Girl power can be about more than glitz and glam

Innovative girl-empowerment programme receives the seal of approval from teenagers

The programme ‘helps you understand that you don’t have to look perfect all the time’. File photograph: Getty

A few years ago, Caoimhe Kirwin was deeply shy but after her troupe took part in an innovative girl-empowerment programme, the teenager was able to speak up confidently, even in large groups.

Caoimhe was about 13 or 14, she recalls, when her Girl Guide group in Carrigaline, Co Cork, began an unusual new programme. The Free Being Me initiative aims to empower girls by improving their self-esteem and body confidence through a range of awareness initiatives.

Since 2014 it has been rolled out to about 4,500 children and teenagers across Girl Guide and Brownie troupes in Ireland. "Young people are very self-conscious about how they look," explains Caoimhe, now aged 19 and studying Coaching and PE at third level. "They have to throw on a full face of make-up to walk to the corner shop.

“Kids are wearing make-up in primary school now, in fifth or sixth class at primary school, and it’s too early. They shouldn’t have to be going around trying to impress people but they really feel peer pressure; they want to impress all their friends.”


So how did the programme work for her? "It helps you understand that you don't have to look perfect all the time. There's a lot of pressure coming down from Instagram, Facebook social media and newspapers and magazines, because everything is airbrushed. And at 13 or 14 people look at pictures and they feel inadequate about themselves because they can't look like that."

And of course they can't, she observes – because, as she and her fellow Guides learned through the Free Being Me programme, a partnership between Dove and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts – that many images of apparently stunningly perfect girls and women on social media and in magazines have been edited. "I am so glad I did the programme. I remember at the time I didn't see the real point of it, I just wanted to get my badge! Looking back, though, I gained so much more confidence from it – in all parts of my life," says Caoimhe, now a Young Leader at the senior level of the Guides. She has been a member of the organisation since joining the Ladybird troupe at age five.

Marge McInerney, an experienced senior branch Girl Guides leader based in Carrigaline and National Programme Trainer and Outdoors Activities Trainer for the organisation, was at the forefront of the rolling-out of the programme across all Girl Guide organisations around Ireland – girl guides are aged 11 and upwards. However a junior version of the course was also provided to Brownies, who are aged between seven and 10 years.

“At the senior level of the programme, children and teenagers are encouraged to participate in activities which bring them to the conclusion that there’s not just one way to look beautiful – and that nobody’s perfect. The focus of the programme is to dispel the image myth and the image of billboard perfection that is pushed across social media and advertising.”

McInerney recalls how some participating teenagers said they wouldn’t dare show their faces at to the local swimming pool unless they had the “fancy togs, flip flops and pool bags”.

There's discussion about where the pressure to look perfect comes from

McInerney confesses that she has occasionally been taken aback by some of the things teenagers reveal in terms of “the little bits of pressure” which result in them not participating in very routine activities. “You wouldn’t be aware, for example, that the reason a 14-year-old was not wearing sandals was because she didn’t have a pedicure. This would not be the first thing you’d think of as to why a girl didn’t go swimming or wear sandals, so a lot of it is invisible.”

This is the kind of thing Free Being Me sets out to address, she explains. “There’s discussion about where the pressure to look perfect comes from,” she says, adding that many young girls believe they have to look perfect to even step foot outside their door. The aim of the programme is for girls to realise they don’t have to be this perfect person.”

At Brownie level, she explains, the programme features a variety of fun activities through which children learn that self-esteem and body confidence comes from valuing themselves and their bodies. “It teaches them to stand up to social pressure and show them that by supporting others they themselves become more body confident,” says McInerney.

Here the emphasis is on playing games which include child-focused age-appropriate activities highlighting each child’s talents. There is a discussion around the appearance of, for example, the stereotypical “perfect princess” and our concept of beauty. The idea, says McInerney, is to bring a younger child to an understanding that there is no single kind of beauty.

“Sometimes it feels like the world around us is telling us there is only one way to look at beauty but this princess image is not real; that’s the message of the programme,” she says.

The aim is to dispel the image myth, so the activities promote this message. Over five sessions of the Free Being Me programme, she explains, the child is brought to a realisation of what is good in herself, and through different activities, realise there is not one way to be beautiful and, as McInerney puts it, “that you don’t have to be the same as the person on the billboards to be beautiful.”

"Activities include requiring the child to find a role model in their lives and to talk about this person and why he or she is so inspiring. As part of both the junior and senior programme, girls saw examples of airbrushing in YouTube and in magazine photographs," she says, recalling that the airbrushing examples "really hit home with them."

Brownie and Guide leaders, she says, felt the programme really empowered girls and saw a noticeable increase in body confidence in the way the girls interacted with one another and how they participated in activities.

“It was also evident in small subtle ways such as the fact that shyer, quieter and more reserved girls were volunteering for things and voicing their opinions.”

It got children talking and asking questions about why people do things

The Free Being Me programme has reached 3.5 million young people around the globe since 2013.

The response to the programme, she says, has been strongly positive. “Children find it very interesting and parents felt it was excellent because it got children talking and asking questions about why people do things. They found it was very good and helps develop confidence in quiet, shy girls who were afterwards more willing to speak up and make eye contact with adults.”

Phase Two of the programme, Action On Body Confidence, will be rolled out in Ireland for Brownie and Girl Guides next autumn. The second part of the programme is also about improving body confidence and self-esteem and, as with part one, will run through age-appropriate material over four or five sessions.

Personally, and as the mother of an adult daughter, McInerney says she thought the programme was fantastic: “I would have loved to have done it when I was growing up, in terms of having more confidence and speaking up!”

Panel: Case study

A young leader with the Carrigaline Girl Guides, 19-year-old Sorcha Langford has been with the guides since she was a five-year-old Ladybird.

“I did the Free Being Me course when I was about 15,” she recalls.

“Social media and technology is a major issue now for girls from about the age of 10 and up because there is so much access to it and a lot of that access is not good. It doesn’t promote confidence in yourself,” says Sorcha, who is studying Irish and Geography in UCC.

“There is all of this pressure coming from social media that you should look a certain way and feel a certain way about yourself. Free Being Me gives girls the confidence to be themselves rather than what they’re told they should be like.

“We did a whole session on airbrushing, for example, because it showed that the women you see in magazines are not real. It showed all the steps that were taken before a photograph was considered ready to appear on a magazine or on a poster or in a video. Doing this programme at 15 helped to make me more confident about myself – it makes you more resilient.

“It made me much stronger as a person. After doing the programme I felt more confident in being myself and I was happy to continue with being me.”

As a result of participating in the programme she “didn’t feel pressured to wear make-up” or to get her hair or nails done.

“I did it if I wanted to but not because I felt pressured into it. One of the best things about the programme was that it gave you the confident not to worry about how you look,” she says.

“I remember wearing jeans and a top to a party when I was 15, most of the girls there were dolled up with dresses and had their hair and make-up done.

“I wore my hair down and I just wore jeans and a top. I don’t like dresses anyway and if I’d worn one I would have felt uncomfortable all night. At the party a lot of girls said to me that it would have been better to wear jeans because they would have felt more comfortable. Basically, I think the programme made me aware that I was an individual.

“It encourages you to think for yourself, and be yourself and be confident in who you are as a person and not let anyone pressure you into being something you don’t want to be. It gave me an alternative view on the world. The main thing it does is it gives girls the confidence to be themselves.”