By Laura Flynn McCarthy
When she was just 11, Julia Remillard of Kittery Point, Maine, was watching music videos at a sleepover with her friends and talking about how perfect the girls in the videos looked. "They were blond and really skinny," Julia recalls. "Later my friends and I went online and took a quiz to see if we were a normal weight. Even though it said I wasn't overweight, I didn't feel very good about my body." Around the same time, her mom, Susan, noticed that her daughter would frequently look in the mirror, asking her such questions as, "Mom, if I was really fat, would you tell me?"
Susan set out to dispel any distorted notions her tween daughter was having about her body. At the mall she pointed out how mannequins were so unrealistically thin that clothes were sometimes clipped together in the back to fit them. When she found Julia watching music videos on her computer, Susan watched them with her, discussing how not everyone can attain a dancer's body.
Like many tween girls, Julia was on the verge of entering a trap called the Girl Box. "It's that imaginary place where the way a girl looks becomes more important than who she is, and doing what will make her popular trumps doing what she loves," explains Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run International (GOTRI), an organization that encourages preteen girls to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles through exercise and adult-led group conversations.
Julie joined a GOTRI group at her school, where she and other girls ages 8 to 13 would meet for 2-mile runs and then talk about healthy ways to take care of their bodies and what makes each of them unique. "I'd show them pictures of models or celebrities," says Susan, who became the group coach, "and ask questions such as 'Is this too sexy?' 'What kind of look is this like?' 'Is this girl being true to herself of is she being fake?' Inevitably their answers were right on the money, but they still felt this incredible pressure to conform to ideals about what's sexy or alluring."