Today is the 40th anniversary of Title IX, which is inspiring women throughout the country to celebrate by getting active and being grateful for their sports. But the benefits go way beyond girls being able to participate in school teams, and if anyone knows about the far-reaching effects of Title IX and getting more girls to get active, it’s Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run, a program that combines running and educational activities to build self-esteem and healthy habits in preteen girls.
Molly comes from a generation of women who were just starting to reap the rewards of Title IX—but still struggled with the emotional conflict and stigmas of trying to fit in while participating in soprts. To learn more about how her own struggles with identity and athleticism led her to develop Girls on The Run, as well as her thoughts on the anniversary of Title IX, we interviewed Molly.
Check out her inspiring story:
Your bio says that you were inspired to start Girls On The Run because of your own struggles with self-worth and being defined by others. Can you explain more about this?
I grew up in the South and around the age of 11—that magical and mysterious time when our bodies are beginning to change—mine was slow on the uptake. I felt somehow different..left out…invisible. Interestingly, it was at this same time, that I began to realize my talent and love for athletics. Being athletic was in direct conflict with what I saw around me…what messages I was receiving about what it “meant to be a girl.” I began to struggle internally with the negative self-talk around somehow not measuring up to cultural standards. Around the age of 15 I started running…a space I could visit, for a while, where I felt strong, empowered and real. On the flipside, I also started drinking…first as a means to fit in, but eventually it became a way to quiet the negative self-talk I had acquired trying to fit into the “Girl Box,” a phrase I coined to describe the place many girls go around middle school…where we stop being our authentic selves and begin trying to conform to a set of standards which are not only unhealthy, but unattainable. The strong, empowered, athletic, grounded, “in-here” girl was in conflict with this other, “trying to figure it out” girl, who just wanted to feel admired, be liked, popular and pretty.
On July 6th, 1993, at the age of 32, I hit bottom.
The following day, July 7th, I decided to go for a run. The threat of an approaching thunderstorm, gave me a moment of pause, but I headed out the door anyway. About mile 5 of what ended up being a 6 mile run…I had this amazing moment of clarity where I realized that the only limitations to living into my greatness…my potential… are those I create and those I allow others to create for me. I was continuing to buy into this cultural norm, this kind of external belief about who I was, and realized, on that day in 1993, that I no longer had to buy into a gender norm that would limit the power of who I really am…who WE really are. I could choose beliefs that would empower me, lift me up, give me strength.
After that, I started thinking, wouldn’t it be cool to give young girls this kind of self-awareness early on, so they would be less likely to hang out in that space of wanting to be something they’re not? Think how awesome it would be for a girl to know that she can walk into any situation and have the tools and the courage to manage it in a way that honors her greatest self. I gathered up as much research as I could find on resiliency and girls, wrote out the foundation for the first program, and I started Girls On The Run three years later, in 1996.
Were you encouraged to be active or play sports as a young girl?
Culturally, no. But my family was very supportive.
I didn’t feel much encouragement to participate in sports in the middle school years (1972 to 1975), but did feel more support to participate in sports in high school. Suddenly there were more opportunities.I was able to participate in track, field hockey and tennis. It was the running, though, where I found my joy.
A lot of people might call GOTR a running program, but on the site you describe it as a “prevention program.” Why do you make that distinction?
We’re actually moving to a new set of terms and language for the program; Girls on the Run is actually a youth development program, which is even more positive, to me, than “prevention.” We inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running.
Girls on the Run is unique in that it creatively weaves training for a 5k walk/run into games and other activities focused on very gender-specific life skills…skills that build resiliency, confidence and leadership. When a girl crosses the finish line she knows that “I did that, my body and I did that together.” She realizes that she can choose her thoughts and actions.
Why do you think it’s important for girls to spend time running rather than, say, going to after-school tutoring programs?
I think they are both important and are best determined after evaluating the needs of a girl by her family/caregivers. I know that Girls On The Run is an awesome way for girls to tap into healthy coping mechanisms for whatever else is going on in their lives.
When I started the program, I thought girls would participate in it once and then move on to other activities and extracurricular activities. But it’s become a seasonal thing, like soccer, for many girls. A large number of our girls participate year after year.
Do you see changes in girls?
Absolutely. Girls who may have been fearful of advocating for themselves, now do so with enthusiasm. Girls who may have bullied other girls to extinguish their own self-doubt and insecurities walk away with a greater compassion for themselves and others. Girls who might have had doubts about their body based on a number of environmental factors, now celebrate and honor their bodies.
And it’s impacted people beyond just the girls who participate in the program; principals have shared how Girls On The Run changes the cultural landscape of their schools. Empathy becomes the standard for healthy communication, academics become a high priority, students throughout the school begin to communicate in healthy ways as modeled by the Girls on the Run girls.
Our amazing volunteer coaches, always remark on how the program has changed their lives. Women who may have lived their entire lives unaware of their own negative self-talk discover a whole new level of self-awareness. What’s also been really interesting are the number of adults who are training to be their daughter’s running buddy in our end-of-program Girls on the Run 5k’s.
Now that we’re approaching the 40th anniversary of Title IX, do you think there are enough avenues for girls to get involved in sports?
I think there are many ways for girls to get involved in sports. But to be totally honest, I’m still frustrated by the data which indicates the low number of women holding positions in boardrooms, politics and the media.
I’m reminded by my older feminist friends that you can’t build Rome in a day. That so much good has been done over the last forty years and that the tide is indeed turning. I look forward to the day…and it has begun, when the Girls on the Run alums take their strength, confidence, advocacy and compassion into the world. The systems and cultural stereotypes which have limited women, will, as they have in my dreams, be shattered and every girl can as our Girls on the Run vision boldly states know and activate her limitless potential and be free to boldly pursue her dreams.
Some people are saying that, although we’ve made progress, there are still huge racial and demographic discrepancies in the opportunities for girls. How does girls on the run try to bridge those gaps?
Girls On The Run is for all girls, regardless of income and social background. We are a non-profit and receive funding from fantastic corporate partners, individuals and grants allow us to provide the program to any girl who wishes to participate.
Anything to add?
I don’t know if it’s because i’m getting older or whether I am just leaning into a greater sense of gratitude, but I’m experiencing this incredible appreciation for the women and men who crafted Title IX and how hard they had to push for it. I don’t ever want to take for granted, the benefits that I, the girls in our program and the world have experienced thanks to those who dared to believe that something better, fuller and more powerful was possible.