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Girl Scouts challenge media images of women

By Mary Stamp

As coordinator for the Girl Scouts’ “uniquely ME!” program in Spokane’s schools, Keely Eschenbacher has deepened her awareness of the physical, emotional and intellectual impact of media images of women on teenage girls.

Keely Eschenbacher

Keely Eschenbacher inroduces girls to climbing wall
at the Girl Scout Center.

She grew up in Ione in Northeastern Washington in a stable home with two parents who sheltered her from some TV programs. Since then she has had her eyes opened about the experiences of abuse, poverty and negative self-talk generated by the culture, peers, families and media.

A course on gender communication during her study of psychology at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., stirred her awareness of the impact of media messages and ads. They make women and men feel bad about their appearance, Keely said. “

A teenage girl looks at TV and thinks it shows how life should be or how she should look. Most girls think they do not look good enough,” she said. “I used to enjoy looking at magazines, but now I see the negative effect the messages can have on girls.

“Looking at wedding magazines before I was married last October, I could see how easy it would be to think I needed a $35,000 wedding dress and a huge wedding. What movies, magazines and books show is often different from life,” she said.

Keely, who is earning a master’s degree in organizational leadership at Gonzaga University, has worked with the Eastern Washington Northern Idaho Girl Scout Council since September 2007. The council’s offices and its community center have been at 1404 N. Ash for five years.

Uniquely ME! began five years ago with a grant from Unilever and its Dove Self-Esteem Fund. Out of 350 U.S. Girl Scout councils, this council was one of 11 to receive grants. In the region, 500 girls participated last year, up from 350 the year before.

The program helps girls from eight to 17 years old “embrace a wider definition of beauty” than they absorb from the culture. The Girl Scout Research Institute has found low self-esteem pervasive among pre-adolescent and adolescent girls in the United States, so they sought to address this “critical national problem.”

The Uniquely ME! program focuses on mentoring, education and activities to foster self-esteem. By 2006, the program had reached 190,000 girls.

The curriculum has four programs geared to different ages.

Activities led by volunteers from Gonzaga University and Whitworth University help girls recognize their strengths and attributes; handle peer pressure; identify their values and interests; develop positive body images, healthy eating habits, personal hygiene, general wellness and physical fitness; and engage in community service.

Although the three-year grant ended in 2008, the program “was so successful that the local council decided to fund it,” Keely said.

The Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media at Gonzaga University helps recruit young women at Gonzaga. In the fall, Keely trains the volunteers who lead groups at different schools. Groups form by January and run officially 12 weeks, but most continue to the end of the school year.

Uniquely ME! reaches at-risk girls who are not typically in Girl Scouts. It involves girls in Spokane’s middle schools—Chase, Garry, Glover, Sacajawea, Salk and Shaw. There are also groups at Finch Elementary School and at Rogers and Ferris high schools. In previous years, there were programs in Plummer, Idaho, and Grand Coulee, plus a weekend retreat in Omak this summer and a new program in Tri Cities. Some of the Girl Scout troops also use the resources.

Lacking funds to send staff to outlying communities, the program offers to train rural volunteers to use the curriculum. “The college women volunteers—often majors in education or psychology —serve as role models and are easy for the teens to relate to,” she said.

Alone or with a partner, volunteers lead weekly meetings at the schools. Keely helps facilitate some meetings. Keely connects with the volunteers when they come to the office to pick up supplies. She asks how their groups are going. Sometimes she hears of abuse and other concerns, and makes referrals for counseling.

“Dove, which produces beauty products, created the program as part of its Campaign for Real Beauty, an effort to communicate that everyone is beautiful in her own way,” Keely said. “Media images of women affect girls,” she said, describing the media ideal as a skinny, five-foot-seven, 110-pound, blonde woman.

The program tells girls that everything about them is beautiful and their differences make them beautiful. Dove provides videos showing how movies and ads make normal women look like models with makeup, lighting, camera angles and digital editing, making their bodies look up to two inches thinner.

Keely said they ask girls how they feel about themselves when they start the program: How do they feel about how they look? How do they behave? How well are they doing in school? How do they relate with other girls, with boys and with their families?

They learn about manicures, skin care, makeup and hygiene. They also learn self-defense, rock climbing, dancing, yoga and nutrition. “Looking good helps them feel good,” Keely said. “We also encourage positive self-talk to break the habit of negative self-talk,” she said. “Negative self-talk affects women in work and adulthood.”

Most participants attend out of interest and choice, but some are encouraged by school counselors to attend. Most meet after school, except the Ferris and Finch groups that meet during school. From four to 15 girls are in each group. The girls lead the groups, setting rules to assure they are safe spaces.

Media also affect expectations about relationships. For example, Keely said her mother did not let her watch the TV show, ‘Friends,’ because everyone was sleeping with everyone— sending the message that such behavior was okay.

“Girls grow up with that,” she said.

“One girl expected she would have a baby by the time she was 16. To dispel that expectation, her 23- and 24-year-old student mentors were role models. They did not have babies,” Keely said.

“Girls see news about Brittney Spears and think that’s how they should be. Middle-school girls are obsessed with celebrities who party and do stupid things. Girls receive mixed messages about what is acceptable.”

The program addresses eating disorders, teenage pregnancy, smoking and suicide. For a few, feeling that they cannot meet expectations might lead to depression or suicide.

Coming from Ione where families in the community helped other families in need, Keely has been surprised that three or four families may share a house, so girls may sleep on a couch or share a room with five others. Some have told of being raped or abused by a relative.

“How can we expect children to learn if they are hungry or abused?” she asked. “It’s not abstract that people are living in rough situations. It’s people I know.”

While women and children are the greatest percent of those in poverty, there are girls in rich homes at risk because of neglect, Keely said.

As she faces frustrations about the girls’ lives, considers expectations set up by the media and culture, and realizes how overwhelming the needs are, Keely, who grew up attending First Congregational United Church of Christ in Metaline Falls and now attends All Saints Lutheran in Spokane, said her faith helps her to know this program is making a difference in the girls’ lives.

The girls report doing better with parents, siblings, friends and at school as they gain confidence, take responsibility for their actions, feel pride in their accomplishments, gain self-motivation, accept challenges and begin to feel in control of their lives, Keely said. They report learning not to take negative comments personally.

“If they gain confidence as they learn friendship and coping skills, they can let criticism blow off. I tell them they can’t change the past, but can apologize and change their behavior in the future,” she said. .

For information, call 747-8091 or email keelye@gsewni.org