This entire “Naked Face Project” has been more of a journey…and experiment…than an actual project.  For those of you that are regulars here, what you are about to read is an amalgam of previous posts with some new sprinkled in. I apologize for the duplicaiton of stories.

But my guess is a majority of you may be new to this conversation having read today, in some mainstream media. about the project.  So I welcome you.  What appears to be a seemingly simple dialogue has turned out to be a rather significant conversation.

What follows is a speech I gave last night for a local organization which does a great deal of volunteer work in our community.  I hope you enjoy:

I usually speak directly from the heart and usually start my speeches with something fun…something to engage you…something to make you like me, pull you in.  But today I can’t do that.  Several years ago, I might have shared with you the story of founding Girls on the Run, but I feel obliged to shift the conversation and talk about something that has been on my mind a lot and something clearly on the mind of many of you here because I was asked to address the topic.  Bullying.

My daughter and I have both been honored to work on your Pro-Empathy project with you.  We’ve enjoyed having the shared experience, a common time together to work toward the common good. 

She is 13…that age…we’ve all been there…when we are just trying to figure out who we are inside a changing body.

When I was about her age, my best friend Frances developed breasts. I didn’t and never have, frankly. Not much of them, anyway. When she got them and I didn’t, the attention I had previously received on the playground from the boys, began to wane at least in comparison to the attention Frances was getting. Popping bras was the activity of the hour and because I wasn’t wearing one…I was rarely chased, chosen, “liked.”

I was invisible. I wanted to be like Frances, but the truth was a tension between the two of us arose. We drifted apart. Playing “girl” came to her much faster than me and it’s like the two of us were living in two very different worlds…and because I suddenly felt invisible, like any little girl just trying to make sense of it all, I blamed my good friend Frances…for caving…for giving into “being popular.” I blamed her, rather than blaming our culture, for my feeling less than, invisible, unloved. I blamed her as if she was intentionally pushing me away. And when you are 11 and feeling “yucky” the easiest way to relieve yourself of all that unexplained angst…of not feeling loved, liked or accepted, you speak unkindly of what you think is to blame…make fun of, ridicule and bully.

Now leap ahead seven years. I worked at a summer camp on the coast of North Carolina. That summer I started running, worked in the sun, sailed everyday.  Tanned, toned and with a new hue of golden hair, I returned to college. Suddenly the attention I had longed for, came to me like I had never known. I wasn’t invisible anymore…not at all. The talk was everywhere that “Molly had finally grown into her body” and questions were asked, “Where did Molly go? You are so pretty now.”

The year after my summer camp experience, my social life in college went from absolute zero to richter scale 10…and if you know anything about the richter scale…that isn’t a ten fold increase, it’s exponential. And while I was receiving the attention I had always wanted, I still felt invisible. The strong, intelligent, empowered, girl who could run fast, out talk you on any political debate, speak of esoteric philosophies and converse on William Faulkner’s works of Southern Literature wasn’t of interest…or at least not in the world in which I currently lived…or perceived as the world I was in.

I had only a handful of girlfriends who really knew me and some of the others…well, I think they may have said really mean things, gossipped about my apparent “social escapades” and generally minimized who I was in their secret talk and social circles. It hurt…a lot.

This kind of circular, never-ending, never being okay starts in 6th grade.

The spotlight for women on the world’s stage…is so small (women make up 51 percent of the population but only 11 percent of elected officials) we all clamor even just to get our toe in it…and when one of our sisters is fully exposed in the spotlight, we nudge her out by harshly judging her, criticizing her…and maybe even in our own adult way, bullying her..

I suppose I should position this whole conversation, speaking solely for myself and reword this entire document with the word ”I” instead of “we”, but I think if we want to get anywhere…as a gender…as an empowered group…we’ve got to get honest about our fears of being invisible…unheard…un-valuable and take a really hard look at how we perpetuate this culture of separation.

I know I’m not alone. The temptation to hit the link to a story on Jessica Simpson’s latest :weight conversation” or Demi Moore’s current “mental status” is not only strong, but so easy to access. Skipping over the ”Housewives of….” series where women are pitted, one against the other, is difficult. Putting away the pop-culture magazines that question whether Sarah Palin has breast implants or Hilary Clinton looks old and haggard is tough…I mean this stuff is everywhere!

But talking to those beautiful, alive, open and fully accepting little girls in Girls on the Run…I look into their eyes and they look into mine and I realize that the only difference between the playground they play on and the playground I play on…is our age. We really all are the same…wanting to be heard, valuable and loved.

I realize that the only way to shift this culture rooted in appearance, competition, harsh judgment of one another, bullying, reality shows, advertising gone haywire and our anger…yes anger and fear…that I believe started as early as 6th grade… is to realize we are all valuable, worthy and important to society…every last one of us…me, you, Hilary Clinton, my good friend, my daughter, Sarah Palin, Demi Moore, Lindsay Lohan, Snookie, my mom, the girls I serve …we are all human, just trying to figure it out, brave in the attempt and worthy for simply being here.

For those of you who know Girls on the Run, you know the world we are trying to create is one where girls are free to be themselves and safe to share their vulnerabilities.  But for those of you that don’t…please allow me a few more minutes to tell you a story…an amazing story about my amazing little friend Brooke.

Several years ago, I was visiting a Girls on the Run site, in Charlotte, my hometown. They were almost 2/3 of the way through the program. They knew I was visiting… and as with any group of girls, our meeting is always a thrill… for everyone!

We started our time together inside. The winter winds were whipping up outside and I wanted to have some “quiet time” to get to know each other.

We started with something simple. “So, let’s go around the circle and share our name, our age and our favorite music group. We went to my left and around.

I then introduced them to the notion that everyone… EVERYONE comes to earth with a set of gifts… these gifts are uniquely ours and how when we use our gifts the world’s work gets done. Some of us are writers, some of us are thinkers, some of us are politicians, some of us are leaders in the traditional sense and some of us are leaders in our own quiet way. “So… how ‘bout each of you sharing with me one of your gifts… tell us… what gifts have equipped you to do your world’s work?

The girls began to answer in no particular order. Chance was an excellent friend. “I can talk to anybody. I don’t judge people.”

“Cool, I responded.”

Sierra was a writer. “I have really good ideas in my head and I enjoy putting them down on paper so that other people can see my ideas. I write for our school newspaper.”

“Excellent, I responded.”

Heather shouted out. “I can sing.”

“Will you sing for us now?”

“Really, she responded… you want me to sing now?

“Yes of course. Please, wouldn’t you guys like to hear Heather sing?

Yes everyone responded in near unison. Heather sang a few bars of Taylor Swift. We all clapped when she was done.

Everyone had shared… almost. To my right was Brooke. I had noticed her when I walked in the room thirty minutes earlier. Her sparkly eyes and her infectious smile were enough to melt any heart… especially mine.

“Brooke, I notice you haven’t shared. Do you want to share one of your most fabulous gifts?”

“I’m afraid to. You will laugh”–long deep breath, pause and then she looked to the ground. “They will laugh.”

I let her words sink in… not wanting to minimize or take away from her fear. Heather spoke up. “We won’t laugh Brooke. We are all friends here. We can say anything.”

Chance jumped in. “Yeah Brooke. It’s okay… really.”

She looked up at me. I know IT is there, but I am always struck by the intangible that Girls on the Run brings—this language of love that floats in and through the invisible space of our gatherings, like this one today. I looked deeply into her eyes… remembered being ten… so afraid to speak up… afraid of being judged… remember being 32…feeling so defined by our cultures expectations of “girls and women” afraid to speak up about it… held captive at times throughout my life by the fear of not being accepted… the hiding away of all the light and brilliance that was me… afraid of ridicule or even worse indifference.

“It’s okay. Brooke. We are all here for you girl.” Words I had so longed for when I was ten.

“Alright then. Here goes.” Brooke looked to her lap, took a deep breath and then without any further hesitation, said. “I can talk to squirrels.”

I didn’t respond right away. I mean, to be completely honest, holding back a downright “laugh-out-loud’ response was somewhat of a challenge. About all I could summon at first was “Wow.”

No one else spoke and the silence felt too long, but I stayed with it anyway.

“Yep.” Brooke nodded her head a bit more confidently now. No one had laughed. Her friends had listened. “I can talk to ‘em… squirrels. I talk to them in my yard, the park, wherever they are.”

The reality that someone in our midst could talk to squirrels began to settle in.

Chance asked, “That is AMAZING. Do they talk back?”

Yeah… all the others chimed in. Do they talk back?

“Well, not really,” she said. “The truth is I just seem to kind of attract them. I’m kind of like a squirrel magnet.”

“Unbelievable” the girls responded. I mean, let’s face it! We had a regular Snow White in our presence. For a good five minutes we talked about Brooke’s ability to communicate with squirrels.

“There is a lot you can do with that you know,” one of the other girls said. “You can help the animals with a talent like that.” And so the conversation went.

I walked away from this experience initially tickled… a kind of bubbly giggle made its way into my body, my step was light, up and bouncy.

But then as things so frequently do for me… the raw of this began to work its way into my being. The notion that something as simple as her ability to unequivocally and unabashedly share something so frightening, real and within… to her friends is where I believe true cultural change occurs.

Over the years, I’ve met many, many women. Each of us brings to this world our own story, our own experiences, our own set of challenges and our own talents. And over the years I have come to realize that what Girls on the Run does so profoundly and so richly is provide a deep level of tenderness and acceptance toward all of our sisters. The work I do has opened my mind to my own propensity to judge and shown me that down deep… really down underneath all the judgment and intolerance what we all want really, is to feel beautiful, fully accepted and unconditionally loved just as we are and where we are in our own personal evolution, whether that’s talking to squirrels or dealing with our own demons.

But as good as THAT all is…I still have work to do in my own life. 

It’s going to be hard, but for Chance who is a great friend, Savannah who is an amazing artist and Brooke, who can talk to squirrels…and for you…me…us…women everywhere…I’m going to no longer support anything–magazines, television, music–that continues to pit women against each other, make fun of, ridicule, or bully a woman because of her body, her weight or the choices she has made and shift the spotlight onto things that elevate her, …my little sisters, our sisters…each other and ourselves…

Rather than join in on the negative…I’m going to choose to learn from her, your pain and mine, her joy, your joy and mine and honor what brought her here, you here and me here. I invite you, on whatever level you can and in whatever way you can to help create a home, a community a world every girl and every woman, regardless of the barriers, power differentials, institutions, belief systems and stereotypes she is battling in her own life, knows beyond a shadow of doubt that she is worthy, whole and loved.

We are the change we wish to see in the world.  We are the change.  I applaud you and the world you are bringing to light with the work that you are doing…both at the larger level from your participation in this organization; but even more so and at that much smaller level and perhaps the more important one.  Your own life.