Today’s interview is with Kate Conner, author of the viral post, “Ten Things I Want to Tell Teenage Girls,” she is a wife, mother of three, and accomplished speaker and blogger. She has authored two new ebooks, Ten Things for Teen Girls and Enough which both eloquently communicate the true worth teenage girls have and equips parents to show their teen girls how much they’re loved and valued.
1. Your blog post, “Ten Things I Want to Tell Teenage Girls,” went viral—what was that like? What sort of feedback did you get and how did you respond?
Going viral was like winning the lottery: surreal, then amazing, then overwhelming. All of our websites crashed for days. The response was unbelievable. I received thousands of comments, emails, and messages saying, “I wish someone had told me this 30 years ago,” and “This isn’t just for teenagers, this is for me.” I’d say 90% of the feedback was positive – but just 10% of 2,000 comments is still a whole lot of hateful things to read about yourself and your work.
I read and re-read my post asking myself if there was any truth behind what the critics were saying. Am I a misogynist? Do I blame women for their own harassment? Am I vain? Judgmental? Snobby? Desperate for attention?
I am able to stand by what I wrote because I actually believe it. I’m thankful that the books afford me the chance to clarify some sound bytes from the blog post that were confusing or offensive to people. No doubt some will still be offended, but at least they’ll be offended for the right reasons. Context is everything. I also learned to never read Reddit, ever, no matter what.
2. What were you like as a teenage girl and how does that affect how you speak to teens today?
I was chronically, compulsively shy until halfway through my sophomore year. I would have preferred to fail a test than to raise my hand and ask a question. There was a shift in the 10th grade. There was no watershed life event; I just slowly mustered the courage to start doing things I liked, even if they scared me all the way to death. I just kept saying yes and showing up. The more I took those little risks, the more I started coming into myself. I actually remember the moment, right down to what I was wearing, when I realized, “You know? I like me.”
The difference between the first and second half of high school for me cannot be overstated. I was like a different person. After that moment in the 10th grade, I was an always-there leader at church, I became an editor on yearbook staff (I started to enjoy writing in the 11th grade), I did really uncool things that I liked, like French club. I graduated surrounded by a pretty big, diverse group of friends. I didn’t do anything magical—I just decided I liked myself, and I showed up and was nice to people.
The things that changed the game for me in high school didn’t hinge solely on my relationship with God, but they weren’t independent of it either. It’s no coincidence that I went on a mission trip in the 9th grade which God used to restore joy and perspective in my life in a dramatic way. That trip set the stage. My faith was the foundation for the growth that happened over the next 4 years. Joy and humility freed me to like myself, and to love people, and to start being brave.
I want young women to fall in love with Jesus—to encounter him in such a jaw-dropping, heart-stopping, intimate, scary-awesome way that they are never the same. That happened to me. But I also want them to like themselves and be nice to people. Enough and 10 Things for Teen Girls are a mix of both of those things. The radical love and truths of Jesus and the practical social skills like how to not be annoying on Facebook. It’s both things together, because that was my experience.
3. I think now more than ever, teen girls feel insecure. They feel like they’ll never be pretty enough, smart enough, skinny enough, or popular enough. How do these feelings start and how can young girls fight them?
In the first grade, I remember noticing that some of my friends were more petite than I was, and I wished I was like them. My daughter is in the first grade now—she’s six. I believe that these feelings are natural. By natural I mean a part of the human experience; they’re going to happen.
Insecurity takes root and becomes a problem when girls start thinking, “I’d be happier if I were more . . .” and when they start to think that “perfect” is the goal. We don’t try to eradicate their insecurities—that’s silly because it’s impossible. Instead we put insecurity in its place by modeling gratitude, passion, and joy. I think often about a Pinterest pin I saw that said, “Mother Teresa didn’t walk around worrying about her thighs. She had things to do.” I love that. Insecurities can only get the best of us when perfection and beauty and being adored become our goals.
The best way to combat rampant, crippling insecurity is to teach young women to care about bigger things than their own images and preferences. It’s on us grown-ups to teach this. As they watch us live, we show them that respecting our bodies is normal. Being thankful is normal. Finding and choosing joy is normal. Using our bodies as tools to do a job, instead of as shrines to physical beauty and sex appeal and fitness, is normal. My body needed to bear and feed babies, and it did. My body needs to help my neighbor move in, and it can. My hands need to feed people, and they can.
We’ve been trying to end insecurity by telling girls they’re “perfect just the way they are,” but it’s not working. Insecurity is part of the human experience, like grief and anger and sadness. It needs to be accepted and then put in its place. The solution to insecurity is the same as the solution to almost every other thing: love, gratitude, humility, community, grace, passion, perspective, and Jesus. Just look up.
4. You mentioned this briefly in your blog post, but pornography is seriously hurting the value men place on women, and women place on themselves. How can we begin alleviating the damage this is doing?
Oh my stars. This topic has been so normalized and so stigmatized that it’s nearly impossible to discuss with any kind of perspective. I feel raw when I think about this. I’m not going to discuss here why I think it’s damaging, and to whom, and in what circumstances, and in what ways. But I can tell you how I think we can alleviate some damage once it has been done and acknowledged. This is obviously not a long-term solution.
Here is one thing I would like to tell boys that have been hurt by pornography. Looking at porn does not make you a deviant, or an embarrassment, or a sex addict, or unredeemable. But don’t be naïve enough to think that the consumption of it does not affect the way you view women, sex, and intimacy. And don’t be naïve enough to think that the way you view those things won’t affect your real-life relationships. What you think will come out in how you act, always. You must recognize the attitude of entitlement implicit in pornography and fight like heck against it. You are not entitled to sex with a woman. The immediate gratification in porn does not exist in real life. Neither does the ability to search for exactly the woman, body type, hair color, or sex act you’re feeling in the mood for. Girls do not want you, or sex, all the time. They never owe you. They are not the prize you win at the end of the game, or the girl that always comes around at the end of the movie. Contrary to what porn implies, flirtation does not equal a desire to have sex. You are not entitled to sex every time you want it. I believe that the surest, safest, wisest way to protect yourself and your relationships—to demonstrate respect for women and to honor the emotional, relational component to intimacy—is to STEER CLEAR. WAY CLEAR.
Here is one thing I think we must teach girls that have been hurt by pornography. You can require emotional intimacy before sex. You can be desirable without “putting out.” You are worthy of love, not just attention. Being desired is not the same thing as being valued. You can insist on being valued. If a man pressures you for sex and cites his desire and “appreciation” of you as evidence that he values you, do not buy it. And do not confuse the two and find yourself, years down the road, feeling used and wondering why. The difference that value makes in a woman’s heart and mind cannot be overstated. The emotional component in intimacy is paramount—and it’s 100% absent in pornography. Do not manipulate men, relishing the ability to turn their brains to mush, when doing so means you’re being objectified. No matter what you get in return—a discount at the mechanic, a date, a pass on a speeding ticket—it’s not worth being devalued as a person. You are a whole person. You can insist that people see you and treat you as a whole person. Women are whole people, and the nature of pornography is to present them as less than such. I believe that the best way to insist on respect, value, love, honor, esteem, and real intimacy is to STEER CLEAR. WAY CLEAR.
5. How do a teen girl’s insecurities differ from a teen boy’s?
You know, I think they’re all the same deep down. People are people. We want to be enough. We want to be heard, seen, understood, validated. We want connection, passion and purpose. We want to be welcome, and liked. Culturally, “enough” looks different for boys and girls, and boys and girls often cope differently, but the insecurities are the same. We all want to be enough.
6. How can the church help empower today’s youth?
Start actually believing that God calls young people. Actually believe that they can do hard things. Listen to them; don’t dismiss their experience because you don’t understand it, or you think it can’t possibly be as bad or as dramatic as they’re saying. It probably is. Include them. Mentor them. Show up for them. It takes a village to raise a person, but we’re really bad at the village thing in 2014. Start building a village around them. Live like what you’re singing about is true.
When I was in college, I looked around and realized that I didn’t know many adults whose souls were on fire for Christ. I knew Christians, but not many “I will go anywhere, do anything, wholly surrendered” Christians. I resolved to be that kind of person, so that my children and the young people around me would know that spiritual zeal doesn’t have an expiration date. Press in and practice some real abiding, some real trust. Don’t minimize the gospel in your life—show young people what it looks like for an adult in middle-class America to hang their life on the gospel. They will notice. They will be encouraged, inspired, challenged and carried.
7. We all know that talking to teenagers can be difficult. What’s the first step in better connecting with them and getting them to open up?
Teenagers are people. So I read that question as, “What’s the first step in better connecting with anyone?” The answer is empathy—empathy to the zillionth power. You can’t just listen to a teenager and then jump in with your, “Yes, I hear you and I understand that you are mad, but. . . .” That’s dismissive.
If your interactions are 20% “I see and acknowledge you” and 80% “Here’s what I want to teach you,” you’ll get nowhere. With anyone. With your angsty co-worker, your difficult spouse, or your teenager.
We’ve got to flip it. 80% empathy, 20% teaching. Or maybe 90/10. Empathy eliminates defensiveness, it builds trust, it creates safe space. Anais Nin said, “You cannot save people, you can only love them.” However much empathy you think is appropriate, whatever your “I see where you’re coming from, BUT” disclaimer is, quadruple it.
8. You’ve said “follow your heart,” is the worst advice ever—why?
“Follow your heart” does not translate. I understand the spirit of it, but to a teenager, “Follow your heart” sounds an awful lot like “Do whatever you want the most” which is obviously problematic. Following your heart is all well and good until things get hard and you find yourself thinking, “My heart just isn’t in this anymore.” Our hearts are naturally selfish. They set off after things that are new and flashy, they are comfortable in places where we receive high praise or feel fulfilled and cozy. Our hearts change their minds a lot. I would substitute the word heart with passion, or dreams, or skills, or brain, or intuition, or sound advice. All of those things are great things to follow, and I address them all in my book. “Follow your heart” is vague. It’s incomplete advice at best, and at worst it’s a recipe for disaster.
9. What’s next for you?
I’m going to make dinner for my kids. Oh, you mean writing. There will be more books, definitely. Enough (and 10 Things for Teen Girls) was such a surprising project. The post struck a nerve and went viral without my planning—without my knowledge even—overnight. I am so thankful for it, because I was a gift. I could never have created something that touched so many people if I’d tried. Those books chose me, but now I get to choose the books. The proposal I’m working on now is the book I dreamed about writing when I thought about the possibility of being an author some day. And of course there will be blogging. I love blogging. I get to use ALL THE CAPS LOCK I WANT, SUCKA’S! And I get to say things like “sucka’s.” The interaction I get to have with readers is amazing, too; their feedback is often better than the post itself. I will be parenting, loving my neighbors, and writing. This season of my life is about those three things, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Discover what true worth really looks like and how teen girls can know how much they’re loved and valued in Kate’s new ebooks, Enough & 10 Things For Teen Girls, on Vyrso today!