In 2014, Michelle Cove’s 9-year-old daughter refused to get into a pool at swim practice because of her body insecurities. And in that instant, Cove knew that the media world, with its constant praise and promotion of certain body types, desperately needed a makeover — so she set out to give it one. The award-winning filmmaker, author, and journalist founded MEDIAGIRLS, a non-profit that teaches girls how they can create a space that better reflects them instead of the false (often thin) ideals we’re bombarded with. “I used the media skills I’d gained from a long career in the industry to create a 10-week curriculum that teaches girls in middle school ways to challenge undermining and sexist media images, know their true self-worth, and create content that would make them feel strong and good,” Cover explains.
In an exclusive conversation with Thrive, Cove shares ways we can change how we role model, enter conversations with more curiosity, and lead with positivity.
Thrive Global: Why is it important to educate our girls about media?
Michelle Cove: Teen girls spend eight to 10 hours a day consuming media. And there are billions of dollars at stake in making girls feel they’d be more confident with the right mascara or waist size. But if no one hits pause and teaches girls how to think critically about the media messages they’re consuming, they will accept as truth the idea that being thin and pretty matters most. They start to believe that the beaming, “perfect” girls in their social-media feeds are real and happier than they are. We have to help girls learn how to challenge media messaging and give them empowerment tools to flip media culture. It’s time!
TG: What are some ways that we can be role models?
MC: For one thing, if we want girls to believe there is not one way to be beautiful, we can role model what it looks like to appreciate our bodies. Instead of frowning in the mirror at ourselves, for instance, we can say in front of our girls, “Thank you, legs, for taking me on that awesome long walk” or “I’m so glad I have curly hair like grandma, it reminds me of her.” Focus on the positive! In terms of social media, we have to check in with our own behaviors: Are we looking at Facebook while our girls are trying to talk to us? Are we so busy taking pics of our family vacation to upload on social media that we’re not fully present? Are we consuming media that feels healthy and positive, or making us feel more insecure and anxious? Our girls are paying attention to everything we’re doing so if we want them to be healthy, we have to show them what it looks like.
TG: As parents, it can be really stressful to speak to our kids about what is happening around them. How can we alleviate some of that stress?
MC: There is a lot of media out there that is uncomfortable, and I don’t know if we can always wipe away our stress. But I think approaching it head-on can alleviate some of it. Like, if you see a half-naked female athlete posing seductively on the cover of a sports magazine by a cash register, don’t just hope your girl won’t notice it (she will). Instead, ask her what she thinks, or ponder aloud, “I wonder why they don’t they show her playing her sport in the picture?” We don’t always have to have answers. Instead, we can ask questions: When we see media with our girls that’s positive or negative, we can ask, “Huh, how does that ad make you feel?” or “Why do you think superhero roles so often go to a male?” or “Why do you think people only show themselves on social media when they look most happy?” Asking questions, and then listening, is typically a much better way to get girls to see the world differently than lecturing.
TG: What are the best ways to start hard conversations?
MC: The best way is to enter the conversation from a place of curiosity, not try to convert her to your viewpoint. This can be hard, I know! It takes a lot of intention, but the goal is to help her think critically and figure out her values, not shove our values down their throat. In all of our blog posts on MEDIAGIRLS, we provide specific and concrete questions parents and guardians can ask girls to take out some of the guesswork. Often when working with teen girls, it’s about planting seeds. Sometimes you start a conversation that’s hard, back away from it for a few days, and then come back to it again later.
TG: What are some of the stresses you encountered when launching MEDIAGIRLS?
MC: Where do I start? I’d never created a business before so I was learning everything at the same time — not just how to create and deliver curriculum but also how to set up payroll, establish a board, set a company culture, and work with school systems. On and on. There was a lot of anxiety! Each night, I would write in my journal three things I’d accomplished that day, even the tiniest things, to remind me that I was growing and learning. It’s so easy to become overwhelmed. My mom was great at teaching me to take stock each day of all I was getting right instead of obsessing about what I’d botched.
TG: How can we teach girls to “harness the power of media for positive change.”
MC: Rather than always focusing on the negative, we can do a better job of pointing out female role models in media who are being authentic and lifting up other people. Ask your girl whose social media accounts make her feel good about herself, for example, and point out your favorites. Talk about teen activists like Emma Gonzalez and Greta Thunberg, who are everyday teens using their platforms to speak up for what they believe in… That’s hugely powerful! Ask her who inspires her on social media, and why. Then ask her what she is putting into the world with her social media. Anyone with a smartphone is a mediamaker and has extraordinary power, so let’s all use it for good! We offer a lot of strategies and tips on our website.
TG: Do you think that if we reach these girls earlier we will help combat future issues like stress, burnout, bullying? What are the early steps to take?
MC: Right now I’m seeing girls with smartphones using social media at younger and younger ages. When I started in 2014, girls in sixth grade were using it. Now, I’m seeing girls in third grade on Instagram and other platforms. This is adding hugely to their stress levels. Managing social media accounts for girls can be exhausting — mentally, physically, and spiritually — and one thing we can do is stop handing it over to girls as if it’s a rite of passage. If I had my druthers, girls wouldn’t have access to social media until eighth grade. Whenever we do give our girls smartphones, we really need to sit down with them and spell out our values and expectations, and I strongly advise having contracts to enforce the rules. We have one in our Parent Toolbox on our website parents can use. We wouldn’t hand over car keys to our teens without rules, and the same is true for social media.
TG: How do you practice self-care?
MC: Having play in my life everyday helps me thrive and not just survive. I need major doses of play to feel good and stay creative. Last weekend, I picked up a hula hoop while on a retreat and had such a blast hooping to music! As soon as I got home, I purchased a high quality one on Amazon and spend at least 10 minutes rocking out with my hoop! Laughing, dancing, playing games… All of this is necessary for my thriving. Sometimes the trick is remembering to do it because the days are so busy.
TG: What causes you stress and how do you overcome it?
MC: My stress tends to come from uncertainty, which I know is true for a lot of folks: Will I get the grant? Will the test results come back negative? Is licensing our curriculum, a new initiative, the right way to grow? My stress is more future-based than past-based, for sure. I’ve been meditating for seven years and that helps a lot. I am also getting better at asking “Is there a step I can take right now to make this problem better?” If the answer is “yes,” I take it. If it’s no, then I surrender or accept that it is what it is. Going round and round about it makes it so much worse. The more I practice this, the faster I get at it — but I have to be on top of it.
TG: What brings you hope and optimism?
MC: When I’m talking to a room full of girls, hearing their candid thoughts and what they want for themselves and other girls, I always feel hopeful. They understand that social media does not feel good right now, and they are always vocal about wishing it was more authentic and kinder. When they tell me at the end of our workshops that they believe girls can band together to make media culture more empowering for girls, I feel hopeful! When they tell me they want to be a part of this change, it lights me up.