WATERVILLE – It’s a rare thing to see such a concentration of media coverage about young women and their success, but last week in papers around the state we’ve had an eyeful. We’ve read about Mei-Ling Lam, Maine’s first Playboy centerfold; Ashley Underwood, Maine’s current “Survivor” contestant; and Ashley Hebert, the newest “Bachelorette,” who is from Madawaska.

It’s testament to our media-saturated culture and its influence on what we value that when girls and women finally get extensive media play, it’s to celebrate young women who have made it big largely because of the way they look.

Of course, these girls have talents and accomplishments beyond their physical appearance — they are athletes, college graduates, professionals, kind and wonderful people with loving families — but we’d never know it for how they are portrayed. 

Combine this media attention with teen drama series such as “Gossip Girl” and “Skins,” reality shows like “America’s Next Top Model” and “Jersey Shore,” and the unavoidable teen magazines featuring young women Photoshopped into flawless cover girls, and you’d think that the only way for a girl to get recognized is to conform to a sexy, narrow beauty ideal.

There are some alarming statistics about the impact of such media on girls’ lives. The pop culture landscape is riddled with messages that narrowly define who girls are supposed to be and that severely limit their potential.

Psychologists document the impact on girls who consume too much of this media: an increase in eating disorders, depression, and relational forms of aggression; lowered self-esteem, and the acceptance of sexual harassment and sexual objectification as simply normal.

The real-life implications are a generation of living, breathing girls who barely recognize themselves in this landscape and who struggle to remain healthy while ingesting a steady diet of sensationalized media.

At Hardy Girls, we’re lucky because we talk with girls every day who are breaking the mold, who are making their mark on their communities and having a positive impact on the world using their entrepreneurial skills, passion for social change, and their athletic prowess.

Each year, both to push back against a pop culture version of success that’s become narrower and less inspired, and to showcase the bold change-makers we have in our very own communities, we highlight, with our Girls Rock! Awards, Maine girls and young women who are using their time and energy to make Maine a better place.

We want to be sure that you read about girls like Eleanor Fisk from Crawford, whose business Stories for Scarves uses 75 percent of proceeds to purchase children’s books for domestic violence shelters in Washington County.

We want recognition for Brunswick’s Julia Brown and her innovative public service announcements about tobacco use and substance abuse among teens splashed across the front page of the newspaper.

We want you to cheer for Waterville’s Katy Massey, a key contributor to her high school ice hockey team, where she plays alongside the boys because no girls team exists, and teaches little girls to skate in her free time.

We want you to share our pride in Alicia Fournier, a 12-year-old dynamo from Scarborough who despite daily epileptic seizures has raised more than $20,000 to support the Epilepsy Foundation.

And can we give some press to Katie Zema, whose advocacy in South Portland and statewide for safe schools, marriage equality and civil rights sets her apart from your average 18-year-old?

We know that Mei-Ling and both Ashleys have worked hard to get where they are and we wish them well. We know Playboy can launch a lucrative modeling career, that “Survivor” and “The Bachelorette,” well played, can bring fame and fortune.

But with so much attention paid to girls and young women who are “making it” this way, it’s hard for everyday girls to see through the hype. Without balanced media coverage recognizing the girls and women in our communities who achieve in areas for which the No. 1 criteria is not physical appearance, we lose the opportunity to widen girls’ options and introduce them to the role models all around them. 

We must recognize the diversity of accomplishments of Maine girls and women and expand the definition of success in this world.

At Hardy Girls, we’ll be honoring Eleanor, Julia, Katy, Alicia and Katie during Girls Rock! Weekend, April 8-10, for their vision and efforts toward a better state — and state of mind — for all Maine girls.

— Special to the Press Herald