The Rise of Girls
They’re staging ‘die-ins’ at the UN in the name of global warming awareness, speaking out publicly for gun reform, fighting international governments for equal rights, being elected into government roles, standing up for equality and pay equity. They’re starting businesses, running charities, using coding and STEM to solve real world problems. They’re training to work in trades. They’re breaking gender barriers their mothers and grandmothers could only dream of. Beyoncé says they run the world. Oprah says their new day is on the horizon. The world is telling them that the time is now. So, what’s it like to be a girl in 2019?
by Hailey Eisen
“It’s a very exciting time,” says Lindsay Sealey, author of Growing Strong Girls. “But, with endless possibilities and infinite choice also comes a great deal of stress.”
Lindsay works in Vancouver as a coach, speaker, and educator, helping girls navigate the teenage years by looking at stress, social media, body image, self-confidence, and mental health, as well as academic, social, and emotional development.
“Girls feel the change happening in the world, they see the advantage and privilege afforded to them, but they also feel a lot of responsibility. We tell them, girls can be anything, and what they often hear is, girls have to be everything.”
In many ways, they are meeting the challenge. “Research shows that girls are experiencing tremendous success in areas such as academics, athletics, activism, and business,” Lindsay says. “Girls are making huge strides in areas which society deems important. But while success rates are rising, self-esteem, bravery, confidence, and risk-taking are falling — because with the bar now set really high, pushing the bar becomes a lot scarier.”
Lindsay calls it ‘SuperGirl Syndrome.’ Trying to be everything to all people. And, she says, while some girls find it debilitating, others don the cape and run with it.
Ashley Zhiyue He (pictured left) is one of the girls who’s running with it. She has no trouble believing that girls can do anything. She’s watched her mom lead by example — emigrating from China, raising two children, and starting her own wealth management firm — and attended, since Grade 9, one of Toronto’s most prestigious all-girls’ schools. Girl power, it seems, is in her blood, and she’s leapt at the opportunities afforded to her to empower other girls her age.
“I’d like more young people to realize that the platforms we have available to us are so unbelievably amazing — how many people we can reach and how far our voices can be heard,” she says.
Ashley has taken YouTube — a social media tool oft associated by teenage girls with fashion and makeup tutorials, unboxing videos, and celebrity commentary — and done something different. Her goal is to empower girls of her generation to have grit and tackle the world without fear, and she’s doing so by interviewing empowered and successful women.
“When I was younger I wanted to be a YouTuber — to get paid for promoting cool stuff online,” Ashley says. “But I now realize that while entertainment is important, the real power is in using our voices to spread positive messages.”
The idea for Ashley’s YouTube channel, GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS, started when she turned to her mom for advice about what she would do when she grew up. Nearing the end of her high school career, Ashley knew she had some decisions to make, but she had a variety of interests and wasn’t sure what direction to take. “My mom suggested I speak with other women at the start of their careers and ones whose careers were already underway, to see what their experiences have been like and how they chose the path they’re on,” she recalls.
Ashley, being of Generation Z, figured that if she was going to talk with these women anyway, she might as well record them and post them to YouTube in hopes of helping other girls like her.
She’s now completed nearly two dozen interviews, including with former Canadian Senator, Vivienne Poy; activist, educator, and founder of The Period Purse, Jana Girdauskas; and former Team Canada Olympic archery coach, Joan McDonald — and that’s just the beginning. “So far, I’ve interviewed women through connections I have, but my goal is to expand and connect with interview subjects and viewers across the country,” Ashley says.
“When I was younger I wanted to be a YouTuber — to get paid for promoting cool stuff online but I now realize that while entertainment is important, the real power is in using our voices to spread positive messages.”
While she did have to step out of her comfort zone to put herself on camera and send the finished videos out to her peers, she says the response has been amazing. “I was a really shy kid, and if you’d told me five years ago I would be doing something like this, I would have thought it was crazy,” she says. “But my friends have been really supportive and I’ve received a lot of great feedback — and it makes me feel really good.”
As for her own plans for the future, Ashley says she’d like to go to school in the United States and hopes to find a way to combine her interests in STEM and media. She’ll also continue to grow her YouTube channel and see where it leads. “I think the biggest challenge most young girls face is being too hard on themselves,” she says. “As women, we feel like we need to prove ourselves, that we have to be perfect — that’s something I’m working on, too.”
And Ashley’s not alone. While the narrative for girls is certainly changing — look at the recent influx of empowering books, re-invented Disney “princesses” defying the damsel in distress trope, and the “femvertising” trend of ads designed to inspire — there’s still more that can be done.
“It’s around the age of nine that we see girls start to lose their voices,” Lindsay explains. “That’s when peer influence becomes stronger than one’s sense of self, and when being called bossy dims girls’ lights. They learn that social connection is more valuable than what they have to say, and so they stay quiet in order to fit in.”
This is where social media can be quite powerful when used correctly. Speaking up and speaking out is often less scary online than it is in person, and social media provides a platform for girls to share their stories, to stand up for what they believe in, and to say ‘me too’ when their peers share their own stories, Lindsay explains. The key is to leverage the tool — which can be destructive and harmful — for good.
Enter Canadian twin sisters Teagan and Keisha Simpson (pictured left). As psychology students at Bishops’ University in Quebec, they both struggled with body image issues, feelings of inadequacy, fear of missing out (FOMO), and other social-media fueled challenges.
When faced with the choice of succumbing to the detrimental impacts of social media or doing something about it, the girls decided to own their narrative and step into their power. Thus began their game-changing Instagram movement: Live Life Unfiltered (@livelife_unfiltered).
“I’ve been struggling with my body for a long time,” says Keisha, now 22 and a recent graduate. “Specifically, my legs. I’ve never liked the way they look and I haven’t worn shorts in years.” Social media only fueled her self-loathing. “I’d go on Instagram and compare my body to everyone else — girls I knew and girls I didn’t know.”
According to the #StatusOfMind survey of 1,500 teens and young adults, published by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for Public Health in 2017, Instagram is the worst social channel for mental health and wellbeing.
“It’s really an issue of volume,” Lindsay explains. “Girls spend as much as eight hours a day on social media — and even if they’re aware of what’s going on behind the photos, their emotions are going to hijack their brains and they’re going to start to feel not good enough, jealous, resentful, and inadequate.”
For Keisha, a bout of self-awareness led her to clean up her social media feed and find more positive Instagrammers to follow. What she found were a bunch of girls telling her “you’re beautiful” and “you’re perfect just the way you are.” And, while there was nothing wrong with these messages, they didn’t work for her at all. “Because being told you’re beautiful doesn’t make you feel beautiful.”
“Use your voice, risk failure, step out of your comfort zone, fail and learn from it, and then try again.”
While the girls were aware of the effects Instagram was having on their wellbeing, it took some time for them to realize the way out. They had started using the platform in Grade 10, but it wasn’t until university that they began talking openly with their friends about its shortcomings, and the distorted sense of reality it was presenting them with.
“We’d talk with our friends about how Instagram isn’t real, how no one posts photos without posing, taking hundreds of shots, using photoshop and filters to perfect the image, and curating only the best moments of their lives to share,” Teagan explains. Yet, while the girls logically knew all of this, none of it made them feel any better as they scrolled through thousands of “perfect” images every day.
They finally realized that what could potentially make them, and other girls their age, feel better would be more vulnerable, honest, unfiltered posts. The idea was to show girls that they weren’t alone, that many girls were struggling in similar ways and worried about similar things.
It began as an Instagram account with six photos of friends, un-posed and unfiltered, with statements from the girls about how they were feeling, what they were struggling with, and why. One year later, it has grown into a movement with hundreds of posts, thousands of followers, and a hashtag — #AsSheIs — that’s on the brink of going viral.
Teagan and Keisha started in their hometown, setting up a photo booth one afternoon at the University of Ottawa. They’ve since had photo booths on eight different campuses across Ontario and Quebec. They stop female students on their way to and from class, on study breaks, and in the middle of everyday life, asking them to pose for a photo against a plain backdrop, without giving them an opportunity to change their clothes, touch up their makeup, or fix their hair.
“The most common response we’d get,” Teagan recalls, “was, ‘No!’” It wasn’t surprising, given it takes a great deal of courage to be vulnerable with complete strangers, and they were reaching out to a generation not used to posting anything that isn’t highly edited and curated. But, with persistence, their Instagram feed grew.
Beyond the photos, every single Live Life Unfiltered post includes a quote from the girl about her own insecurities, her feelings about social media, and life itself. Girls talk openly about missed opportunities, about parts of their bodies they hate and those they like, about refusing to wear a bathing suit in public, about jealousy and insecurity, about bad relationships and good ones, about abuse, sexual orientation, mental health, and the future. Live Life Unfiltered has become a safe space, where girls can be themselves without judgement.
For Keisha and Teagan, it’s a passion project that has already surpassed their expectations. The girls have received a huge amount of support from their family and friends and have leveraged the movement to line up speaking opportunities into next year. They already have multiple talks under their belts, one upcoming at TEDxOttawa, plus features on CBC’s The National and in The Globe and Mail slated for this fall. Momentum is growing. “We’re going to take next year to focus on this project and see where we can take it,” Teagan says.
“When we started we were really scared,” Keisha admits. “In fact, we’re still scared, because we’re going out on a limb here, and everyone knows we’re doing this — and it takes courage to put yourself out there like that.”
But courage is what it’s all about. Combined with hard work, says Lindsay, it’s what girls need to leverage the opportunities available to them today — and do something powerful.
“Use your voice, risk failure, step out of your comfort zone, fail and learn from it, and then try again,” Lindsay says, citing her most common advice to girls. “And don’t be afraid to put in the time. Take some of the hours you’re spending consuming social media and see what else you can do with them. Work on a variety of skills, try new things, do what makes you happy, and instead of asking people, ‘who should I be?’— tell them: ‘this is me!’”