Raising girls

You’d think Katherine Schwarzenegger, the 20-year-old daughter of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, would have every advantage: glamorous parents, sophisticated lifestyle and financial security.

But none of this stopped her from developing major insecurity in the fourth grade about feeling fat and ugly. In a story this week in USA Today, she relates her body-image crisis:

“It was the first time I was aware of my body and compared what I looked like to what other girls looked like. It freaked me out,” she says.

Her parents reassured her that she was beautiful and intelligent, but she wasn’t convinced. Her preoccupation with her appearance continued in seventh grade, and it wasn’t until later that she realized she was going through the same roller coaster of emotions other girls experience.

Katherine tells her story in a new book she wrote, “Rock What You’ve Got: Secrets to Loving Your Inner and Outer Beauty From Someone Who’s Been There and Back.” As she explains to USA Today, “I want to let girls know they are not alone with the changes and doubts about their body.”

It’s not easy growing up female. This isn’t to say that boys don’t have challenges of their own, because they do. But for girls, the issues often are pervasive and can have repercussions long into adulthood. When the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota put together a new report earlier this year on the status of women and girls, it concluded that females are still shortchanged on many fronts, from wage inequities to underrepresentation in power and leadership positions.

The report pulls together data from a number of sources, such as the Minnesota Student Survey, Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Legislative Office on the Economic Status of Women. Among some of its findings on women’s and girls’ health:

- Minnesota girls are less likely than boys to be physically active or participate in school sports. Exercise by girls to help control their weight also is on the decline, especially among girls of color.

- Minnesota women of color are more likely to lack health insurance. According to the report, 25 percent of Latina women are uninsured. Across the board, the rate of being uninsured is highest among women in the 19-to-25-year-old age bracket.

- Teen birth rates are highest among girls of color. Among white girls in Minnesota, the teen birth rate is highest in rural areas.

- Risky behaviors appear to be on the rise for teen girls who are sexually active, and they’re contributing to a rather alarming increase in the incidence of sexually transmitted infections, especially chlamydia.

- In the most recent Minnesota Student Survey, in 2007, almost twice as many girls reported suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide as boys.

Although gender profiling has its drawbacks, it’s hard to ignore some of the differences that exist. On a national basis, for instance, girls are more likely than boys to develop an eating disorder. Depression seems to occur among females at a higher rate than among males.

The take-home message here is that one size does not fit all, and that when girls and women are shortchanged, it can be to their detriment.

That’s why I like what the Women’s Fund of the Willmar Area Community Foundation is doing: building up an endowment to support local programs that benefit girls and women. This fund is still relatively new but it has already awarded four grants and will be announcing two more grant awards Thursday at “Time for  Women, Time for Tea,” an event to raise money and promote wider community awareness and support for what the Women’s Fund is doing.

Because it’s a local fund directed by a steering committee of local women, it’s in a better position than most to recognize community needs and respond to them. The fund’s current emphasis on programs that support teenaged girls is filling a gap that hasn’t always been recognized.

I don’t think it’s just my imagination that girls these days are growing up under far more pressure than previous generations ever did. Even when they appear to have everything going for them, they’re often surprisingly vulnerable. So why not help girls now, while they negotiate the challenging pre-teen and adolescent years? This is one investment that can come with long-lasting dividends.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “Raising girls

  1. The sad thing is about girls is that they are incredibly cruel to other girls during these vulnerable years of 7th-12th grades. I have watched my daughter be “eviscerated” by fellow classmates (especially the ones who advertise themselves as “Christians”). Our US high school culture has no protection for girls. The teachers who actually admit things are happening don’t want to “get involved” or else have their favorite girls and only care when things happen to them. It breaks my heart to see the “high school culture” and what it does to destroy young women.

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