“Self-esteem isn’t everything; it’s
just there’s nothing without it.”—Gloria Steinem
Many women whom you train or teach
struggle with body image issues, eating disorders and inactivity. While most
try to change destructive behavior patterns as adults, this is often a very
lengthy and painful process. The key is to prevent these behaviors from
forming at all. One way to do that is to address self-esteem issues during the
preteen (9-12) and teen (13-17) years.
As a fitness professional, you can play a significant role in
improving girls’ self-esteem. Encouraging physical activity helps stop
destructive behaviors from developing. Here’s a look at the types of fitness
activities girls prefer, some ways you can incorporate self-esteem-building activities into your work and reasons why it’s important to focus on
fitness and wellness.
What’s the Problem?
adolescent girls often lack self-esteem. According to one study, health
educators working with teenage girls thought that while these girls were more
independent than their baby boomer parents were as teens, today’s girls had
less self-confidence and a weaker self-image (Vagisil 2000).
Another study found that boys were more likely to say “I am happy
with the way I am” than girls of the same age (American Association of
University Women 1991). For example, 46 percent of high school boys were happy
with themselves, while only 29 percent of high school girls felt that way.
This lack of self-esteem can lead to depression among some girls.
One survey found that adolescent girls were at higher risk than boys of
suffering from depressive symptoms, and 29 percent of the girls reported having
suicidal thoughts (Commonwealth Fund 1997). Interestingly, there seems to be a
positive connection between physical activity and self-esteem. In one survey
girls with low self-confidence were found to be less likely to exercise every
day than girls with high self-confidence (Commonwealth Fund 1997).
So could it be that participating in fitness and sports can
actually improve girls’ self-esteem? One report suggests this may be so.
Commissioned by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, the
report found that exercise and sports participation can enhance mental health
by offering adolescent girls positive feelings about body image; improved
self-esteem; tangible experiences of competency and success; and increased
self-confidence. Moreover, the report cited research indicating that physical
activity is an effective tool for reducing symptoms of stress and depression
among girls (President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports 1997).
But the unfortunate reality is that many girls are turned off by
traditional exercise programs and turned on by interests that don’t involve
exercise. Your challenge is to motivate these girls to try—and continue with—a
physical activity program so they can reap the physical and psychological
How You Can Help
You can help
boost girls’ self-esteem by including specific self-esteem-building activities
and providing wellness information—on topics like healthy eating and nutrition,
smoking prevention and healthy body image—in your existing fitness classes or
personal training programs. You can also conduct separate self-esteem or
wellness workshops (either alone or with wellness and counseling
“The strength of our program is that we address exercise, smoking prevention, nutrition and body image,” says
Susan McDonald, executive director of GirlForce, an outreach program for
adolescent girls ages nine through 16 that is based out of Vanderbilt
University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. “These issues work in
[tandem] with each other. If you deal with one of these issues separately, your
effectiveness is weakened.”
Here’s a look at some programs designed to positively influence
created GirlForce in conjunction with medical, nutrition, wellness and
counseling professionals to help prevent negative body image from being
ingrained in girls at a young age. McDonald and other women volunteers
lead half-day GirlForce workshops for adolescent girls at their schools during
the school day. Each workshop is divided into four main components: exercise,
nutrition, body image and smoking prevention.
Half the girls (usually about 100 students) break into groups to
participate in the three wellness sessions, while the other half take part in
the exercise session. (To allay the girls’ worries about being sweaty in front
of boys, the boys are sent on a field trip during the entire workshop.) Midway
through the workshop, the groups switch activities. Each volunteer mentor is in
charge of a group of five or six girls and participates in everything the group
Component. Each mentor takes her group through different circuit
stations. The activities, taught by certified fitness instructors, include
high-low impact, step, kickboxing, rope jumping, upper- and lower-body strength
work, stability ball work and Forza samurai sword fighting using Nerf® swords.
Generation X music is played at high volume, and the workout concludes with a
cool-down, sometimes a yoga stretch.
Component. Nutritionists, or volunteers using materials developed
by GirlForce’s nutrition consultants, teach the girls about intuitive
eating—that is, learning to recognize true hunger and to understand why they
eat when they’re not physically hungry. The goal is to prevent girls from
ignoring their internal hunger cues.
Component. A psychologist or social worker talks about the
cultural origins of body image, the ways body images have changed over time,
the media’s influence over these images and examples of healthy role models.
Then the girls share their thoughts. “This issue has been taboo,” says
McDonald. “Just talking about this is a huge step forward for them.”
Prevention Component. One segment of the smoking prevention
component shows some of the girls’ photos “morphed” 20 years into the future to
predict what the girls would look like as two-pack-a-day smokers. This activity
gets the girls laughing and facilitates discussion about the negative health
effects of smoking.
At the end of the program, everyone comes together and then each
mentor talks to her group of girls about their experiences that day.
ElectriGirl Multiweek Workshop
Kristen DeLeo offers her ElectriGirl
workshop to girls ages 11 to 13 at schools in the Palos Verdes Peninsula
Unified School District in Los Angeles. This for-fee, afterschool program is
taught once a week for six weeks. The 90-minute program addresses fitness, team
building, communication skills and self-esteem. Here’s a typical six-week
DeLeo starts with introductions and icebreaker games, leads a girls’
empowerment game and talks about the program’s goals.
This fitness day might include a traditional group warm-up, hip-hopping across
the floor, an attitude walk (“Imagine you’re strong, you’re tough and you mean
business”), kickboxing, partner stretches and team-building exercises.
DeLeo teaches the girls to have a critical eye when looking at popular
magazines. Participants divide into groups, taking a pile of magazines with
them, and tear out ads that promote negative body image. Then, group by group,
the girls stand up, talk about why the ads made them mad and rip up the ads.
Next they look for positive ads in Jump, Sports Illustrated for Women
and Women’s Sports and Fitness. Lastly the girls make a “girl power”
collage of the positive images.
During this “spa day,” DeLeo talks to the girls about the importance of
nurturing themselves. She leads basic yoga poses, experiments with aromatherapy
and, as the girls relax, puts cucumber slices on their closed eyes and plays an
The girls make a video that addresses some of the issues important to them,
such as how hurtful gossip can be.
DeLeo leads a rap session. Before class, she puts slips of paper labeled with
different topics, such as smoking, body image, academics and celebrities, in a
bag. During class, each girl draws a slip of paper and talks about the topic
for 30 seconds. This opens up conversation. Then the girls watch the video they
made the week before and talk about what they’ve learned.
Newtown Girls Club
Girls ages 10
to 14 may join the Girls Club at the Newtown (Pennsylvania) Athletic and
Aquatic Club. Daughters of club members may join the Girls Club at no charge;
daughters of nonmembers may participate for $125 per nine- to 10-week session.
“We often do circuit type workouts one of two ways in the Girls
Club fitness classes,” notes Laurie Alstrom, the club’s group fitness director.
“In the first type we do the same activity together. A class might include a
warm-up, kickboxing, exercising on the PowerBoard, multistepping and a
cool-down with some light weights, vertical floor-work and stretching. In the
second type of circuit, four or five girls at a time go to different stations
and then rotate. Circuit stations might include bouncing on a stability ball
and hitting a punching bag with gloves on.” Often before class starts—or during
the cool-down—the instructor leads a discussion on a wellness topic.
a Nia blue belt instructor who teaches in Corunna, Michigan, invites her adult
Nia students to bring one female teen to class at no extra charge. Most
students are women, and they bring daughters, nieces and neighborhood
girls, who have come to love Nia. “I see wonderment on the faces of these girls
as they sit in a circle of women [Nia often starts with a short discussion,
with students in a circle], soaking up their comments about their bodies, their
struggles with life situations and the support they share,” says Moreland.
“Sometimes the girls begin a new activity by giving me a look that says,
‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ but once they see there is no judgment, they open
up and blossom.”
Not sure how you can intentionally
incorporate self-esteem-building activities into programs? Here are some
suggestions you can use when training or teaching girls:
Prompt Girls to
Make Up Their Own Moves. “Girls like creating their own steps,”
says Alstrom. “It makes them feel grown up because they are doing something the
role model [instructor] is usually in charge of.”
Get Girls to
Talk. By giving girls a voice, you show them that what they say
is valued. Lead a five-minute talk at the beginning of class or a longer talk
during a workshop. Talk about issues that are meaningful to the age group
and/or important for a healthy lifestyle: body image, boys, popularity and
dieting, for instance.
Question What It Means to Be Female. DeLeo leads an exercise
called “Sugar and Spice.” Divide participants into small groups and have them
write down whatever comes to mind related to being a girl. Usually things like
lipstick, miniskirts and boys come up. DeLeo then talks with the girls about
expanding their view of what females are about, and ideas like intelligence and
athletics are added. This activity shows girls they can be valued for many
qualities—not just looks.
Let Teens Serve
as Role Models. Vikki Van Hoosen is the girls’ sports programming
specialist with the Girl Scouts Golden Valley Council based in Fresno,
California. She often asks teenage girls to help younger girls in activities.
“The older girls feel like they are contributing, which makes them act like
leaders and helps their self-esteem.”
Teach Girls to
Question the Media’s Authority. Debunking the myth that only
models and actresses are worthy is hard to do. You might connect with the Go
for help in this area. Part of Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention (EDAP)
Inc. in Seattle, Go Girls! helps high school girls serve as advocates for
responsible advertising and positive body images of youth in the media and by
major retailers. The girls strengthen their own self-esteem and body image
while discovering they have power to effect change. “The girls might meet with
a given advertiser or retailer either to ask for greater representation of size
diversity or to commend the business for doing a good job,” says Holly Hoff,
EDAP program director.
Positive Impact of Programs
there is currently a lack of quantitative data showing that these programs
actually increase girls’ self-esteem. But GirlForce is in the process of
analyzing data from a year-long pilot study. The preliminary results? McDonald
says, “Girls are crying out for support, mentoring and knowledge that will help
them process the barrage of cultural messages that promote disordered eating,
sedentary lifestyles, smoking, and self-esteem that is contingent upon
appearance or the opinions of others.”
While quantitative data are lacking, there are plenty of qualitative
data. One GirlForce participant wrote, “I enjoyed all the activities. They were
fun and motivating. They all helped me feel better about myself and [helped] me
build up self-esteem.”
Similarly, a 12-year-old ElectriGirl participant wrote, “I
learned that . . . you shouldn’t feel bad that you don’t look like other people
(magazines, stars and the popular kids). I am powerful and no matter what
anyone says I am me and no one can change that. [And while] I’m not skinny, I’m beautiful on the inside
in my own way.”
Tips for Creating a Program
When creating self-esteem programs,
consider these suggestions:
Choose the Person in Charge. Female teachers will likely be most
successful. Girls need strong, positive female role models. Instructors must be
able to relate to teens and preteens and be “cool” and “on their level” without
losing control of the class.
Ask for Help.
Invite other fitness and wellness professionals, parents and teachers to assist
you. Also keep in mind that you don’t have to create a program from
scratch. Some organizations listed below in “Girls’ Resources” sell program templates.
Age Groups. Whom do you want to reach with the resources you
have? McDonald found that GirlForce worked best with fifth and sixth graders
because girls that age could learn to avoid negative health behaviors before
they started. Judy Notte Howard, MEd, a fitness professional who teaches for
the Richmond School Board and is the owner of Fit Kids Productions in
Vancouver, British Columbia, coordinated a two-day Planet Girl conference for
girls ages 10 to 14. “Next time I would do grades five, six and seven
[together] and then eight, nine and 10 together. A 10-year-old is very
different from a 14-year-old,” she says.
Cliques. DeLeo makes sure she has girls partner with girls they
don’t know. “This helps make the group more cohesive and ensures that the
‘popular’ girls aren’t all together,” she explains.
Invite Girls to
Serve as Your Advisory Board. Before Notte Howard conducted her
Planet Girl conference, she took a group of girls out to eat and asked them
what they wanted in a program. They told her they wouldn’t come to a weekend
workshop that started before noon!
Bring in Role
Models. Bring in powerful women speakers to serve as role
models. Van Hoosen involves athletes from California State University at Fresno
and female news anchors in her programs.
You Go, Girls!
and guidance can help girls increase self-esteem and avoid problems like
obesity, eating disorders, smoking and poor nutrition. There is a tremendous
need for women to step in as healthy role models and lend a hand. How will you
help the current generation of girls grow up healthy and active?
April Durrett is an award-winning health, fitness and lifestyle
writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2000 by IDEA
Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission
is strictly prohibited.
American Association of University Women. 1991. Shortchanging
Girls, Shortchanging America. Washington, DC.
Commonwealth Fund. 1997. The Commonwealth Fund Survey of
the Health of Adolescent Girls. New York.
President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. 1997. Physical
Activity & Sport in the Lives of Young Girls. Washington, DC.
Vagisil Women’s Health CenterSM. 2000. Teenage girls today
more independent, yet lack self-esteem. www.vagisil.com/news_teengirls.html;
retrieved August 17.
Winning Workouts for Girls