Climbing Out Of The Girl Box

In 2002, I was in the midst of a career transition and decided to focus my attention on volunteering for a cause. At a local road race, I happened upon a non-profit organization which spoke directly to me, http://www.girlsontherun (GOTR). Beyond the smiling faces of the pre-teens basking in the glow of their first 5K, what I found was a group with a mission to educate and prepare young women for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living.

Girls on the Run® is an experiential learning program that combines training girls ranging in age between 8-14 for a 5K running event with lessons that assist in their overall social development. It was founded in 1996 by Molly Barker in Charlotte, North Carolina. Today, the program operates in over 120 cities across North America, with tens of thousands of girls and women participating.

The best teachers in life are those who have something to share, and a true passion for sharing it. Molly Barker has both. I admire her humor, grace, and humility. I am inspired by the significant impact her program will have on future generations of women. It is not just Molly’s accomplishments that move me; it is the quality and class that define her work. I asked Molly (MB) to share her thoughts on what it means to “run her own race” in life…

AM: Can you describe a time in your life when it was difficult for you to forge your own path?

MB: Middle school was a very difficult time for me (and for most girls/women!) I wanted so much to fit in but found that my set of gifts and talents were not on the “standardized “fit-in” form”. Back in the 70’s girls who were athletic were seen as different if not downright weird. In sixth grade I stepped into the “Girl Box”, a phrase we have coined at Girls on the Run, that explains the place girls go around middle school…where we never feel (fill in the blank) enough. (The words we use to fill in the blank are often defined by our socioeconomic group, family and/or ethnicity.) For me I never felt pretty enough, sexy enough, accomplished enough. So I spent my twenties and early thirties trying to prove to everyone (including me) that I was indeed, enough.

AM. When and how did you learn to trust your instincts more?

MB: After years of conforming to the standards of the Girl Box, I hit bottom. On July 6th, 1993, I could not see for the darkness around me. The Girl Box had claimed every ounce of my most authentic self and left me feeling lifeless, depressed and a like the empty shell of a person. On July 7th, 1993, I set out on a sunset run that literally transformed my life. I had an epiphany that pushed me out from the box and into a new level of awareness…that awareness being that I could choose to conform or choose to, as you suggest here, listen to my instincts. I heard my intuitive voice tell me, right then and right there, that I had everything I needed to be whole, full and at peace with myself.

AM: What would you say is your unique ability, and how or when did you discover this?

MB: I have two gifts that have been a tremendous asset to the girls we serve. One is my ability to create physical experiences for people that, when applied to their life in general, can transform the way they think about situations, people and beliefs. Girls on the Run is a series of physical experiences that literally move people (both metaphorically and literally) from one level of awareness to a higher level of awareness.

My second greatest gift is my ability to engage people in a dialogue that gets down to the “real” of the relationship. Whether that is an audience of 800 or a one-on-one encounter, I’m not afraid to just lay myself out there, as raw and as vulnerable as it may appear. The truth is, everyone has been afraid, felt insecure, wished for something different and somehow felt inadequate. By recognizing that we have all had a shared common experience at our roots, we can find common ground from which to grow.??

AM: How do you know when you are “in the flow”?

MB: I’m in the flow when I feel content. There is a level of calm that all systems are go and in alignment with one another. I feel this flow when I run, when I speak, when I sit, when I drive, when I’m with my children…there is a mysterious quality to it that I embrace. I sometimes don’t know when I will feel it, but am grateful for when I do.??

AM: What is the single greatest piece of advice you’ve received in relation to being true to yourself?

MB: We don’t knows what we don’t know. Ten years ago, what I knew then about myself is not what I know now. There is a curiosity implied in this statement, that encourages me to seize the day and seek out more of what I don’t know with every encounter I have, every sunset I see, every run I undertake, every story someone shares with me. I am constantly (and again mysteriously) amazed at how my level of awareness increases when I am looking for what I don’t know rather than what I already know. This means I seek that which is different from what I currently know, including people, schools of thought and opinions. This pushes me to evolve…and question not only the status quo, but also my own beliefs…beliefs that may be limiting my greatest potential, even without my knowledge.

Molly Barker, MSW, a 4-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete, founded in 1996. In 1998 Runner’s World awarded Molly its “Golden Shoe Award” for contributions to the community through running. Molly is the author of “Girls on Track” and “Girls Lit From Within: A Girl’s Guide to Life Outside of the Girl Box.” She has become a highly visible role model for women of ALL ages and was recently selected as Charlotte’s Woman of the Year. She lives in Charlotte, NC and enjoys writing, running and cycling, but above all else, hanging out with her 2 kids.