Jane Fonda discusses teen health at Family Centers luncheon

Elaine Ubina Oscar winner Jane Fonda had the perils of adolescence on her mind last week when she spoke at a benefit luncheon for Family Centers in Old Greenwich.

Oscar winner Jane Fonda had the perils of adolescence on her mind last week when she spoke at a benefit luncheon for Family Centers in Old Greenwich.       —Elaine Ubina

Jane Fonda is a woman who wears many hats: Academy-Award winning actress, mother, philanthropist, exercise video maven, feminist, activist, author, and most recently, adolescent health advocate.

She’s a woman dedicated to many causes, and in her latest turn, she’s focusing not on the silver screen but on helping teenagers navigate through a time fraught with challenges — adolescence. And last week she brought her opinions on that matter to town when she took to the podium as the keynote speaker for Greenwich-based nonprofit Family Centers’ benefit luncheon on March 5.

The luncheon coincided with the release of Ms. Fonda’s seventh book, called Being a Teen. It’s a comprehensive tome focusing on everything teenagers should know about sex, love, relationships, health, and identity, among countless other topics. In other words, a guide to how teens can grow up happily and healthfully.

Being a Teen draws on Ms. Fonda’s roughly three decades of experience working in teen education and promoting greater awareness of healthy adolescent development and sexuality. Ms. Fonda is the founder of Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential and Emory University’s Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health. The book is also the result of a combination of Ms. Fonda’s insights from her own challenging adolescence, and two years of her independent research.

It’s certainly a book for adolescents, but more emphatically, it’s a book about adolescence. It’s for teens and parents, and anyone who is passionate about young people’s health. During her introduction at the luncheon, former Family Centers chairwoman Jan Dilenschneider joked that a few people should even read the book remedially. Most will agree that adolescence is a tough time for everyone, an experience characterized by a dizzying array of emotions and new challenges.

During Ms. Fonda’s speech, she stated simply that she wrote the book to tell young people all of the things no one ever told her, to help them emerge from adolescence confident in themselves and their choices.

“I have a real soft spot for teenagers and I would love one of my goals in life for that to become contagious; I would like more people to really love teenagers. It’s not that easy, is it?” said Ms. Fonda. “They don’t want to listen to what we have to say … but the fact is that they really need us.”

Ms. Fonda is the first to admit that she didn’t know how to be there for her kids during their teen years. She said she simply didn’t know how to do all of this back then, and that one of her major reasons for writing the book was “because you teach what you need to learn.”

Another driving impetus was her realization of just how much misinformation was out there. While working at her adolescent centers in Georgia, she spent a lot of time with kids, fielding their questions on such topics as identity and relationships. They were questions other than the ones focused on by common literature, characterized by a largely mechanical view on how reproductive parts worked. She empathized with these teenagers, describing herself as having had a “really hard adolescence,” three years of which was spent locally at Greenwich Academy.

“I thought there was something wrong with me. I was so scared … I developed an eating disorder, I had no self confidence, I needed to talk to somebody. … So I tried to write a book that covers everything; it’s very holistic,” said Ms. Fonda.

According to Ms. Fonda, the central question during adolescence is that of identity. Adolescence is the “gateway to adulthood,” a time when young people transition from concrete thinking to abstract thinking. They think about values, their futures, who they are and who they want to be. They begin to individuate, a process that Ms. Fonda admits can be hard for parents but is ultimately healthy and productive.

“They begin to question the values that their parents have passed on to them, and that can be very painful for us. … But that’s part of adolescence, and it’s a very healthy moment. It’s why I focus a lot in the book about the question of identity, because that’s what adolescence is really about, the beginning of developing their own identities,” Ms. Fonda said.

Ms. Fonda expanded further to unpack the differences between the adolescent experiences of boys and girls. In her opinion, prior to adolescence, girls enjoy a decade of agency, where they’re not worried about being thin or fitting in, where they occupy their “true, authentic selves.” Then, when puberty hits, pressure begins mounting on being thin and looking a certain way, and girls are told either implicitly or explicitly “what it means to be a female in this world.”

“It’s not that they lose the voice, the voice goes underground. This is when eating disorders can begin, it certainly did for me. It’s where depression starts. … Girls can lose confidence when they hide what they really want, who they really are,” said Ms. Fonda.

The experience boys undergo is markedly different. According to Ms. Fonda, while traditional socialization takes aim at girls’ voices, for boys, the target is their hearts. Boys are encouraged by culture and possibly also their parents to rid themselves of the “most sensitive and empathic parts of themselves.” This can result in them losing their relational voice, developing unhealthy relationships and views toward women, and becoming “emotionally illiterate.”

“They’re not even supposed to be depressed or reveal feelings, which is often why when they grow up, they engage in all sorts of self-numbing, from addictive sex, to alcohol, drugs, workaholism … these are all manifestations,” Ms. Fonda said.

Ms. Fonda is realistic when it comes to fighting the culture of traditional socialization and unproductive mass media messages. She encourages parents to talk to their children, not just about what they want to be when they grow up but about what kind of person they aspire to be and the values they want to embody. She sees TV as a learning opportunity to use the media as a conversation starter with children, to show them how sex and body image are being used to sell things. Armed with this kind of knowledge, Ms. Fonda thinks, parents can teach their children how to navigate and counteract the negative messages of the mainstream media.

“In our lifetime, we’re not going to have a revolution to change the horrible messages of the mainstream media. But what we can do is, we can teach our children to politicize, to understand that it’s messing with our heads. … Do you want to be who you really want to be or do you want the media to influence you and make you who you’re not really?” said Ms. Fonda.

Ms. Fonda calls this a kind of social inoculation, that by making children aware of what messages the media is propagating, parents can effectively inoculate and help protect their children. She admits that in an ideal world, airbrushing would be nonexistent, there would be a more realistic and diverse portrayal of both men and women in movies and other entertainment, and better, more varied role models for boys and girls.

Another topic Ms. Fonda discussed at length was that of sexuality, of making sexuality and sensuality a normal and organic part of life. She encouraged parents not to shy away from having “the big talk” about the birds and the bees but to start early in an age-appropriate way, drawing from real-life examples arising in everyday life. In doing so, Ms. Fonda said, parents would demonstrate their approachability, so that kids would feel comfortable coming to them and feel confident of being heard and supported.

“Understanding and becoming comfortable with one’s sexuality is an ongoing process in life, it’s as important as developing mind and character. … Help them understand that it’s very, very important and very pleasurable and they’re going to start having all these new feelings but it doesn’t mean they have to act on them,” Ms. Fonda said.

Parents in the audience also had the chance to ask Ms. Fonda questions. Topics spanned parental monitoring, social media, double standards, boyfriends, and more. One question in particular resonated strongly with Ms. Fonda. When asked about who her role models were while growing up, Ms. Fonda didn’t cite her own parents but those of others. She had a troubled, distant relationship with her father, and a mother who committed suicide early on in life. She says she was lucky to have been born resilient, but underwent a rocky adolescence characterized by severe body image and eating issues. It was not until age 62, a period she called her “third act,” that she felt she truly became who she was meant to be.

She concluded by quoting T.S. Eliot, that life is about exploration, and at the end of “all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” In writing this book, it seems Ms. Fonda has truly come full circle.


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