Melissa Banigan: Winnovating Advice to Teen Girls
When I was thirteen, I got what I consider to be a decent sex education. My health teacher was pretty open and straightforward with my eighth grade class about sexually-transmitted infections, the anatomy of (heterosexual) sex, pregnancy, and the like. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than most. Talking to my peers—especially those who grew up in the conservative southeast United States like I did—I have realized that my experience was certainly the exception, not the rule. Many women and girls I know received “abstinence-only” teachings in place of formal sex education or (true story) learned about Biblical morals and principles in “health” class.
With such a dearth of comprehensive, accurate sexual health education, many girls turn to outside sources for information. Unfortunately, these “outside sources” tend to be sensationalized TV shows, gossip at sleepovers or in the locker room, and Urban Dictionary or other not-quite-scientific sites online. And even if, in the best case scenario, a teen girl does manage to pick up a more informative guidebook on puberty, sex, and other relevant topics, the standard advice books for teen girls on the market today barely skim the surface of some of the more important issues girls face, including HIV, depression and body dysmorphia.
Melissa Banigan, a fiction novelist, editor, travel blogger, marketer and single mother, thinks girls around the world deserve a lot better. To address this problem, Melissa started a project called Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self, an anthology that will consist of letters by fifty women from around the world writing advice to their thirteen-year-old selves about entering womanhood.
“Unlike many advice books for teens that only gloss over our bodies and women’s health,” says Melissa, “this book candidly talks about sex, HIV/AIDS and the clitoris. Letters also discuss female genital mutilation, genocide, rape and a variety of other topics so often seen in the news, but rarely discussed in classrooms. The book won’t be delicate. Instead, it will treat the young women reading it like strong, intelligent people who are capable of making their own decisions.”
I had a chance to ask Melissa more about her project, her inspiration, and how we can get involved.
Gabriella: You are working on an exciting anthology called Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self. Tell us a little bit about this project and what topics it will cover.
Melissa: Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self (http://www.advicetomy13yearoldself.org) is a collection of advice letters written by 50 women from around the world to their teenage selves. More than a book of advice, the letters serve as a “guidebook” for teen girls who are entering womanhood and taking their places as global citizens. It’s been shown that educating girls makes them better able to contribute to their communities and make more money over the course of their lifetimes. Education is also the key to preventing girls from having children before they are ready and from contracting sexually transmitted diseases, and it makes them less vulnerable to violence.
The letters in the anthology candidly discuss the female body (including the oft-ignored clitoris!), periods, depression, suicide, sexually transmitted disease, sexual identity, depression (and happiness!), family, cutting and self-harm, and following dreams. The book also tackles war, genocide and recovery, conservation and world stewardship, ethnorelativism, and education. It’s a book filled with information that can be absorbed one letter at a time.
I want Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self to empower girls and young women worldwide by showing them that they can all become successful, world-changing women, no matter where they live, their economic or social position, or their family and larger communities.
Gabriella: What inspired you to start this project?
Melissa: Two words: my daughter! Next year, my girl will be turning thirteen. While every year of a person’s life is important, thirteen is viewed as the entry into womanhood by many cultures, including my own. When I was thirteen, I felt confused and insecure. I could’ve used a book that was honest not only about the hormonal, emotional and bodily changes I could expect to see over my teen years, but about some of the problems that affected women in local and global arenas. I think it’s important to invite girls into discussions about women’s issues well before they reach adulthood, and to let them know that their voices are important and that they are ultimately the ones who should be making the decisions for their futures. This can only happen through education and empowerment.
Gabriella: How did you choose the women who are writing letters for the anthology?
Melissa: In the first days of the project, I reached out to a small handful of women who had directly impacted my own life through their various women-led and teen-focused educational initiatives. Then, I made a list of regions around the world I wanted to make sure to include, and targeted women living in those areas who were doing important humanitarian work. I knew there were certain topics I wanted letters to cover and started sending out letters to women I felt had the experience and expertise to discuss them. It wasn’t long before I started to get replies – most of them from women who were excited to be involved.
In short, I chose women who understood that educating girls was the critical first step towards gender and social equality. Women like Martina Clark, who has done amazing work to promote sexual health awareness; Pamela Angwech, who founded GWED-G, an empowerment organization in Northern Uganda to support women and children whose rights had been violated in the aftermath of a horrific twenty-year war; and Terri O’Connell, a champion in auto racing who was born with a rare biological disorder called ‘Disorders of Sexual Development.’ I chose strong women with stories to tell.
I also put out a call for submissions, and received over 1,000 remarkable letters. To date, I’ve chosen about forty of the final fifty letters for the anthology. Even as I’m deciding on the last letters and diving deeper into the editorial process, I’ve started to post some of these letters to the Advice To My Thirteen-Year-Old Self website. Yes, the anthology will only feature fifty letters, but there’s no reason not to publish many more of the submissions to the website. In addition, I’ve just started to accept submissions by teen girls, and I’m really excited to soon feature some of them on the website.
Gabriella: What is the best way for people to get involved?
Melissa: Until February, I’m running a crowdsourcing campaign on Indiegogo to raise funds that will enable me to finish editing the anthology by the end of April. I’m urging people to visit the campaign, read more about the project, share it with friends and family, and find it in their hearts to contribute. Even a dollar makes a difference!
Also, because this is a project based on empowerment, education and storytelling, teen girls and women from around the world may submit their own letters to publish on the website. Who knows, maybe one of their letters might be chosen for the anthology!
Finally, I’m starting to lead writing and empowerment workshops for teen girls and mothers. This spring, I’ll be working with four schools and programs in New York City. By the end of the year, I’d like to begin work with agencies that help girls and women overseas and use storytelling and letter-writing to shed light on important issues.
I always thought I received pretty good sex education when I was thirteen, but after talking to Melissa about her project, I realize I had hardly learned anything about some of the most important issues I—and other girls—would face growing up. Learning the symptoms of gonorrhea and how to use a male condom did not prepare me for the mental health, self esteem, body image, family, sexual identity and other issues I faced in my teen years, whether they were my own struggles or the struggles of my friends who came to me for advice.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be innovative in 2014 to talk openly about the bodies, lives and minds of real women and girls*, but the truth is, much of the information girls receive about womanhood is incomplete, misleading, or even harmful to their health and self esteem. The conversations (or lack thereof) about women’s bodies in our media and society today give girls the impression that there is something inherently wrong with or shameful about our female selves. Melissa’s project subverts that silence and sheds light on these important issues, empowering girls with the knowledge they need to approach womanhood confidently and successfully.
*On her Indiegogo page, Melissa defines “real women” and “real girls” as “ANY persons who identify as such.”