Fostering Strength and Self-Esteem in Adolescent Girls

Smart Fit Girls is a program that teaches adolescent girls how to love their bodies by embracing their own strength.

During the program, girls participate in exciting activities aimed at improving their self-esteem and body image, and are introduced to resistance training exercises in a fun, group environment.

Kellie & Chrissy met at Colorado State University while completing their Masters Degrees in the Department of Health and Exercise Science. They quickly became best friends, bonding over wellness, weight lifting and a shared passion for helping women to become the best versions of themselves.

How did you get into lifting, and what inspired this movement?

 Lifting came a little bit later for me. In college, during my undergrad, I spent a lot of time in the cardio area of the gym. It wasn’t until grad school that I started really lifting seriously. And as soon as you experience the feeling that you get from lifting, and for me, the change in my physique, you start to realize the sense of empowerment that comes from it. It was then that I was hooked.

Then Kellie and I did a figure competition together back in 2012, which really changed our perspective on a lot of things. After the figure competition I struggled a lot, like many women do. You know that your stage physique is not your healthiest, but it’s the fittest you’ve ever looked, so it becomes the new standard that you hold yourself to. It’s an impossible standard, of course.

Powerlifting definitely helped me through post-competition. In fact that’s what really got me through that dark time. The community is just so supportive. It is very collaborative in that you are always trying to help one another. You’re competing against yourself more than anyone else.

Kellie: I lifted weights in High School, but it was always externally motivated in that it was just something I did for the sports I participated in. I went to college and I still lifted. I was a kinesiology major so I knew it was important, but what it was so silly. I was doing reps of thirty or forty on the adductor machine. (laughs) I look back and wonder: Why was no one talking about this? No one talked about the movement of women lifting back then. That’s more recent.

So I’d always lifted, but not like I do now. That change happened when I started lifting with Chrissy. Even though by the time I got to graduate school I was no longer doing thirty reps, I was still doing your typical twelve to fifteen rep, machine-based workout. I wasn’t exploring any other types of lifts.

I think it was our first date. Chrissy and I went to Whole Foods and started talking about our love for health and fitness, and empowering women, and we started lifting together. I don’t know if you ever lift with other people, but sometimes it works really well, and sometimes it’s the most awful experience you’ve ever had and you can’t get anything done. Well, Chrissy and I started lifting together, and I went from not being able to do a push-up to being able to do multiple push-ups and really feeling empowered with the lifts.

Similar to what Chrissy said, it’s pretty wonderful to experience that change. Not just in your physiological state, but psychologically as well. You walk into a weight room and you’re no longer concerned with what you look like, it’s more like, “I’m a badass, and excuse me, I need those heavy weights. If you could not hog them, that would be great.”

Ever since then, that’s been the thing. I’ve moved a lot in my adult life. If you think about us as human beings, when you go to a new place, who you are and your identity is all questioned. You’re introducing yourself to a new place and a new world. When you have this feeling of empowerment, there’s nothing like being able to go this new place and walk into a weight room and go, “This is my zone. This is who I am, and this is where I feel comfortable.” It makes you feel whole and complete.

I’m curious if you also experienced a shift in the way you thought about your identity after you finished your first competition, and you were the fittest looking you’ve ever been.

 I agree with Chrissy. Doing one of those competitions is enlightening for many reasons. I’m not in competition shape right now, but my change wasn’t that drastic. I didn’t do figure, I did bikini, so it was an easier shift for my body to get to stage ready.

For me, the biggest post-competition hurdle was no longer tracking the food that I was consuming. I’m a type-a personality, and all of the sudden, I was giving up control by not knowing every little thing that went into my body. It never escalated to anything serious, but it did make me aware of how potentially dangerous those behaviors can be, because it is merely control.

I was fortunate. Since then I’ve seen other people that I’m close with in my life struggle with that experience.

Chrissy: Unlike Kellie, I did struggle a lot after the competition.

I had a good friend that happened to be a powerlifting coach, and one day I asked him to check my form. I sent him a squat video, and instead of critiquing my form, he responded: “Is that how much you usually squat?” I told him “Yeah, that’s about what I usually do”, and he asked if I’d ever thought about competing. I didn’t even know the world of competitive powerlifting existed!

At my first powerlifting competition, I saw that it didn’t matter what you looked like. Every woman there was so supportive of one another. We didn’t know each other. All we knew is that we were all there to try and be as strong as we could, and beat our own best PR. Once I began to wrap my brain around the idea that it wasn’t about what you looked like, it was so much easier to let go of some of the control around eating, dieting, and tracking. That allowed me to explore things like intuitive eating a lot more. I was able to trust my body, to see what it could do, and not focus on what it looked like. That was the big shift for me.

Asking women who have a history of tracking calories to take that first leap towards intuitive eating and finding some self-trust is such a challenge.

That’s why what you’re doing with your program is so revolutionary. You’re talking to adolescent girls, which is powerful and could serve to circumvent negative behaviors for them in the future.

 It was because I was able to start trusting my body, to see how strong it was, that it allowed me to explore intuitive eating. Without the confidence I found through powerlifting, I don’t think I could have gone down that path. It takes trusting your body to a level that I don’t think most of us get to easily, especially not in this day and age where we are bombarded with messages that are contradictory to trusting your body.

Kellie: That’s a really good point, Chrissy. We often think of nutrition and physical activity as separate silos. Both equally important, but separate. This piece of physical activity, though, gave you the confidence to trust yourself when it came to nutrition.

How does that inform what you are doing with the young women of Smart Fit Girls?

Kellie: A lot of the women reading this interview will probably identify with what Chrissy and I have talked about. What’s really important is how that translates to the young women in their lives. Our research has really focused in on mothers, or female caretakers, of the girls. There’s a high correlation between the mother’s own actions and feelings surrounding health behaviors (including nutrition and physical activity) and the thoughts and behaviors of the girls. Whether or not the moms realize it’s happening, it is happening, and it’s as simple as the moms talking negatively about themselves in front of their daughters. The daughters not only recognize that the moms are having those conversations, they are internalizing it for themselves.

So if the mom is saying something as silly as, “I don’t like my ears,” in front of the daughter, the daughter then internalizes that later. She thinks, “Well, I look like my mom, everyone says I look like my mom, therefore I shouldn’t like my ears.”

A big piece is not just empowering these girls on how to lift weights and how to choose healthy behaviors for nutrition, it’s also empowering them that they are their own selves. We have these conversations with these girls. We tell them that they are going to hear women use negative self talk, and it’s really important to recognize that they don’t internalize what they are hearing others say.

We wanted to create a program that addressed multiple facets of health that girls are experiencing. What wasn’t being done in a lot of programs was this psychosocial piece paired with physical activity and nutrition. Some programs taught physical activity, some taught nutrition, or even body image and self esteem, but there really weren’t a lot that put them all together and focused on resistance training.

When did the program start, and how many iterations have there been?

 We piloted the program in the spring of 2014 in South Carolina. We had crowdfunded a good amount of money to start the program right before I moved from Colorado. It worked out that I had an awesome group of people in South Carolina that wanted to support my research with Smart Fit Girls, and a great school that let us launch the program before we had the research to support it. Ever since 2014, we’ve been in that same school with at least one Smart Fit Girls program going on every semester. About a year in, we had an extension program.

In November 2015, we became a registered nonprofit. We started in Colorado in 2015, and we’ve seen a lot of growth there. The state is really supportive of Smart Fit Girls because they are so supportive of health in their communities. It’s also because Chrissy lives there, and she’s awesome. She has a lot of great connections that have helped support our growth.

As we continue to move forward, the more people that hear about Smart Fit Girls, the more people that want to be connected and start a site. Right now, on average, we get contacted about once a week by someone who wants to start a site. Our board of directors is working to figure out what that looks like, and how we will continue to grow in a way that protects our program, so that it is true to our mission and values.

Since we are researchers as well, we know why our program works right now- it’s working for a certain population, with these lessons, in a certain order. We’re trying to grow our program so that we can make it culturally responsive in multiple different ways.

Recently we partnered with Jefferson County to become not only an after school program, but to work in the schools as part of the physical education program. When thinking about reaching the largest mass of girls, that’s the way to do it. Our after school program probably has 12 to 15 girls, versus 30 in each PE class. We’ve gotten really great reviews from the teachers, they really like the program, and it seems to be going really well. We’re excited to see how that continues to move forward.

Chrissy: Yes, so a little more background here. Smart Fit Girls started and is still run as a ten week after school program. We meet with the girls twice a week for about two hours each time. We spend part of the time being physically active, and part of the time doing body image, self esteem, and confidence-building activities. As Kellie mentioned, we really intentionally focus on strength training for the physical activity component, for a variety of different reasons. One being that it’s part of the physical activity guidelines: adolescents should be engaging in resistance training. Yet, particularly with girls, it’s not a form of physical activity that we are often introduced to. Think about how you learned to lift weights. I probably learned from Oxygen magazines (thanks, by the way for helping me start my journey!). Or maybe, if you were lucky, you had a strength coach in High School  who was educated on effective and appropriate technique (maybe!). We focus on strength training not only for that reason, but because we know it is such an empowering form of physical activity. We see these girls, as they get physically stronger, that strength translates into all other aspects of their lives.

They become more confident, and more emotionally strong. So there’s the physical activity component, and then the other piece involves self esteem building activities. We talk about the media, photoshop, bullying, positive affirmations, goal setting, and all the other things that, as adolescent girls, you really start to come up against.

That after school ten week program is the traditional delivery mode. This adaptation to the school day is really exciting. In Jefferson County, as Kellie mentioned, it’s an alternative PE. So girls can sign up to take Smart Fit Girls instead of traditional PE, which is VERY exciting for us! As Kellie said, the feedback so far has been wonderful, so we’re really excited about that. Not only from a reach perspective, but from a sustainability perspective. It’s so much more likely, if it’s built into the school day, to be sustained over time.

Our other model is a one-week summer camp that we just finished. This version of the program was 40 hours, one week, with 30 girls. It was fun to see our program in a different way, and to see what an interest there is in the program! Sometimes with after school, there were so many competing priorities, from other sports and activities to going home to babysit siblings. Whatever it might be, this summer camp model showed us that there’s a real interest in that way as well.

That’s so exciting and smart! Good for you.

Are you going to do the summer camp again this year?

Had we known how much interest there was going to be, we would have planned subsequent weeks. But we’d thought, well let’s just pilot it this summer… then two months prior to our start, we’d filled the camp.

Kellie: And we had a waiting list.

Chrissy: If we’d have known that, we would have planned for a couple more weeks. The one week was a good intro to it.

What did the days look like for these girls?

Adapting our ten-week program took a little bit of thought. We wanted to make sure that things were taught in an appropriate order. It’s important to teach some anatomy before they’re just going to lift, from a safety perspective. You also want to make sure they’re not physically active for five hours in that day, because that’s too much. We were really creative. It worked out probably the best that it could have for the first time of a camp. That’s partly because we had four really qualified coached. We had myself, a Ph.D student, and two girls with, or currently in pursuit of, their master’s degree. We had the most educated, empowered, invested group of women that were coaching. Moving forward, it will take more training, and finding those people that are interested and passionate about it. That’s definitely doable.

It was a challenge to take ten weeks and move that to one week, but seriously, it went so well I was shocked. Parents were asking us if we were going to come back again this summer for a follow up, or a Smart Fit Girls 2. So it was definitely worth every bit of effort. It was completely utterly exhausting coaching. I never felt that tired in my life. It’s been about a year since I’ve coached because I was finishing my Ph.D, and my heart has not felt that happy in a long time.

There’s nothing like feeling like you’re making a difference in those girl’s lives through coaching. Talk about building your self esteem! I mean, that’s science, right there. Volunteering, and helping others feel good about themselves (especially girls), is one of the best ways to build your own self esteem.

What do you have planned next?

Chrissy: Kellie’s dissertation for her Ph.D has been all around the Smart Fit Girls program. We’re so fortunate that it now has this incredible evidence base behind it. Our next steps are publishing our work to demonstrate the effects of the program. This means not only publishing it in scientific journals where, as academics, we’re used to, but thinking about: What are those outlets that we want to find, to really get the message out there to the women that could most benefit from hearing about the program?

We’re hoping to collect more data in the schools as well. We have lots of data in our after school model, but we don’t have that yet for our in school model. That’s one of our goals for this year, so that we can make sure our programs are effective in these different formats.

We’re working on a grant with a group in Aurora, Colorado as well. We’ll be working with a community partner down there to adapt our program for a community of color, so that we make sure it is culturally responsive and matches the needs and unique challenges of different populations. We’re very excited about that opportunity, because we want this program to serve as many adolescent girls as it can.

We’re using a youth empowerment framework, so that girls at that community center are basically going to take the lead in the process of adapting it. They’ll look at our lessons, and help us think through how to make them more responsive, as well as helping us learn about other topics that are unique to them. Having the girls take the lead is a really exciting thing for us.

Brilliant. How can people help you with your mission?

 There’s multiple ways in which people can help. Initially, everyone wants to coach, and I absolutely understand why. If you live in Colorado or South Carolina right now, there’s a really good chance that that streamlined process can happen.

If you don’t live in an area where we currently have a site, it just takes a little bit more time to go about setting up a site. We are open to that, and we are working with probably 8 to 10 people right now, in different states doing that. We take our time because we want to make sure it’s delivered the way that it should be delivered.

We are also piloting an ambassador-type program right now for women that don’t live in the area, who may not want to coach or do not have the time, but are passionate about our program and want to help. That can be anything from posting about us on social media, writing blogs for us, or sometimes they have skillsets that we may use or need. If anyone is interested in Smart Fit Girls, and they’re passionate and want to help, we will take the time to meet with you and talk about it. We are regularly having conversations with people to get them involved. We will take any help that we can get! Go here to sign up to be a Smart Fit Girl ambassador!

Chrissy: Right now we’re doing things like putting our training online and recording videos. We could certainly use help editing videos, doing some photography… There are lots of talented people who we would love to rely on and use their expertise where we can. There may be things that we don’t know we don’t know! We’re always willing to chat with people and hear how we may be able to support one another. That’s why we’ve been so grateful for this opportunity to chat with you and partner with the Women’s Strength Coalition. There are so many INCREDIBLE women out there doing incredible things, and we share your belief that together we can accomplish EXTRAORDINARY things, including creating a generation of strong, empowered women who really know their strength and their worth.

Connect with the women of Smart Fit Girls here:

Instagram: @SmartFitGirls


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