Rumination, unhealthy female competition, and comparison to others, heightened by social media presence, are common attributes of a middle and high school experience for girls in the 21st century. An overwhelming lack of confidence and self-esteem that stems from these behaviors is heightened among girls compared to boys. The negative effects of these behaviors are not limited to the middle and high school time frame, but often carry into adulthood, at a point where it is difficult to change these behaviors. Given the rapid decline of confidence from 5th to 9th grade among girls of all backgrounds, identities, and experiences, there is a need for comprehensive sexual education accompanied by education on the physical and psychological effects of puberty on all 5th to 9th graders in order for these teens to find success when they enter systems of further education or employment after high school, in which they will be faced with reduced support systems.
In the United States, there is a lack of accessible sexual education that is inclusive of multiple identities, not abstinence-based regarding sexual education, and expansive, including topics beyond sex such as self-esteem, being assertive, and identifying healthy relationships. This program is designed with these intentions in mind. Project Like a Girl serves as a fluid and evolving program that utilizes the knowledge and perspective of the communities that we are serving, which includes marginalized communities as well communities with identities in the majority. We hope that the curriculum is effective in educating a young generation to be accepting and aware of multiple identities so that these individuals can foster healthy relationships and be future leaders in their communities.
Confidence and Gender Inequality
As the female brain develops through puberty, habits of rumination begin to develop. Rumination is defined as extensive dwelling on negative feelings, and psychologists say that it is more prevalent in women than men and often starts at puberty (Kay K. & Shipman, 2018). This habit can make girls less inclined to take risks and more inclined to be cautious when making decisions. Parents, teachers, and cultural normativities reward girls’ people-pleasing and perfectionist behavior at a young age more so than they do boys (Kay K. & Shipman, 2018) which further instill the habits that promote the outcome girls are being praised for. If girls are more actively aware of how the solidification of these practices may affect them negatively in the future, they can take steps to put in place more healthy practices to combat rumination and self-deprecating behavior.
Behaviors that instill insecurity and a lack of confidence in girls become behaviors that instill these attributes in women and as we age it is more difficult for women to erase these habits. It is essential that girls are equipped with the knowledge to monitor their mental and physical health as well as the way they are interacting with those around them, especially in male-dominated spaces where this can add additional stress and pressure.
According to Hinkelman’s research, “61% girls say that they like being in charge, [while] 1 in 3 girls are afraid to be a leader out of fear of others thinking she is ‘bossy’” (Hinkelman, 2017). This fear can carry into college and adult life and prevent girls from stepping into leadership positions and taking steps to achieve their goals despite their inherent ability and intelligence. Hinkleman reports that “...despite their achievements 30% of girls with GPAs of 4.0 and above do not think they are smart enough for their dream careers” which isolates confidence as a barrier to girls’ success rather than inherent ability or work ethic.
Access to quality education is an essential part of closing the inequality gap that exists in the United States and around the world relating to gender. Defining the word quality as it relates to our project includes the assurance that the education caters to male, female, and non-binary students equitably and accommodates the differences in the growth of these individuals.
The Middle and High School Age Group
Our targeting of middle and high school girls stems from research by Hinkelman, which states that of the surveyed population, “86% of fifth-grade girls describe themselves as confident… by ninth grade, 60% of girls describe themselves as confident” (Hinkleman, 2017). This drastic difference across just four years accompanied by our personal experiences and further readings from Kay and Shipman on confidence, have led us to further explore the age group of 5th to 9th-grade girls in which physical and mental transition is heightened. We believe our efforts are spent well attempting to make a lasting impact in this specific age group.
Comparison as bodies and minds are changing rapidly during middle and high school is an unavoidable aspect of the experience, but it is rare that a sexual health curriculum addresses why people are acting, looking, and feeling the way that they are during this time with a focus on reducing damaging behavior. Our curriculum includes information on not only the physical effects of puberty but also the mental changes that occur and cause us to act differently than we have in our lives prior to this point.
The Role of Social Media
“People have a fundamental desire to evaluate their opinions and abilities and...strive to have stable, accurate appraisals of themselves” (Festinger, 1954), and social media is an accessible and perpetual extension of the comparison that is already occurring in middle and high school for teens, which is period of this happening for the first time consciously. Often young girls feel that their worth is measured by their external appearance rather than internal strengths and accomplishments.
Results from the Girls Index, which surveyed 10,678 girls across the United States age 10-18, reports that 18% of girls say they are distracted in school because of social media, 30% have gotten into an argument at school because of social media, and 27% will delete posts if they don’t receive enough ‘likes’” (Hinkelman, 2017). We observe the sense of distraction and habit of deleting ‘unsuccessful’ posts both stem partially from an obsession with a self-image that can be quantified by Instagram ‘likes.’ In fact, Instagram has recently removed the ‘like’ feature due to complaints. Perhaps the most informing statistic from the Girls Index also reports that “girls who spend the most time using technology (more than 10 hours a day vs fewer than 4 hours per day) are 24% more likely to want to change their appearance” (Hinkelman 2017).
While social media perpetuates a pre-existing problem of unhealthy comparison of teens to one another and the actions that follow, the removal of this platform will not fix the problem. To help teens engage with each other in a more positive way they must learn about how the effects of puberty can take form in people acting, feeling, and looking a certain way. Through more intentional education, more empathy and grace can follow.
The Power of All-Female Spaces
It is rare to not see at least one women’s group or female-driven space in large organizations or industries in the United States. A study from the Harvard Business Review discusses the importance of supportive female circles for women who hope to find success in business “Women who were in the top quartile of centrality [in the organization’s network] and had a female-dominated inner circle of 1-3 women landed leadership positions that were 2.5 times higher in authority and pay than those of their female peers lacking this combination” (Uzzi 2019). The inner circles of women foster trust, vulnerability, and more candid communication surrounding issues faced at work and in life. Girls in the middle to high school age group are not without need for this same kind of space, especially because, among surveyed girls“76% say that most girls are in competition with one another” (Hinkelman 2017), which supports the need for spaces that foster trust and educate girls on treating each other better and supporting one another in a world that caters more opportunity to men than women.
A focus on Sexual Education
A driving force behind Project Like a Girl was the common experience among the project contributors of poor sexual education in middle and high school. This stemmed from a lack of prepared or informed staff, a narrow array of topics outside of heterosexual health information, and a mixed-gender environment which caused a lack of focus and ability to take the material seriously. “Because of the way that sexual health education has hitherto centered itself solely on reproductive sex within the context of heterosexual marriage (Elia and Eliason 33), many LGBTQI+ students do not see these lessons as applicable to their experiences. This exclusion has dangerous effects on marginalized students because it reinforces institutional forms of sexism, racism, trans- and homophobia that circulate within North American schools'' (Iamafeministthinker, 2016). For students who do identify with a cisgender and heterosexual identity, it is damaging as well to not receive education surrounding other identities. Allyship is necessary in promoting the safety and inclusivity of marginalized groups.
Another rhetoric common “[i]n North America, and particularly in the USA, [is] the problem-oriented model.. The sexual health curriculum is inadequate for the majority of students because of the abstinence-only reiteration” (Iamafeministthinker, 2016). In our research of other sexual health and empowerment curriculums available for students we came across programs with many good lessons and ideas, however, the majority were abstinence-based in sexual education and were not inclusive of modern identities.
In making our curriculum, our intention is to create something that is inclusive and expansive given the world the current middle and high school students are observing around them. Given “human sexual desires, fantasies, thoughts, and behaviors are not always consistent or easily labeled, and that change and fluidity characterize much of human gendered and sexual behavior” (Elia and Eliason 40) our curriculum will serve to expand the views of young girls and help them learn more about their own identities.
With an intention on fluidity and progressive education, we hope that with each new teaching of the Project Like a Girl lessons, we will evolve and update the curriculum to become more inclusive and expansive. This process will involve updates to the curriculum when we are able to do further research prompted by questions and discussion from participants in the program. We hope this will serve to better connect girls with the material and allow it to make a lasting impact. This sentiment is prompted by Yosso’s research, emphasizing that “young people must be regarded as individual sources of cultural wealth, which will ultimately encourage better learning from them. When students are treated this way in school, this...engages a commitment to community well-being (Yosso 79).
Ultimately, “what we are willing to teach and what we expect students to learn regarding sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity plays an important role in public policy decision making” (Shipley, 198), so we hope that this program will have a positive impact on a diverse array of communities and expand the reach of positive sexual and empowerment education for the betterment of our communities and world as a whole.
Bureau, U. S. C. (2020, August 18). Equal Pay Day is March 31 – the Earliest Since it Began in 1996. The United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/03/equal-pay-day-is-march-31-earliest-since-1996.html.
Elia, John P. and Mickey Eliason. “Discourses of Exclusion: Sexuality Education’s Silencing of Sexual Others.” Journal of LGBT Youth, vol. 7, no.1, 2010, pp 29-48. Taylor and Francis Online, doi: 10.1080/19361650903507791. Accessed 16 Oct. 2016.
Festinger, L. (1954). A Theory of Social Comparison Processes. Human Relations, 7(2), 117–140.
Gowen, Kris L. and Nichole Winges-Yanez. “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Youths’ Perspectives of Inclusive School-Based Sexuality Education.” The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 51, no. 7, 2014, pp. 788-800. Taylor and Francis Online, doi: 10.1080/00224499.2013.806648. Accessed 16 Oct. 2016
Hinkelman, L. (2017). The Girls’ Index: New insights into the complex world of
today’s girls. Columbus, OH: Ruling Our eXperiences, Inc.
Iamafeministthinker, (2016, December 2). Sexual health education: inclusivity, accessibility and representation within the classroom. I am a feminist thinker. https://feministthinkerblog.wordpress.com/2016/12/02/sexual-health-education-inclusivity-accessibility-and-representation-within-the-classroom/.
Just 30% of the world's researchers are women. What's the situation in your country? UNESCO. (2014, March 5). https://en.unesco.org/news/just-30-world%E2%80%99s-researchers-are-women-whats-situation-your-country.
Kay, K., & Shipman, C. (2018). The confidence code: the science and art of self-assurance--what women should know. HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.
Shipley, Heather. “Queering Institutions?: Sexual Identity in Public Education in a Canadian Context.” Feminist Teacher, vol. 23, no. 3, 2013, pp. 196-210. JSTOR, doi: 10.5406/femteacher.23.3.0196. Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.
Uzzi, B. (2019, February 26). Research: Men and Women Need Different Kinds of Networks to Succeed. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/02/research-men-and-women-need-different-kinds-of-networks-to-succeed.
Women in the U.S. Congress 2019 - archive. CAWP. (2020, January 3). https://cawp.rutgers.edu/women-us-congress-2019.
Yosso, Tara J. “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory
discussion of community cultural wealth.” Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 8, no. 1, 2005, pp. 69-91. Taylor and Francis Online, doi: 10.1080/1361332052000341006. Accessed 22 Oct. 2016.
Project Like a Girl Project Research
Tia Polite, Dajah Brooks, Lillian Stone