Naomi Katz, author of Beautiful: Being an Empowered Young Woman, is a writer and teacher and the founder of Beautiful Project, a curricular initiative dedicated to building self confidence among adolescent girls and young women. For the past 15 years she has been working with young women on four continents. In her new book, BEAUTIFUL: Being an Empowered Young Woman, Katz tells teen girls that it’s okay to celebrate the beauty within themselves and their peers, touching on topics like social media, sexuality, peer pressure and drinking. No one has to do this alone, we are all in it together!
Why I Wrote This Book and Why You Might Want to Read It
“Hey baby! Lookin’ good! Can I get your number?”
I turn on my heel. “Who the hell do you think you are? You think you can talk to me like that? Yeah, I’ll give you my number right after you kiss my feet, you jerk! I bet your mother wouldn’t be too proud of you talking like that to women on the street! How would you feel if someone called your sister out like that? Huh? HUH?!!!!”
Or at least that was the scene I imagined in my head. In the real story, I simply looked straight ahead and kept walking. I wanted to say something to this loser, I really did, but I kept my mouth shut. I’m not sure why. I’m not a shy person, and I definitely stand up for myself. Maybe I was scared he would say something back to me or even hurt me. I don’t know. But that scene replayed itself over a thousand times while I lived in New York City. I can’t count the number of times guys I’d never met called me out on the street, as if this was a normal way to talk to women. After a while, it really started to get to me. I started to wonder, “Was this happening to other women too?”
Feeling Like a Piece of Meat?
I was a seventh grade teacher while I was living in New York City, and many of my students were attractive young women who looked a lot more like college students than middle school kids. Were they getting called out and leered at too?
Lara was in eighth grade. She was very tall and thin and looked like a supermodel. She knew it and liked to dress a little too skimpily for my taste. But I love her anyway. We were very close, and I knew if I asked her a question, she’d answer me honestly.
“Lara, can I ask you something?”
“Sure, Katzie, what’s up?”
“When you’re walking around on the street, do random guys call you out and tell you things they want to do to you?”
“OH MY GOD!!! All the time!” I heard a real sense of relief in her voice.
“How does it make you feel?”
“Horrible. Like a piece of meat.”
We talked about the problem for a long time. At the end of the conversation I had really mixed feelings. On one hand, I felt better that I was not the only person who suffered this kind of treatment. On the other hand, I felt a lot worse because not only did I have to deal with this, but now I realized that my students — middle school girls — were being catcalled on the street by men who were probably at least twice their age. This, I decided, was NOT COOL. I had to do something about it.
I could tell that Lara felt a lot better about being called out just from talking about it with me; at least she knew that it was OK to complain. Even though the things being yelled to her were supposedly compliments, she didn’t have to think of them as flattery. Lara told some of her friends about our conversation, and over the next few days I had similar talks with a number of other students.
I realized that the girls felt better simply because they had someone to share their feelings with, even though we didn’t really resolve anything. I felt better too because these conversations — even though they didn’t stop the catcalling — were helping my students deal with the problem, if only by letting the girls know it was OK to be upset by the comments.
I think I was in seventh grade when a man in a car first honked at me. The sad thing is, I didn’t feel disgusted at first. In fact, maybe I was a little excited because I never thought I got any special attention from guys. Now I am 16 years old and there isn’t one day that I can walk down the street and not get honked at or catcalled. I mostly just ignore it because I know that whatever I do or say back to them won’t make the situation better.
Recently, my 11-year-old sister told me about an experience she had when walking down the street with my 26-year-old cousin. While walking home, a group of young teenage boys approached them. “Hey beautifuls,” they said, “can we talk to you?” When my sister and cousin continued walking, the group of boys called them bitches and left them alone. My sister came home angry and embarrassed because she had never experienced sexual harassment on the street before. When I told her that it would start to happen a lot, she got mad at me and slammed the door to her room.
— Olivia, 16
During one of these talks, a girl said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this as a mini-term class?” (The school where I was working had a sixweek term in the middle of the year during which all regular classes were suspended, and teachers taught whatever electives they wanted.) I thought it would be cool too and eventually convinced my principal that it was a good idea to let me have a class, only for girls, devoted to discussing issues that affected them. The class was called “Help . . . I’m a Teenage Girl!”
My Teenage Brain
Teaching this class reminded me how hard it had been to be an adolescent girl. As I listened to my students talk about their lives, I realized that I had forgotten how it really felt to be a teenager. I felt as if people were judging me all the time (because they were!), and how no matter what I did, I was doing something wrong (because I was!). I once saw a scene on TV where a girl was talking to her dad. She was about 14 or 15 and was telling him that she could never imagine feeling more stressed out than she did then.
“Sweetheart,” he said, “you’ve never been through medical school. Just wait.”
“Dad,” she said, “you’ve never been a teenage girl!”
The girl’s words stuck in my head. There was a lot of truth in what she said.
I’ve had plenty of experiences in my life, and I’ve felt lots of stress. But no time in my life was tougher than being a teenager. I have never felt more insecure about myself, my body, or my social life.
Every day something would change in my circle of friends. I never knew who was going to be my enemy. It was impossible to know if people were talking about me behind my back, so I always assumed they were and didn’t trust anyone. No matter what clothes I wore, I looked and felt fat and just couldn’t get comfortable in my skin. And my parents, the people who were supposed to love me and care for me the most, made everything worse. They didn’t get what was going on in my head, and it seemed like all they did was criticize me. I had no one to talk to about my problems. I was alone. It was me against the world. And it sucked.
That’s why I’m writing this book. It’s hard to be a teenage girl. For adolescents, insecurity is a way of life. As an adolescent, I found it impossible to shake the feeling that I was being judged about every little thing I said or did because I myself was judging everyone else. Too often, girls deal with their insecurities by treating other girls badly. Girls judge each other mercilessly and are brutally mean. Instead of cooperating, girls compete. We need to support each other instead of putting each other down.
Excerpted with permission from Beautiful: Being an Empowered Young Woman by Naomi Katz. (iBooks, 2016)
Learn more about Naomi Katz’s Beautiful Project.