Nearly everywhere we look, the media subject us to negative images of women. The same tired tropes seem almost indestructible—alpha bitch, bridezilla, clingy jealous girlfriend, femme fatale, the list goes on and on. Flip through the channels for a few minutes, and it may look like feminism never even happened. When I was growing up, my feminist role-model was, no joke, Lisa Simpson.
Many of us progressively minded people inevitably worry about the ways in which these images will influence young women and girls. Do these tropes encourage them to be vapid and boy-crazy? They certainly can. As the wonderful documentary Miss Representation put it, “You can't be what you don't see.” As a lonely Mexican-American feminist growing up in a working-class neighborhood, I was desperate for role models and encouragement, and I don't think anyone else should have to grow up this way.
It's certainly not hopeless. Whether we're parents or simply concerned citizens, together we can encourage girls to cultivate their talents and love themselves. Though it's impossible to shield girls from backward representations, it is possible to inspire them to be fearless, independent and productive members of society.
Here are ways five ways to do just that.
1. Support girls' creativity.
Encouraging girls to express themselves and create things with their own hands is a great way to help them feel accomplished and develop a strong sense of self. This will help them seek validation in their work instead of male attention. Girls are too often rewarded for their looks instead of their skills. I always sound maudlin when I say that poetry saved my life, but it absolutely did. Had it not been for my creative outlet, I know I would have succumbed to the depression I grappled with as a teenager.
Not only does creativity help children feel good about themselves, it can prepare them for success in their future careers. Creativity develops critical-thinking skills, and is now considered to be the most valuable trait for managers, according to an IBM survey of 1,500 CEOs.
Research by Jonathan Plucker, professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education, in Storrs, also found that creativity tests given to elementary-school students in the 1950s were three times better than IQ tests at predicting their success as adults more than 30 years later.
According to Center for American Progress, American women hold almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs, but substantially lag behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership roles. Of course, much of this is a result of sexism in the workplace, but helping girls grow their creativity can help them thrive in their future professions.
Buy the girl in your life art supplies, puzzles, books, robots, beads, electronics, woodworking kits—anything to get her mind and hands working in new and surprising ways.
2. Volunteer with girls.
Though one should always be mindful about how and where to volunteer, giving back to the community is a great way for young women to learn empathy, gratitude, and establish a sense of morality. Understanding the needs and challenges of others can help girls realize that the world is much more complex and vast than they might have thought.
Helping others can also increase their self-confidence, self-esteem and life satisfaction. Volunteering helps them develop their skills and communicate and meet new people, therefore making their lives more fulfilling.
And like laughter, volunteering can also be good for physical health. A study published by BMC Public Health found that volunteering is associated with lower depression, increased well-being, and a 22 percent reduction in the risk of dying.
You can start by visiting nursing home, delivering meals, volunteering at an animal shelter or wildlife rescue group, or walking to fight a disease.
3. Help girls develop a sense of humor.
Humor can help girls be resilient and cope with life's endless vicissitudes. Had it not been for my ability to laugh at myself and life's traumas and absurdities, I think I would have spent much of my adult life crying in my closet.
And what is more satisfying than making someone laugh? Funny people often receive positive attention and admiration. Again, this can help girls understand that they have much more to offer than their bodies.
Not only that, laughter is good for your health. A good laugh can calm stress, increase your heart rate and blood pressure, stimulate circulation, and aid muscle relaxation.
Help the girls in your life cultivate their wit by taking them to a comedy show or signing them up for improv class.
4. Encourage physical activity.
Girls are often confronted with messages that influence them to feel dissatisfied with their bodies. Focusing on strength and exercise can help them see see their bodies as instruments instead of merely ornaments.
According to the Women's Sports Foundation, high school girls who play sports are more likely to have a positive body image than those who don't. Not only that, sports can help them make better choices for themselves. Girls in sports are less likely to be involved in an unintended pregnancy, more likely to get better grades in school, and more likely to graduate.
Exercise, obviously, also helps keep girls healthy. As little as four hours of exercise a week can help reduce a teenage girl’s risk of breast cancer by up to 60 percent. Sports can also help prepare young women for the working world. Many of the unspoken rules in business are ones men often learn through playing sports. It's important that boys and girls are given the same playing field for their future success.
Even if they don't want to play on a team, girls can exercise by dancing, walking, hiking, walking the dog, or simply playing with friends.
5. Travel with girls.
While this isn't financially possible for everyone, traveling can really enrich a child's life. Exposing girls to different cultures, lifestyles and environments can help them develop a deeper understanding of the world, and see life in a fresh new way. The challenges encountered in traveling can make girls more adaptable to their surroundings and sharpen their problem-solving skills.
Even taking girls camping or on a day trip to a nearby city can give them a new perspective and cultivate their curiosity.
I know that traveling as a young woman made me feel tough and independent like nothing else could.