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Growing Up a Voice for Today’s Girls

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Read Leonela T.'s story featured by BGCA.

So often we can feel alone in the world, especially when we’re struggling. But the older I get and the more opportunities I take on, I’m seeing more and more the interconnectedness of who we are as people, and especially who I am as a young woman.

For the duration of 2021, I had the unique opportunity to join the Dove Self-Esteem Project Youth Board, a collective of 20+ girls across the globe who come together regularly to discuss what matters to us, in hopes of shaping and informing self-esteem of girls everywhere.

From the very first meeting, I felt the scope of this experience – I was calling in from Eastern Time here in Sarasota, Florida, while other girls were calling from their respective parts of the day in England or in Togo.

I felt so small, but in a good way. And that’s the whole point: that my mentality, my goals and my issues are unique to me, sure, but they’re also something that girls and people all over the world share. 

What I’ve learned from this girl-empowered Youth Board can apply to girls everywhere (literally, I’m learning). Here are the main things I’ve learned:

Sharing your thoughts, experiences and struggles with other girls is powerful. 
So often as girls, we feel pressure to seem like we have it all together – at school, in our friendships and relationships, and on social media. But this means we don’t always feel comfortable opening up and being honest and vulnerable. My time with the Youth Board made me realize I’ve never had something like that – where you can come and freely discuss body insecurities and social media’s impact on our mental health. Where you can be open about the struggle of being girls, and specifically girls during this time. It’s such a valuable space, and I think all girls should find a group of peers – from your school, your Club, your friend group – where you can just be you and express what you’re going through.

Find what builds your confidence (and if it doesn’t, let it go). 
When it comes to building your confidence and self-esteem, explore what works for you. Find a medium of provoking and questioning and saying what you want to say – through writing poetry or music, making comedy TikToks, the way you dress, what you choose to eat or exercise, what you choose to share on social media. There are so many ways to express you and you choose the platform that works best for you. 

And if what’s popular doesn’t work for you – don’t feel pressure to pursue it. For me, I deleted Instagram because it was a trigger for my self-esteem and body image. It took me awhile to realize that whether I like it or not, what I see on my social media feed has an effect on me mentally and psychologically, and maybe it’s not always benefiting me. So that’s not my platform. For me, my platform is talking face-to-face – it’s where I do best.

Be bold with the conversations you want to have.
And speaking of talking, if there’s a topic that’s eating at you, speak out about it.

Once you become vulnerable, you tap into a whole other creative space where you’re talking from the heart, and you’re more likely to help somebody if you’re as honest possible. Be bold. 

Speaking out is intimidating, I know. Even if everyone should hear what you want to say, often not everybody will take it with the respect and consideration it deserves. But the more you speak out, the stronger you get at doing so – and the more likely people are to listen.

Build a network that will support you and open doors of opportunity.
Choose well the people you want to have in your life. Whether it’s your friend group, a mentor or your community at the Boys & Girls Club – a network keeps you grounded, keeps you trying new things and keeps your reaching potential you didn’t know you had. For me, my Boys & Girls Club – the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties – is everything. I’ve worked every single job available at my Club (from barista at the milkshake bar to camp counselor to teen program facilitator). They’ve also invested deeply in me, from launching my Youth of the Year journey to nominating me for experiences like the Dove Self-Esteem Project Youth Board. Now in my junior year of college, I’ve been working on my resume and half of my experiences have come through the Club somehow. It’s a network I’ll always cherish and give back to.

It is a true honor to represent girls from the United States and my native Cuba on these calls with girls and young women from across the globe – and a responsibility I don’t take lightly. But it’s also been deeply rewarding (and, honestly, a relief) to learn that we’re all more alike than we are different, that our struggles are in some ways universal. 

And that for every girl going through a hard time, there’s a whole world of girls rooting for you to keep going.

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