Akili Lumpkin, 14, never wears makeup.

But not all girls her age, or perhaps older and even younger, are that comfortable or confident in themselves to do that.

Last week, the freshman joined her self-defense class at Oak Park and River Forest High School for “True Colors Tuesday,” encouraging not only the students but also adult female staff in the building to come to school for one day without any makeup. The idea is to celebrate and accept one’s inner beauty.

“I feel like some girls use makeup as a mask or to make themselves feel pretty and more important,” said Lumpkin.

True Colors grew out of discussions from their self-defense class. And this class isn’t what many might think of when they hear “self-defense.” There’s no kicking or kung fu going on during these daily OPRF courses, which includes classes for both boys and girls. Students instead talk about issues like bullying and body image. The boys also talk about how to refrain from fighting to settle differences with peers.

In the girls’ class, they talk a lot about how others see them and how they view themselves.

“It’s about embracing who you are on the inside,” said Jennifer Kanwischer, who teaches one of the girls self-defense classes and whose students came up with True Colors Tuesday.

Kanwischer said all of the students in the self-defense classes participated. The girls promoted the activity around school and got other students to participate. Some of the female faculty and staff joined in. But not everyone was comfortable going makeup-less, Kanwischer said.

She recalled receiving an e-mail from a colleague at the school, saying she wasn’t going to participate and joking that she was already trying to be not so scary to the younger kids. But even those who didn’t join in expressed respect and support for those who did, Kanwischer said.

“It did raise awareness. It wasn’t about pointing the finger at anyone or saying that wearing makeup is a bad thing. It’s just about going outside your comfort zone.”

Still, it was hard for some, she said, both adults and students. One girl, for instance, came to class wearing her makeup as usual, having already decided not to participate. But she reluctantly decided to remove her makeup.

“She went into the bathroom and came back, and she was scared to come in class. But everyone encouraged her and told her, ‘Oh, you’re so pretty.’ You could see that she got more comfortable,” Kanwischer said.

It wasn’t easy for Allison Dee either. The 14-year-old freshman likes to wear a little makeup, but she too decided to step out of her comfort zone.

“I felt like the odd one out. But because some of the people did it, I felt better about it,” she said. “I normally wear makeup; I feel kind of insecure without it. But I really liked the fact that it was this class’ idea. People should have done it a long time before.”

Kanwischer said the girls would like to have another True Colors day. Some students Tuesday even went further, coming to school in sweats and ditching the name-brand clothes.

“It took away the social status — how much money does this student have versus others,” she said. “Students said, ‘I don’t want to wear any name brands today. I just want to be me.'”

A different approach to ‘self-defense’

Once Allison Dee signed up for her self defense class at Oak Park and River Forest High School, she assumed she’d be learning how to defend herself from an attack.

There is some of that in this mandatory freshmen class that’s offered to boys and girls. But the main focus of the class is on communication, not kicking. Students talk about issues around sensitive teen topics like bullying, body image and valuing one’s self. They watch movies that deal with these subjects and talk about it afterward.

This has been OPRF’s approach to a self defense class for more than two decades. The class began in the 1980s and had been offered to girls only until 2008 when a course for boys opened up.

“When you think of self defense you don’t think of this,” said Dee, a 14-year-old freshman. “I thought I’d be karate chopping but not sitting here watching movies.”

Linda Carlson, a physical education teacher, has taught the self defense class her entire 16 years at OPRF. There are five instructors overall. Carlson assumed she’d be teaching a more traditional self-defense course when she began at OPRF. But only a third of the nine week course deals with how to use strikes to get away from an attacker. The students do receive a grade on how well they do when they get to that middle portion of the course.

But the students and their teachers spend the first few weeks talking about issues around self worth.

“The class has been both but we moved a lot more toward what the kids’ issues are and what teens face,” Carlson said.

The latter weeks deal with specific issues, such as dating and sexual abuse. The boys’ classes are similar and include a focus on how to avoid fighting. They also deal with male self image and what is considered “manly.”

About 300 freshmen enroll for the fall and spring classes, which take place five days a week. It was made mandatory starting this school year. The teens have written assignments, papers and art projects as curriculum. Teachers also bring in guest speakers periodically throughout the year, individuals who have survived such things as domestic violence.

Carlson said another point of the class is to raise the students’ awareness around how they treat others.

Song inspiration?

“True Colors” is also a 1986 song and album of the same name by Pop singer Cindy Lauper. The lyrics talk about finding one’s inner strength and allowing your true self to been seen by others. The song has been covered by dozens of artists since.

The chorus goes:

But I see your true colors shining through

I see your true colors and that’s why I love you

So don’t be afraid to let them show

Your true colors; true colors are beautiful, like a rainbow

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