — is guaranteed.
Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., is a professional counselor who travels internationally training organizations who work with children and has worked with over one hundred summer camps. For more information, visit his Web site, www.MentorCounselor.com , or contact him at 415-441-8218 or by e-mail at Jleiken@MentorCounselor.com .
Originally published in the 2005 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.