The Truth About Female Empowerment: 3 Lessons to Help Build Strong Girls

Before I developed complications from EDS, I loved to dance. Now mostly I just watch and yearn. For instance last night, when my husband and I happened to catch one of those dance competitions on TV. Beautiful things happen on that stage. People show their souls to the world. Artists are born. But last night, something different hit the arena.

We’ve all seen those TV talent shows with their cute competitors and all-too-familiar backstories. Usually they include a sob story or a huge obstacle the person (or group) has overcome. This time, the theme was “female empowerment.” I should be all over that, right? After all, I am a survivor of sexual abuse and an advocate for mothers and families.

Cue the music and the beautiful dancers telling their story, spouting off some idealistic babble about girl power and “every shape, size, and color” and then … they all strutted on the stage dressed like prostitutes, looking like perfect carbon-copied barbies in a row, and did a dance that was so vile that we had to change the channel.

Now  I’m not here to rant (or debate) about their trashy performance. Actually, I couldn’t help but wonder … Is this what we’re teaching our young girls? That dressing in black plastic-wrap, plastering our faces with makeup, grabbing our breasts and stroking ourselves in front of a crowd equals female empowerment? If so, this is a mistake.

Here are three lessons we can teach our kids about REAL female empowerment:

1) Sexual Objectification Does Not Equal Empowerment

Have you ever wondered what happens in the brain when someone views a sexual image? Would it surprise you to know that our neurons stop processing the human beings we’re viewing as “people” and actually start processing them as “things”? Dr. Mary Ann Layden, director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, is an expert on this research:

“So the feminists years ago said these men are treating women as sex objects and we thought that was a metaphor. It wasn’t a metaphor,” Layden says. “It was an actual statement of reality, that they’re using the part of their brain which they use to process objects and things and there’s a consequence in the society when you start treating sex as a product and women as a thing … When you cheapen sex and you cheapen women’s bodies, when you treat people like things there’s a consequence” (Van Maren, 2015).

What are those consequences? Rape. Pornography. Human trafficking. Domestic violence. A #MeToo culture. All these forms of human exploitation stem from the belief that people are objects–commodities to be used, bought, sold, and disposed of at will. Sexual objectification, not empowerment. See the difference?

2) Talk Is Cheap

In a word full of words, actions speak louder. We can’t just talk about these things; we need to practice what we preach. These ladies in the dance competition were a perfect case for what I’m talking about.

In spite of their rousing speech praising women of “every age, shape, size and color,” their group was anything but diverse. Instead they represented only one age, shape, size, and color. And most notably, only one body type. You know the one. It’s the female body type we worship in U.S. popular culture–the one we airbrush on billboards and magazine covers, the one that drives women and girls everywhere to plastic surgery, drugs, diets, and eating disorders. That body type.

I’m just saying … If these women really wanted to say something powerful about uniqueness and female empowerment, perhaps (among other things) they might consider including some unique women in their dance group.

Pause. Self-check. As parents, do we do this in other ways? Do we tell one story with our mouths but live a different truth with our actions? Do we teach our girls to love themselves–that “it’s really what’s inside that counts”–but then engage in self-loathing and crash dieting because secretly we want what the rest of society wants too? The “perfect” body type? (I may or may not be pointing a guilty finger at myself on this one.)

We need to be careful as we’re raising the next generation not to perpetuate popular myths about female body image. We need to be authentic, and make sure our words match our actions. If body image is a struggle for you, that’s okay! I get that! I struggle too! But instead of covering it up, or putting up a fake front for your kids, be real about it. Share that struggle with your daughter. She will learn more valuable lessons from sharing your path than she will trying to navigate shallow media by herself. Be real with your kids.

3) What if We Were Blind?

We know we need to talk to our kids about body image. But as we’ve said, talk is cheap. Right? So how do we start that conversation?

I was recently pondering this question in relation to my wacky health problems and meds and side effects. I’m going to go out on a limb here and admit I’ve been struggling A LOT with weight gain and body image issues lately. I also happen to have an autoimmune disease that is treated by a daily medication that can cause blindness. In fact, once a year I’m required to see an opthamologist to make sure the meds aren’t eating my eyes. And as I was driving between docs the other day, all these issues began to churn and boil in one big pot.

What if I were blind? I thought. What if I could never see myself in a mirror again? What if I were severed from this crazy, media-saturated, image-obsessed culture I live in simply because I lost my vision? Would I feel differently about my body if I couldn’t see?

Now I realize this is a bit of an oversimplification, and I mean no disrespect to those who are actually blind. If I really think about it, blindness would bring other, more complicated emotional and social issues than I can imagine! But just for the sake of this lesson, if we could suspend blindness so that it only affected our body image, what would that look like? (Pardon the pun.) Wouldn’t that be a thought-provoking springboard to use for a conversation with your child? Here are some sample questions you could ask:

If you couldn’t see, what would you like most about yourself?

If you couldn’t see, what are some goals you would set for yourself?

If you couldn’t see, what might you change about yourself?

If you couldn’t see, what qualities would you value most in a girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse?

We can teach kids “it’s what’s inside that counts,” but sometimes that old saying gets a little tiresome. Do you see how using this paradigm forces us to peel away the layers and dig deeper? Try coming up with more questions on your own, and you will see what I mean. It really makes us think! And that’s important. We need to help our kids see past the shallow images that our media-saturated culture provide.

Truthfully, we can’t afford to make the body-image talk a one-time thing. Our children are constantly bombarded by images and conflicting messages from the media, and we need to address this over and over again if we are going to get through. Just like with anything else, establishing healthy, open communication with our kids is the first step, and then the door is open for other lessons.

As we strive to teach our kids these powerful truths about sexual objectification, make a special effort to be authentic, and help them see below the surface, we can help the next generation break free from the myths about “female empowerment” that prevail in our culture.

QUESTION: What are you doing to build strong girls in the next generation?

TALK TIME: Make a goal to talk to your kids about body image and self-esteem this week. Try using some of the sample questions above. #TalkToYourKids


Tips for Talking To Kids About Healthy Body Image

Body Image Books from Educate and Empower Kids

Pinterest Board: Body Image & Media Illusions


Van Maren, J. (2015, January 26). Feminism’s self-defeating about-face on porn. Retrieved June 27, 2018, from

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