She had glorious red hair, the coolest friends, was not afraid of adventures, and most importantly, she had the most beautiful voice. I was captivated. As soon as I saw Ariel on the TV screen, I wanted to be just like her. You may be thinking exactly what my friend said out loud as I reflected recently on my earliest admirations, “She’s not a great role model, Jess.” As a tiny, little human, I could not identify the pro’s and con’s of having Ariel as my role model, but I memorized all of her songs and made my cousin pretend that our feet were fins when we went swimming.
My friend’s declaration got me thinking, though, “What makes a good role model?” We all look up to others throughout our lives. These people can influence the clothes we wear, the hobbies we want to try out, and even the career we pursue. This train of thought led me to ask a different question, “What do my role models say about who I am?” I began to recognize that my role models reflect back to me something that I value. Over the years, my role models have changed because what I value has shifted.
As adults forming young women, it might be tempting to focus more on the first question (“What makes a good role model?”). But I think the second (“What do my role models say about who I am?”) is, in many ways, more helpful and, I would argue, more important. People are not perfect and we are not supposed to become those we admire. A healthy admiration of role models should inspire us to become more of who we are (which I would say is an overly simplified definition of holiness). We look up to them because something about their life resonates with us.
Rather than judging whether a person is the best role model, we can learn more about the young women in our lives by asking questions that help them express what or who they identify with and how those people uniquely model what they value.
To get us started, here are four amazing modern women who I’ve personally learned from, been inspired by, and would love to share with all of the young women in my life.
As co-founder of Eden Invitation, Anna is a woman with vision and integrity. She is a profound thinker and a talented writer. I deeply admire the way she combines her own experiences, charisms, and brilliant mind to create space for others to discover more about who they are.
As a speaker and author, Chika is one of the most authentic and self-aware evangelists that I’ve met. She demonstrates the power of being present to others and the effect that joy has when proclaiming the Gospel.
Franziska Schwaninger (1913 – 2013)
I was recently introduced to this strong and saintly woman through a film called, A Hidden Life. While the story focused primarily on the life and death of her husband, Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, I was particularly struck by her fortitude and endurance in the face of evil and suffering. As I’ve learned more about her, I’ve been moved by her modern witness of discipleship and hope we can all emulate the same honesty and selflessness.
As a young, teen activist, Greta is currently taking the world of environmentalism by storm. Whether you agree or not with Greta’s beliefs or approach, I believe that her passion, dedication, and use of her unique gifts have a lot to teach us — most especially teens — about the impact that we can each have on our local and global communities.
To be honest, my list could go on and on because there are so many women I’ve learned from over the years. My hope, however, is not to tell you who to look to as much as it is to provide you my own train of thought when it comes to role models. Through the witness of these women’s lives, I know that I value a life of integrity, resilience, authenticity, empowerment, and joy and as I look at the closest people in my life, I can say that they have these qualities as well.
I’ve often noticed that telling young people they cannot look up to someone is not very effective, but a conversation about values? That gets them thinking. Values are much more tangible, and are a driving force behind the decisions we make. As a final challenge, I encourage you to take some time today to reflect on who you look up to and share their stories with the young women in your life. Here are some questions that I’ve found helpful in discovering more about myself through those I admire:
- Is there a story or event that first struck me about this person?
- What in this story resonates with me? How would I summarize it in a word or two?
- Is this consistent in their character? Is it consistent in mine?