By Katie O’Shaughnessy
For many women, a good chunk of the adult struggle is self acceptance, whether regarding body image, workplace confidence or a healthy relationship. Two entities are trying to conquer these problems earlier in life by introducing girls to empowering communities.
Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, an online community of teenage girls supporting one another, is a force for solidarity. “Our intention is to be a safe place where those who make up our community can be heard and offered a response,” says Meredith Walker, co-founder and executive director of Smart Girls. “We emphasize intelligence and imagination over fitting in. We celebrate curiosity and encourage everyone to volunteer and be more curious about the world in which they live.”
Walker founded Smart Girls with Poehler in 2007 to help girls find their voices. “Everyone needs to see good examples of what it looks like to change the world by being yourself. They need tools and guidance and resources. We offer all of these things and continue to develop more,” Walker says.
In an article on their website Walker explains the psychological theory of the “adolescent fantasy”: “It is the belief that nobody knows how you feel and that you are all alone in that feeling. It is sometimes a fantasy, and many times true. At Smart Girls we simply try to let girls know that even though they feel alone, their feelings are shared by others.”
Between the Facebook page and website, girls actively communicate to create a strong community. “We see civil discourse, friendliness and support,” says Walker. Content ranges from tech DIYs to interviews with female world-changers to personal stories about the pain of cancer and the joy of love, lifting the veil on the adolescent fantasy.
Walker is aware of the dangers to young people’s emotional health when it comes to social media, so when she created the Smart Girls Facebook page in 2009, safety was one of her main objectives. “Careful curating and diligent moderating kept it a friendly and troll-free space, and I believe that gave us a firm foundation from which to grow,” says Walker.
The Smart Girls staff is part of the reason the community has such a strong bond. “We are genuine, we participate right along with our community, and they know that we listen to them and respect them,” says Walker.
With experienced leadership, dedicated online followers and a cadre of active and fierce contributors, Smart Girls has grown quickly. “Now we have millions of Smarties out there,” says Walker.
For support off-line, Walker has some advice for girls: “Engage with your community, listen to them, answer them, protect them from trolls.”
Chicago-area yoga teacher Kira Maar, E-RYT 200, also aims to give girls a head start in terms of confidence. Her Girls’ Yoga series at Lighthouse Yoga and Acupuncture in Evanston and Evolution Yoga in Glenview gives pre-teen and teenage girls a supportive community that helps them deal with the pressures of growing up.
One of the largest emphases in the course is self empowerment and empowering others. “The girls do things they may never have dreamt they could actually do, like handstands and arm balances,” says Maar. “When they do a challenging pose, they get a sense of achievement, or when they help somebody else, they feel empowered.”
Mindfulness also plays its role in this group of girls. “We talk about bullying and being strong enough to say no, trusting in yourself and in others in order to create a healthy community,” says Maar.
To rev up the trust factor, the course explores partner yoga and acroyoga. These practices keep the students engaged with one another, teaching them to ask for help when needed and offer it freely when they see an opportunity. Each girl’s success becomes her partner’s success, fostering stronger relationships and building a community of support both on the mat and off.
Kaia Otwell, 11, has found benefits from the Girls’ Yoga class off the mat. “It helps to make schoolwork easier because it helps me concentrate better,” she says. “If something goes wrong, I try to stay calm and not make a big deal out of it.”
This is the kind of progress that keeps Maar going. “When they tell me they use what we do in class in their lives, when I see in their eyes a sense of accomplishment – it’s all about setting them up to be awesome and whole humans with a sense of self-worth,” she says.
More information on the Girls Yoga course is available at evolutionyogaglenview.com and lighthouseyoga.com.