Empowering young girls to see beyond peer pressure

Nineteen-year-old Mara Diaz sees it among her peers -- the pressure to look a certain way.

"Like in movies, in sitcoms, they use skinny women, and how come they don't use women size 14 to be the star of the show?" asks Diaz, a Hartnell College student. "In a way, they tell you you have to be size 5 to be successful in your career, to find love, to have friends. A lot of the nation is not as skinny as how they portray it in the media."

The pressure to look skinny. To have sex. To get good grades. These are some of the concerns girls placed at the top of their list, according to a survey of 100 Monterey County girls conducted by Girls Inc. of the Central Coast.

Following on the heels of a nationwide survey that found many girls in the United States are feeling pressured to be "super girls," the Monterey, Calif., area offices of Girls Inc. found that 56 percent of Central Coast girls worry that college will be too expensive for them and that 50 percent are feeling pressured to have sex.

The survey also found that 82 percent of them are concerned with getting good grades in school and 58 percent worry about somebody close to them getting sick or dying.

The interviews were conducted among teenagers in middle and high school who participate in Girls Inc. programs, which are aimed at bolstering teenagers' self-esteem.

The announcement of the survey results was timed to coincide with Girls' Rights Week, April 29-May 5, when Girls Inc. members spoke before Congress to raise awareness of the pressures girls face that can interfere with developing a stronger self-image.

While the survey results show that girls are aware of the value of education, they also show the pervasiveness of self-image, said adult leader Judy Rasmussen.

"I know from the work I did last year at Alisal High, the girls are very committed to making their lives better," the volunteer leader of a mentoring program at Girls Inc. said. "And to make that happen for them, they have to get good grades so they can go on to colleges. They were very committed to that, but there's always the underlying issue of being a certain look."

Diaz, who works as a youth leader for Girls Inc., says that for younger girls, the pressure is different.

"I see the pressure from peers is about having sex at such an early age," Diaz said. "I see it's hard for them."

Born in Mexico and raised in Salinas, Diaz first heard about Girls Inc. when she was attending Mount Toro High School, a continuation school. At first, she didn't want to apply, but the thought of its programs giving her the tools she needed to finish high school convinced her otherwise.

"They taught me goal-setting, how to be more prepared, how to be healthy in all aspects of my life," she said. "I had goals, but they were vague. I knew I wanted to go to college, but didn't know how to get there."

Ultimately, her self-esteem improved and she says that's what all girls need in order to resist pressure to become something they're not.

"Having programs like Girls Inc. really empowers them and gives them knowledge to give them options," she said. "If they chose not to (have sex), they don't have to worry about it. They don't have to be followers, they can be leaders."