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by Cara Duenow | March 16, 2022 at 2:55 a.m.

Q. What are some of the issues adolescent girls face in terms of self-image?

A. Wow, this one is a big question to tackle! Girls these days are trying to figure out who they want to be and what that looks like all while dealing with what they believe is the expectation of “image” from their friends, family, peers and social media.  

Self-image in 2022 is more than just what they look like in the mirror or what brand of tennis shoes they wear. It’s everything from how they wear their hair and tuck their shirt, to how they speak and the way they express themselves. 

Everything our young girls do seems to be on display for judgment, and others feel like they have the right to judge — not silently in their heads, “why would she wear that?” but out loud for everyone to hear and add their judgment too. Not only is this happening via social media but now, people feel like they can just walk up to someone and give their opinions. It is a ridiculous amount of pressure. Even when they “don’t care,” it’s still everywhere around them. 

Q. How does the prevalence of social media impact these issues?

A. Social media has a huge impact on adolescent self-image. Things come at them from every direction. I fear most that what they are seeing isn’t even correct or real. Even when students admit that it isn’t right for their lives, they are so fearful to turn it off. They believe they will miss out on something or someone will get mad at them if they don’t engage in a conversation. It is so hard for them to step away. 

Q. What about the pandemic: Has restricted social interaction played a role in self-image?

A. The limited social interaction and increased social media presence that we were all subjected to during the pandemic have set our youth back a bit. I feel a lot of us have a difficult time interacting with each other. Some would just rather not interact at all. It has been very difficult to get back to the business of learning and going to school. I thought by now we would have it back together, but it seems to still be a struggle for some of us. 

Along with students’ struggle to get back to work, they also struggle with self-image. Trying to figure out who they want to be — not just what they want to be when they grow up but what character traits define them and how they want to represent themselves — is so challenging and overwhelming. Some of them would just rather not think about it all. 

Q. How can they overcome those issues?

A. We have to get back to talking to each other. We need to encourage our youth to have real discussions about themselves and others in their lives — not just the latest trends they see on their social media or the gossip about someone at school that they don’t even know. We need to help them get back to not only learning at school but learning about who they want to be.

Q. How can you help create a healthy balance with an online presence?

A. I talk to my students a lot about their online presence and being safe. I believe this has to come from our families, not only encouraging our children to put the phone down but being a good role model and putting ours down as well. Sitting down to dinner or taking a ride just to talk about their lives can make all the difference. Don’t be there to judge or advise necessarily; they get that enough, but just listen. Don’t get me wrong, I know this is easy to say and sometimes very hard to execute. I have two adolescents at home myself. I know what it feels like to get one-word answers or indifference toward the conversation. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m talking to myself. I want to encourage our families to step away from all the things that pull us in 100 different directions and just listen, even though they don’t always make it easy. I have to remind myself of this as well. I so often find myself wanting to fix or correct when I just need to sit back and let them speak.

Q. What steps can be taken to empower young women? What role does community play in this mission?

A. Empowerment comes from practice. The adults in their lives need to help them practice this. Take every opportunity to talk about and practice how to make them stronger, well-rounded young women. Give them real experiences, not just things they see on their media. Expose them to real-life outside of their world. It doesn’t have to be a trip around the world. There are so many things that we can get involved with here in Jefferson City. Find something that interests them and experience it together. Help them to explore and find their passion. I believe one of the biggest things that can help empower our youth is to teach them how to give back. Recognizing that they made a difference in someone else’s life can be so rewarding and empowering. We have such amazing young women in this community. I’m so blessed to be able to know some of them and be a part of their journeys. 

Cara Duenow is a counselor at Thomas Jefferson Middle School. She currently working with the eighth-grade students. Duenow has been in education for 26 years; this is her ninth year at TJMS.


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