It's incredible the impact one life can have. This is somewhat of a cliche, but every cliche has some truth in it. Malala Yousafzai's birthday is today, and she is one such example.
But though she has used her fame and recognition in many grand, impactful ways, most of us may feel like we have no immediate access to making a difference in our world. I would beg to differ.
Social media has made it seem like "social justice" involves liking and sharing certain posts, buying certain types of shoes or going on short-term trips. And all of these things are good. However, if the idea of building into the lives of young girls inspires you, recognize that all of us can have real impact with those around us.
Here are a few simple suggestions:
1. Stop focusing on their appearance.
The emphasis on physical appearance, beauty and weight loss is being presented at a younger and younger age to girls. Those of us who are adults now remember feeling this sort of pressure as we began to be self-aware, but imagine what it's like when you have grown up in the world of easy access to the internet, social media and YouTube.
Add to that the sexualization of young female actors, musicians and reality-stars, and the pressure they feel to increasingly be objectified as they "mature."
Lisa Bloom wisely noted in an article for the Huffington Post that it's socially acceptable to comment on how "cute" young girls are, as a way of "breaking the ice" when at a social function. On the surface, this doesn't seem too damaging, unless that's all a young girl hears in her early, formative years. I know I've innocently done this many times.
So what can we do instead to change this norm for our daughters/nieces/cousins/students, etc.?
2. Promote their academics and extracurricular abilities.
In conversations, however brief, comment on school, their talents, what they are interested in/passionate about. Bloom gave an example in her article about a conversation with a young girl, and how she focused on books she was reading instead of the little girl's looks.
Even if you don't have children, there are probably young girls in your life; how are you building into their dreams and goals? Many of us had these as young girls, but maybe they got lost along the way of growing up. Encourage our next generation to continue dreaming about how they will change the world, whether big or small. Encourage conversation about big topics and ideas, and use examples such as Malala to emphasize that age, culture and gender don't have to be barriers to impacting the world.
3. Encourage them to embrace both tenderness and strength.
Young women often feel like they can't be true to who they are. They believe being sweet and tender is a weakness, or that showing strength makes them undesirable. Being a woman means being having both traits.
Malala demonstrated this through her determination to attend school even when it was dangerous, and in her compassion to help girls around the world gain an education. A young girl should feel free to live into her potential, but this potential needs to be cultivated at a young age. Part of this cultivation is in presenting a new type of woman who doesn't have to fit into the socially constructed norms established.
Those of us who are older can model to young girls what strength and love look like. We can help them recognize that taking a stand for what is right is just as much a part of being strong as any sort of physical activity. And, also, that strength sometimes is quiet. It can come through humility, compassion and understanding.
The world needs more young women like her. Millennials constantly impact the young people around us, and have a responsibility to invest in their lives. So, spend a little less time on social media, and make an effort to be help shape the lives around you. It's easier than you think.