After a recent speaking engagement at a Texas high school, USC Dornsife alumna Alexis Jones was approached by a young girl in tears. An aspiring ballerina, the girl told Jones she felt so pressured she had been starving herself and was feeling suicidal.
“When I speak in schools I hear some awful things, about eating disorders and self-harm, things that girls have never told anyone because they don’t feel safe,” said Jones, cofounder of the nonprofit, I AM THAT GIRL which aims to inspire girls to love themselves unconditionally.
But this girl, whom Jones calls Jennifer to protect her identity, was reaching the point of no return. “She told me ‘I wrote a suicide note this morning. But I don’t want to do that anymore because I want to do what you do,’ ” Jones said.
‘I told her she couldn’t take care of other girls unless she first took care of herself. When I asked her if she would do that, she replied, ‘Whatever it takes.’ ”
Jones immediately notified the appropriate authorities and helped get Jennifer the help she needed. Now, Jones said, Jennifer has taken steps on the road to recovery.
Through her work with I AM THAT GIRL Jones has spent the last five years speaking to more than 250,000 girls in person and millions more online regarding self-esteem, bullying, leadership, activism and social entrepreneurism. Fortunately not many are as desperate as Jennifer, but most suffer from insecurity and lack of self-esteem.
“A girl’s physical, emotional and mental well-being is rooted in her self-worth. And we are living in an epidemic of self-doubt,” Jones said. “I AM THAT GIRL exists to transform self-doubt into self-love and inspire that in others.”
Jones’ book I Am That Girl (Evolve Publishing) which came out Feb. 4, provides a how-to guide for doing just that.
“When people learn what I do they often say ‘How adorable! You work in girl empowerment.’ And I reply ‘Adorable? Are you kidding?’ That’s an adjective I would never use. Confrontational, yes,” Jones said.
“Business is easy. I can put together financial and communication plans in my sleep. But asking people the hard questions in life, asking them if they really love themselves, and if they are actually happy — that’s tough.”
Born in Austin, Texas, Jones earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations from USC Dornsife in 2005 and a master's in communication management from USC Annenberg in 2006.
In her sophomore year at USC Dornsife, Jones experienced two life-changing events.
First, she landed a role in a campus production of Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues.
“That was the first time I really got excited about girls’ and women’s issues,” she said. “They weren’t really on my radar before then. I had studied abroad in Spain and in my head I was studying to be an ambassador to Latin America.”
Then, a campus poster inspired her to audition as a presenter for a USC television show about the celebrity red carpet, Doing It for Reel. Her resulting three-year gig enabled her to attend movie premiers, interview Hollywood producers and directors and get an inside look at the entertainment industry. It also gave her the opportunity to build some powerful relationships.
“Both events testify to the caliber of USC, which provides not only the theoretical education but the opportunity to tackle new experiences and step outside your comfort zone,” she said.
A Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority member, Jones started I AM THAT GIRL at USC so young women could discuss the issues they were struggling with, whether it was pressure at school, relationship problems, or body image.
“We live in a world that teaches us from a very young age that our self worth is commensurate with our physical attractiveness. In that very dangerous paradigm, girls are not taught to love themselves unconditionally. Instead, we are held up against unattainable expectations of beauty.”
This problem has been exacerbated by a multi-billion dollar beauty and fashion industry with its Photoshopped images, Jones said. That insecurity is compounded further by social media, with its focus on posting highlights of our lives, and — in worst case scenarios — cyber bullying.
“Girls aren’t talking about what is really going on their lives, or the pressure they are under,” Jones said. “We are bred to create this idealized façade, but beneath the surface we’re all too scared to admit to our insecurities.”
Jones decided to hold weekly meetings where young women undergraduates at USC could talk about what really mattered in their lives. Six showed up to the first. Soon, Jones said, hundreds were attending.
“That’s when it dawned on me that there was a real lack of community for girls. And maybe there was a need to create a community for girls at other universities too — not just at mine — spaces where young women could be courageous enough to be vulnerable.”
In addition to creating local chapters of I AM THAT GIRL, the international nonprofit spreads its message of self-empowerment through inspiring content on its website iamthatgirl.com and social media.
Jones, who sees the digital revolution as both the culprit and the solution, acknowledges the irony.
“In today’s world, media is the most powerful tool to influence how a girl defines herself,” Jones said. “We’re providing tangible tools and resources with an interactive curriculum to teach girls emotional intelligence, professional skills and personal development.”
Aimed at high school and college girls ages 15 to 22, I AM THAT GIRL also draws middle schoolers. But mothers and women in their 60s and 70s also seek out the group for support.
“Over the past five years we’ve connected with hundreds of thousands of girls, telling us how the I AM THAT GIRL community has turned their stories of struggle and adversity into stories of triumph, connectedness and empowerment,” Jones said. “But it’s not just girls. These issues are a universal truth for women. At one recent talk at a Los Angeles school, I had as many moms crying as daughters.
“We’re all starving for that message of unconditional love and being given permission to feel insecure and scared is so powerful for all of us,” Jones said.
In 2011, Jones was invited to the White House for the 100-year anniversary of International Women’s Day where she met First Lady Michelle Obama.
After giving the First Lady her card and suggesting that her group co-host an event at the White House, Jones got a call from Obama’s assistant saying she was impressed with her bravado and wanted to invite her back.
Jones returned to the White House to discuss a healthy media initiative she created to examine media impact on girls.
Paradoxically, despite her apparently abundant self-confidence, Jones is no stranger to insecurity.
“One of my greatest struggles as a student was thinking I had to do things to deserve love, rather than believing I am intrinsically worthy of it,” she said.
She cites Steve Lamy, professor of international relations and vice dean for academic programs, as her greatest influence at USC Dornsife.
“Professor Lamy was the first teacher who really pushed me to think for myself. I don’t think I would have the courage or the confidence to go on to do what I have done in my life if he had not poured all that faith into me.”
Jones, who has worked at Fox Sports, ESPN, was a contestant on the hit CBS reality TV show Survivor and was cast as a life coach for the MTV show MADE, says her future plans involve diving back into media and entertainment.
However, she is not abandoning her life goal. When deciding which avenues to pursue, she has adopted a steadfast rule.
“My personal mission statement is ‘Loving Girls Back to Life,’ ” she said. “It’s a great litmus test. Does this project serve girls’ greater good? If not, I don’t do it.”