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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]

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

Invest in Girls

Illustration by Gerard Dubois for TIME

Illustration by Gerard Dubois for TIME

The benefits are so obvious, you have to wonder why we haven’t paid attention. Less than 2¢ of every development dollar goes to girls — and that is a victory compared with a few years ago, when it was more like half a cent. Roughly 9 of 10 youth programs are aimed at boys. One reason for this is that when it comes to lifting up girls, we don’t know as much about how to do it. We have to start by listening to girls, which much of the world is not culturally disposed to do.—To Fight Poverty, Invest in Girls by Nancy Gibbs, Time, Feb. 14, 2011

According to the article from which that quote was taken, fewer than 1 in 5 girls make it to secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly half are married by the time they are 18; 1 in 7 girls across the developing world marry before they are 15 and get pregnant shortly thereafter. The leading cause of death for girls 15 to 19 worldwide is not accident or violence or disease; it is complications from pregnancy. Girls under 15 are up to five times more likely to die while having children than women in their 20s. Their babies are more likely to die as well.

At Big Sister, we know that investing in girls locally is just as crucial as investing in them globally. Consider this: In 2008, 595 children were born to teenage mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 in Massachusetts, according to a study by The Alan Guttmacher Institute, as reported by the Mass Alliance on Teen Pregnancy. Big Sister has been “lifting up” girls since 1951. We encourage girls to live up to their full potential by providing them with strong female mentors. These are women who most often are simply there to listen; the point at which Gibbs urges us to begin.

There is no doubt that whether it is in Malawi or right here in Boston, we need to increase the investment made in girls. That investment is one of time, of money, and of open ears, hearts, and minds when it comes to addressing the specific needs of girls. We can also encourage girls to invest in each other. That is the mission of Girl Up, a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that Gibbs references in her article. If you are a Big Sister, we encourage you to visit http://www.girlup.org/with your Little Sister. Perhaps it will spark a conversation about girls supporting girls locally and globally…and get others to start talking about what it really means to invest in girls.

To read Time Magazine’s number one most emailed article, “To Fight Poverty, Invest in Girls” click here.

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”

– Margaret Mead

For more information on how to become a Big Sister, apply on our website at http://www.bigsister.org or call 617.236.8060.

Is “mean girls” demeaning girls? Guest blogger Sharon Daura weighs in

Sharon Daura is a Big Sister staff member who leads the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley’s Intentional Mentoring initiative.  This capacity building program provides training and support around gender-sensitive programming to girl-serving organziations throughout Boston.

I listened in my car recently as two well-known radio talk show hosts discussed the topic of bullying.  The recent and tragic suicide of Phoebe Prince, the fifteen year old girl who was being bullied at her high school, prompted the discussion.  Both used the term “mean girls” repeatedly, while one was convinced the answer lies in prosecuting the girls who bullied Phoebe.  I gripped my steering wheel and waited for what I knew would eventually come.  A few seconds later, one of them delivered the inevitable: “Girls are worse than boys.”

We know by now that both boys and girls engage in relational violence and aggression and both suffer as victims.  However, the issue deserves a gender-sensitive perspective, especially since the current media discourse about bullying is placing gender in the spotlight.  The “girls are worse than boys” opinion is a popular one.  Yet, what does it really say about our beliefs about gender and behavior?

Society gives girls plenty of messages about where their value lies, which in turn equips them with the tools to devalue one another.  It’s no mystery why Facebook pages become venues for harassment that target girls’ appearance, weight, and sexual behavior.  Viewers of The Bachelor can tune in as women compete with one another for the ultimate prize: a man.  Girls will tell you a similar story–most of the conflicts start with competition over a boy.  When girls use language to hurt one another, they access the very same sexist language they hear on a regular basis.  It’s important to shed traditional beliefs about girls’ behavior and realize that while they are capable of violence and aggression, they are also not biologically predisposed to it.  The labels, like “mean girls,” offer very little in the way of solutions.  They also demean girls and contribute to the very problem we are trying to address

Dr. Lyn Mikel Brown, author of Girlfighting: Betrayal and Rejection Among Girls, urges us to consider the ways our culture “nurtures and reinforces meanness between girls.”  As we do that, perhaps we should also nurture a new kind of culture where we talk to girls about anger and equip them with tools like assertiveness.  We could reinforce a dynamic of respect between girls and provide them with examples of women supporting other women, on television and in real life.  Rather than judging girls’ behavior as “worse than boys,” we could focus on our own language and behavior as adults. Let’s start here: Are we willing to retire the term “mean girls”?

Close to home

It seems that every month there’s a new school for girls being built in a developing African nation by a philanthropic-minded celebrity. It is a direct result of the belief—which has received more attention in recent years than ever before—that if you take care of a community’s girls, the entire community thrives. It is the basis for the viral sensation, The Girl Effect. It is the impetus behind a recent blog posting by Queen Rania of Jordan. It is the mission of Oprah’s school in South Africa. It is the theme of the noted new book, Half the Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The thought process is simple: invest in a girl by giving her the tools she needs to succeed. When she has those tools, she can: avoid early pregnancy, get a proper education, become a contributing member of society. She has a better chance of discontinuing the cycle of poverty that is often the result of a lack of education or an early pregnancy.

But what about the girls here? Literally here, in our own backyard? Yes, girls in developing nations have drastically less resources than those available to girls in this country.  However, does that fact make girls in this country less deserving of an investment in their success? These girls are in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. They are also in South Boston, Brookline, and Waltham. They are the 3,000 girls we serve annually through our mentoring programs and the more than 300 girls waiting to be matched with a Big Sister.

When you support programs that are designed to give girls the tools they need to succeed, you empower our entire community. When we make an investment in girls—whether it is time or money—it sends a message to girls that they matter. When girls know they matter their confidence grows; they see more options available to them. When girls are armed with confidence they make healthier decisions: they stay in school and often do better, they avoid early pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse. They have the chance to avoid repeating the cycle of poverty. They have the power to believe that there is nothing they cannot do, become, or achieve.

As the saying goes, we should think globally, act locally. So, what do you think? Why is it important to Boston’s overall health to make an investment in girls?