What Girls Really Need for Back to School

D'Janapha Fortune, YW Boston Senior Girls' Health Coordinator

A week from today a new school year will begin, and parents across the city will take stock of what their children need to succeed.

They will get school supplies, sign up their kids for after-school sports, talk again to their children about the importance of doing homework and paying attention in class. But parents of preteen and adolescent girls need to consider something else – what their girls need to avoid self-harm, disordered eating, peer pressure, bullying, depression, and suicide attempts. Because unfortunately, all of these negative experiences affect girls at a disproportionately higher rate than boys.

What many would argue is that these issues are too complicated to tackle with a one size fits all solution. Others would say that other factors like race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, home/school environment, and age will determine a girl’s wellbeing beyond any individual intervention. To them I would say, this is not an attempt to provide a blanket solution to what girls in our city are in need of. That being said, I’d like to challenge a few minds to consider the broader state of affairs for girls.  Despite demographic differences, there are consistent themes that ring true to the lives of all girls.

Girls today live in an image driven society where prestige is awarded to those who remain tuned in to ever changing fads, and success is measured by one’s materialistic prosperity. They live in a society where character and civic engagement is downplayed, while appeal is given to self-gratifying ways of life. Girls today, like girls before them, are growing up in a society that regurgitates its history and repeats itself in ways where all forms of inequity are upheld and perpetuated against girls. Factors boil down to the same question: What are girls truly in need of to avoid living a life framed within any of these restricting lenses?

Here’s what middle school girls from Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, and Dorchester had to say. From parents/guardians and family members, girls emphasize the need to be understood and accepted.  A desire for more support, respect and trust, as well as the confidence that she is not following the crowd. Dialogue without fear of being judged or reprimanded, and guidance without shaming or comparing.  From friends, girls re-emphasized the need for support and dialogue without fear of judgement, along with yearnings to be treated like family. Not to be manipulated or abandoned (particularly during times of need), and to receive healthy love.

What I have learned in my work with girls is the overall need for undivided and reinforcing attention from those they care about, opportunities to share freely, and safe environments to be themselves. Let us begin to challenge ourselves to create a society where these elements are present for our girls.  This challenge will require consistent (perhaps at times arduous labor) to appeal to needs that are crying to be met. Yet I am sure it is worth meeting for the betterment of our city and society.

YW Boston’s Girls’ Health Program is exclusively focused on the comprehensive health of middle and high school girls. The program engages a group of girls over seven weeks, during which girls gain new insight and work together to learn components of healthy communication, how to set and maintain relationship boundaries, discover elements of a healthy diet, strategize ways to incorporate exercise into their daily lives, and more. By the close of the program, girls are able to make healthier choices, strengthen their personal wellbeing, and become empowered in all aspects of their lives. Contact D’Janapha Fortune at dfortune@ywboston.org for more information.