Category Archives: Food for Thought

Don’t Be Sorry

Written by Sarah MacDonald, Executive Assistant at Big Sister Association

“I’m sorry” is a phrase that I hear a lot. This could be because I spend a lot of time with polite, well-mannered people. Or, it could be because I spend a lot of time with women. I’ve noticed that many women are quick to apologize when they make a mistake at work or even when they bump into someone in the hallway. Of course, if you have the human trait of imperfection and make an error, or if you have your eyes on the floor and walk right into a co-worker, an apology is an appropriate response. However, many times when I hear “I’m sorry” it’s not really a reaction to an apology-worthy act. I might hear “I’m sorry” when a woman needs to pass by me on the subway, when something unfortunate happens that’s not her fault, or when I can’t hear what she says and she has to repeat it. None of these scenarios really seem to me like they should make the ‘offender’ feel apologetic.

I myself am a culprit of over-apologizing. I first noticed this quality of mine the time that I was rammed into on the sidewalk by a rollerblader and the first words out of my mouth were, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.” Why was I apologizing? I had been obeying the rules of the sidewalk (that is, I had been walking, not blading) and I had done nothing to cause the accident. Yet an apology was an automatic response, the words tumbling from my lips the way that the rollerblader had tumbled into me. I should mention here that the rollerblader simply accepted my apology and offered none of his own in return. Why is this?

A recent University of Waterloo study, which was published in the September 2010 issue of Psychological Science, might hold some answers. Of the 66 study participants, women consistently apologized more than men did; however, women also reported having committed more apology-worthy offenses. When they believed that they committed an offense, men apologized just as often as women. So, perhaps the problem isn’t only that many women have “I’m sorry” set as a kneejerk reaction the way that I did during my encounter with the wayward rollerblader. Maybe the problem is also that if I had spent some more time thinking about it, I would have started to wonder: was I walking too fast? Was I on the wrong part of the sidewalk? Was this really my fault after all? Women, it seems, are not only prone to apologizing but are prone to thinking that they have done something wrong.

In my opinion, one reason for this is that women strive for perfection and are rattled when perfection is not achieved, whether it’s our fault or not. We feel responsible for problems and mistakes that are not our own because they impede our vision of perfection. This is true for me, as well; I wish for perfection and often hold myself accountable when things go awry, no matter the reason. This perfectionism becomes so ingrained in us that we automatically apologize for things that are out of our control, like getting bumped into by someone on the sidewalk. And though I believe that women should be strong and confident, and that we should not carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, I still wonder if our tendency to over-apologize beats the alternative. If we so often determine that we have committed an apology-worthy act, then at least that means we care about right and wrong. We strive to be our best and we want people to know that we value their feelings. And as much as I don’t want to say “I’m sorry” when I’m guilty of nothing, I don’t want to say nothing when I’m guilty of something, either. Finding the balance between over- and under-apologizing is a challenge, but a worthy challenge that I believe we women are capable of meeting.

What do you think about the phenomenon of over-apologizing? Do you notice women saying “I’m sorry” more than men? Why do you think that is?

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CEO Deborah Re’s Op-Ed on the Negative Impact of Marketing on Girls [Boston Herald]

Over the weekend, Saturday’s Boston Herald included an Op-Ed that our CEO Deborah Re wrote regarding a t-shirt that said “I’m too pretty to do homework, so I have my brother do it for me”.

Although JCPenney pulled the t-shirt from the online “shelf” before the Op-Ed was published, Big Sister felt it was necessary to give girls a voice on this very important issue. We are proud of this piece, and of the opportunity it gives us to show that Big Sister Association of Greater Boston is the leader in the healthy development of girls.

As you were saying: T-shirt Message Offends by Big Sister CEO Deborah Re [Boston Herald]

"Who would wear a T-shirt that says they are stupid?"

Women are graduating from high school and college in record numbers. They are on corporate boards, they are leading major institutions, they are in the Senate and they have become secretaries of State.

So does a T-shirt that says “I’m too pretty to do my homework so I’ll have my brother do it” really have an impact on girls’ chances for achieving success?

You bet it does. For every statistic about girls succeeding, there is another that shows the negative impact of marketing messages leading to lower levels of self-esteem, higher rates of depression, risky behaviors and poor life choices. When girls are taught to value their appearance to such an extreme without a responsible adult in their lives who can counter these messages, their opportunities will be compromised.

JCPenney pulled this T-shirt from the company’s Web site on Aug. 31 with the following statement: “JCPenney is committed to being America’s destination for great style and great value for the whole family. We agree that the ‘Too pretty T-shirt’ does not deliver an appropriate message, and we have immediately discontinued its sale.”

How did the shirt make it to the online shelf in the first place? Weren’t there men on their creative team who have daughters and know the impact of messages like these? Weren’t there women on the team who can look back on being an adolescent remembering the insecurity of trying to fit in? This shirt was being marketed to adolescent girls at a pivotal time in their development, a time when they begin to internalize messages about what it means to be a girl. The implied message that doing homework — i.e. acquiring knowledge and thinking critically — is not feminine.

I caught enough of a radio talk show discussion of the subject to know that there are many adults, including the hosts of the show, who think that messages like this one are inconsequential. The callers and hosts overwhelmingly agreed that people are simply overreacting to a harmless and trivial T-shirt. A mother called in and said that she would buy the T-shirt for her 12-year-old daughter; another caller said that it was ridiculous that people were upset, and that he wore a T-shirt in college that said “Got a sister?”

The point they are missing is that they, as adults, have context for these messages to help them process the information and dismiss them as absurd. A young girl does not have that context.

As a community of adults that supports the healthy development of children, we are responsible for reinforcing positive, empowering and constructive messages.

We want girls to know that their appearance is not their most valuable asset.

We do not want our daughters to think that they need to look a certain way or dress a certain way to be accepted.

We want them to know that being pretty and being smart are not mutually exclusive. And, given all the challenges confronting our educational system, why risk sending a message to girls, and boys as well, that doing homework is not important?

As I thought about this issue I decided to solicit the opinion of the T-shirt’s target demographic. When asked what she thought of the T-shirt, my friend’s newly minted 12-year-old daughter Cassidy responded, “Who would wear a T-shirt that says they are stupid?”

Let’s hope Cassidy can stay strong against all the other marketing assaults that are coming her way, as the T-shirt is hardly the only offender.

As you were saying: T-shirt Message Offends [Boston Herald]

Words of Wisdom: Little Sister Victoria on school entrance exams

Words of Wisdom Recently, we featured words of wisdom for Big Sisters from staff member Amy Butterworth. This week, a Little Sister, who has perspective on the highs and lows of life, wanted to share some advice of her own for Little Sisters.

When we asked Little Sister Victoria, who will be attending Boston Latin Academy in the fall, what she thought other Little Sisters taking the entrance exam should know, she responded:

“I think you should tell them to work hard in school, be dedicated, and make sure to also have fun along the way. And, if they don’t get into the school they wanted to go to, things happen for a reason, so they can make that a good experience, too.”

This is a valuable lesson and exemplifies what we wish to instill in all the girls we work with: the confidence to pick themselves up when things don’t go as planned, the competence to make the right decisions about their future and the caring to support other people on their journey.

Words of Wisdom: Being a Big Sister is About Being Present, Not Perfect

Words of Wisdom
Maybe you’re not perfect. Maybe you didn’t check off numbers nine and ten on your to-do-list. Maybe you had a little too much cheesecake and not enough salad at your last meal. Maybe you’re a little too hard on yourself. Maybe you could use some more support sometimes. Maybe you could use a mentor on the tough days.

But then again, maybe you’re a good listener. Maybe you’re compassionate and caring. Maybe you’re a hard worker, a trustworthy friend, and a supportive shoulder to lean on. Maybe you’re not perfect, but according to your Little Sister, you don’t have to be perfect to be just what she needs.

Research indicates that the strongest and most influential mentors are those who show consistency and commitment to building a healthy, symbiotic relationship with their mentee. Being a successful mentor means opening up and being real. It means being dedicated to learning about your Little Sister and about yourself. Little Sisters feel connected to their Big Sisters because Big Sisters listen. They support. They care and criticize constructively. They are admirable and accessible. Big Sisters are successful because they foster success in others.

You are making a difference, by being you and sharing yourself with your Little Sister. You don’t have to be a Nobel laureate or the head of a big company to be an impactful mentor. In fact, share your imperfections with your Little Sister. Show her that it’s okay to make and learn from mistakes, that it’s okay to ask for a helping hand. It’s not about having all the answers, spending a lot of money, or going over the top. It’s not about being perfect – it’s about being present.

— Amy Butterworth
Coordinator of the High School 
Mentoring Academy at Big Sister

Boston Neighborhood Highlights: Roxbury

Roxbury was one of the first towns founded in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.  It became annexed to Boston in 1868. The original town of Roxbury once included the current Boston neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, West Roxbury, the South End and much of Back Bay. Though currently much  smaller than its original boundaries, it holds many entertaining and exciting match activities. Below are a few favorites:

Roxbury Center for the Arts – Hibernian Hall

184 Dudley St.
Roxbury, MA 02119

Built in 1913 and reopened in 2005, Roxbury Center for the Arts at Hibernian Hall is a historic ballroom that serves as a multicultural arts  and entertainment venue.  Hibernian Hall organizes a wide range of events, such as master classes in dance and theater,  Thursday night jazz, soul, & R&B  performances, and Friday Flix, a monthly film series. To find out about upcoming events, visit http://madison-park.org/arts-culture/performances.


Discover Roxbury’s Neighborhood Tours

183 Roxbury Street
Boston, MA 02119

Discover Roxbury

Discover Roxbury is a non-profit organization that promotes the economic development of Roxbury through tourism. They organize interactive  guided trolley, walking, and bike tours of Roxbury’s arts, culture, and history as well as culinary events .  One of their more popular walking tours is the “Women’s History Walking Tour” where you learn about the historic impact women have had in Roxbury.  http://www.discoverroxbury.org/


Shirley-Eustis House

33 Shirley Street
Roxbury, MA 02119

Adults: $5
Children: $3

Celebrating its 250th anniversary, The Shirley-Eustis House is the only remaining country house built by a British Colonial Governor in America. Learn about the house’s many residents during the 18th and 19th centuries, including William Shirley, the Royal Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and later the Governor of the Bahamas in the 1760’s. The House, adjacent to Dudley Triangle,  is open to the public for tours Thursday through Sunday from  June through September and by appointment on any weekday year-round. Weekend concerts are presented April through November. www.shirleyeustishouse.org 


National Center of Afro-American Artists

300 Walnut Avenue
Boston, MA 02119

Tues-Sun: 1pm-5pm
Adults: $4
Children: $3

The National Center of Afro-American Artists serves as a celebration of black visual arts worldwide. Offered in the museum are African, Afro-Latin, Afro-Caribbean and African-American collections and many educational resources for children and adults. Their current exhibit, “Children=Hope” acknowledges the promise of young people by visualizing them through the prism of contemporary art.  It features the work of ten women artists active in Greater Boston  and will be on display through September 18th, 2011.  www.ncaaa.org/


Highland Park

Highland Ave.
Roxbury, MA 02120

The four-acre Highland Park, home of the Fort-Hill Tower, was the location of the Continental Army’s fortification during the Siege of Boston in the American Revolutionary War.  In the warmer months, it is a great place to setup a picnic, play Frisbee, or just take in the Boston view.  In the snow-heavy winter, it serves as an excellent spot for sledding.


Roxbury International Film Festival

The 13th Annual Roxbury International Film Festival runs from Thursday July 28 – Sunday July 31, 2011. It includes workshops, panel discussions, and film screenings with a focus on films celebrating people of color. Film screenings will take place at the Museum of Fine Arts, Massachusetts College of Art, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, the Roxbury Center for the Arts at Hibernian Hall and the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Ticket pricing is based on event. www.roxburyfilmfestival.org

In July 2002, 22 Palestinian, Israeli and Palestinian Israeli teenage girls traveled to the United States to participate in a women’s leadership program called Building Bridges for Peace.  My So-Called Enemy is the story of 6 of the girls and how the transformative experience of knowing their “enemies” as human beings meets with the realities of their lives at home in the Middle East over the next 7 years. The film is playing Monday, July 25 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.
Playing Saturday, July 30 at Haley House is Desert Flower, the autobiographical story of Waris Dirie, a Somalian woman circumcised at age 3, sold in marriage at age 13, who fled from Africa later to become an American supermodel. Now, at the age of 38, she is the UN spokeswoman against female circumcision. Click here for the festival’s full line-up.
Also on Saturday, July 30 at Wentworth Institute of Technology’s Blount Auditorium, a Furious Force of Rhymes looks at the role hip-hop has played as trans-national protest music. Over the course of the 84-minute voyage, the viewer encounters diverse characters—Israeli Jews, marginalized French Arabs, East German skinhead punks and West African feminists—who share a common musical language.

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Boston Neighborhood Highlights: Dorchester

Talking to Your Little Sister about Music Lyrics: Rihanna’s S&M

Rihanna Illustration by Quaymberley Dudley

Rihanna Illustration by Quaymberley Dudley

Twenty-three year old Robyn Rihanna Fenty’s new hit single “S&M” has been a popular song and a hot topic since the start of spring. Women of all ages, Big Sisters and Little Sisters included, bob their heads to the hit single despite the negative press caused by its provocative lyrics and David LaChapelle inspired music-video.

The song’s title stands for sadomasochism, the “interaction, especially sexual activity, in which one person enjoys inflicting physical or mental suffering on another person, who derives pleasure from experiencing pain.” The subject matter, likely chosen to compete with Lady Gaga’s bawdy antics, is disturbing given Rihanna’s recent experiences with domestic violence. The song’s music video, which alternately features the artist tied up and later walking Perez Hilton on a leash, has been flagged on YouTube for being “inappropriate for some users” and requires verification that the viewer is 18 years or older.

When the song’s lyrics drift into the ears of a Big and Little Sister match, Big Sisters often report becoming uneasy, unsure of the appropriateness of modeling singing along to the tune, or of going along with their Little Sister doing so. While there are several factors that will determine how different matches might address this issue, including, but not limited to, the Little Sister’s age and the relationship between the Big and Little Sister, there are some general steps you can take to be prepared if this situation arises.

First, do a self-check and take time to figure out how you feel about the song. What are your own values and how comfortable are you talking about it with your Little Sister? It might be best to let your Little Sister bring questions to you that arise organically from her perspective. Many of us have listened to a song from our childhood as an adult and thought, “Ohhh, that’s what that song is about!?” If a Little Sister does have questions about the song, remember that you do not have to have all the answers! Hearing your Little Sister out and supporting her by asking open-ended questions can sometimes be the best response of all. As the popular phrase goes, call your match support social worker if you need extra advice! Knowing your match well and providing you with individualized and specific support are what match support social workers are all about. So turn up the radio with the confidence that you can tackle any top 40 hit that comes your way.

— Jaclyn DesRosier, Social Worker, Community-Based Mentoring

The Reality of Life-Size Barbie

NBC Today Show: Student uses life-size Barbie to battle eating disorders

Like many girls in America, Galia Slayen played with Barbie Dolls when she was growing up.  In high school when she had long since outgrown the doll she decided to use the familiar childhood toy to educate her peers about body image issues. With the help of her neighbor, Slayen created a “Life-Size Barbie” with the famous doll’s exact proportions, 39-18-33. (For reference the average measurements of an American woman today are 35-27-37.5).

The result was shocking, and as Slayen says, “Despite her bizarre appearance, Barbie provides something that many advocacy efforts lack. She reminds of something we once loved, while showing us the absurdity of our obsession with perfection.”

Galia Slayen and her life-size Barbie Doll. Source: Huffington Post

This body conforming obsession is one that many girls deal with on a daily basis.  In our semester and year-long Group mentoring workshops, we address this and many other issues facing adolescent girls.  The topics we discuss include Media Literacy & Body Image, to help girls develop critical thinking skills in response to media messages and celebrate the unique qualities inherent in themselves and others; Self-Esteem, to educate girls on the relationship between self-esteem and behavior, outlook and decisions; and  Stress, Coping & Self-Care, to help girls to evaluate the origin of stress in their lives as well as ways that it can impact them both positively and negatively. Visit  www.bigsister.org for a more detailed list of topics we cover in our Group Mentoring programs. Click here to find out how to volunteer.

Some interesting real life facts about Barbie [via HuffPo]:

• There are two Barbie dolls sold every second in the world.
• The target market for Barbie doll sales is young girls ages 3-12 years of age.
• A girl usually has her first Barbie by age 3, and collects a total of seven dolls during her childhood.
• Over a billion dollars worth of Barbie dolls and accessories were sold in 1993, making this doll big business and one of the top 10 toys sold.
• If Barbie were an actual women, she would be 5’9″ tall, have a 39″ bust, an 18″ waist, 33″ hips and a size 3 shoe.
• Barbie calls this a “full figure” and likes her weight at 110 lbs.
• At 5’9″ tall and weighing 110 lbs, Barbie would have a BMI of 16.24 and fit the weight criteria for anorexia. She likely would not menstruate.
• If Barbie was a real woman, she’d have to walk on all fours due to her proportions.
• Slumber Party Barbie was introduced in 1965 and came with a bathroom scale permanently set at 110 lbs with a book entitled “How to Lose Weight” with directions inside stating simply “Don’t eat.”

Video: Start the conversation with your Little Sister about internet safety

Do you want to talk more about internet safety with your Little Sister, but don’t know where to begin? Here are three videos submitted to Trend Micro’s annual internet safety contest that might help you start the conversation.

Message Sent” shows one of the many painful consequences of sexting.

Too Much Information” humorously advises against over-sharing online.

And finally, do you ever wonder what life is like for people after their YouTube video goes viral?

All three pieces give the same message: “Think before you click!” Your Little Sister needs to understand that what she posts on the internet or otherwise distributes digitally can be used in ways that she never intended. Once it’s out there in cyberspace, she no longer has control over what happens to the content, who sees it or how they choose to respond to it.

As a bonus, here is this year’s Grand Prize Winner “Where are You?“, a spoken word piece explaining the two sides of being an online citizen.

Looking for a Good Read? Big Sister Recommends

Big Sister Recommends

Chances are, you’re still spending most of your free time inside. While you’re waiting for the weather to get warmer, not why head to the library or check out Amazon for these titles about the power of mentoring:

Stand by Me: The Risks and Rewards of Mentoring Today’s Youth by Jean E. Rhodes.

From Booklist:

Rhodes, a psychology professor, examines the popularity of mentoring programs and their effectiveness in improving the prospects of disadvantaged youth. She particularly focuses on research involving the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, the best-known youth-mentoring organization, showing that at-risk youth who are mentored through structured programs are more likely to succeed.

The Person Who Changed My Life: Prominent People Recall Their Mentors by Matilda Raffa Cuomo, Editor with foreword by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Amazon Description:

At some point in the odyssey of our lives, most of us have been affected by caring adults who made a difference: their advice, their guidance, their example led us to encounter the world. The Person Who Changed My Life is a collection of essays in which individuals who have distinguished themselves in their fields write about the men and women who served as their mentors. Among the contributors are Walter Cronkite, Larry King, Dr. Arthur Caliandro, Elie Wiesel, Marian Wright Edelman, Julia Child, Gloria Estefan, and Dina Merrill.

Because You Believed in Me: Mentors and Protégés Who Shaped Our World by Marcia McMullen and Patricia Miller.

From the Publisher:

Because You Believed in Me uses stories of real people—Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Claude Monet and Eugene Boudin, Ulysses S.Grant and Abraham Lincoln—to demonstrate the powerful benefits of mentoring. The relationships of these and other historical pairs are explored throughout this book to illuminate the inherent value of mentoring. What if Eugene Boudin had not encouraged Monet to paint in the out of doors? Could anyone else have inspired him to abandon studio painting and venture into the beauty of landscapes? As with this case, mentors open worlds of possibilities for their proteges. Even brilliant people need heroes.

Or check out a couple new books from the New York Times bestseller list that are focused on women and girls:

Read them already? Comment below and tell us what you think! What other books would you like to suggest for a good read?

“One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimensions.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Boston’s College Students: A Resource to Organizations

One of Boston’s biggest assets is its variety of higher education opportunities, which attract thousands of students from all over the world. There are 52 institutions of higher education here, with the enrollment ranging from 100 students to more than 30,000. This surplus of smart, talented, ambitious young people is not only beneficial in making Boston a hub of innovation, it is also a significant resource to organizations like Big Sister Association. 

On February 1, Linda Matchan wrote an article for the Boston Globe entitled “Volunteering Spirit Catches Fire” (read here). The article is an account of the rise in volunteerism among Millennials (people under 30) in the Boston area. According to the Globe article:

“Where their boomer parents may have been inclined to put their idealism and energy into protest and rebellion, today’s young men and women are civic-minded, less determined to change the social order, and more inclined to make the world a better place…” 

Among our Big Sister volunteers, women under 25 account for approximately 35%. That number has stayed fairly constant over the past few years, and is proportionately in line with the population of the City, which is said to rise 1/3 during the school months.

These students clearly have an intense desire to volunteer, but may need opportunities that require flexibility around class schedules and school vacations. Many college women in our area take advantage of Big Sister’s more flexible volunteer opportunities, which fit with their lifestyle and allow them to have a big impact on a girl.

Our School-Based Mentoring program matches a Big Sister in a one-to-one mentoring relationship with a Little Sister at the girl’s elementary school. This is a great opportunity for college students (and even corporate women working in the city) to spend time with a girl right in her own backyard during her lunch break.  These Big and Little Sisters meet during the Little Sister’s lunch time throughout the academic year, and are encouraged to keep in touch via letters or e-mails over the summer months. For more information on our School-Based Mentoring, or to apply, visit http://www.bigsister.org/

We also offer a monthly volunteer opportunity that will fit even the busiest student’s schedule.  Big for a Day (BFAD) allows girls on our waiting list (more than 300!) to participate in Big Sister-sponsored events interact with women mentors while they wait to be match with their own Big Sister. Activities range from dance and yoga classes, to ice skating, crafting, or museum visits. To volunteer as a Big for a Day women must be at least 20 years old and complete a one-hour screening process. The BFAD events are one Saturday each month, take place during the day, and usually last for 2-4 hours. If you are interested in volunteering or hosting a BFAD please contact Jennifer at jgentile@bigsister.com. We are thrilled to have so many wonderful Bigs and the prospect for even more talented mentors for our Little Sisters!

“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can start now, start slowly changing the world.  How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make their contribution…how we can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness” – Anne Frank