I first had the idea for Show Up Girls in January 2015, after watching Meaghan Ramsey’s TED Talk “Why Thinking You’re Ugly is Bad For You.” In the talk, Ramsey, the Global Director of the Dove Self Esteem Project, describes the domino effect that poor self-esteem has on girls beginning around age 12 when they first stop participating in classroom debate and continuing through high school, college, and into the workplace. As someone who suffered from low self esteem during adolescence and who cares deeply about empowering women, the statistics Ramsey shared shook me to my core.
6 out of 10 girls globally will choose not to do something because they don’t think they look good enough.
81% percent of 10-year-old American girls are afraid of being fat.
Girls who think they’re fat, regardless of their actual weight, have lower grades in school.
53% percent of American 13-year-olds are unhappy with their bodies. The number jumps to 78% by age 17.
Poor body image is tied to low self-esteem, which puts teens, especially girls, at a higher risk of depression and anxiety.
20 million women suffer from an eating disorder at some time in their life.
90% of those who have eating disorders are women between the ages of 12 and 25.
We have to help our girls maintain and improve their self images. There is a clear, direct link between the self confidence of teenage girls and their health, happiness, and prosperity. We as a global community cannot afford for half of our population to grow up doubting their potential. To combat this growing problem, I propose improv, a craft that has kept me laughing and feeling free through my toughest days.
A bit about improvisation for those who might not be as familiar: Improv has transcended its former purpose as a tool for writers and actors to become an artform in its own right. Improv communities have sprung up in cities all over the world as giant institutions like Second City, UCB, Groundlings, and iO continue to attract young comedians and mold them into superstars like Tina Fey, Seth Meyers, Chris Farley, and Amy Poehler.
What people might not know, however, is that improv as we know it today was created and shaped by women. Viola Spolin wrote the so-called improv bible when she penned Improvisation for the Theater, a book of exercises and games she created for children. Spolin is known as the mother of improv almost literally, as her son Paul Sills founded The Second City. Back in the 1920s, Spolin studied acting with Neva Boyd, who developed a unique pedagogy based on the theory that imaginative play aided children’s development. These classes took place at the Hull House in Chicago, a settlement house founded by activist and social worker Jane Addams, who viewed recreation, particularly theatre, as imperative to keeping children from “destructive isolation.” It was during her studies with Boyd at Hull House that Spolin synthesized these ideas about using imagination and theatre to enhance child development. The games Spolin created and eventually detailed in Improvisation for the Theater required collaboration instead of competition and allowed students to explore without seeking a correct answer. Together, these three women shaped an artform that put imagination first for the betterment of children's development.
Once one knows improv’s history, it becomes much clearer why so many who practice it report feelings of higher self esteem. Gordon Bermant, a psychology professor at University of Pennsylvania, said, “The beauty of improv is that it is quintessentially a collective, cooperative form that rests completely on trust for the spark of creativity that can transport the players, briefly, into confidence building interpersonal connections.”
Clayton D. Drinko, PhD, and author of Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition wrote that improv “demands that everyone’s ideas are embraced and celebrated. There are never wrong answers, and there is no need to worry about the future. This makes for a playful sense of discovery where no one is in charge and everyone feels truly listened to.”
And this goes deeper than our psyches. Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Charles Limb studied jazz pianists’ brains through an MRI machine as they improvised songs. He found a complete shutdown of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with impulse control. His conclusion: when one is truly in the flow of improv, there’s no room for self-judgment.
With all of this in mind, I suggest a return to the roots of improv, valuing play, imagination, and collaboration as necessary components of an adolescent’s development.