Living & GrowingBeYOUtiful
We all will be, are, or have been teenagers. A period of time in our lives identified with rebellion, exploration, and growth, and a time when we are inundated with social pressures from our peer group. As adults, oftentimes, I think we underestimate the power and convictions of our community’s youth. And then, there are times when the collective voice and authenticity of the teenagers around us turns heads and leaves us awestruck.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to be immersed in powerful teen culture when I attended the Unitarian Universalist Pacific Northwest District’s Spring Youth Conference, or ‘Con.’ I had the pleasure of being a co-sponsor of three fabulous teens from our local congregation. For three days we explored the weekend’s theme of “BeYOUtiful” through worship, workshops, and shared community (more on that theme in a moment).
The Con experience is an amazingly profound one, for adults and teenagers alike. It is planned and led exclusively by the youth, for the youth. Con is a venue for teens to discuss what matters most to them in a safe and supportive place. It is a place where there are no wrong questions or wrong answers. Teens are supported in a free and responsible search for what is true and meaningful to them.
One of the foundational blocks of Con is “radical inclusivity.” Everyone is acknowledged and respected for just being who they are. No one is ostracized or asked to change for the sake of conforming to pop culture’s social norms.
One of the ways the teens embodied radical inclusivity was through The Robby Rule. If you are in a group, standing or sitting in a circle, you always leave space for Robby. The space indicates to those passing by that they are welcome to join the conversation. If someone joins your group, you expand again to make room for Robby.
The single event that most embodied radical inclusivity for me at Con was the talent show. I think I can speak for most when I say I would be uncomfortable performing for a group of 200 peers. I think what most people would find uncomfortable in this situation is the potential for judgment by those peers, especially negative judgment. With all of the publicity on the effects of bullying, we know the havoc this negative judgment can wreak on a person’s feelings of self-worth.
And yet, instead of the potential ridicule, the teens at Con took ownership of the radical inclusivity principle and met each and every talent show act with raucous applause and standing ovations. What better way to affirm for each performer that they are members of a strong, nurturing community, which supports them, than this response?
And this brings us back to our theme, “BeYOUtiful”. What exactly does it mean? Very simply it means that you, yes, you reading these words, have inherent worth and dignity. You are a beautiful person inside and out, regardless of your insecurities or imperfections, and no matter what others may say to you or about you. You matter. Your worth and inner beauty are things no one can take from you and they should be celebrated.
Our teenage years are spent battling with self-image and they mark the beginning of a journey to answer the question “Who am I?” And to be honest, if you’re in a healthy relationship with yourself, I’m not sure you ever stop questioning who you are. Life is a constant quest to find that answer, and the answer changes as we move through different periods of our lives. The least we can do is make the journey of self-identification a positive one for ourselves and those around us.
I wonder how much our community could change for the better if we each practiced a little radical inclusivity in our own lives. How powerful could we be, if the community supported each person’s individual search for self-identity and openly affirmed their answer to the “Who am I” question? There is so much potential.
So take heart and beYOUtiful, and the next time you find yourself standing with a group of friends, leave room for Robby.
• Shea Winterberger is a member of the Juneau Unitarian Universalist Fellowship