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Helping Girls Help Themselves

by April Durrett on Sep 01, 1997

Shine a light into the darkness of girls’ adolescent years by conducting sports or fitness programs.

Throughout childhood, most young girls are outgoing, self-confident, curious adventurers interested in exploring the world and all it has to offer. Happy with themselves and their place in the world, they interact positively with their families and friends.
All this drastically changes as girls approach their teen years. Adolescence becomes a war zone girls must navigate as they constantly dodge societal pressures to be thin, to fit in and to mold themselves to the cultural ideal of beauty.
Navigating these hurdles can shake the self-confidence of even the most assertive girls. For those less confident, teenage pressures cause lasting damage. Some of the more serious consequences include bulimia, anorexia, compulsive overeating, depression, early sexual activity, teenage pregnancy, drug use, self-mutilation and suicide attempts.
How can fitness professionals help preadolescent and adolescent girls during this turbulent time? You can help by understanding their experience and leading them in sports or fitness programs. By introducing girls to the love of physical activity and motivating them to adhere to it on a consistent basis, you can tremendously impact their lives.
To assist you in working with this group, this article will address what is happening with today’s female teens, how sports and fitness can benefit them and what types of programs will work best for them.
What’s Going On?
As girls enter their teenage years, their worlds turn upside down. Mary Pipher, PhD, author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, likens adolescence to the “Bermuda Triangle.” She explains, “Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence. Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn in a social and developmental Bermuda Triangle. . . . They lose their resiliency and optimism and become less curious and [less] inclined to take risks. They . . . become more deferential, self-critical and depressed. They report great unhappiness with their own bodies.”
Many girls, relatively happy or unconcerned with their bodies as children, become obsessed with body image as teens. According to research conducted jointly by the Melpomene Institute for Women’s Health Research and Shape magazine, the more a teen becomes aware her figure is developing, the more she begins to critique its every detail. In a survey of almost 3,800 females ages 11 to 17, subjects were asked what they would change about themselves if they could. Here were their top answers, published in the November 1995 issue of Shape :
11-year-olds: nothing, hair and height
14-year-olds: stomach, height, butt and personality/attitude
17-year-olds: legs, abs, gain muscle/lose fat/tone body, butt, hips and waist
Judging from these replies, 11-year-old girls are not primarily concerned with their bodies; preoccupation with body image increases by age 14 and is in full bloom by age 17.
A groundbreaking 1991 study by the American Asso­ciation of University Women also illuminates girls’ dissatisfaction with themselves. While 60 percent of girls in elementary school reported they were always “happy the way I am,” only 29 percent of high-school girls agreed. Percentages for boys dropped less—from 67 percent for elementary-school boys to 46 percent for high schoolers.
Why do girls as a group lose so much confidence? Pipher points to the developmental and hormonal changes occurring within their bodies; societal pressures to be thin and beautiful; and, especially for American girls, the expectation that they distance themselves from their parents just when they might most need their families’ support. Pipher adds that in the 1990s these pressures are even more intense than in past decades, because divorced parents, chemical addictions, casual sex and violence against women are more prevalent.
How Physical Activity Can Help
The good news is that preadolescent and adolescent girls’ participation in sports or fitness can counteract these negative influences and help on physiological, social, emotional and mental levels.
A subcategory of the previously mentioned Melpomene/Shape research looked at  953 girls ages 11 to 17. The research (included in the Summer 1996 Melpomene Journal) reported that girls who were “more physically active” (en­gaged in some activity 6 or 7 days a week) were more likely to feel positive about their appearance and weight and felt more competent. Their self-esteem was enhanced through achievement and team affiliation.
Physical Activity & Sport in the Lives of Girls, a research review from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, concluded that exercise and sports participation can be used as a therapeutic and preventive intervention for enhancing the physi­cal and mental health of adolescent females. Published in 1997, the report also suggests that physical activity is an ef­fective tool for reducing stress and de­pression among this population.
These findings echoed statistics compiled by the Women’s Sports Foundation showing that 50 percent of girls who participate in some kind of sport experience higher levels of self-esteem and less depression than those who don’t.
“Physical activity gives girls a different context [in which] to look at their bodies,” explains Lynn Jaffee, program director of the Melpomene Institute. “Instead of looking at their bodies and thinking, ‘I’m too fat,’ or ‘I’m getting breasts,’ they think about how fast or strong they are. Discovering their own physical competence is tremendously valuable. It helps them take risks in other situations,” she adds.
Girls and Sports
Participating in school or community sports teams is one way for girls to reap the benefits of physical activity. Working one-to-one with a sports mentor provides another avenue.
The Athlete Mentor Program for Girls—conducted by SportsBridge: The Center for Girls and Women in Sports in San Francisco, California—is an example of an effective sports mentorship program. This program empowers “multicultural” girls ages 11 to 14 through sports participation, and pairs girls from low- to moderate-income households with mul­ticultural adult women. The girls and mentors meet for two to five hours each week to play sports, work on homework and volunteer on community service projects. Each girl works with her mentor to determine how best to spend their time together, based on goals the girl develops at the beginning of the mentorship. Once a month, everyone in the program takes part in a special group activity, such as attending a women’s college basketball game and meeting the players.
If you’d like to start a similar program, SportsBridge executive director Ann Kletz recommends beginning with a small pilot program, having clear-cut objectives and designing your program based on input from the girls involved.
The Need for Fitness
While both sports and fitness can boost girls’ self-esteem, girls who don’t care to play sports need special fitness classes targeted to them.
In Canada, a 1991 initiative known as On the Move is devoted to increasing the participation of young girls in recreational activities. This initiative—which is gaining momentum in Canada—urges professionals to develop programs that attract teen girls who avoid sports because they lack certain physical skills or self-confidence, dislike competition or are self-conscious about their bodies.
Mona Ceniceros, MS, adjunct faculty member at Mankato State University in Mankato, Minnesota, and creator of the Girls in Motion (G.I.M.) program for girls ages nine to 12, adds, “Sports enrich the lives of and help build self-esteem for girls who are good at them, but they also have as much potential to devastate deconditioned girls who aren’t [good at them].”
As a fitness professional, then, you can fill a niche by providing an effective alternative for those girls who don’t feel comfortable participating in sports.
Girls’ Fitness Classes
What type of class meets the physical needs of preadolescent and adolescent girls and helps build their self-esteem? Here are some successful class models:
Girls in Motion. G.I.M. is a noncompetitive, non-appearance-based physical activity program targeting girls ages nine to 12. It uses an all-inclusive, mind-body-spirit approach to help girls unload societal pressures about body image and encourage them to find and follow their individual paths to their health and fitness potential. Ceniceros, the program creator, designed it with help from her oldest daughter.
The 60- to 75-minute classes meet once a week and are divided into three parts:
 First, Ceniceros leads a discussion group on a health education topic, such as nutrition, eating disorders or body image. For example, in one class she might bring in fashion magazines and explain how photographs of fashion models’ bodies are often altered using computer imaging. The girls feel better about themselves once they realize that even models aren’t as perfect as they look.
Next, the girls participate in a noncompetitive physical activity, which changes each week. The goal is to give the class a broad view of physical activ­ity by introducing movement choices as varied as walking, yoga, step and belly dancing.
 Finally, Ceniceros demonstrates stress reduction techniques, such as deep breathing and guided visualization, and teaches the girls how they can practice these at home.
She believes the order of these three program elements is crucial because the exercise dissipates the emotion that comes up during the discussion group and prepares the girls for the relaxation phase of the class.
Ceniceros cited some reasons her program has been successful:
 She conducts the classes at times and places convenient for the girls—right after classes are over at their schools and on Saturdays at a local health club.
 She brings in other community experts to help throughout the eight-week session. For example, a public health nurse might talk about hygiene, a guest instructor might teach a funk class or a large-sized woman might share what it feels like to be heavy. “Using other experts shows girls the community cares about them,” remarks Ceniceros.
She gives parents a syllabus de­scribing what the girls will be doing throughout the program. “This educates parents and helps them initiate discussion about health-related topics with their daughters,” she says.
  She charges a low rate to make the class accessible to girls of all income levels.
MTV Dance. Taught at The Fitness Group in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, MTV Dance is an hour-long class for girls ages nine to 12. Judy Notte, MEd, an elementary-school teacher and fitness professional who specializes in this population, focuses on teaching participants very basic, adapted hip-hop skills. “I want the girls to leave feeling good about movement, not saying, ‘I will never get that step.’” Until now the class has been offered in four-week sessions on Fridays at 4:30 pm and on Saturdays at noon, but Notte plans to offer eight-week sessions in the future.
Dance Jam. This once-a-week class showcases a different style of exercise each week so the girls won’t get bored. Sample activities include step, funk, high-low aerobics, circuit training and body conditioning. “One way girls give input is by bringing their own music and showing me moves they’ve learned from television or movies and want to incorporate in class,” notes program instructor Mirabai Holland, MFA, an international fitness consultant from Palisades Park, New Jersey, and creator of the All WinnersTM Cooperative Fitness Play program for kids.
Fitness Clubs and Camps
Another way to reach girls is to offer special fitness clubs and camps, which can foster a sense of safety and community.
Fitness Clubs. “As girls move into teen years, they are looking for a more social environment and need a nurturing, safe, comfortable place to try new activities,” says Notte. To meet this need, The Fitness Group is starting a special “club” with programming for different age groups (8 to 10, 11 to 12, and 13 and older). Opening this fall, the club will schedule classes similar to MTV Dance (described above) during popular workout times for parents. It will also offer membership cards, newsletters, and social events that focus on learning a new activity, such as in-line skating. The club is tentatively called Girls on the Move, but Notte will involve the girls in making the final naming decision.
Fitness Camps. If you can’t offer a regularly scheduled class for female teens or preteens, conducting a sum­mer camp is another option. Kristen Janikas, youth fitness director for Frog’s Athletic Clubs in Encinitas and Solana Beach, California, facilitated a week-long day camp for girls 12 to 15 last summer. The camp ran from 10:00 Am to 2:00 pm every day and included three segments:
l Cardio Blast, which offered supervised instruction on cardiovascular equipment
Movin’ and Groovin’, which included activities like hip hop, self-defense instruction, acting and—a camp fav­orite—creating music videos
Mind and Body, which featured group discussions and exercise modalities such as yoga. During the group discussions Janikas put slips of paper labeled with different topics—like peer pressure, boys and homework—into a hat. Each of the girls pulled out a topic, discussed it for a minute and then opened it up to the group.
One-Time Events
Conducting one-time workshops or classes can pique girls’ interest in health and fitness so they explore activities on their own or want to participate in a program you start.
One-Time Classes. Holland and two other instructors offered a Fit Friday class for 13- to 15-year-olds one Friday night. The instructors taught a dance routine. After class, the girls ate healthy snacks and “vogued” (posed in dance moves).
After-School Workshops. In addition to offering events at your facility, you can also go into schools or community centers. Notte teaches hour-long after-school workshops at local schools. She targets nonathletic girls and focuses on exposing them to new activities they can participate in successfully. Sample workshop topics include fitness walking, hip hop, nutrition, circuit training, active living and the benefits of exercise. She also shares her life story and her struggles with eating disorders. Afterward she leads a discussion period, asking girls to write questions and put them in a hat. She then pulls out questions and answers them. In this way, personal questions remain anonymous and can be answered without singling anyone out.
Personal Training
While some girls enjoy the camaraderie of a fitness class, others feel shy, awkward and uncomfortable exercising in front of their peers. The most effective method of reaching these less confident girls is through personal training.
Kim Bundy, who works with girls in Morgantown, West Virginia, and is the coproducer and instructor of the “Extreme Teen Step Workout” videotape, trains many girls, often in tandem with their mothers. She shows the girls how to incorporate movement they love into their lifestyles, explains behavior modification techniques and teaches them about body composition. “I have to explain that if you weigh 123 pounds, this is not pure fat,” says Bundy. She believes the mothers’ involvement helps the girls and their families adopt healthy lifestyles.
Vikki Van Hoosen of Personal Edge Training Company in Los Angeles, California, specializes in working with teens, especially those in the entertainment industry. She likes to go for hikes with new clients and talk to them to determine their current activities and goals. When working with teenage girls, she focuses on healthy eating and fun activities, and steers away from promoting activity as a means of improving one’s looks.
Targeting Teens and Preteens
When designing programming, what ages should you target? Girls in their teens (13 to 17) need programs, but so do those in the preteen years (9 to 12). Programs for teens provide positive benefits that can counteract some of the negative effects of adolescence. Just as important, however, are programs that help nine- to 12-year-old girls learn to love physical activity before they reach the dreaded Bermuda Triangle years.
When her oldest daughter was nine, Ceniceros overheard her and her friends fretting about being fat. She soon found this concern was common among girls that age. In conducting research on girls nine to 12 for her master’s degree, Ceniceros discovered that even though many negative health behaviors don’t surface until later, they lie under the surface as early as age nine. “That’s why it’s important for fitness professionals to jump in there and provide preventive programming for those nine to 12,” she explains.
Jaffee also thinks it’s a good idea to start working with girls in this age range.
“You have a better chance of having them as a captive audience then. If they haven’t started being active by 15 or 16, many girls have the attitude that it’s too late,” she says.
For Girls Only
When designing programs for nine- to 17-year-olds, you need to decide if you offer classes exclusively for girls or make your programs coed.
Some fitness professionals think mixing boys and girls is fine. These professionals either plan classes that appeal to both genders or design class content that appeals mostly to girls without excluding boys.
Although Janikas felt justified offering a one-time girls-only camp, she is less comfortable consistently excluding boys. She thinks that if fitness professionals do offer regular girls-only programming within their facilities, they need to educate members about why girls benefit from classes of their own.
Many other fitness professionals believe offering programs just for girls is crucial. Ceniceros says, “A lot of times girls don’t move or talk as freely in a coed group. Once they get to be preteens, they need a gender-specific class.” Van Hoosen adds, “Once girls hit 14 or 15, they are drastically different from boys. Many girls just aren’t as competitive at that age.”
Important Program Elements
When designing classes, keep in mind the followingpoints:
Offer Age-Appropriate Classes. You want to bring together girls of similar ages so they can relate well to one another’s experiences. “Don’t make the age groups too broad, even if you think that will attract more girls,” advises Ceniceros. “The difference between third and sixth graders is immense.”
Experiment With a Variety of Activ­ities. Ceniceros teaches a different activity each week, so if girls don’t like something one week, they’ll still come back the next. Notte suggests offering different choices within a girls’ club. “Some girls will enjoy the fitness class approach, while others will want to learn how to do activities like rock climbing or throwing a softball,” she says.
Incorporate Stress-Relieving Acti­vities. Teens especially need activities that can help them focus and be still. Guided visualization, imagery, meditation and stretching are good choices.
Structure Activities That Promote a Sense of Personal Competence. Notte ensures that the steps in her classes aren’t too difficult. Bundy says girls might not be as fit as you would imagine. “You might think they could easily do x number of minutes of cardiovascular conditioning, but they might be able to do only half that. You need to be flexible when teaching and immediately change a movement if you see girls struggling. A big thing in teaching this group is to make sure no one gets embarrassed,” Bundy explains.
Focus on Fun, Particularly At First. “Don’t preach why exercise is important,” says Notte. “Girls will be apprehensive and nervous, especially in the beginning. If you create a bond with them and they like you, you will have plenty of time to educate them later.”
Sarah Scott, owner of Ironsmith Body Inc. Sports Training Center in Austin, Texas, specializes in training athletes in small groups. To hold girls’ interest, she advises alternating between meaningful and fun activities.
Promote Social Interaction and Acceptance of All Participants. “Girls have been welcome to drop into classes, but we have found this does not happen,” explains Notte. “They tend to sign up with friends, and I have found their attendance is more consistent if they do come with their buddies.”
Janikas says that with a new class, conducting “icebreaker” games is essential to prevent girls from “keeping walls up.” The purpose of icebreakers is to ensure “popular” and “unpopular” girls mingle and talk to each other. As classes continue, you should closely watch the group’s interaction; periodically, you may need to introduce additional icebreakers. Sample icebreakers include asking girls to pair up with other girls they don’t know and find out their partners’ favorite movie stars, or telling participants to form groups with girls they don’t know. “It’s better to positively deal with cliques rather than just ignore them,” notes Janikas.
Include Elements to Boost Self-Esteem. In addition to increasing girls’ fitness levels, building self-esteem is one of the most important services your fitness classes can provide. Here are some ideas for increasing self-esteem:
Encourage positive health behaviors rather than weight loss. Talk about goals like building muscle and increasing endurance and flexibility. “Never talk about which body parts girls hate most or which they want to slim down,” says Janikas.
 Talk about how being healthy can help girls enjoy outdoor activities, such as in-line skating.
  When conducting discussions, act as a facilitator but don’t preach. Focus on getting the girls to talk and tap into their own knowledge about themselves, rather than telling them what you think is right and wrong.
  Encourage the girls to be unique, notes Janice Ward, a certified NIA (Neuromuscular Integrative Action) trainer and black-belt instructor in Fairfax, Virginia. “In the beginning of my NIA classes, I tell [the students] there is nothing to get right and no wrong way to move. I encourage them to come up with their own styles of movement.”
Compliment their accomplishments and tell them they are beautiful inside, rather than focusing on externals, like cute clothing, Ward suggests.
Tips for Instructors
The fitness professionals interviewed for this article suggest the following tips for working with this group:
Choose Women Instructors. While many adult women enjoy being taught by a male instructor, preteen and teenage girls are self-conscious about their bodies and usually feel more comfortable with a woman.
Relate to Girls on Their Level. “To get a rapport going, you want to become like [the girls]. Use music they like, and know what’s cool for their age. They should see you as a trusted friend,” says Bundy.
Van Hoosen adds, “With [girls in] this age group I am professional but try not to talk down to them. I never tell them they are wrong or stupid.”
Create an Unintimidating Envi­ron­ment. If possible, find a private space in which to conduct your classes. Notte also recommends dressing in big, loose clothing and creating a supportive environment that encourages acceptance of all participants.
“Make sure you are careful with your language,” notes Bundy. “Girls at this age are very sensitive. You might be teasing if you say, ‘Hey, Mary, that’s a big ol’ orange T-shirt you’re wearing,’ but Mary might be hurt by this.”
Be a Good Listener. Girls this age often need to talk about their feelings and experiences to an adult who is not a parent. You can be an empathetic listener without crossing into the counselor realm.
“It’s important to be compassionate and listen without judging. It’s not your job to get the girls to talk, but you want to create a safe space if they do show their emotions inside or outside class,” advises Ward.
Van Hoosen makes a point of sharing how she feels about subjects like healthy eating. She feels this opens the door for girls to talk if they so desire.
“Girls tend to discuss things on a more individual basis. That’s why being available before and after classes is important,” says Notte. “By the end of a four-week session, I always have girls coming early to talk. That’s when they raise issues.”
Be Flexible, But Establish Some Simple Rules. “You want to be sensitive to girls’ needs, but also provide them with boundaries,” recommends Notte.
Before Teaching a Class, Educate Yourself. Janikas suggests reading child development books about preadolescents and teens. Learning how to communicate well with these groups is especially crucial. Scott believes you need to understand the unique anatomical differ­ences of girls in different age brackets. “You can’t just use a paint-by-num­bers approach,” she says.
Refer Girls to Other Health Profes­sionals If Needed. If you suspect a young woman has or is developing an eating disorder, immediately help her get counseling, advises Notte. Because the subject of eating disorders is sensitive, Notte recommends expressing your concerns to the child’s parent or guardian instead of going directly to the girl.
A Call for Action
Our industry has a chance to make a positive difference in the health and well-being of young women. Developing programs to meet their needs will help us begin to lay the foundation for a healthy, active lifestyle in adulthood,” Notte says.
As a fitness professional, your special gifts can help you shed some much-needed light on what can be a dark period in a young girl’s life. Through your expertise, empathy and positive role modeling, you have a tremendous opportunity to brighten the lives of coming gen­era­tions of females.
April Durrett is senior editor of IDEA Today. She has interviewed hundreds of fitness professionals over the past 10 years.

Building self-esteem is one of the most important services your sports or fitness classes can provide.

Teens especially need activities such as guided visualization, to help them focus and be still.

Title IX: Has It Made a Difference?

In 1972, the United States Congress passed Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender at educational institutions receiving federal funds. Title IX mandates proportional participation opportunities based on the percentage of men and women attending a given institution. The purpose of Title IX was to increase scholarships and funding for women’s sports and give women opportunities to participate in the sports of their choice.
Twenty-five years after passage of Title IX, is it really working? The answer is both yes and no.
Triumphs by women’s Olympic soccer, basketball and softball teams and the emergence of professional women’s sports leagues are two positive indicators, notes Janet Lee in Women’s Sports & Fitness magazine. Also, a USA Today analysis reports that women’s soccer and crew are big winners in the world of college sports. Female athletes in these sports feel they are treated equally with the men who participate in the same sports.
Unfortunately, when it comes to funding, Title IX has met with less success. “Although the number of women participating in college athletic programs is increasing, colleges are still overwhelmingly spending their money on men’s programs, according to a five-year study of gender equity by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA),” reports Amy Shipley in the Washington Post.
The mixed news, she adds, is that “women gained in [sports] participation, scholarship dollars, coaches’ salaries and operating expenditures, but that progress was dwarfed by the 90 percent increase in operating expenses for men’s athletic programs, especially considering men’s participation has fallen 10 percent since the release of the NCAA’s last study in 1992.”
Richard E. Lapchick, PhD, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, says, “Overall, Title IX has not achieved its expectations. However, it has served as a vehicle for women in athletics to pursue equal standing and oppose institutionalized sexism.”
The challenge in upholding the mandates of Title IX continues to center on money. Some college administrators, athletic directors and coaches say it makes sense to spend more on traditionally popular and male-dominated sports, such as football, that bring schools money and acclaim. With the rising costs of all sports, many college staff members believe in gender equity but do not see how they can implement Title IX without eliminating the funding needed for men’s sports. In fact, one trend is to cut less popular men’s sports (like wrestling, swimming and gymnastics) to even out the percentage of men and women involved in sports and earmark more money for women’s sports to comply with Title IX.
The future outlook for increased adherence to Title IX is looking up for two reasons. First, women athletes are bringing—and winning—lawsuits against colleges for intentional discrimination. Second, the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act of 1996 requires coed colleges and universities receiving federal funds to disclose statistics about their sports funding and participation.
Lee feels these developments are causing schools to increase efforts to comply with Title IX, albeit out of fear or duty. As female athletes continue to receive more public acceptance and recognition (and ultimately lucrative product endorsements and network television coverage), defending Title IX and the rights it accords to women will probably be an easier task.


Melpomene Institute, (612) 642-1951, fax (612) 642-1871, e-mail, Resources include  “Heroes: Growing Up Female and Strong” (videotape and curriculum); “Girls, Physical Activity & Self-Esteem,” “Body Image” and “Eating Disorders” (information packets); and “Girls, Self-Esteem & Sports” (brochure).
The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, (202) 272-3421. The council prints executive summaries of Physical Activity & Sport in the Lives of Girls: Physical & Mental Health Dimensions From an Interdisciplinary Approach. The executive summary is also available at
Women’s Sports Foundation, (516) 542-4700, fax (516) 542-4716. Resources include “Title IX: An Educational Resource Kit,” “Parent’s Guide to Girls’ Sports” and the videotape “Girls & Sports: The Winning Combination.”
Print Resources
Girls in Motion, 20 Goldfinch Ct., N. Mankato, MN 56003, (507) 625-8661. The program manual is available for $17 plus $3 shipping.
h.s. SPORTS magazine (the magazine for high-school girls), (303) 440-5111.
Jump magazine, (888) 369-5867, e-mail Also available on newsstands. Targeted to girls ages 15 to 19, the magazine includes sports and fitness information and places emphasis on feeling good on the inside.
Promotions Plus, (604) 737-3075, fax (604) 738-7175. Resources include “On the Move: Canada Initiative” (program guidelines and overviews of successful programs) and “Girls in the ’90s.”

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About the Author

April Durrett

April Durrett IDEA Author/Presenter

April Durrett is a contributing editor for IDEA Fitness Journal.