It’s a bad girl’s world and good role models for young girls are difficult to find, or so the media would have us believe. Americans are bombarded with images of women to sell everything from beer to cars. Meanwhile, young women searching for role models may have difficulty seeing past the “sex sells” mentality that ties a woman’s worth to her looks. The nearly ubiquitous publicity garnered by the likes of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Anne Nicole Smith have helped to create an underlying belief that one has to sell their body and looks to be deemed successful. Daily the general public is inundated with images, stories and YouTube videos of “Girls Gone Wild,” promoting, publicizing and encouraging poor judgment and bad, often lewd behavior contributing to society’s acceptance of eroticized adolescence. Sexual allure is enshrined as the Rosetta Stone of esteem, confidence, power and success.
Television shows such as American Idol take a contestant from obscurity to rock star status in a few episodes. Other reality television shows dub everyday people with near-celebrity status just for entering.
Fortunately with the Presidential election taking the spotlight this year, the media has been drawn to women making history in politics with the likes of Alaska Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Senator Hillary Clinton, and Senator Nancy Pelosi, all women with significant accomplishments. Business leaders such as Meg Whitman, National Co-Chair for McCain 2008 and former President and CEO of Ebay, and Carly Fiorina, Victory ’08 Chairman for the Republican National Committee and former Chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard Company, are becoming household names.
For many, athletes serve as role models. During the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China we were re-introduced to women like Dara Torres, who, at age 41, became the first swimmer from the United States to compete in five Olympic Games. She has won a total twelve Olympic medals (four golf, four silver, four bronze) and at least one medal in each of the five Olympics in which she has compete. She is also the mother of a two-year-old.
There is Natalie de Toit of South Africa who finished 16th in the debut of the 10 kilometer open-water swimming event. The field included 24 other athletes—all able-bodied. de Toit’s left leg was amputated below the knee in 2001 following a motorcycle accident. Her story is one of courage and determination to overcome adversity.
Several social psychology studies have concluded that women need role models more than men and, benefit more than men from having same-gender examples of success. Imagining one’s own potential is not on the radar screen for young women who lack role models. For many young people, developing potential begins with understanding and looking for opportunities. Where do you look for opportunities? Who are your role models?
Donna McAleer is the author of Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point's Long Gray Line
, a collection of contemporary biographies. Her book celebrates the accomplishments of several women who attended the nation's premier military academy and took an oath to defend their country. These women pursued varied paths in the military, in business, in non-profit agencies, and in the clergy. As Army officers, athletes, wives, and mothers, they have met challenges and overcome obstacles to succeed and to lead others with strength and courage. Nowhere is this truth more evident than in Iraq and Afghanistan, where women lead soldiers in greater numbers than ever before.