Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Dec 18, 2013 / 1 comments

One of the most difficult things of the internet age is that, I feel, we’re losing the ‘it takes a village’ mentality - that of wisdom coming to kids from a variety of trusted and loved people. We’re all online, but disconnected, somehow, from the very things we need to grow and learn. This is especially true for young women, who see advertising and physical stereotypes that cannot exist in real life – thanks to airbrushing and photoshop, to plastic surgery and extreme dieting, to a lack of interaction with and love from a variety of women. Where do young women learn about coming of age, of being comfortable in their bodies, of becoming strong, interesting, globally aware women? Until now, there wasn’t one source – young teens search the internet, finding a puzzle piece here, another there, but the entirety of the picture puzzle of growing up and becoming a woman was incomplete.


It takes a village - advice from women, all around the world


Enter Melissa Banigan, a faculty member in our Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program, a writer, a mom. Her new book, Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self, gathers wisdom from women all around the world to help girls in this strange and exhilarating time of their lives. We caught up with Melissa to find the backstory and inspiration for this book – here’s what she had to say…


Melissa Banigan


Please tell us about the inspiration for your project...

Next year, my daughter, Anevay, will be turning thirteen. Already, she’s going through many of the hormonal, emotional and physical changes of adolescence, and she has many questions about both herself and the world around her. In this age of globalization, young people around the world with access to computers can access information and feel empowered to take charge of their futures. That said, there’s a lot of bad information out there, and sadly, I think there is a total vacuum in non-fiction books for young women who are trying to figure out what to believe. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if there could be one resource for girls and young women around the world that discusses real-world, relevant issues with sensitivity and honesty? This is why I started Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self, a collection of advice letters written by fifty powerful women to their teenage selves. I want my girl, and young women just like her from around the world, to have access to a book that will serve as a contemporary, relevant guidebook that doesn’t skirt around important universal, global issues that affect females.

My hope is that Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self will empower girls worldwide by demonstrating that they can all become successful, smart, world-changing women, no matter where they live, their economic or social position, or their family or immediate communities. This book is about connecting with a more global community of women.

Also, I’m a writer and editor who thinks it’s about time to start using my skills to “give back.” It’s really simple: I want this collection of beautiful letters to be placed in the hands of young women around the world. I like knowing that I will have a part in making this happen, and love even more that it’s a collaborative project: fifty contributors plus one editor equals a small army to promote education and change.


A world of women exists - who are the individuals writing the letters?

Indeed, a world of women does exist! Sadly, the needs and rights of many women are ignored. Females across the world face discrimination that boys often don’t encounter. Thankfully, to educate a girl makes her less vulnerable to violence, helps her make better financial decisions, enables her to follow her dreams and means she’ll be less likely to have a child before she is ready or contract a sexually transmitted disease. The women who have contributed letters to Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self all are educators (although I’m not sure they’d all define themselves as such!).

Contributors such as Ponheary Ly, who wrote a heartbreaking letter about genocide and the loss of members of her family, and Tarcila Rivera Zea, who wrote about the rights of indigenous women in Peru, and Lek Chailert, who discussed what led her to lead the charge in saving the Asian Elephant, all emphasize the importance of education. Martina Clark, who sat on the first board of directors of UNAIDS – the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS – later worked with several UN agencies to promote HIV and sexual health awareness and education. Balpreet Kaur is a Sikh woman who, having faced discrimination for her appearance and religion, contributes to the global conversation about oneness and kindness. Even you, Jessie, with your amazing Wandering Educators website, shares stories that promote global education!

Also, because this is a book by women, for girls, it’s important to define “women” and “girls.” In short, any person who defines herself as a woman or a girl is undeniably female. In this anthology, biology only is viewed as only a part of the female experience. Therefore, while letters about female biology are included, they are balanced with letters by powerful women such as Terri O’Connell, a motorcar-racing champion who was born with a rare biological disorder that endowed her with both male and female biology.

The women featured in Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self are - body and soul - amazing people who have overcome adversity, and I think that young women will find their stories to be truly inspirational. A girl will only have to flip through the pages of this anthology to learn about her body, sexual preferences, gender issues, beauty, cutting and self-harm, female genital mutilation, social justice and human rights issues, and even happiness, following her dreams and never giving up the child within.

Finally, as I chose the women and letters to include in the anthology, I didn’t look only to celebrities and persons in privileged positions from powerful countries for advice, but to women from all walks of life around the world. Sure, some of the women are better known than others, but this book is a safe, welcoming place where all stories are given equal weight.  An important message of the book is that ALL STORIES HAVE MEANING… NO STORY IS TOO SMALL.

My big goal is that the letters in this book inspire young women to write their own letters. Believing in the weight of one’s own words is important.


Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self


How can people help/find out more?

It’s simple, really. I recently put together a campaign on Indiegogo to raise funds that will enable me to work fulltime for three months so that I can finish the anthology. I am passionate about this project, and hope that others will share this passion. Therefore, I invite all of your readers to do three things:

* Visit the campaign page to read more about Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self
* Contribute to the project – even a dollar helps!!
* Share news of the campaign via Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other social media.

I plan to make waves with this project – BIG WAVES – but to do this, I’ll need a lot of help from the men, women and youth around the world who believe in supporting the rights and education of young women.

Thank you!


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Comments (1)

  • Anevay Darlington

    10 years 7 months ago

    This is truly an amazing project mom, and am so excited to read the letters! 

    I think this will definitely educate teen girls (such as myself) about topics, that aren't usually talked about! 

    So great! :) 

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