Youth empowerment: How the performing arts can be an outlet for girls

"I'm fat. I'm ugly. I'm nobody without a boyfriend -- even if he hurts me."

Such statements, unfortunately, are commonplace among today's pre-teen and teenage girls. And so are the unrealistic images of beauty and body size that are portrayed in the media. That's why Penn State theater professor Susan Russell created the Body Language project, a program that seeks to empower today's youth through writing and performing.

"The Body Language project is about giving young people a voice in their culture," said Russell. "There is a communication gap between adults and the younger set of ears. This program serves as an avenue for communication."

After addressing body image during its first year, Body Language 2011 focused on violence against middle school girls. The initiative is now the core program of Cultural Conversations -- a February play festival founded and directed by Russell -- which features new works with themes of local and global diversity. The theme of this year's festival was global violence against women.

For the Body Language project, Russell collaborates with Centre County school counselors and teachers, who select students to participate.

What real princesses do

In 2010, as part of the project, three third-grade girls wrote a story about a "real princess" who led a mission to Haiti, while older girls wrote monologues about their female identity.

This year, Russell worked with 13 Penns Valley middle-school students who are participating in Expect Respect, a program sponsored by the Centre County Women's Resource Center. The work culminated in a play about teen dating violence, which they wrote and performed as part of Cultural Conversations.

Other collaborators include Roots of Life, an African dance ensemble composed of State College middle- and high-school students led by Kikora Franklin, assistant professor of dance. "Susan and I are both committed to providing young people with opportunities to create, express and empower themselves through the performing arts," explained Franklin.

Russell said she wants Body Language to serve as a tool for teachers and administrators to help them engage with young people "through a socially energized and personally focused artistic lens."

She used the project as a model last spring when she helped Penn State student and Sri Lanka native Ruth Canagarajah get a youth playwriting award off the ground as part of Paalam, a playwriting initiative Canagarajah founded in her native country.

Cultural Conversations and Body Language 2011 were supported by various Penn State entities. For more information, including details on Russell's book, "Body Language: Cultural Conversations, Reaching Out and Reaching In," visit

This story is from the spring issue of Penn State Outreach magazine. To view this and other stories, go to


Media Contacts: 
Last Updated April 26, 2011