Not many topics would draw more than 300 teens and parents to a diocesan-sponsored lecture on a Friday night in Salt Lake City. But the subject was power, or moral courage in the face of power, especially as it touches adolescent girls’ lives and relationships. It didn’t hurt that the guest speaker was Rosalind Wiseman, author of the bestseller, Queen Bees & Wannabes, upon which the movie Mean Girls is based.
Many attendees had read the book or seen the movie. They knew firsthand of the abuse of power and manipulative relationships that Wiseman describes among middle and high school girls. The girls confirmed to unaware parents that peer pressure, the desire to be part of a group and a need for acceptance can lead some to be silent witnesses to, if not active participants in, hurtful behavior toward peers. Wiseman said such pressures can also lead to early inappropriate sexual activity or later instances of abuse from males.
Girls and mostly moms from five parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of Utah attended the talk. The auditorium was divided in half by a red strip of crepe paper, with adults sitting on one side and teens on the other. That enabled many young attendees publicly to reveal conflicts and fears they often hesitate to share with parents. Thirty girls returned Saturday without parents for a daylong workshop with Wiseman, “Surviving Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Parenting.”
Part of the diocese’s “Affirmation Series” of public lectures, the event grew from a desire to support young women better in their spiritual development. Wiseman is a family friend of Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish of the Diocese of Utah.
“We had girls from every socioeconomic background talking frankly about hurtful and scary things that happen to them every day,” recalls the Rev. Cheryl Moore, director of campus and community education for the diocese and coordinator of the event.
Peer pressure threatens achievement
The Rev. Suzanne Duffield, vicar of St. Elizabeth’s in Whiterocks, brought five adults and teens from her parish, which is predominantly Native-American. She says the oppressive reality girls from St. Elizabeth’s face is much worse than elsewhere. “Our young people are under tremendous pressure to conform to whatever leadership is out there, and they feel threatened if they try to achieve.”
Ashley Denny, 17, agrees.
“I see it a lot,” she comments. “I didn’t notice it before [Ms. Wiseman’s talk], but I do now, especially among younger girls who care so much about what others think.” Denny hasn’t had problems fitting in or feeling left out because, she says, “I don’t care what people think about me, and they know that. I say what I think, and my friends expect that, but I know it’s hard for some girls to do.”
Her mother, Lelilah Denny, attended Wiseman’s talk to understand better what her daughters go through in a given day. She had no idea of the group divisions and labeling among teen girls, the “back and forth drama of rumors and hearsay,” she says.
Lelilah Denny attributes much of her daughters’ ability to get along with peers to having already encountered prejudice. She believes the prejudice Native Americans experience growing up empowers them to relate to many kinds of people. “My daughters have lots of non-Indian friends,” she adds.
Jalileh Jameson attended with her two daughters, Alexandra and Samantha. She learned the importance of helping girls determine what they will gain from a relationship and equipping them to handle frustrations, she says. Young people need tools for building up, not tearing down, relationships, she says.
“We talk a lot more now,” she says of her relationship with her daughters. “We emphasize love of learning, community, close friends of all ages.”
The importance of friendships
“If young people feel safe at home, it helps soften the blows and other stuff they experience during the day,” she adds.
Alex Jameson, 13, says the event made her more aware of negative stereotypes of girls and their friendships in music and movies. The workshop helped her better understand what makes a strong friendship. She advises other girls to “hang out with your friends, but talk to everybody.”
“You have to be willing to make new friends and not be afraid of what others might think,” she adds.
Wiseman offered a four-point acronym for dealing with challenging relationships: SEAL.
- Stop and breathe.
- Explain what you don’t like and what you want.
- Affirm yourself or the other person.
- Lock in or lock out the friendship (depending on the other’s response).
Ivey Bostrum, 16 and a parishioner at St. Mark’s, Salt Lake City, attended the workshop at her mother’s suggestion to prepare herself for entering high school. She expected another “boring lecture,” not the involved exchange she remembers. Her takeaway? “I listen more to others now, because the more you listen the more you realize how some conversations can be mean,” Bostrum says. “You need to stand up for other people, not get drawn into meanness.”
“Choose your friends wisely and be aware of how you treat other people,” she advises. “Look for the right things in people, not just appearance or popularity.”