In our MECCA M-Powered interview series, fearless people from around the globe share their incredible stories – from overcoming adversity to following their passions and inspiring a future generation of changemakers.
Teenage girls are known for lots of things: intense friendships; passion for their favourite bands, films and trends; and dramatically slamming doors (on occasion!). But what might not be so well-known is the fact that girls are twice as likely to experience anxiety as their male counterparts – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. That’s why Mandy Dante left her career as a speech pathologist to create Flourish Girl, an organisation dedicated to helping girls and young women thrive through interactive workshops, teacher training and more.
“Young women are so focused on the opinion of others,” Dante explains. “Because they want to fit in, they don’t take the time to slow down and connect with themselves to be reminded of who they are.” It’s something she experienced firsthand in her own teenage years.
Looking back, Dante realised, “I looked like I was the happy, friendly girl that got along with everyone, but what people didn’t see was how much I was struggling with my body and mental health. I wanted to fit in so badly that I hardly spoke up. In a way, you could say that I chose to suffer in silence in order to ‘survive’ high school.”
That’s something she wants to change for future generations: “We’re in a time in history where we’re becoming increasingly aware that the patriarchy and all of our patriarchal behaviors do not serve this world and do not create safe space for everyone to flourish. We all know that there needs to be a new way. I like to see feminine leadership as a way of bringing the matriarchy back into business and into the world,” she explains.
Here, in her signature warm, inspirational manner, Dante tells us about what matters to teenage girls and gender diverse kids – and what needs to change to see them truly succeed.
You’ve said you survived, rather than thrived, as a teenage girl in high school – something many young women relate to. What does thriving mean to you?
There’s lots of research demonstrating that women suffer from imposter syndrome more commonly than men, and in your work, you see that lack of self-confidence reflected in young girls. Why do you think this is, and what can we do about it?
MD: “It’s always heartbreaking seeing so many young women and gender diverse teens not seeing themselves as the confident beings they already are at their core. Social media consumption has increased a lot since [the] lockdowns, which means that so many young women are constantly comparing their identity and their appearance with others on social media.
“Even though so many young women know that social media is a ‘highlight reel’, it still impacts them. It follows them back home which means they can experience FOMO [fear of missing out], especially when there are things posted online like parties over the weekend that they may not have been invited to. This may sound like a really basic problem to an ordinary adult, but the undercurrent of what it communicates is that young women see it as a reflection of their worth. Young women are such empathetic beings – the shadow side to that is caring too much.
“The environment that teenagers are planted in shapes so much of their confidence. So, when they’re constantly bombarded with messages on social media that they need to be a certain way or when friends tear each other down, it can be really challenging to discern what is the truth and what is a lie. Young women are so focused on the opinions of others. Because they want to fit in, they don’t take the time to slow down and connect with themselves to be reminded of who they are.
“We all know the saying, ‘Hurt people, hurt people.’ This applies to teenagers as well. We know that there are a lot of young women hurting after the last two years of multiple lockdowns. Because so many young women don’t have access to a safe space to unpack how they are truly feeling, it can come out in different ways, including bullying.”
How can we help young women through these times, and how are you doing that at Flourish Girl?
MD: “Having access to healthy role models is a fundamental part of the work we do at Flourish Girl, so it’s important that you lead by example. It can be easy to predict that teenagers don’t want to listen to your advice, but what people often miss is how incredibly perceptive teenagers are. They can soak things up like a sponge but act as if they don’t care, when they really do.
"As a role model in a teenager’s life, it’s important that you embody and practise what you preach to the young women in your life. It can start with asking the question of how you carve out time to connect with yourself. Is it journalling? Meditating? Going for a walk in nature?
“Another great tip is to honour the young women in your life. Honouring is an opportunity to be recognised for your unique gifts, strengths and talents, and is best delivered by the most important people in any young woman’s life. For example, it would be saying, ‘Hey, I honour you for the kindness you showed the other day to your grandma, I love that you took the time to check if she needed a hand with holding her bag. It was so thoughtful of you and I’m proud of you.’ It can sometimes be a little awkward or nerve-racking to honour them in person, so you can always do something that resonates and feels more comfortable to you, like writing a letter or sending a text. However, you do it, make it you!
“You can also share stories with the young women in your life – especially stories around times when you weren’t confident, or things didn’t go your way. Modelling vulnerability plants seeds of trust and safety that will allow them to eventually open to you as well. Another practical tip is surrounding them with healthy role models on social media and the real world. Plus, they can also follow us on Instagram!”
Tell me about taking the leap from your role as a paediatric speech pathologist to founding Flourish Girl. What inspired you to make the move?
Girls are twice as likely to experience anxiety as their male counterparts. What are some of the reasons for this?
MD: “When we work in schools, we deliver ‘The Flourish Girl Journey’ – a three-level program for young people to move through to flourish. There’s a part in our Level 1 program called ‘Flourish with Self’, where we ask the young people we work with, ‘What is society’s perception of being a young woman or a young person?’ Whenever we ask this question, we get a massive list of all the pressures they feel.
“I know from the many conversations we’ve had with teenagers that body image issues have skyrocketed over lockdown; the amount of people telling me that their teenage daughter has an eating disorder is heartbreaking to hear. Self-judgment is especially huge in young women – they put so much pressure on themselves to look a certain way and act a certain way to feel loved and accepted. It’s even more crippling for young women because so many of them have mastered the art of bottling it up, so it often feels like they’re alone in their pain.
“That’s why I love that our programs create a safe space for these young people to know that they aren’t alone in their pain and that it’s okay to reach out and that’s it’s better to move through tough seasons together and not apart. It’s always a relief for the young people we work with when they find out that they no longer need to pretend to have it all together. They have full permission to feel all they need to feel, and that’s the secret to flourishing.”
In your role now, you spend a lot of time with teenage girls. They’re an incredible section of society that are so often overlooked, but they are the original tastemakers – what are the girls you meet today passionate about?
MD: “They want to be themselves and they want everyone to be themselves. A lot of young people we work with are really passionate about social change. They do want to live in an equal world, from gender equality to Indigenous rights and climate change. And they’re committed to instilling confidence and body positivity in everyone around them.
“There’s a lot of young women of CALD [culturally and linguistically diverse] backgrounds that have more representation in media nowadays, which helps combat key issues such as colourism and body shaming. They want to make diverse communities more positive environments for everyone to flourish in.
“So many teens want to feel safe to express themselves. They’re not wanting to fit into predefined boxes anymore. There’s a fire in their bellies to be themselves and follow what they want to do in this world. It’s clear that this generation will be the one to change the world because of the passion we see in them and their determination against being told ‘no’. I personally can’t wait to see the great changes they’ll make.”
You’ve said before, “I believe in the power of teenage girl wisdom.” Tell us about that?
MD: “Teenage girls are incredibly perceptive. They can feel when you are not being authentic. The wisdom they share in programs always leaves me in awe. The social and emotional intelligence of these young women is far better than when I was at school. When a safe space is created, teenage girls truly do flourish.
“Teenagers are incredible because they are at this stage of life where they are in between being a child and an adult. They have the depth of an adult, but this clean window and perspective of a child (like their childlike curiosity and beliefs). It’s a unique point in human perspective.”