Ruth Lewis-Jones remembers well what it was like to be a teenage girl. It really wasn’t that long ago. And while she’s now 30 years old, Ruth still spends a lot of her time with teen girls and can see the pressure they’re under.
“There’s just this constant message that girls tell themselves: ‘I’m not enough’,” says Ruth.
“Girls don’t understand their value and there is so much pressure to compare and compete.” – Ruth Lewis-Jones
Ruth wants to change the message. She started Esteem Designz – a program encouraging teenage girls to explore self-esteem and identity through creativity – to change the stories girls were telling themselves, in the church youth group she was mentoring.
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“I had this youth girls group and just saw them, every week, dealing with the complexities of body image, relationship breakdowns, comparing themselves with their friends and those they saw in the media.
“I thought, ‘I’ve dealt with all of that too.’ All girls, I think, deal with not feeling like they’re enough, not feeling worthy. It’s because they don’t understand their value and there is so much pressure to compare and compete.
“It’s where Esteem Designz started. I felt like someone had to do something to empower and equip these girls. And not just the girls I saw every week in youth group. I wanted to create something that anyone could use with the girls in their lives.”
Ten years later, the Esteem Designz program is in more than 140 schools, welfare organisations and church groups. The program offers packaged kits with creative projects made for groups of teenage girls to do together, with discussion guides and an optional Bible study.
“Through the process of creating, the girls really let their walls down. They’re having fun and the projects prompt conversations that start happening naturally while they work.”
Recent data from the Housing Income and Labour Dynamics (HILDA) Survey, which tracks the lives of more than 17,000 Australians, found the percentage of young women aged 15-34 who had been diagnosed with depression or anxiety had increased from 12.8 per cent in 2009 to 20.1 per cent in 2017.
In her many years of experience as a school chaplain, youth leader and Girl Guide leader, Ruth says girls start to experience anxiety at a very early age – particularly about body image.
“Body image is a huge issue for young girls. The media gives us such unrealistic expectations of what we should look like. If you don’t have one specific look, you’re not good enough.”
“Social media creates such a lonely culture, where we have wide but not deep relationships.” – Ruth Lewis-Jones
Social media is another big influence on how girls view themselves, says Ruth. While she does try to use social media as a tool for empowerment and connection, Ruth is keenly aware of the incredibly negative impact that Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat can have.
“What we’re seeing on social media are other people’s highlight reels. Young girls are comparing that filtered view with their own ‘behind-the-scenes’ blooper reels.”
“What they’re seeing is fake and unrealistic and it sets unachievable standards. We compare ourselves and think we’ll never measure up.”
Friendship is also a big sticking point in the world of teenage girls. Ruth believes that girls just aren’t taught how to be good friends and how to communicate well.
“I think social media creates such a lonely culture, where we have wide but not deep relationships. It’s all about how many followers you have, not who you’re sharing your life with. So girls create a lot of surface friendships but continue to feel alone in a huge crowd.”
It’s this ‘You’re not enough’ message that Ruth is trying to counter. Along with the Esteem Designz program, she’s started the #ChooseReal campaign which includes a social media campaign with high profile ambassadors and role models. #ChooseReal representatives include TV presenter Natarsha Belling, media commentator Yassmin Abdel-Magied, former Olympian and TV personality Elka Whalan, and author and educator Maggie Dent.
The campaign features workshops, monthly subscription gift bundles and everything you need to host your own event for teenage girls, all sporting the message: “You are more than enough.”
“We’re really trying to shift how girls see themselves, to uncover all those external pressures that cover up the truth of who they really are,” says Ruth.
Faith played a central role in Ruth’s own personal transformation, from a teenager who lacked confidence and “desperately wanted to fit in”.
“God is the one who gives us our identity and where we can find our confidence.” – Ruth Lewis-Jones
“I didn’t see myself as God saw me. In my mind, I didn’t look like I was supposed to: I was too tall, too skinny. My hair wasn’t smooth and shiny. I was flat-chested. Freckles everywhere. My face would go beetroot red at the hint of exercise.”
“I remember looking in a fitting room mirror and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I am not supposed to look like this.'”
Ruth was bullied at school, and says she let the messages she was hearing from other people drown out what she could hear from God about who she really was.
While the programs from Esteem Designz are created for teenage girls no matter their faith, there is a Bible study plan that runs parallel to the secular program. This is being used especially in Christian schools and church groups, to help young girls anchor their identity in Jesus.
“My heart is to teach that God is our foundation,” says Ruth. “He is the one who gives us our identity and where we can find our confidence. We can’t lose his love, we can’t strive for it. And who we are in him stays the same. There is stability there. And confidence there. It’s all in Him.”