EILEEN FISHER has been on my radar as a socially-conscious company, committed to helping young women feel better about themselves. I recently sat down with Antoinette Klatzky, the Program Director and Leader of The Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute. Established in 2010, EFLI promotes leadership in young women through self-empowerment, connection with others and activism in their communities with multiple programs for teens and young adult women. Antoinette discussed the pressing issues facing our teens today, including body image and social pressure. Here is our conversation.
MKG: Antoinette, as the Program Director what do you see as the most pressing issues facing our teens?
ANTOINETTE: I see a number of issues facing teens in our local communities today. The primary root cause of the issues, though, seems to be social pressure. The social pressures are wide ranging. They relate to higher education (what college will I get into? How will that affect my future?); testing (does this standardized test really measure my ability to think and create?); clothing (how does what I’m wearing define who I am?); body image (will I fit in if my body doesn’t fit?) etc. Teens are not always empowered to tap into their true passions and care for one another from a place of empathy and compassion. Often, they are pushed towards someone else’s version of success which might not be authentic to their own experience, causing competitive behavior and a push towards a future they may not actually want. When teens don’t have a safe space to explore themselves, be vulnerable, develop deep connections with others, and be confident in their own thoughts and experiences, they don’t effectively learn how to be in a community in a meaningful way.
MKG: How long have you been involved and what changes have you noticed in that time?
ANTOINETTE: I was involved in creating the pilot program in 2010 and noticed a deep need for the type of space that we’ve been talking about. Many young women were craving a place to talk about some of the issues they were facing and to take the time to realize they were not alone. For several years, EILEEN FISHER has been connected to similar leadership and empowerment programming and we have been able to recognize and build on best practices and continue to learn from one another. As the need for these types of spaces has become more clear, our community, and our facilitation team, has grown. We’ve recognized that the young women participating in the program are not the only ones getting what they need out of it; the facilitators are being transformed, as well. It’s been incredible to watch this community of almost 200 young women grow, develop, change and stay connected in various ways. And, over the last few years, empowerment of women and girls has become popular! The UN had an entire year dedicated to women and girls, and the ‘day of the girl‘ was established. While it seems somewhat superficial, I think it’s also exemplary of the way that the movement is shifting and we’re slowly waking up. The empowerment of young women is essential for our future. We’re watching young women connect in to the sparks of passion, recognize the possibilities and create the opportunities they want for their lives and careers. I am, perhaps, much more hopeful now. I’m noticing that we (even if it’s just our small community) are actually beginning to live the change we want to see.
MKG: How can teens get involved?
ANTOINETTE: Teens, like most of us, want to be connected and have their sense of purpose validated. The Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute is just one community where young women can come and explore their unique and individual voices. I think it’s about creating that space for ourselves and for others to reflect and connect. It’s about being able to recognize that when the space you want doesn’t exist, it’s important to take initiative and create it, not wait for it and put the responsibility on someone else to bring it to fruition. That’s how we take Eileen Fisher leadership practices and apply them to our lives – at some point Eileen said something along the lines of, ‘Hmm, it’s the 1980s – women are entering the workforce (I am in the workforce) and don’t feel comfortable in these box suits (and don’t feel comfortable in the clothing available to me)‘. She had a vision for a way that she could be more comfortable and confident in the clothes she wore, and knew that others needed that, too. She took the time to tap into that space of possibility and created it. That’s what we’re encouraging young women to do at the Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute. On a practical level, young women can join our community now through our summer programming and apply online here.
MKG: What can we, as a society-at-large, do to help our teens?
ANTOINETTE: I asked our team to help with this question. Here’s what they came up with: value them; include them; listen to them; trust them; have honest conversations with them; invest in their growth; honor their voices; see our relationships as mutually-beneficial; share wisdom and also learn new ideas; hold space for them to be the agents of their own lives and support them through the ups and downs of that journey. I think this list speaks loud and clear. I wonder what would happen if we started really listening deeply to each other? I think there is an inter-generational wisdom that we have the power (as humanity) to tap into. It requires both listening to teens combined with listening to the wisdom of the experience of elders and taking action based on that more holistic understanding.
MKG: Finally, Antoinette, what do you feel is the connection between fashion and wellness?
ANTOINETTE: I’m not the fashion expert – However, I have felt, being in the EILEEN FISHER world, a deep connection between fashion and wellness. When I wear EF clothing, I don’t have to think too much about what I’m going to put on in the morning. I know that what I’m going for is comfort and confidence and that the clothes that I’m wearing will let me feel that (and I can probably drop into a down dog at any point in the day if necessary). I think a motivation within the EILEEN FISHER brand is to create simple and comfortable clothing so that the woman wearing it is the focus, and that she feels confident in her body and authentically herself. Essentially, that to me is wellness.