Two months ago, I had the privilege of conducting a workshop for a small group of teen girls. On the agenda: body image, confidence, our society and the elusive concept of self-love. As I planned the workshop, I was excited. I anticipated their curiosity and their questions. I remembered how I had been at age 12-15 and I smiled, but I knew I had my work cut out for me. Body image and confidence – we could talk about these two topics for hours. Society would take some explaining and I had a feeling the girls would be able to participate easily in the discussion. But self-love? How do you explain self-love to a group who doesn’t truly know the concept? Has never experienced it or finds it silly? Who doesn’t realize its sheer importance in the face of all the other items on the agenda?

This video is what I wanted to say in a nutshell. (Video: Hey, Girls! You Need to Hear This!)

I came prepared. On the picturesque wooden deck of the home of their youth group leader, a friend of mine, sweating a bit in the oppressive heat, I looked into their young faces and saw such beauty, such eagerness to be understood, and such fear. They weren’t afraid of me. They were afraid of their own private thoughts, afraid of embarrassment in front of their peers, afraid of being vulnerable.

Vulnerability, I explained, is what would help us to feel understood together as a team. They looked as though they wanted to believe me, but they weren’t sold.

Next to me was a whiteboard, blank and ready for our thoughts. I passed around a bowl of paper and markers, asking the girls to write down an insecurity, a fear or an issue they had. They looked interested, engaged. I told them to fold up their papers and pass them back to me in the bowl, and that I would make a list on the board. They looked absolutely horrified. “No one will know who wrote what,” I promised. “We’re making an anonymous list and we’re going to talk about it.”

Fueled by fear, one girl was quick to point out that everyone would be able to tell who wrote each item as I wrote it on the board, because they would see the color of each marker on the paper I was reading, even if they couldn’t read the actual words. I smiled, understanding the fear, thinking that I might have been the one to voice such a worry in my early teens. I assured them all that I would read each paper behind my hands, behind the bowl, to myself, before folding it back up and writing the item on our collective list. No one would see the marker color. I also told them I wasn’t exempt from the activity. I too wrote something on a paper and tucked it into the bowl. They leaned forward, scared, but very, very eager to see the list appear on the whiteboard next to me.

What I read was half expected and half shocking. I was astounded by the list of self-hate our whiteboard soon held. From “my stomach grumbles all the time” to “I worry my thighs are too big” to “will people like me?” to “I hate my toes,” the list was there for all to see. I sensed their mutual discomfort and also their mutual sigh of relief.

“There are a lot of things on here I could write too,” one girl said.

“Now I know that my friends worry about the same things I worry about,” said another.

I think they also felt more comfortable with me as their group leader. Knowing that one of the items on our list was mine made me part of the group, part of the sisterhood. I asked them how they felt looking at so many negative things on list. They were all in agreement that it was depressing. They also agreed that they did not think any of those things about their friends sitting next to them, only about themselves. It was self-directed hate and fear. I remember saying, “It’s amazing to me that such amazing, smart, beautiful girls can come up with so many negative things to put on a list.” I asked them to pay attention to just the body image items for a minute. “I’m looking at all of you,” I said, logically, ‘”and for example, someone wrote that she hates her toes. You’re all wearing flip-flops and I don’t see ANY ugly toes. Only cute toes.” They looked self-consciously at their feet, as though my attention to a specific body part – a COMPLIMENT no less – had exposed them in a way that made them question themselves. It’s good to question ourselves when we have automatic negative thoughts about our bodies. I tried to explain this to them.

After our initial activity, I asked if any of them had ever heard the term “self-love.” Most of them nodded. I asked if they knew what it meant. I saw blank stares and glances at their peers, which told me that some of them had no idea and others had possible definitions they were too embarrassed or too nervous to share.

“The definition of self-love,” I said, “is the love of yourself. It’s not the same as being arrogant or conceited. It means caring for yourself, taking responsibility for yourself, respecting yourself and learning yourself.” I looked around at their faces. I admitted to them that it sounded a bit cheesy, but was still totally true and extremely important. “I’ll also add one more: celebrating yourself.”

(Video: You’re Invited to a Celebration!)

We talked about how when someone tells you negative things, you start to believe them. I really got them on board with this. They knew it to be true. Then I offered up the idea that if you start to tell yourself positive things, you start to believe those too. It seemed like a new idea to them, as bright as they were. Compliments and positive reinforcement don’t come naturally in this society, especially for girls and women, so being kind to ourselves with what we say to ourselves is a kind of foreign concept.

(Video: How to Compliment Yourself)

So we passed that bowl around again and this time I asked them to write down a compliment. One caveat: NO APPEARANCE RELATED compliments. We’re more than how we look, even though we’re all beautiful. We made a new list on the whiteboard, and as one girl so aptly put it: “The negative list made me sad, but the positive list makes me happy.” She didn’t like knowing that all of the girls sitting there could create such a negative list, but she enjoyed it when her friends could all see their own good qualities and traits.

We chatted about a variety of questions: What makes you mad about the media? What makes you happy about it? Why don’t we feel good enough? Do our expectations play a part in our perceptions of ourselves? If you wouldn’t say something negative to a friend, why would you say it to yourself? Why aren’t girls allowed to be proud of themselves? Why are they seen as conceited unless they’re berating themselves?

The questions themselves aren’t as important as the fact that we were talking about them. Out loud. In person. These girls were finally talking TOGETHER about what scares them, what makes them feel insecure, what makes them sad, what makes them angry and what makes them feel confused. And in being vulnerable in one place, together, they wonderfully and magically felt less alone. More understood. Stronger. More positive. Ready to create change.

(Video: Hey, You! Yes, You!)

Before I said good bye to the group, I asked them to make goals and say them aloud. Instead of saying, “I hope…” or “I wish…” or “I want to…” I asked them to say “I will…” and to trust their own power and determination. “I will ask for help when I need it,” said one. “I will call my friend when I’m feeling sad,” said another. “I will tell myself one positive thing each day,” was yet another. I know that they will. And if you are ready, if you are willing, I know you will too.

About the Author:

Arielle is an MSW, eating disorder recovery blogger, ANAD eating disorder support group leader & resource person, speaker and wife. She is also a caseworker for a non-profit agency, a volunteer for a domestic violence shelter/agency and a loving cat momma. In addition to her MSW, Arielle has a Bachelor’s Degree in English and in Women’s Studies. Arielle has been fully recovered for several years and her number one goal is to show others that recovery is possible. Hope is her favorite personal value. To find out more about Arielle visit her website: Actively Arielle: A Voice With A Commitment.