It’s 4:30 p.m and yoga instructor Bronwyn Hendry at the Wymbin studio in Inglewood starts the Girlvana class with some deep breathing. The 75-minute flow class helps the eight teenage girls support one another through yoga, tarot card reading and talking about body image and health.

Women and girls alike are bombarded with expectations of how they should look and behave.

But studios like Wymbin in Calgary and programs like GIRL TALK Empowerment in Toronto are creating space where girls can embrace their unique identities and examine negative self-hating behaviours.

The pressure to conform

Jenna Galloway, owner of Wymbin, says yoga and meditation for the teens helps them to be the best version of themselves through life.

Galloway understands, having struggled with depression and anxiety growing up. But by focusing on what her body could do, instead of what it couldn’t, she got through the tough time.

“Yoga was the one place where I could come back and be present on my mat and just learn about how important it was to be mindful,” she says. “It was the only place where I could look at myself in the mirror and just get the chance to breathe.”

What is especially tricky now is for teenage girls having to manage social media and its constant bombardment of what “life should be like.”

The problem is that some of these teens are looking in the mirror and hating what they see.

Fifteen-year-old Alejandra Carmona has had her own experiences with negative body image, but she is now learning to focus on herself first. Photo by Hillary Ollenberger.

While 15-year-old Alejandra Carmona has never taken classes to address her negative body image, she knows the pressures of trying to look a certain way all too well.

“Sometimes guys want girls to look a certain way and have certain features, and when would I see other girls who were pretty, I would want to look like them.”

For Carmona, her appearance is important. Although when she was younger she wanted to look good for other people, she now realizes that it’s important to put herself first.

Carmona feels that having a group or someone to talk to is significant: “Luckily my friends were good at boosting my self-esteem. I couldn’t imagine how it would be if I didn’t have my friends or family to help.”

Alejandra’s experience is underscored by numerous research studies.

It’s estimated 50 per cent of adolescent girls report being unhappy with their bodies, according to a 2006 study published by Body Image.

Another study indicates this dissatisfaction can develop from as early as six, with research indicating that the issue exists amongst individuals of varying body shapes and cultural backgrounds.

In addition, studies on high school girls found that internet usage was related to greater internationalization of manufactured perfect ideals, appearance comparison, weight dissatisfaction and a drive for thinness. Young adult women who used the internet were more likely to experience disordered eating as well.

From local yoga class to a social movement

From one yoga class in Calgary to programs across Canada, advocates are pushing hard for change.

GIRL TALK Empowerment is a social enterprise empowering 11- to 18-year-olds to make their mark on the world by focusing on self-esteem, body image, leadership, mental health, volunteerism and global citizenship.

Katie Zeppieri started GIRL TALK in Ontario while she was a motivational speaker talking in schools about bullying and leadership.

“Girls would come speak to me afterwards, one-on-one, and they had some really unique concerns that were facing them – like self-esteem issues and body image issues – that seemed to be holding them back from reaching their full potential.”

The problem with highlight reels

GIRL TALK helps young girls to love their body and become more confident by giving them tangible steps to love who they are.

“I think that it’s really easy to say just go love your body. You can just hear people say that again and again, but until you actually give the girl some tools to use so that they can actually form daily positive habits, that’s when you can really start making a positive impact in how somebody sees themselves,” says Zeppieri.

Girls attending the Girlvana class located in Inglewood at the Wymbin Studio. The class focuses on self discovery, meditation and an understanding of loving oneself. Photo courtesy of Jenna Galloway.

She says combatting the imagery of social media is critical. A girl might think she needs to have a flawless body, a perfect life on the beach drinking coconut water and getting a million likes and comments from boys.

Zeppieri teaches the teens that online images are crafted, edited, filtered and meant to communicate a message that flawless pictures are the norm.

“We try and work with the girls to see that what you are seeing online is somebody else’s highlight reel. They are posting their best moments, they’re posting when they feel great, when they are on top of the world, when they look their best, when it’s just the right angle – maybe after taking 100 selfies to just get the right one.”

Tools to get past self-hatred

Zeppieri offers specific advice to young teens who continually click on accounts that contribute to self hate.

“If you are following an account that makes you feel bad about yourself, if there’s negative messages that are being promoted and things that you just don’t want to waste your time worrying about, you can unfollow those accounts,” she says. “You can choose to setup your feed so that you are seeing positive messages.”

The goal is getting the teens to follow positive and inspirational women who are doing amazing things. Some recommendations on Instagram include:

  • Brittany Baxter @brittanybaxter_x: A body love coach, Brittany works with a supports women to make peace with their body.

  • Cinta Tort Cartró @zinteta: Cinta Toro Cartro is best known for her art where she enhances stretch marks and period stains, which are typically stigmatized and hidden.

  • PRECIOUS LEE @preciousleexox: Body positive Precious Lee is one of the faces of Lane Bryant’s three most empowering campaigns, “I’m No Angel,” or, “Plus Is Equal,” and, “This Body.”

  • Iskra Lawrence @iskra: With her positive attitude, Iskra is breaking beauty standards and encouraging girls to love the skin they’re in.

  • Megan Jayne Crabbe @bodyposipanda: Megan is a body positivity/eating disorder recovery account.

Zeppieri wants to prepare teenage girls for life. With self love and body positivity being a daily challenge, Katie wants to do her part to help make the girls feel good about who they are and how they look.

“We don’t get to choose how we grow up or how we look. That’s something that we are kind of born into, but what we absolutely get to choose is what we do with our talents and our time here on earth,” Zeppieri says.

“If you want to feel beautiful, the best way to do that is to make somebody else feel beautiful – to pay a compliment, a random act of kindness. That is stuff that just lifts you from the inside and it radiates all the way through.”

hollenberger@cjournal.ca 

Editor: Deanna Tucker | dtucker@cjournal.ca