I have done quite a lot of work with young women but I have become increasingly distressed by the trend to do ‘pamper sessions’ as a way of single-sex youth work. I am not saying this kind of work hasn’t been positive for some, but it seems now to have been packaged, branded and accepted as the only way to work successfully with girls. I am, to be honest, sick of the ‘pappy’ nature of so much of the work with young women I see and hear about. It is not good enough to just reproduce the same old crap. It is not good enough to blindly put on the same old things without critique and without any attempt to determine needs, and seek to enable young women to address them.
It seems ridiculously paradoxical that we do ‘self-esteem’ work whilst surrounded by beauty paraphernalia. How can we spout a message of ‘self-esteem is not related to how you look’ whilst in the midst of yet another pamper session, manicure night or fashion show? The words we speak are entirely overridden by the actions we display. Adolescence is complex enough without introducing these paradoxes. I know of some work with young women that even advocates and uses the teaching of ‘etiquette and deportment’ in an attempt to help young women feel better about themselves. My blood is boiling as I type this – what century are we living in? These techniques smack of one thing to me – ‘wifedom’ and wifedom in the spooky, scary Stepford Wives style. Producing and reproducing young women who are rigidly robotic in their ability to sit nicely and use the correct knife and fork. Young women who will make ‘good wives’ – as if this is the only aspiration they could possibly have. As if, if you look right and act right you will find yourself a good man – or more likely you will be found by a good man, for you can surely only be a passive object, a damsel in distress waiting for a rescuer (who values someone who can walk with a pile of books on their head – rather than ideas in them).
The methodology we adopt in working with young people is, to me, as important as the substance. I believe we should be fostering environments where young women are encouraged to think for themselves, to be assertive, to make decisions and to be active rather than passive. I believe we need to move away from strategies where we do things for and to young women – where we ‘do’ their hair, where we ‘do’ their make-up, where we ‘do’ their nails. This type of work can only perpetuate this crippling cultural stereotype about female passivity and eventual objectification. Women can be, and are, complicit in this passivity so much of the time in my experience. Where are the girls who can stand up for themselves? Where are the girls who can make a decision? Work with young men tends to be much more active in its approach – football, outdoor sports, go-karting. Young men are encouraged to take risks, to be assertive and decisive.
I am conscious that I have a tendency to over-analyse things(!) but I can’t help but see a link here in the Church. Woman as passive, as someone’s wife, as someone’s mother, as a someone to be rescued, as someone who looks right and plays her part. Is work with young women in the Church a mechanism to shape them into the stereotypes we are most comfortable with? Femininity in a way we feel safe with. For if women are silent, demure, indecisive and passive, they won’t rock the boat. They won’t ask questions about inequality, injustice and oppression. If they’re busy doing their hair, make-up and nails they’ll have no time to lead and speak and step into the fullness of who they are.
I want to smash-up some pamper sessions. I want to take girls tree-climbing, protest-marching, campaigning. I want to ditch the ‘nicey-nicey’ stuff and do things that make a difference to others – that for me is what really impacts self-esteem. If you can help bring positive change for others, it is near impossible to not be changed positively yourself. Here’s to messiness, hairs out-of-place and no more nails!