On April 8, the Great Issues Committee at Saint Louis University hosted guest speaker Molly Barker to enlighten the SLU community on her work with Girls on the Run and the issues that many women face growing up in our society.
Barker, a four-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete and mother of two, used her background in social work, counseling and teaching to develop the program, Girls on the Run.
“Girls on the Run is a character-development program for girls in third to eighth grade that uses the power of running to give them the tools, as one girl has said, to ‘be the boss of her own brain,’” Barker said.
The program provides the girls with coping mechanisms to help them navigate adolescence with their self-esteem intact. These coping mechanisms are taught through running games that are integrated with life lessons.
One lesson includes dealing with peer pressure and teaches the girls how to figure out what they really want rather than what other people are telling them to do.
Over the twelve weeks of the program, the girls try to find a better sense of self and become more comfortable with who they are. Part of finding this sense of self is done through media literacy and identifying that most women in advertisements have been altered and are not representative of real women. By the end of the program, the girls train for a celebratory, noncompetitive 5K.
Barker founded Girls on the Run in 1996 in Charleston, N.C., after being inspired by her own life events and struggles with alcoholism.
“I guess my deal was, I grew up an athlete and never quite felt pretty enough, and sort of woman enough, and so I got into some risky behaviors that kind of helped me cope with that,” said Barker. “And when I was 32, I hit those head on and I realized it was time now to quit trying to conform and just try to be whatever it is that I am.”
Through her realization, she thought she could give these tools to young girls so that they did not have to live their lives trying to fit in. Thus, Girls on the Run was formed.
In the first year, the program received 13 participants. Over the past 18 years, however, the program has grown immensely and has spread throughout the United States and into Canada. This year, over one million girls will have participated in the program.
“If you create this really awesome space where people can come be themselves, who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?” Barker said of her organization’s success.
Other than Girls on the Run, Barker has also launched other projects that aim to change the perceptions of gender and beauty for women of all ages.
One of these projects is called “The Naked Face Project,” where Barker spent 60 days without using any “girl” products, like make up or hair product.
“I have discovered that many girls, whether they are in their 50s or in their ‘eights’ go through a period in their lives where they begin to question pretty much everything about themselves. How they look, whether they fit in, whether they’re good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, thin enough,” said Barker.
The Naked Face Project, which has received national recognition, aimed to give women confidence in who they are and to promote self-liberation.
Currently, Girls on the Run is continuing to grow and looking to eventually establish a high school program as well as one day expanding internationally. Barker has retired from the working aspect of Girls on the Run but continues to find new ways to challenge our perceptions of beauty and gender while promoting joy and self-empowerment among women.