Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt undermined because you were a girl

Written by: Hannah Johnson, After School Coordinator with Girls in the Game

“Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt undermined because you were a girl,” said 12-year-old Anna*, addressing the 25 other middle school girls during a recent After School program.
Met with many confused faces, Anna elaborated, asking the group,
“Has anyone ever treated you differently just because you were a girl? Have you ever been discriminated against because of your gender?”
With that clarification, almost every hand shot up in the air.

As I raised my own hand to meet those of my participants. All these girls have experienced sexism before reaching eighth grade. That was the moment I recognized just how important and special a program like Girls in the Game is — not only for girls but also for myself.

When I joined the Girls in the Game team this fall as an After School Coordinator, I didn’t realize that programming was much more than playing different sports and having fun. Thinking that I would be spending my days running around playing games, I felt prepared and confident in my abilities; I’m decently athletic, I grew up playing sports and even have a few years of youth coaching under my belt.

As I began to prepare for my first week of programming, I quickly realized that the curriculum goes far beyond throwing a football and doing the Electric Slide. It’s also about promoting healthy habits and strong leadership skills necessary to empower girls to find and use their voices with confidence.

Reading through various Health and Leadership curriculum about smart eating, healthy relationships and hydration, I thought to myself, Eat your vegetables, treat others with respect and drink lots of water. Easy enough, right?

Then my mind began to race with questions and self-doubt. When was the last time I had a healthy, balanced breakfast? Am I being a good and responsible enough roommate? Why am I always feeling dehydrated?

Most importantly, how could I teach young girls to be confident, healthy women if I wasn’t acting like one myself?

My new position at Girls in the Game began during a crazy but exciting new chapter of my life. I just graduated from college, turned 23 and moved into a house with 14 strangers through Avodah, a Jewish social justice fellowship. With this transition into my post-grad, adult life came lots of stress and lifestyle changes. I began eating less mindfully, skipping my workout routine to explore the neighborhood ice cream spots and staying up late with my new roommates instead of getting sleep.

If I was going to be a positive role model for young girls, I needed to start practicing what I was preaching.

On the first day of coaching, I made a mental shift to start prioritizing self-care. I started my yoga routine back up again, went to bed earlier and pushed myself to spend some much-needed alone time, even when my FOMO was raging. This, of course, is an ongoing, difficult process, and that is ok. Somedays, watching my favorite reality TV show is what I need more than breaking a sweat, and I count my blessings that I’m in walking distance from Jeni’s ice cream.

While it can be difficult for me to practice self-care and feel confident, I know that these struggles are often amplified for the girls I work with.

Only 39% of girls age 8 to 17 say they want to be a leader.

Not all Girls in the Game participants have the same support system of family, friends and mentors that I, fortunately, have. This makes my work as a coach and role model so important and necessary.

What I hope to teach my girls is that even though it can be difficult, it’s important to love and take care of yourself on both good and bad days. In a society that is constantly, as Anna puts it, undermining girls because of their gender, I’m excited to provide a space, even if only for two hours, where my participants are reminded that they are loved, respected and so very important.

Hannah Johnson is an After School Coordinator with Girls in the Game. She graduated from Northwestern University in 2018, where she studied Journalism and Sociology. Hannah joined Girls in the Game through Avodah, a Jewish social justice service corps. In her free time, Hannah loves doing yoga, watching documentaries and searching for the best vegetarian food in Chicago.