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Boldly Me: Bay Area non-profit helps build self esteem in those who feel different

Boldly Me is the dream-come-true of founder Alanna Powell, who was diagnosed with Alopecia Universalis as a toddler and consequently spent the majority of her life completely bald. Powell has built upon her own experience with shaky self-confidence and self-doubt to support and inspire those who “feel different.”

I recently had the chance to talk with Powell, who founded the Fremont, CA-based organization in 2009. Boldly Me programming, which aims to improve the psychological health and self-esteem of both kids and adults, takes place around the Bay Area: The Fremont Unified School District has widely adopted it, and Powell reports that Stanford physician Joyce Teng, PhD, MD, is advocating for it to reach Palo Alto schools.

Boldly Me offers a variety of classes and assembly presentations teaching self-compassion and communication, starting with one called “Me and my thoughts.” Programming also includes activities like hula dancing, baton twirling, and arts and crafts, and community events showcase the kids’ talents and celebrate individuality. The company bases its approach on cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapy, and it has volunteer psychologists and doctors on its advisory board.

While the core of the program is creating personal compassion and self esteem to enable internal resistance to external reactions, it also approaches the problem from the outside by educating peers and parents. However, Powell says that programming directed at parents is often met with defensiveness, so Boldly Me starts with the kids by teaching them how to communicate problems to parents. Once the parents receive this information, they are receptive to suggestions.

Powell’s personal story was initially a big part of the programming; participants found it inspiring. When I spoke with her, she shared how her parents, with the best of intentions, were overprotective and encouraged her to always wear a wig in company. Her self-consciousness limited her in school, and as a young woman she was afraid to get married and have kids because she worried that a bald woman was unlovable. Her now-husband inspired her by saying that if she was afraid of her wig falling off, she should just “go bald!” She began to do things she never thought she would, such as river rafting and roller coasters. But the process of self-confidence is gradual – she wore her wig during labor, nervous to meet her new baby. Now her kids – ages 13, 11, and 9 – talk about their “cool bald mom!”

In a TEDxStanford talk last spring, Jill Helms, DDS, PhD, discussed social prejudice against those who look different. We are neurologically wired to appreciate average looks, which we call “beauty;” composite photos are always judged more attractive. There is much historical precedent for the idea that if you look different on the outside, you must be different on the inside. In this tradition, different equals diseased, and not just physically diseased, but morally diseased. Appearance is not just a medical issue, but a social one – we need to overcome our judgmental hard wiring. As Helms said, “when [children] become aware of their differences, and begin to turn inward... their great, limitless potential fades.”

Kristin Goldthorpe, who works at Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute and first alerted Scope to the organization, met Powell at a Boldly Me event when she had lost her hair due to chemotherapy. She was impressed with the programming, and she wishes she had experienced something like it as a girl, as she was born was an unusual birthmark.

When I interviewed her, Goldthorpe commented that “Doctors and medicine can’t heal all conditions. Often scars remain after surgery. For me personally, I was born with a sizeable birthmark over my right eye. After 16 surgeries the mark is less noticeable, but my face is still different. My surgeon always told me he would do as much as he could in the operating room, but what mattered most was my own self-esteem.”

“Feeling different” can take innumerable forms, including depression, scoliosis, autism, burns, eating disorders, being a slow runner, speech impediments, and many other medical conditions and physical handicaps. As Goldthorpe says, “Some people have differences that are visible; others have conditions that cannot be seen with the eye. Bottom line is: Everyone struggles.”

Photos courtesy of Alanna Powell and Kristin Goldthorpe

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