“Write down eight of your most positive qualities.”
I have asked hundreds of girls and women to do this. I am talking about the positive traits that describe who they are internally, their core selves. This activity is part of the programming we do for MEDIAGIRLS, a nonprofit that teaches girls to strike back against media messaging saying their worth comes from how sexy and thin they are. If we are going to tell girls to stop measuring their worth against impossible beauty standards, we must give them a better measuring stick.
My goal is to help girls understand that they have inherent self-worth. They don’t have to have a “thigh gap” or make their lips seem fuller. Nor do they have to scale a rock-climbing wall or get straight A’s. They already are unique and valuable as they are. Very few girls and women, we’ve learned, have stopped to ever think about their best qualities. Girls may be told they’re “special” or “loved,” if they’re lucky. But that is very different than understanding and appreciating what makes them unique and worthwhile.
Best pie you’ll ever make
We ask our participants to create an identity pie-chart (see pic) and map out eight qualities that describe their core self. They often balk, “Eight?! I can barely come up with three!” Or, “Do they have to be positive?” “If you’re having a hard time,” our teachers say, “don’t worry. Maybe think of some qualities about you that would be mentioned by someone who loves you and knows you well.” Eventually, just about all fill their plates, given time and encouragement (and stickers and color markers for decoration available only after compile their list).
We then ask if any might share what’s on their pie plate. Most will look down at their desk, radiating “please don’t call on me” energy. At this point, we say, “We know it takes a lot of bravery to do this. We’re not going to force anyone to share but would anyone like to be brave? You will be awarded with respect, and applause for courage.” A couple girls will raise their hand, and share what’s on their plate, looking up to make sure they are not being judged harshly. Then they will bask in the applause, which encourages plenty of other girls to share too.
This is not bragging
Lastly, we ask who found this activity challenging, and just about all participants will raise their hand. We ask why, and hear back: “I never think about what’s good about me.” Or, “I spend far more time thinking about my bad qualities.” Girls will always say that it feels like bragging. If there’s one thing you want to avoid as a middle-school girl, it’s standing alone in front of a room announcing what makes you worthwhile. You are just asking for eye rolls, or utterances of, “she thinks she’s all that!” In this activity, we’re asking girls for the information, and they’re all doing it together. For those wondering if boys struggle too with this issue, I don’t see this happening when we teach boys. They seem to have a far easier time filling out their pie plates and announcing “I’m athletic!” “I’m smart!” “I’m funny!”
It is essential that girls–and women–understand and can easily define our self-worth, publicly and privately. It is at the heart of every decision we will ever make: who we choose as friends and significant others; what we expect from our relationships; what goals we set for ourselves; whether we advocate for others, and what we believe we can achieve. This is not a one-time conversation, it’s one parents and educators need to keep revisiting for our girls and ourselves.
Try this: Do our identity pie-plate exercise with her. Make one for yourself alongside her, and share with her when you’re done (it’s good for her to know you see your own worth). Let her decide if she wants to share her list with you. Don’t fret if she doesn’t; it’s about her knowing what she brings to the table. If she does share, don’t correct or challenge her on her choices. As long as there are positive qualities she identifies with herself, she’s aced it. Make it clear to your girl(s) that there is a huge difference in boasting and knowing that you are valuable. Tell her that self-worth doesn’t come from excelling at one thing or being naturally gifted. It is already sitting right there, yearning to be noticed.