Happy International Day of the Girl: Girls Rock!

The intrepid girl in electric-blue sneakers scales the rock face, maneuvering slight incuts and protrusions with that delicate balance between strength and finesse. It’s a dance that requires more than physical power and coordination; it demands complete focus and in-the-moment grit, as well as mental planning. The girl chooses which colorful handhold to reach for next, and what foothold below will allow her to maintain her balance. The challenge is formidable, even when the terrain is made of fiberglass and crash mats cover the floors. For this girl, it is real.

At its best, indoor rock climbing—replete with safety gear and professional belaying instructors—helps girls take healthy risks. They learn to conquer fear and feel more positive about their skills and their bodies. We all have internal battles we wage, so perhaps for this girl and the many others at MetroRock with her on this particular evening, learning to believe in yourself and trust in others makes for not only a successful climb, but for self-confidence that generalizes outward from this one experience to other aspects of life.

For these young members of Girls Inc. of the Seacoast Area, courage and self-reliance are not just programming goals. They are the essence of being girly. These girls who are bouldering and belaying are not “tomboys,” because adventurousness and stamina are not inherently male. In our children’s world of play, where bravery and physical endurance are marketed via store signage and toy package labels that say “For Boys,” these girls prove to everyone—but most importantly, to themselves—that the messages they receive from media and the culture around them about girls being passive, vulnerable and submissive are harmful stereotypes. They are harmful because they can become self-fulfilling prophecies, and because boys and men may buy into them too. The product creators and advertisers who reinforce these gender stereotypes can be challenged and unmasked with media literacy. Girls then see the deception and understand they have no innate limitations.

According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, by age 14, girls are dropping out of sports at two times the rate of boys. This is tragic, because through sports, girls learn important life skills such as leadership, teamwork and self-determination. Research also shows that girls who exercise and challenge themselves physically are less likely to be obese, more likely to delay becoming sexually active, and less likely to become pregnant.

Throughout time and around the world, girls and women have always experienced some degree of threat to their physical and sexual safety by boys and men. Most girls will experience some violation of their rights in their lifetime, whether it is sexual harassment at work, catcalling on the street, rape, or domestic violence. Girls who develop greater confidence and higher self-esteem as children are less likely to be victimized down the road.

The following statistics come from the National Domestic Violence Hotline:

· One in every three teen relationships is violent.

· 36 percent of teens report violence in their relationship.

· One in every three adult relationships is violent.

· 85 percent of reported cases of dating domestic violence are committed by men against women.

· 15 percent of reported cases of dating domestic violence are committed by women against men, women against women in lesbian relationships or men against men in gay relationships.

· 60 percent of children growing up in abusive homes will repeat the behavior in the future.

· One out of every three women murdered is killed by a current or ex boyfriend or husband.

· Women ages sixteen to twenty-four experience the highest rates of intimate violence.

· 68 percent of young women who experience rape know their rapist either as a boyfriend, friend, or casual acquaintance.

· 40 percent of teenage girls ages fourteen to seventeen say they know someone their age who has been hit or beaten by a boyfriend.

At the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Newburyport, MA, one of the leading anti-domestic violence organizations in the country, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Our partnership with Girls Inc. is a mutually beneficial one. When 70 girls, including the ones in these photos, came together recently at the local MetroRock to practice climbing skills and eat pizza, they demonstrated the importance of girl-only spaces.

If boys had been there, the atmosphere would have been very different. The girls would have been more self-conscious, less inclined to take risks for fear of making mistakes and feeling embarrassed in front of the opposite gender, and generally more passive and appearance-focused. There would have been more flirting and less climbing. Not that this isn’t developmentally typical for tweens and young teens, because it is! But when only girls are in the gym, being strong, smart and bold is for everyone.

Our girls deserve a childhood free of stereotypes and sexualization, the encouragement to reach their full potential as human beings, and the joy of knowing there are many ways to be a girl. They deserve to grow up in a world that takes them seriously, and where they are safe from victimization. At Girls Inc. of the Seacoast Area and the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, we strive to give girls the tools they need to become leaders, to resist peer pressure and negative media messages, and to avoid abusive relationships before they start.

Let’s all help make that an easier climb.

Lori Day is an educational psychologist and consultant with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter, and President of the Board of Directors of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center.

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