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Fostering Self-Esteem and Positive Body Image for Adolescent Girls

At Girl Up Initiative Uganda (GUIU), we are big on promoting the self-confidence, self-awareness, and worth in our adolescent girls. The main driver for this is the need for the girls to believe in themselves, in order to know they have power over the direction of their lives, surroundings, and communities. Societies are made of individuals, and for them to affect positive change they have to have the confidence to do so, and believe in the value in their actions. Through GUIU’s after-school Girl Up Club - as well as the formal trainings with adolescent girls - we focus on how the girls can build their self-esteem and self-confidence through reflective activities, so they can be effective stewards in their communities. Not only do the girls have to be convinced that their ideas are worth sharing and implementing, but they have to get buy-in from other members of the community - which requires a degree of self-awareness - as well as the agency to fuel the will to step up and be the change they want to see.

Earlier this month, GUIU held a training specifically geared towards self-esteem and body image, at Kiswa Primary School with 91 girls. Objectives of the training included: letting the girls know themselves better while identifying their strength and weakness, training them on confidence and the importance of believing in themselves rather than waiting on someone else to tell them how good they are, the effects of thinking positively and avoiding negative thoughts, acknowledging the talents that they have; and being comfortable in their bodies and grateful for what they have.

What is self-esteem? When posed this question, the girls defined it as how someone feels about themselves, which influences the way individuals behave. While considering positive attributes, the girls were encouraged to exercise appreciating who they are and feel good about themselves. For example, the trainer encouraged them that when they wake up and look into the mirror, to say “I am beautiful”. It is important for them to acknowledge the fact that they are good enough on an intrinsic level, realize what they have, and if they do have shortcomings be aware that they can make it better. This is critical because it is projected to the outside world, and will set the foundation for and inform their experiences, reality, and how they address issues they face in their communities as adolescent girls in a strongly patriarchal setting.

What about body image? The facilitator emphasized that exposure to certain body images and standards of beauty in magazines and social media has a dramatic effect on how adolescent girls view their own beauty. Damage to self-esteem from idealized media images can cause girls to engage in risky behaviors including smoking, alcohol abuse and unsafe sexual activity. Appreciation for one’s physique, in addition to their internal disposition, that does not rely on extrinsic stimuli such as these, are necessary for girl’s to develop self-esteem. The girls were encouraged to be confident and positive so they would always be able to defend themselves from peer pressure, and other potential vulnerabilities young adolescent girls are often faced with.

(Photo: A “loving myself” exercise to develop a positive body image)

By the end of the training, the girls were more confident to freely share their thoughts and ideas without any fear of judgement. Boosting the self-confidence of young girls is not only good for individual empowerment, it can also contribute to closing the gender gap in school and improving the school performance of the girls in the Adolescent Girls Programme.

(Photo: "Pick me! Pick me!" girls excitedly wanting to contribute to the discussions)

Key takeaway messages

  • During the training, it was evident that some girls did not feel comfortable with people at home commenting on their bodies. Parents and guardians can impact on their daughter's’ body image, and therefore it is important not to sow seeds of doubt, especially during the formative years. Although self-esteem should be largely instrinsic, parental influence has massive implications on how a girl views herself.

  • There is a need to teach media literacy - talking about what the girls see on TV or hear on radio will help them interpret and filter messages that may be detrimental to their self-worth. Girls need the skills to think critically and question mass media images of women in Uganda.

  • Girls should not be raised just to be people-pleasers in society and succumb to peer pressure, but to be advocates for themselves and to speak up for themselves with self-confidence and self-esteem that will eventually project new images of what it means to be a girl into the community.

By fostering positive self-esteem and realistic body imagery, these young girls of Kiswa Primary School will grow up to be confident, happy and potential leaders of tomorrow. The importance of fostering self-esteem in the international development context is often overlooked, especially when dealing with adolescents and youth, and other historically discriminated groups whose voices have been left out of conversations to spearhead change. At GUIU, we have seen the vital importance of these lessons and we will continue to center our programs on building self-esteem as essential for girls’ empowerment and educational achievement.

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