PAWLEYS ISLAND—As a church confirmation coordinator, Renee Faiella has become the trusted confidante of many of the teens with whom she works. They tell her some of their secrets about school, worries, hopes and dreams.
In her work with youth at Precious Blood of Christ Church, most of whom go to Waccamaw Middle School, she is reminded of her own experiences as a teenager. To help some of her female students in this important time of their lives Faiella organized a spiritually and emotionally enriching retreat May 15-16.
The event included talks from a psychologist who works with adolescent girls, a nutritionist, and an exercise physiologist, prayer, and fun. Because girls receive pressure from boys, and societal focus on their weight and external beauty, Faiella wove the experts into the program because she wanted to give them some helpful knowledge.
“I remember how it was when I was their age and think about it all the time,” she said. “I want them to know they are not alone and we all still go through it.”
Kristin Bohan, Ph.D., spoke to the group about how marketing negatively influences the way the world views women. In her practice she sees more girls with eating disorders, depression, body image issues and low self esteem.
She created a program called My Terms to help them develop cognitive tools to deal with a culture that hyper-sexualizes women and focuses on the superficial.
Many of these problems are linked to images in mass media, she said in an interview.
“They see it in video games, on MTV, in fashion magazines, on billboards,” she said. “More and more younger girls are developing a lot of issues around not liking themselves. The images they see are highly sexualized, and unrealistic. It is becoming epidemic.”
Bohan told the girls that marketers and merchandisers are at work creating images all designed to tell women that if they do certain things such as diet, wear their hair, clothes or makeup a certain way, they will feel valued. She tries to help girls and their parents develop a critical voice and ask, ‘Do I buy into this? What is the lie behind the promise?’
She said she wants them to know they are not sick, the culture is sick.
“My goal is to put myself out of business,” she said.
But the fight that she and those who work in youth ministry have is immense.
“In the ’80s we saw the deregulation of advertising to children,” Bohan explained. “Now we have entire programs that are one big commercial. It also seems we need to keep pushing the limit of what is shocking.”
She encourages parents to dialogue with their girls and not lecture them. Listen to what they have to say. When they see images or celebrities, ask them what they think about the way that person is conveyed.
“Give them the drive to critique and question so that when you’re not with them they question on their own,” she said.
Annie Arneman, 13, attended the retreat and was struck by a picture that Bohan showed in her presentation.
“She showed us a T-shirt for boys that had a boy on a bike doing tricks and then she showed us a girl’s shirt that had a bike and said ‘I like to coast downhill,’ so it’s like girls are not really in control,” Annie said. “I never really noticed that before.”
Amanda Walker, 14, said the retreat was the best she had attended and described it as fun and challenging.
“We learned a lot about self confidence and self esteem,” she said.
She also learned about self-respect and the negative way women are portrayed in the media.
“I see it everywhere now,” she said. “It really did affect all of us seeing that kind of bias.”
Some of the other activities Faiella organized for the girls included a scavenger hunt, prayer services, a skit by the senior youth group, and working with the dietician to make a healthy breakfast for their mothers. They also had a palanca, a Spanish word that means lever. Just as a lever enables a person to move something which is beyond normal strength, a palanca in letter form describes things that would not be possible without the grace of God.
“These were letters to the girls from their parents, a reassurance,” Faiella explained.
It was Sarah Ellerbe’s favorite part.
“I really liked when we were all in the church and Miss Renee had gotten our parents to write letters to us,” the 13-year-old said. “It was a really sentimental moment. My mom’s been really sick lately and she kind of wrote about that and God and how He has helped us.”
Faiella hopes all of the girls will receive the reassurance that comes from the “lifetime long relationship of God.”