Last weekend I participated in a Girls on the Run 5k with my husband and two of our friends. We have done a GOTR race before (in Atlanta) so I should have been prepared for the event, but I found myself amazed nonetheless. Girls on the Run is a non-profit organization for girls in the 3rd-8th grades and uses an experiential curriculum to inspire girls to be healthy and confident. The program culminates in running a 5K race, but the training leading up to it consists of both running as well as mentoring and educational workshops about promoting healthy self-esteem, developing life skills and encouraging healthy living.
I participated in a similar program as a coach while I was attending graduate school in Fort Collins, Colorado and hope to become a GOTR coach in the not-so-distant future (when I magically have more free time). So while I have a frame of reference for what the program might be like, the mere experience of participating in the race is enough to convince me of the importance of the program.
When we arrived at the event we were amazed at the number of cars there. As we parked and walked up to the pre-race area, we saw hundreds of girls and their adult coaches in their GOTR t-shirts hanging out in groups, talking nervously and excitedly (many GOTR programs take place after school). Some of the groups had found ways to distinguish themselves; wearing matching colored socks or tie-dying their official shirts. Suddenly a voice came over the loud speaker. It appeared to be the race organizer and in addition to giving some directions, she got the crowd motivated. "If you can hear me, yell 'I am strong!'" The shouts of the hundreds of girls gave me chills. Wow! There was some kind of magic happening here.
As the race started, we moved out into the woods along a dirt trail. It was a beautiful day and the scenery was amazing. We moved along pretty slowly--the trail was crowded and some people were walking. My friend (a mother of an almost 3 year- old daughter) talked about how great the race was and I wondered whether her daughter would participate some day. We overheard the coaches giving words of encouragement and pointers to the girls ("Remember what we talked about when running uphill"). We overheard a few concerns about the length of the race--one girl asked if we were at mile 2 yet--about .5 miles into the race. But what stood out to me even more was what I didn't hear. I didn't hear girls talking about their weight, or how they looked, or what they should eat. I didn't hear girls criticizing themselves or others. The girls seemed to be focused on running, on paying attention to how their bodies felt, on accomplishing the goal of running 3.1 miles.
I have been running since my last year of college (plus a brief stint on the track team in high school) and I know how beneficial it has been to me. I am proud of my big muscular thighs that help me power through a hilly run (which in Pittsburgh means almost all runs). I view food as fuel for my body (and a source of enjoyment)--not as my enemy. I don't care how I look when I am running, I focus on how great I feel and what a stress reliever it is. I hope that the girls participating on GOTR find these same benefits from running. Because the truth is that they are growing up in a world where they are more likely to be told to care about how their body looks than how it feels and what it can do. The media hypersexualizes girls and encourages them to buy products to make themselves "just right." Research suggests that participation in sports can protect girls and women from having a negative body image or developing an eating disorder, but it is no guarantee. I have run with friends who spend their entire run obsessing about their weight and worrying about what they are going to eat. Running can help girls develop confidence and an interest in healthy habits, but the support of adult mentors and education is also crucial to combat the contrary messages most girls are bombarded with every day. Girls on the Run is striving to provide just that combination.
So check out the organization. Consider encouraging a girl you know to join, or participate yourself as a coach, volunteer or runner. Think about the messages you are sending to girls (and women) in your life.
See you on the trail.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.