Raleigh Women Tackle the Confidence Gap by Reinventing Charm School
Learn about the program Beam School
Photo courtesy of Elena Caron
“Good manners reflect something from the inside — an innate sense of consideration for others and respect for self.” — Emily Post
The phrase “confidence gap” is a common one, with an alarming number of studies and statistics that speak to it. One, in particular, from the best-selling book, “The Confidence Code for Girls” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman (HarperCollins 2018), presents research revealing that females increasingly lose confidence by upwards of 30 percent as they approach adolescence, and a lack of self-assurance can weigh them down by the time they reach adulthood.
A group of Raleigh women have come together to do something about this by launching Beam School, an eight-week program for girls ages 12-15. BEAM stands for the school’s reminder for all women to BE who I AM.
Finishing or “charm” schools, which originated in Switzerland in the late 1800s and peaked in popularity during the 1920s, focused on teaching young women social graces and upper-class cultural rites in preparation for their entry into society. According to “Charm Academy: Switzerland’s Finishing School,” written by Haig Simonian for the Sept. 30, 2010 edition of Financial Times, their popularity began to decline during the 1960s as conceptions of women’s role in society began to shift — and due to succession issues related to these typically family-run schools. Charm schools experienced a revival during the 1990s, although their business model had radically changed.
Nearly 100 years after the peak of charm school, Beam School co-founders Emma Carter and Claire Roberts, who both have backgrounds in beauty and fashion, are reinventing this traditional concept yet again. Their hope is that by participating in Beam School courses, students will not fall victim to the confidence gap.
“Charm school sounds like putting on a front and that’s what it used to be,” Carter says.
“We want real connections made in our courses,” Roberts says.
Because of this, the school’s motto is: “Cultivating inner and outer style.” The program focuses on myriad aspects in a young female’s life, from social media best practices and conversation skills, to makeup tricks and dressing for her body type. There’s even a lesson on handwriting thank-you notes.
To set the tone for and focus on individuality, girls create vision boards during the first day of class. They make collages filled with images of concepts that spark joy. Seven teenage girls recently sat in Carter’s studio during class and poured through stacks of magazines to identify and cut out some of those images for their vision boards. Some consisted of sunny beaches, fresh fruit, sundresses and bright red lips. Another displayed female athletes, Paris in winter and a soccer ball. The purpose of this project is to encourage the idea that in order for participants to find confidence within themselves, they must know themselves first.
“Girls reject being told what to do,” Carter says. “We’re not putting them in a box, we want them to be comfortable.”
There are challenges with any schooling of this sort, especially during the often-rocky tween and teen years, but Roberts says the girls have been “much more engaged than expected.”
Admittedly, Carter and Roberts have observed that participants are most excited about the course’s beauty lessons — makeup and hairstyling tutorials — which they plan to use to their advantage to teach the girls other, more serious, elements of the program.
“We’re still advocating for traditional social grace, but adding tough topics like social media and real-versus-fake imagery on the web,” Carter says.
Natalie Weiss, a course contributor who is a local graphic designer working in mainstream media, is passionate about social graces and real-life human interactions.
“Claire and Emma are using the outer beauty aspect to utilize the girls’ inner skills and inner beauty,” Weiss says. “I truly think that’s the core mission of Beam School: The hope that by starting with the teen years and drawing them in with beauty, they can utilize teaching what’s on the inside.”
Thinking Outside of the Screen
Weiss wants to help encourage these lessons through her contributions to the Beam School’s curriculum.
“I’m hoping I can impart that there’s a possibility of a little bit of a fuller experience,” she says. “Don’t let your phone and social media be in charge of you; don’t let a device cloud who you are as a person.”
Weiss plans to communicate the importance of human-to-human exchanges and encourage girls to rethink how often they should be behind a screen.
Photos courtesy of Elena Caron
“The digital world is affecting every way we interact,” she says. “We need to find a structure to that so we can protect human interaction.”
Weiss recognizes the benefits and needs of today’s modern tech world, but worries about its overuse and impact on mental health.
“Obviously they need to be with technology, but my fear is how to be without it,” she says.
Encouraging fuller life experiences so participants become part of a community is one of the Beam School’s most important objectives.
Another objective is to emphasize the importance of sisterhood, of which the elephant symbolizes. Beam School participants receive a small elephant charm at the end of the course as a reminder of what they’ve learned, and that they should carry that wisdom with them into adulthood. An image of this animal appears on every page of the program’s curriculum book.
“It’s not survival of the fittest,” Carter says. “Female elephants march to the beat of the most vulnerable.”
Addie Ladner lives in Raleigh with her husband, two young children and beagle mix.