Last year, when my daughter filled out a special class poster in honor of her sixth birthday, she wrote the following five words to describe herself: cool, rocks, awesome, great and happy.
I thought then that if she felt that same sense of confidence and awesomeness as a teen and young adult, I would have hit the parenting jackpot.
That poster and her five amazing, empowering words came immediately to mind when I watched the latest ad by Always, the maker of sanitary pads. It considers why our girls lose confidence after puberty and clearly, it has struck a chord; in less than a week, it has more than 17 million views on YouTube.
It’s the latest in what’s becoming a trend of gender empowerment videos and campaigns by consumer products companies. In the past few months, Pantene raised questions about why women apologize, Dove urged women to appreciate their beauty and HelloFlo hilariously showcased a girl pretending to get her first period.
In the Always ad, adolescent girls, older women, boys and men are asked to demonstrate how to “run like a girl,” “fight like a girl” and “throw like a girl.”
They respond with negative stereotypes: arms flailing as they run, awkwardly slapping instead of making powerful punches.
Compare that with how girls 10 and younger answered: They were girls on fire, running as fast, hitting as hard and throwing as far as they could.
To them, running “like a girl” meant running like themselves.
I tear up every time I watch the ad and am definitely not alone.
“I started crying about halfway through the video,” said Rachel Hammond, editor of Mom Colored Glasses, an online magazine for moms, and a mom of three in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“It makes me feel so sad for the (older) girls in the video, and so proud of the young girls, and so sad to think about my kids and the possibilities there are for them to lose that self-confidence,” said Hammond, who has two girls, 5 and 9.
Critically acclaimed director and photographer Lauren Greenfield, whose past works include the film “THIN” about eating disorders and the book “Girl Culture” on body image, directed the project. It involved interviews with more than 100 people.
“I knew that girls suffered a confidence crisis at puberty but had no idea we would see such strong stereotypes played out and such a dramatic shift at puberty,” said Greenfield, who also directed the documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” about a billionaire and his family before and after the economy tanked in 2008. (Full disclosure, Greenfield is also a friend of my husband’s.)
“The other surprise was the people who acted out negative stereotypes were able to reflect on their own actions almost immediately,” she said. “It made us realize how deep and ingrained the stereotypes were, but also people’s desire to change them.”
Crisis in confidence: ‘A perfect storm’
But what happens to our girls? Why does that delightful, uninhibited sense of self we see in young girls often disappear after they pass through puberty?
JoAnn Deak, a psychologist, educator and author of several books, including “Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Competent and Courageous Daughters,” calls it a “perfect storm” — hormonal and brain changes mixed with the impact of the media, including social media.
“What girls report to me is as I move into puberty, what I look like, what I say, who I’m friends with, what subjects I take, what letter grades I get, all of this is out there for everybody to see and comment on, and then I become so much more tentative,” said Deak, who is also author of “How Girls Thrive.”
Adding to the insecurity is a media awash in unrealistic images of women — a media “saturated with airbrushed limbs and whitewashed teeth,” said Vincent O’Keefe, a writer and stay-at-home father in Cleveland with two girls, 11 and 14.
“I never look forward to buying my groceries with the girls in tow, browsing all those magazine covers,” said O’Keefe, who has written a humorous memoir, “Been There, Wiped That.”
“I feel like I have to teach a course in media literacy before buying bread with my daughters.”
Katia Bishops, a mom of two boys who blogs about parenting, blames our girls’ crisis of confidence on society in general.
“Subliminal messages delivered by toys, clothes and accessories about gender-appropriate roles and behaviors, proper weight and all matters appearance are internalized, as are the less subtle ones delivered verbally and in writing,” said Bishops, who was voted one of Toronto’s top blogger moms.
“When they reach puberty, girls are self-conscious and more prone to self-criticism, so these message seeds finally find a fertile ground to grow in.”
How can we help our girls
Deak, the psychologist, tells parents there is “no silver bullet” to help bolster girls’ self-esteem during and after puberty, but, she says, “there’s a long hard slog.”
First, she says, we as parents need to do everything we can to make sure our children are comfortable — starting when they are young — talking to us about anything.
“If you keep doing that and the hormones hit, they’ll keep talking as long as you keep the judgment out of your voice,” she said.
The second thing, she says, is to take the issue up directly by sparking conversations with our girls about the images they see and helping them learn how to think more critically about media manipulation.
“Put up a magazine and say, ‘Look at this woman,’ and talk about what airbrushing is,” said Deak. “We see such a difference in adolescents who have this kind of conversation at home, who have this kind of conversation at school and have it in class with other kids there.”
Rebecca Hughes Parker, a New York City editor and attorney who also has her own blog about parenting, says she tries to be a healthy role model for her daughters — a 3-year-old and 9-year-old twins.
That means trying to “eliminate the disparaging talk of one’s own worth and one’s own appearance,” which isn’t so easy since it’s “hard to realize how much we talk about it until you really pay attention,” she said.
Parents need to be confident and courageous themselves if they want to pass those traits on to their kids, said Hammond, the Michigan mom of three who is also an assistant professor of business management.
“My kids see everything I do. Every time I linger over the mirror frowning at my figure, every time I hesitate before trying something new, every time I question my abilities. … It absolutely starts with me. Confidence travels.”
Bishops, of Toronto, believes out-of-the-box thinking about gender roles also empowers girls.
“I take my son to soccer classes once a week,” she said. “Every week, I get the same sense of satisfaction watching the little girls whose parents decided that exercise when you’re a 5-year-old doesn’t have to take place in a ballet studio.”
O’Keefe, the stay-at-home dad, says he and his wife encourage their girls to question what they see on television, on the Internet, at home and at school.
Gymnastics and dance programs have also helped boost their confidence, he said, noting how his older daughter, a competitive gymnast, has a powerful poster on her wall of a gymnast upside down above a balance beam.
“It reads, ‘You run like a girl, you jump like a girl, you swing like a girl, you tumble six feet over a four inch beam like a GIRL.’ ”
Now that’s a poster I want for my girls, even for my 6-year-old. She has no plans to become a gymnast — but basketball player, soccer star or hockey goalie? That’s a different story!
What do you think is the best way to boost girl confidence after puberty? Share your thoughts in the comments or tell Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.
By Kelly Wallace
Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.