Molly Barker is building a new women’s liberation movement that breaks the cultural stereotypes and barriers preventing girls and young women from living healthy, authentic lives.
The New Idea
Young girls from all socioeconomic groups and cultures encounter strong pressure to conform to social norms. Without the support they need to let their personalities and abilities shine, many retreat to a socially acceptable place that Molly calls the “Girl Box.” Molly coined the term to describe the place that previously happy, confident girls reluctantly go into about the time of fifth grade. The girl who knew all the answers becomes the girl who hides in the back of the class; the girl who could beat the boys at races becomes the girl who feels ashamed of her strong body and legs. Formerly self-assured girls take on a more depressed posture, defer to boys in the classroom, or complain of weight problems where there are none. Molly’s idea is to enable girls to understand these societal influences, and to have the strength, determination to rise above them and eliminate them.
Molly founded Girls on the Run (GOTR) in 1996 with a mission to educate and prepare girls for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living. Today, GOTR is a grassroots movement that engages 45,000 girls a year, the 3,000 women who work with them in 171 Councils across North America, and the 500,000 individuals engaged in the annual WonderGirl Run series. Starting with this strong foundation, Molly’s idea is to create a social movement that will provide quality, life-changing experiences for girls and women; promote positive, healthy images of girls and women; support the development of healthy, resilient girls; ensure that girls and women have the opportunity to develop and express themselves with joy and authenticity; encourage millions of people to change the systems that constrain girls and women; and enable girls and women to reach their highest potential.
The latency period, from six to twelve years of age, is typically a time when a young girl develops a sense of who she is and where she fits in the world. In “Teens Before Their Time,” (TIME, April 2008), a noted authority on female adolescence described the importance of this stage for girls: “Theoretically, it’s a time when they're gathering strength—they’re doing well in sports, they’re investigating the world, they’re confident learners, and they’re confident socially. They’re marshaling their forces to go into puberty.” But cultural pressures today tend to short-circuit this process for girls.
Referring to a 2007 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, the task force chair stated, “… three major mental health problems girls suffer from—depression, low self-esteem, and eating disorders—could all be alleviated by working to stop the objectification of girls.” Societal messages that contribute to this problem come from media, merchandise, and interpersonal relationships. Girls learn to think of and treat their bodies as objects of others’ desires—objects to be evaluated for their appearance. This negatively impacts girls’ cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, beliefs, and overall well-being. Self-objectification affects the ability to concentrate, impairing performance on activities such as math computations or logical reasoning. Younger girls tend to be more deeply affected because their sense of self is still being formed.
In testimony on the 2002 Preventing Depression in Preadolescent and Adolescent Girls and Women Act, the APA noted that depression is almost twice as likely to be reported by female as by male adolescents. The APA also pointed out that depression that begins in childhood and adolescence is likely to continue into adulthood and is associated with substantial morbidity and risk for suicide. The Task Force advised that prevention efforts may help break this pattern.
Aware of these challenges, organizations like Girls Inc., Girl Scouts, and other programs large and small work to build the self-esteem of young girls because of the many barriers that constrain them. Through Girls on the Run, Molly is building a groundswell of support to help girls and women eliminate these barriers completely. She will accomplish this by engaging millions of people—current and new—in strategic, intentional roles that fuel a powerful social movement.
Since its inception in 1996, Molly has built Girls on the Run into a nationwide grassroots movement of girls and concerned adults. Girls ages eight to thirteen volunteer to enroll in a 12-week training program for a fun, non-competitive 5K event in which the girls can walk, run, or roll (in wheelchairs), as long as they keep moving forward. Using the 5K as a goal, certified volunteer coaches lead groups of fifteen girls through a research-based curriculum. In each biweekly session girls enjoy games and workouts while learning essential life skills. GOTR encourages the positive emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual and physical development of young girls, and most importantly, challenges girls to stay true to themselves in the face of pressures to conform. Girls from diverse socioeconomic groups and cultures examine the “Girl Box” and discover ways to flourish outside of it. They learn to build their inner strength and confidence as they build physical strength and endurance in safe, accepting environment filled with love.
Girls on the Run aims to increase each girl’s capacity to make positive, healthy choices while at the same time reduce risky behavior among its participants. This intervention at a vulnerable point in a girl’s development can reduce the likelihood of adolescent pregnancy and eating disorders, depression and suicide attempts, as well as substance abuse and encounters with the juvenile justice system. GOTR-administered tests consistently show a statistically significant improvement in body image, self-esteem, and intrinsic motivation to participate in healthy activities among its participants. The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports cites GOTR as a health organization resource.
Molly initially designed the program for elementary schools, but there was great demand to extend it into middle school, so Molly created Girls on Track. The 24-unit program for older girls allows them to process issues in greater depth and address age-appropriate topics such as eating disorders, tobacco and alcohol use, personal safety, and the Internet and harassment. Molly wrote Girls on Track: A Parent’s Guide to Inspiring Our Daughters to Achieve a Lifetime of Self-Esteem and Respect to help parents and girls beyond the reach of her organization. Girls on Track offers families activities similar to the GOTR program. It was recognized as an Amazon “Top Ten” book on parenting. Google News reveals that coaches, parents and others are regularly writing and blogging about the program. The WonderGirl 5K series is now the second largest in the U.S., behind the Race for the Cure. To date one million girls have participated. Molly and her six-person staff work with an outside firm to manage events in over 80 cities.
Corporate sponsors (including Kellogg, New Balance, Goody, and Horizon Fitness) fund most of the $1.5M annual budget. Sponsors tap their marketing (rather than philanthropic) budgets, so they also help market the program. Each of the 171 Affiliate Councils pays an annual fee to obtain initial and ongoing training and use the curriculum and templates for marketing and operations. Each Council raises their own budget and manages their own boards. To promote sustainability, Councils that employ paid staff pay dues reduced from 10 percent to 8 percent of revenue. Councils recruit and support their volunteer coaches, and use recommended risk management and business practices. A prospective affiliate completes a needs assessment, budget and fundraising plan, and must show that local organizations share ownership of the program. Girls pay $5 to $160 on a sliding scale based on an honor system. Girls identify themselves as “a Girl on the Run.” The program attracts major media attention (Redbook, Glamour, ESPN, and a speaking tour with Oprah). Google searches reveal that 200,000 websites mention GOTR.
With this strong national platform, Molly is stepping out to formalize and expand the roles of millions of current constituents, and engage millions more in a social movement to shift the consciousness of individuals and organizations so that liberation starts when women are girls, continues throughout life, and liberates all of society in the process. The first steps in making this transition will be to create an Advisory Board of nationally known advisors in the field of social change and gender issues, and to expand the GOTR board by cultivating relationships with key people in the U.S. and positioning them as leaders of the GOTR movement.
Born to parents with comparable intellectual abilities, Molly’s father pursued a successful career in business and the political arena, while her mother—who dropped out of Smith College at nineteen to marry and had her first baby a year later—struggled to conform to the 1950s notion of a stay-at-home housewife; with being put in what Molly calls “that box.”
By the time Molly was born her mom was an alcoholic, and so Molly was raised in large part by her older sisters. When she was nine, her mother suffered an emotional breakdown and set out on a “mission” to recover. She ran every day before sunrise (in a skirt!), overcame her addiction, and started working at a rehab center to help others do the same. Molly admired the way her mother returned to sobriety. At age fourteen, Molly joined her mom’s daily runs. Her mother became a bright light in her life.
Despite all her promise, Molly succumbed to alcohol herself, at first to fit into the teenage culture, and again at difficult times in her life. She began to run competitively. For a while, running helped Molly avoid giving up her personal identity to gain the acceptance of peers. But at fifteen she started to drink socially and “got hooked.” A top student, she was the first girl elected president of the student body and took this opportunity to change the culture at her school. But even with what others saw as a perfect life, she was never content with who she was. As a chemistry major at the University of North Carolina (UNC) she continued the balancing act between academic and social success.
After college, Molly discovered her love for kids as a teacher and after-school mentor. She began recording the patterns she saw among the pre-teen girls, and enrolled in the UNC School of Social Work to learn more about how and why these patterns occur. After earning a MSW in 1989 she worked in a college counseling center, primarily with female students. In each of the next three years she competed in the Iron Man Triathlon—a 2.4-mile rough-water swim, 112-mile bike race and 26.2-mile marathon—but didn’t manage to complete the third attempt. Discouraged that “even running wasn’t working,” she began a downward spiral that continued for a few years. One night she hit bottom. The next day she went for her first run in years, and had an epiphany: That the beautiful woman she’d been trying to become for thirty-two years existed inside her. She realized that all her life she’d been seeking this feeling outside of herself. She wanted to engage in life authentically, and to share her insights with others. Like her mother, she set about achieving sobriety, succeeded, and then worked as a substance abuse prevention specialist, helping communities work collaboratively to build the resiliency of at-risk youth.
In 1993 Molly met and married James, a fellow cyclist. After the birth of their son a year later, Molly started reviewing the literature on the cultural syndrome that holds young girls back, and incorporated the research in a curriculum to address it. She piloted Girls on the Run with thirteen girls, leaving her career and making ends meet by catering at night. She completed a fourth Iron Man Triathlon with her personal best performance. In 1999 her daughter Helen was born. And while her program was taking off, her marriage ended in divorce. With her mother’s help at home, Molly continued developing GOTR, committed for the rest of her life to breaking down barriers for young women.