Adolescence, the awkward transition period between childhood and adulthood, gives girls a choice to assert themselves or conceal themselves. The latter may be easier than the former when girls’ body and personality changes intersect with oppressive norms and gender stereotyping perpetuated in social circles and the media. Their fear of standing out or being inadequate is enough to silence their voices … unless they’ve developed courage as a behavioral response.
Courage is considered the foundational virtue of every other virtue. Aristotle called courage “the first human virtue.” Poet Maya Angelou declared, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” And author C.S. Lewis said that courage is “the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
According to research, courage is generally accepted to be:
(a) a willing, intentional act, (b) involving substantial danger, difficulty, or risk to the actor, (c) primarily motivated to bring about a noble, good or morally worthy purpose.
With courage, girls can act freely—despite risk and fear—to be, defend and expand themselves.
BENEFITS OF COURAGE
Authenticity of Self. Authenticity is a turning away from “theyness” and a turning toward “youness.” This isn’t an easy task for an adolescent girl whose developing brains is consumed with social learning and is sensitive to peer opinion. She craves what mass culture tells her she needs and wants harmony in her relationships, even if it requires her to hush her own voice. Courage, though, allows her to be herself—her whole, authentic, fully functioning self. It allows her to develop her own style, dance to her own beat and, if necessary, settle into the discomfort of being different. Cooper Woodard, expert in Developmental Psychology, uncovered that, “The (courageous) choice of authenticity, over time, creates an honest acceptance of the self and autonomous thinking that is not governed by others or culture.” When a girl accepts herself, she gives permission to others to do the same.
Defense of Self. When girls display moral courage, they confront the fear of social disapproval to stand up for what is right in the face of opposition. This could mean that they seek to enforce ethical integrity or human rights for themselves or other people. Standing up to a bully on another person’s behalf, voicing opinions and reporting a wrong doing to a person of authority illustrates moral courage. Researcher Nelson H. Goud stated, “Not taking a stand, though, results in feelings of a failure of integrity … and guilt.” Moral courage, which is important in every situation, begins at an early age and is cultivated at home and at school.
Expansion of Self. Expanding the self includes increasing ability, awareness and independence. Courage is the virtue that allows girls to endure, persevere past and overcome fear in order to discover and exercise their individuality and gain fuller access to themselves. Courage helps girls meet and talk to new people, try physical activities they deem difficult and take a leap of faith toward a goal in the presence of doubt. Goud said, “It is the quality of courage that allows a person to step into the uncertainty of the unknown as [s]he chooses [her]self.” Without courage, fear goes unchecked, leading girls to play it safe and small so they don’t risk embarrassment or failure.
Courage allows girls to face the uncertainties of growing up and make decisions that are healthy and empowering for them. Building confidence, competence and connection are paths for developing courage.
DEVELOPMENT OF COURAGE
Building Confidence. An important way girls can build confidence is through modeling. Girls need positive role models around them who illustrate perseverance, assertiveness, authenticity and strength. They need to see adults who base their self-worth on internal values instead of external labels and standards. What girls should see in role models is a “possible self.” Observing adults courageously respond to situations that girls may later encounter can increase the likelihood that they (girls) responds in a similarly courageous way. This means courage is contagious. Role models can help girls build confidence by encouraging them to take small gradual risks. Building on the success of each risk taken helps girls develop a breadth of responses to potential threats.
Building Competence. Building skills comes from repeated and successful practice. Similar to building confidence, girls should practice taking risks and habituating themselves to fear. Repeated exposure to situations that elicit fear and require action have been shown to lead to the development of courage in an individual. Mentors can play an important role in helping girls build competence by creating specific tasks that are meant to build their personal resources, like self-efficacy—the belief in one’s ability to succeed. For example, mentors can coach and position girls to meet new people until the girls feel they’ve gained the confidence and skills to do it on their own. While seeking out (repeated) experiences is important to building competence, so too is reflecting inward. After girls respond to fearful situations, they should assess the rightness of their responses and consider how to repeat or edit them in the future.
Building Connection. Making connections with people is one thing, but making connections with the right people is another. It is important for girls to surround themselves with friends who are confident, supportive, accepting and motivating. Friends’ feedback and verbal motivation has the ability to persuade girls to take courageous action. Girls want to include themselves in circles where courage is the norm and where they can align what they think with how they feel. In this case, not fitting in has more to do with a girl’s inability to choose courage or authenticity rather than a girl’s inability to achieve beauty standards.
It’s not easy being an adolescent girl faced with social pressure and gender stereotyping, but developing courage during this complicated stage sets the stage for self-awareness and self-definition that can have a lasting impact on her well-being.
If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. -Audre Lorde
Photo Credit: Jon Strayhorn for Girl Talk Foundation, Inc