Guest Post: A Counselor Applies You’re Not Pretty Enough Principles in Schools

My name is Brigitte Carrie and I am a recent graduate of The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development where I earned a master’s degree in School Counseling. During the program, I elected to take a Women’s Issues course that addressed gender-specific issues facing school-age girls (middle school through high school).  Our professor asked Jennifer Tress to contribute to our meaningful discussion on these issues as a guest speaker, and she shared this new and innovative advocacy project “You’re Not Pretty Enough.”

I was immediately interested in her cause, giving women a forum to voice their frustrations, anxieties, challenges, and stories specifically related to the idea of not feeling “enough.”  Having taught high school for the past six years, I am all too familiar with this type of negative self-talk coming from my teenage, female students; I would often hear comments about not being smart enough, pretty enough, black enough, white enough, athletic enough, and the list continues. Like Jennifer, I was plagued by this negativity, and after her presentation I felt empowered to combine her mission and the counseling skills I learned into a group counseling program.

While interning in a Northern Virginia high school, it became increasingly clear to me that the young women I frequently saw in the counseling office needed more support than what was offered. To respond to this need, I put together a small group that met once a week for seven weeks in the fall of 2012. I took the ideas of “telling your story” and positive self-expression from the “You’re Not Pretty Enough” campaign, and I planned the sessions based on the objectives of building and improving the young ladies’ sense of self-worth, confidence, and internal dialog. Following are the high-level topics we covered, by session:

Week 1: Meet and greet

Week 2: Telling your story

Week 3: Self esteem

Week 4: Healthy Relationships

Week 5: Body Image

Week 6: Goals and Womanhood

Week 7: Group closure and Wrap-up

The group members changed weekly depending on which girls were able to make it given their rigorous schedules.  There were nine participants who were all 16-year-old female juniors that attend a private, Catholic high school.  Of the nine girls, seven were White Americans, one was Black American, and one was a Chinese exchange student.  I planned the group to reflect a journey of stories, wherein the girls would reflect on where they came from, where they are now, and where they hope to go. Pulling from the idea of not being “enough,” I had the girls consider how not meeting others’ expectations has played a role in how their stories evolved. The girls told their stories (how they got to that point) in week two and then began writing their future stories in weeks six and seven. The bulk of the time was spent exploring their current story (how their lives are playing out in the present) in weeks three, four, and five.

During the first meeting, students played ice-breaker games and spent time building rapport. In week two, I showed the students a video clip of Jennifer Tress telling her story as a way to initiate and stimulate conversation in the group.

I self-disclosed by sharing how being multiracial in a town lacking diversity was difficult and made it hard to “fit in” and feel beautiful. The girls responded very well to both expressions of vulnerable honesty, and they began sharing their own journeys. The girls talked about race, economic status, and unrealistic academic expectations from parents. One young lady talked about her experiences being black in a predominantly white school, and the other members discussed their admitted lack of significant social interaction with members of other races. This brought about a conversation about other deep-rooted issues such as family values and influences.

[Editor’s note: here’s a good example.]

In weeks three and four, the girls discussed their homes lives, relationships with parents and siblings, racial issues in the school, and academic pressures. The young women were open and honest with each other, and the group transitioned in the working phase in week 5 after an intense discussion about sexuality and expression. In weeks six and seven, the discussions moved to post-high school plans, career choice, and parental influence. This was particularly centered on the issue that many girls had with their parents who want different careers and goals for them than they want for themselves. This again contributed to their concerns of not being “enough” to meet the high expectations of their parents.  One group member felt particular stress because her father intends for her to take over the family business in China, and she has dreams in the field of archeology.  This sparked conversation about expectations, similarities, and differences in other cultures. The girls discussed how the private school environment is very similar to that of China, with the benefit of the Asian group member’s perspectives and stories. Not achieving enough or not meeting the high expectations set forth by their families and cultures was a definite theme woven through most sessions.

As a closing activity, I had the girls write their “future story” – the vision of who they wanted to be in the future – and then we processed through some of their anxieties and fears. The discussion in the last session spoke to the positive effects of the group on its members.  All of the girls expressed how much they enjoyed coming to group each week and having a safe place to talk and relax.  The school environment is very focused on academic performance, and it appeared that the girls connected by being away from that pressure for a period of time. As it was a true challenge to gather the same girls each week for group, it was surprising that the conversations were so rich each week with different group members. It appeared that the girls were unaffected by this constant change, which may speak to teen resiliency and the girls’ ability to easily adjust and adapt. This could also be a result of their need to talk with others regardless of whether or not it is the same person each time.

The girls challenged each other and courageously discussed sensitive issues in an authentic setting. They explored their own stories and how they might be able to change and write their own future stories. The group allowed them a safe space to share their hurt and frustrations from not feeling “enough,” and that empathy allowed for healing and increased confidence.

I really enjoyed leading these sessions with such a fantastic group of young women! Please feel free to ask questions – we love to talk about it!