“I am a Smart Fit Girl. I am strong both physically and mentally. I respect my body and my mind. I love myself for who I am and everyday I strive to be the best version of myself.
I am a Smart Fit Girl, and I encourage and empower all girls to be the same.”
This is the vision that the non-profit Smart Fit Girls has for all the young girls that go through their 10 week afterschool program. Through research, education and programming they aim to help young adolescent girls improve their emotional, physical and mental health. This is achieved through physical exercise and activities that reinforce health body image and self esteem. The two co-founders, Chrissy Chard, PhD and Kellie Walters, developed this program after coaching adult women in exercise and seeing how prevalent self-esteem and body issues are. Kellie took the time to tell us about the program and her experience as a smart, fit, AND DARING woman.
What was the initial spark that drove y'all to start this organization? Was it a single moment or a long process?
After working with adult women as wellness coaches, Chrissy and I realized that many of our, and our clients’, health concerns (e.g., poor body image, bad relationship with food, disliking physical activity) developed when we were young girls. After discussing this at length one day (during a lifting session, naturally). Chrissy said, “We should start a program called Smart Fit Girls.” In that moment, I think we both knew that it was going to happen. As luck would have it, we were admitted into an Adventure Accelerator program at Colorado State University where we learned valuable lessons on how to start a business and were also afforded the opportunity to do a crowdfunding campaign. Using the funds we raised from crowdfunding, we piloted Smart Fit Girls in the spring of 2014 in South Carolina and have been growing rapidly ever since.
What sort of differences do you see in the girls after they have participated in the program?
One of the best parts of Smart Fit Girls is that we’ve been able to study the effectiveness of the program since its inception. A majority of my dissertation for my PhD was focused on Smart Fit Girls, so we have substantial data (quantitative and qualitative) demonstrating that girls who participate in Smart Fit Girls experience significant increases in body image compared to their peers. We also have data demonstrating that Smart Fit Girls participants experience greater increases in self-esteem and physical activity enjoyment than their peers (which is SO important at that age). In addition to this empirical evidence, we also have years worth of anecdotal evidence. For example, many of our coaches report back to us that they see improvements in the girls strength and confidence as well as a decrease in their stress and anxiety. I’m clearly biased, but I think Smart Fit Girls has had a huge impact on the girls that participate in the program.
What do you think parents, educators, guardians, etc. can do to help young girls to see their strengths?
There are many ways parents, educators, and guardians can help young girls see their strength, most of which revolve around communication. For example, our first interactions with girls, whether they are our closest niece or neighbor we just met, often includes us complementing their physical appearance (e.g., “Your hair is so beautiful”, “Love that jacket”, and “I really like that eyeshadow”). This is a habit that is socially developed and is difficult, yet incredibly important, to break. Rather than complementing a young girl’s physical appearance, ask her about what she loves to do, her favorite class in school, and/or what she wants to be when she grows up. By doing so, we teach our girls that we care about who they are as a person rather than what they look like. If we can do this daily in our interactions with girls and women in our lives, there’s a real possibility we can make a systematic change in how girls perceive their worth.
Another way to help young girls see their own strength is by avoiding negative self-talk. In addition to encouraging young girls to speak positively about themselves, we need to do the same with ourselves. There is research to demonstrate that young girls mimic the body image concerns of their mothers, even if they have very different physically shapes. Girls see themselves in their mothers (probably because they are constantly told they look like their moms) so when they hear their moms say negative things about their body, the girls are going to think they should think that way as well.
Growing up, who were your most important influences? How did they inform who you were as a women?
I am lucky to have many wonderful, inspiring women in my life; however, I’d have to say that my mother and grandmother are the most influential. They both were faced with great adversity growing up and hearing their stories of how they overcame barriers and pursued their dreams despite the many obstacles in their way has, and will always be, incredibly inspiring to me. They both taught me that a woman's role in society is exactly what she wants it to be, not what other people say it should be. I grew up knowing in my heart that I can achieve whatever I want to in my life and that success is not gendered. My confidence stems from generations of women before me who had to fight for basic rights and privileges in society, and because of their tenacity I believe I am a stronger, more empowered woman.
Describe the time (if ever) when you realized women were treated differently than men… how old were you… what was the situation? What happened?
My mom worked in a field that was dominated by men so from a very early age, I had a basic understanding of how women were treated versus men in the business world. For me personally, however, it wasn’t until I took my first job after getting my master’s degree. There was a woman who worked with me that had just had a baby and was walking around the office showing her off. While I was talking with my co-worker and holding her new baby, my boss at the time walked up and said something to the tune of, “You’re not ready for babies yet, right Kellie?”. At the time, I was so excited to have my dream job that I just nodded my head and smiled. Almost a decade later, I look back at that moment and wish I would have stuck up for myself. Who was he to tell me when I should and shouldn’t start a family? I know that that comment would have never been said to one of my male colleagues. It’s extremely frustrating that 1) My male boss had the audacity to tell me when that I wasn’t ready to have a baby, and 2) I was treated differently than my similar aged male colleagues who were having babies at that time!
When do you feel your most powerful?
I feel the most powerful after a great lifting session (naturally), but also after I teach, whether that’s a lecture to college students or a lesson with Smart Fit Girls. When I feel like I’m making a difference in the world, I feel the most powerful. I think that’s why I love coaching Smart Fit Girls so much.
We’re all about daring at HERdacity. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever done?
This is a good question. I’m not a risk taker per say, so I don’t have any great stories about sky diving or anything like that. For me, the most daring thing I’ve done is gotten a tattoo. The tattoo is simple: “Meraki”. It represents a time in my life where I dared to stay and ‘fight’ rather than run. Meraki is a word that modern Greeks often use to describe what happens when you leave a piece of yourself (your soul, creativity, or love) in your work. When you love doing something, anything, so much that you put something of yourself into it. After my first year of my PhD, I experienced a lot of personal strife. I was thousands of miles from my family and friends and felt very alone. There was a while where I considered stopping my PhD and moving back home. Because of the love of my career and Smart Fit Girls, I decided to stay and continue my PhD. Meraki is why I received my doctorate, it’s why I fought to improve my marriage, and it’s why I am where I am today.
Do you have a mantra?
I know this is everywhere now, but I LOVE the mantra of “being the best version of you”. It’s simple yet so powerful. If we all strived to be our best selves, the world would be a beautiful place.
What do you carry in your purse or bag with you every day?
Carmex. I’m addicted and it’s a problem. No other type of chapstick will do. I have been known to have a freak out session over not having carmex on me – just ask my husband – this literally happened last week! Lol
What are 3 things left on your bucket list?
- Start a family.
- Travel…..anywhere! I really want to see the world, especially Amsterdam and Japan. My mom was born in Japan so I would love to go back there one day and see if we can reconnect with family.
- Become a tenured professor.
What are your go-to indulgences or guilty pleasures?
I love sweets. I was raised in a house where we looked at the dessert menu before the dinner menu at restaurants. I love chocolate (really, who doesn’t?) but now that I’m back in CA, I LOVE fresh Mochi.
You can pick one superpower… what would you choose?
Healing. The older I get, the more pain I see in this world and I would love to help people heal.