Recently, I took part in a workshop about how to effectively work with youth. During the workshop, the instructor called several participants to the front of the room to help out with an exercise. He gave each person a card from a deck of standard playing cards and told the group that their “importance” was associated with the card they held. Those at the lower end of the deck were less important, while those at the higher end were considered more powerful.
Participants weren’t allowed to look at their cards; instead, they had to hold their card against their forehead, facing out so that those around them could see it. Then, they were instructed to interact with one another, but they were not allowed to disclose another person’s card to them. To end the exercise, the instructor asked the participants to line up—from most important to least important—according to where they thought they belonged, based on how they were treated by others.
Aside from one outlier in the group, the entire group lined up almost exactly in accordance with the cards they held. The powerful people knew they were powerful, while the “less important” people quickly got the message that they weren’t powerful.
It was fascinating to watch.
Then, he turned to the group and asked how many of us could think back to high school and put ourselves in that line according to how “important” we felt.
Everybody raised a hand.
This “exercise” drove home two points of which I’m often reminded when I speak with women and girls about how they feel about their bodies — first, how we perceive that other people are treating us in a given situation can have a significant impact on what we feel we’re worth, what we think we’re capable of and ultimately, who we allow ourselves to become. I’ve met many grown women who can’t get past the teasing and put-downs of a parent, a sibling or an old boyfriend to see the capable, strong and beautiful woman in the mirror today.
Second, I’m reminded that no matter what outward face someone shows to the world, there’s a good chance that she—or he—can easily re-connect with the vulnerable or less confident person they once were. Every one of us can likely recall a time when we felt “less than.”
In trying to raise kids who have a healthy body image—or trying to finally heal our own—it’s important to remember that, and to teach our kids that other people’s put-downs and slights have more to do with them than us. Those who worry most about their position and their power are often those who feel most compelled to put others down.
As adults, we know that just because somebody says something about us, it doesn’t mean it’s true. And we know that people who lash out are telling us more about themselves than something about us. But that perspective is born of adult wisdom. Remembering the vulnerability of the teen years — what it’s like in that “line of importance”—helps us connect with our teens where they are today, and to give them what they need: Patience, gentle understanding and plenty of love.