Next Wednesday, Whitby School will host two days of workshops for Upper School students and a special evening for parents with author and teacher Naomi Katz. I had the opportunity to chat with Naomi to learn more about how she's empowering young women around the world, discover what inspired her along her journey, and hear advice she has for parents of adolescent girls.
About Naomi Katz
Naomi has been working to empower young women for more than 15 years. In addition to years of work as a teacher, she is now the author of Beautiful: Being an Empowered Young Woman, and founder of Beautiful Project, a curricular initiative dedicated to building self confidence among adolescent girls and young women.
"Too often, girls deal with their insecurities by treating other girls badly. Girls judge each other mercilessly, and are brutally mean. Instead of cooperating, girls compete. We need to support each other instead of putting each other down."
- Naomi Katz in Beautiful: Being an Empowered Young Woman
Naomi’s programs focus on empowering ourselves to take action into our own hands, to understand that we are the builders of our culture and that we drive the changes that we wish to see, beginning with ourselves and echoing into our communities. Through awareness of the impact of media and our understanding of equality, she offers participants practical strategies to help navigate the myriad influences young people face today.
Read Our Exclusive Interview with Author/Educator, Naomi Katz:
Sarah: First, can you give me some background on how you came into starting this project?
Naomi: About 17 years ago I was a teacher at Trevor Day School. That was my first teaching gig. At Trevor there was a mini term, which meant that during the depths of winter, for six weeks regular classes were cancelled and teachers taught electives. Whatever they wanted.
The girls in 7th and 8th grade asked me if we could have an all girls mini term class, which I felt was a fantastic idea. I went to the principal of the school who was really, and still is, an educational visionary and asked him if that was possible. He was into it too and we did it.
The other thing to keep in mind is that at that time I was 23 years old I think, maybe 24. What did I know about facilitating a girls group? The first day that I came into that class, the girls were sitting there super wide eyed and super excited and I was also very excited, but also kind of like, "What are we going to do?"
Of course I had a plan - I was a teacher. But what ended up happening was that the girls spoke to each other in the context of just having a safe space. It was just for girls and it was contained. It was really revolutionary for all of us. Bullies and victims and the popular girls and the not popular girls were sitting in the same room and talking about real things that were going on for them in their hearts and in their lives. It was very, very strong. When mini term was over, the girls said, "We have to keep on meeting. We can't just let this go."
We continued to meet during lunch for the rest of the year. That experience basically defined the vector of my career as an educator. I continued to work as a regular teacher, as an English teacher and a history teacher at a bunch of different schools, both in the U.S. and abroad, but throughout all of that time I also worked exclusively with girls. There were years that I worked specifically just for girls groups, or in the context of another school, also ran a girls group in the school. That was how it started and it's grown a lot since then.
I started just working with middle school girls and then it expanded with high school girls. Now I work with young girls, as young as eight and nine years old, and I also work with adult women in a lot of different kinds of contexts. That experience was the first step that really defined the trajectory of what has become basically the focus of my career.
I'm sure every single conversation is different, but are you noticing any commonalities in terms of themes and what the girls really want to dive into with each other?
Of course. First of all, I should say that I work all over the world and in three languages [English, Spanish, Hebrew]. That means that I'm meeting girls in lots of different cultural contexts. Unfortunately, it's almost universal that girls and women have serious struggles with their self esteem, particularly around body image.
In all of the places that I've worked, the female form - in particular young women - is seen as this beautiful image. It's a very specific standard of beauty. Then there's the reality which is what the rest of us look like - which is also very beautiful, but doesn't fit this standard of beauty that the media has been perpetuating for years. That dissonance between the reality and the standard, or the imagined standard - that creates a lot of pain for a lot of women. Not just for girls; for women too.
I also work with an anthropologist who studies this issue of why is it that it's almost universal that women all over the world in cultures, in tribal cultures and also in totally Westernized cultures have a negative body image. That's really strong.
That has transferred into a lot of aspects of our lives. The other piece of it also is that we don't really have anymore this way of honoring and celebrating the difference between men and women. We live in an era where women have tons of opportunities and that's amazing. I have the possibility of doing things that my grandmothers probably never even dreamed or considered, but in gaining those things, we've also lost other things. We've lost spaces that are really women's spaces. That's become almost a negative thing. We've lost the women's culture.
That has a really strong impact because I see that in so many situations and in many cultures, it's a really common and shared sentiment that to be equal we have to do the same things. We're not the same and we'll never be the same. It's okay that we're not the same. In fact, it's good that we're not the same. That also has a really strong impact because what happened to honoring that which is woman? Now for women, being a woman often is defined by motherhood, but that's not applicable to everyone. Not everyone is a mother and certainly not young women who just aren't there yet in their life.
That struggle to define "what does it mean to be a woman today" is a major issue in the way that we relate to one another and in the education of a young girl.
When did this become such a passionate topic for you? Did it just stem organically from the conversations you were having at Trevor Day School, or is this something that you've always been thinking about?
I think it's something that was always with me because I'm a woman and because I, like all of us, have struggled throughout my life to define myself as a woman and to understand what that means. I, unlike a lot of other people, grew up in a family of really strong women. My mom and my grandmothers, both my grandmothers, were really incredible leaders. I was raised in that context. Nobody really ever talked to me about what it means to be a woman or how I can understand myself as a woman or anything of that nature. I didn't notice that that was an issue until I started doing that with girls.
I don't think it's an issue that I've carried with me for my whole life and that it's this really painful thing or something like that, but I do think that it's something that was missing in my education. I think it's something that's missing in education in general. I can say that for my whole life I've been an educator and I'm a super impassioned educator and even as a teenager, I was a leader in the youth teams that I grew up with. I grew up in a lot of things and was an educator from a super super young age. I know that that's who I am.
It was almost a natural step for me to work specifically with education because I really see that the education that we're giving our girls is really lacking. It became even more apparent to me in that time in Trevor. Also, another interesting thing is that at that time, on the one hand I was the responsible adult in the situation. I was the teacher, but I myself was 23 years old and definitely still finding myself as an adult and as a woman and still struggling very much with relationships. Not just with men, but relationships with friends and why are my friends so competitive with one another? I was talking to students about these things when they were 13, 14 years old that were true for my life too. I think that it's something that stayed with me in a way.
The other thing that happened is that a few years later, the dad of one of my students from Trevor had a publishing house. A few years later he asked me if I would write a book about the work that I was doing with girls because his daughters were now full on teenagers and they just weren't listening.
In the process of writing that book, I took a few years where I was just doing girls groups freelance in a lot of different contexts. At this point I was living in California and I was working with public schools, private schools, high schools and middle schools. Privately organized groups, all kinds of things.
Then it became even more clear to me how universal the issues are. They're something that have always been with me for a long time, and also I myself work with a teacher as a mentor for me. She works with women all over the world, so I through working with her began to understand in an even deeper way some of these themes and just see that working with these issues is a crucial element to the kind of education that I think as a culture - what do we want to teach our kids?
What about the role of social media in all of this?
Since I started doing this work, social media became a thing. It wasn't a thing when I started. The impact of social media on self esteem of people in general cannot be overstated and the impact of social media on the self esteem of girls in in their time of transition from being a girl to being a woman - it's devastating the way social media's affected them. In a sense it has become even stronger.
If I had to give a name to the talk that I'm planning on giving at Whitby, it would be "how do we define culture?" How do we create the culture in which we want to live? In that context, when we're talking about what is culture and how do we define culture, social media's a huge part of our culture and it's not going away.
First of all, just generally giving kids awareness and ownership over the time, the amount of time that they spend on their social media profiles because it's out of control. Really out of control. The way the kids relate to social media, it's totally their lives.
When I was in high school, of course also then there were difficult social dynamics, but then I would go home and I would have a break and I would just be with my family. That means whatever it means, it's different for every kid, but at least it was different from the environment in school. For kids who have difficult social dynamics in school, which is all kids at some point, it's really important to have that break and be able to say, "Okay, now I'm ..."
They don't have it anymore because of smartphones. Except for when they sleep really. That's the only time that they're disconnected from their social lives. That's just dangerous.
What suggestions do you have for parents with regards to their children's use of social media?
First of all just really be aware and make conscious choices. It's automatic for us to visit our social media profiles, so also be aware of how we use them and why and how much. Then also pay attention to what's real and what's not, how we portray ourselves and how we want to be portrayed.
A lot of parents ask me how they should respond to their kid's social media use and if they should go on their kid's social media profile. I always say, "No. Absolutely not. Under no circumstances," because what you do then is you create an environment of distrust between yourself and your kid and that's the last thing that you want to do. You want them to be able to talk to you and to feel like they can talk to you. If you don't create an environment of trust, they're not going to want to talk to you. For sure they know and understand social media way better than you do, so if they want to hide something from you, they will.
Parents will go on there to look for things about what's going on with them and it's just an exercise of futility. Then they're like, "Okay, well what do we do then?" You really need to open up. You need to trust your kids and trust that they're going to make good decisions. From the place of trust that they're going to make good decisions, educate them about what decision making really is.
Can you tell me a little bit about what people can look forward to in your book?
In the book, each chapter deals with an issue that adolescent girls are facing - relationships, peer pressure, media, etc. Each chapter not only talks about the issue, but also answers, "Okay, what do I do about it?" That's really useful because it's not just, "Okay, here's a problem" but "Here's a problem. How can I respond to the problem?"
Do you have plans to write another book?
I am working on another one, but it's in the very beginning stages. My work has started to really have a very specific focus around time of transition from being a girl to being a woman and determining what tools we as parents, educators and as a culture want to give girls in this moment of transition in order for them to be able to grow into strong, independent, self-respecting, confident women.
I know your work is with girls...but what about the boys? Where do they come into this equation?
They need just as much support. It's the same thing.
There are people who are doing great work with boys, but in the same way that girls who are growing into women need strong role models and need tools to help them be the strong, incredible women that we want to see come to be, boys need the same. In some ways, it's a little bit more difficult for boys to get those tools than it is for girls because for women, it's culturally and socially acceptable to find spaces that are just for women and to talk about things, talk about their feelings.
That's not necessarily true for men. It's in some ways more of a struggle for men, and boys definitely need that kind of modeling too. My particular focus is on the girls, but I also work with boys and I understand that one affects the other. If our girls are healthy, then our boys can be healthy. If our girls are not healthy, then our boys probably won't be healthy and the opposite is true as well.
I see this word everywhere all over your website: empowerment. It's also in our school's mission and one of our core values. In a nutshell, what does empowerment mean to you?
For me, empowerment is really just to feel that I know who I am, I feel good about who I am, and I can set a goal and achieve it because I have confidence in myself and I have confidence in the tools that I need in order to achieve it. I also am confident enough to know when I don't know and can ask for help or resourceful enough to find the place that I can get help.
To break it down in a technical way, when I am at point A and I want to get to point B, empowerment is a possibility to get there. However I enact that possibility, however I resize it, that is empowerment. I need to be empowered to do that. I need to know that I have the tools to get there or that I can find the people who can help me. Or that I can ask for support and feel okay about myself when I ask for support. All of the pieces that help me get from one place to another and feel good about the journey.
Whitby School parents - please be sure to join us for a very special evening with Naomi Katz on Wednesday, January 25 at 6:30pm in the Performing Arts Center. Log on to Veracross for more information and to register.