No more nails…

20 Aug

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!

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22 Responses to “No more nails…”

  1. nickynch August 21, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    So this is my first venture into the world of Blogging!!!! Had to reply though. Ruth I couldn’t agree more. I am all for a bit of pampering, i love it but in the context you’re talking I completely agree with you!

    i think there is such danger that we inadvertently ‘teach’ young women that the way they look and behave determines their ‘success’. Rapidly approaching 40 as I am (eek) and being single, there are times when talking about this, people suggest that I ask God why. I find this fascinating. In many cases the implication in the way this is put isn’t a positive suggestion such as, ‘God may have purposes for you that your singleness is necessary for’ – no, the implication is often more along the lines of ‘maybe you should ask God what’s stopping you from meeting someone, whether there’s something that needs to change’. The blatant, although I know not always intended, implication being that the reason I am single is that there is something wrong with me, something I need to change to make myself more ‘appropriate’. This makes me mad because the unchallenged rule we pass on is that it is EXACTLY what you have said, its about how we look, how we behave that ‘makes’ us attractive, a nice package for a future husband! Its so entrenched in us that we don’t even realise that we are doing it! And we pass it on from generation to generation adding our own insecurities and issues from the lies we have had innocently piled on us to believe we don’t look and act good enough.

    It’s so hard to realise that we do this, that women do it to women and don’t even realise what they are doing, that their best intentions are actually having potentially damaging knock on effects.

    RUTH – outward bound course here we come????

    • ruthwells August 22, 2011 at 7:52 pm #

      Nicky, congratulations on entering the world of blogging! Thanks for your very honest comment. I think what you have to say about raising generations of women is really interesting. Good to have a perspective from you x

  2. Heidi August 21, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    This really resonates with me.

  3. Jenny Baker August 21, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    Ruth, I am completely with you on this one! Have you read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf? She talks about the beautification stuff that women do to themselves as The Third Shift, on top of working and taking responsibility for looking after the home and family, and says that it takes up time and energy that we could be spending on much more worthwhile things. I think you’d love it. I hope we can talk about this at the Girls’ Ministry day in the autumn.

    • ruthwells August 22, 2011 at 7:51 pm #

      Jenny, I am heading to Amazon now to get myself a copy of ‘The Beauty Myth’ – Thanks x

  4. sally August 22, 2011 at 8:01 am #

    As a mum of two very active young women who are politically aware and globally concious I applaud this article- and they hated pamper sessions!

    • ruthwells August 22, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Sally – I think my 4 year old daughter may end up in this category too. Glad to hear you are an inspirational mum raising young women to be active, aware and globally conscious – bravo! I hope I can manage the same.

  5. Em August 22, 2011 at 8:24 am #

    Totally agree with you. If the youthwork at my church had been based around pamper sessions, I’d probably have been out rioting. Just read Danielle Strickland’s latest book “The Liberating Truth – How Jesus Empowers Women” well worth a read.

    If single sex youth work is about building self esteem, what about letting the young people lead and if it is pampering they want, looking at why – is it for relaxation, for a treat or because they feel rubbish and it’s the only way they think things will get better.Always worth looking at the root of desires.

    I’m just really thankful for the youthworkers we had and it was a long time before i realised not everyone did youthwork in the same way. It was youth led for activities with leaders assigned to groups and who were there to mentor and input positively. I think Mike Breen talks about some of it in his book ‘Outside In’ and maybe others. We were continually challenged to debate things, to think about why we wanted to do certain things and to consider what was positive to ourselves and others this was done with the all the peer based groups, boys, girls and mixed

    • ruthwells August 22, 2011 at 7:48 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Em. I loved Danielle Strickland’s book – very challenging and refreshing. Glad you had great youthwork that didn’t cause you to riot!! It’s brilliant to hear that there is some amazing youthwork happening which encourages young people to dialogue, refkect and take responsibility. Excellent!

  6. Sally Claydon August 22, 2011 at 9:01 am #

    I totally understand what you’re saying, however, as someone who works with teenage girls, the pamper session is a very popular option for girls! We use it occasionally as a springboard into discussions of inner beauty ~ “God looks at our heart”. Some good conversations can be struck over a manicure!! Sure, don’t do them week-in week-out, but use them as a launch pad into something a whole lot more challenging!

    • ruthwells August 22, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Sally. I agree these kinds of sessions can be a springboard – most definately. They give space for quality conversation. However I do think it’s important to also make sure we don’t always link self-esteem with appearance intentionally or unintentionally for young women. : )

  7. Sarah Fegredo August 22, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    I found my way here via Sophia Network. I agree with what you’re saying here so much. I’m a youth Pastor and a mother of a son and a daughter so I think a lot about gender, nature v. nurture etc. etc. and I’ve done pampering type things with girls (me culpa!).

    I want to say: you’re right but…but how do you make connections with a generation of girls for whom this is their world. I don’t like it and I want to challenge it, but feminism is generally a dirty word nowadays and girls are encouraged to feel empowered by looking good and being free with their sexuality (Have you read “Female Chauvinist Pigs” by Ariel Levy), and personal appearance is seen as an opportunity for self-expression and creativity. I guess what I’m thinking is that it can be a useful way in, but then how do we do it in ways that challenge the stereotypes and the beauty myths, empower girls to define their beauty themselves and to value themselves for more than just their looks?

    I’m interested in this because I run an open club for boys and girls aged 11-14, and one of the big challenges is that the group splits along gender lines with the girls often marginalised because there are fewer of them and the choices they make about activities are often already limited, i.e. they don’t play pool, even though I often play and beat the boys, they don’t play computer games because they don’t want to. What they want to do is sit and chat, and so we created a corner that had bean bags and a film playing. It wasn’t labelled as the girls corner but it has become that and attendance by girls has increased. Should I have resisted that and “made” them play pool, or have I empowered them by creating space and encouraging ownership? I suspect the answer is somewhere in the middle, but I’m not entirely happy with it.

    • ruthwells August 22, 2011 at 7:43 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Sarah. Yes I’ve read ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs’ and loved it! I can really resonate with what you say and your experience of work with young women. I have also found that very often young women opt for beauty stuff and ‘chick flicks’ in open youth work. I guess for me, and it sounds like you, youth work has to start from where young people are and like you say then you can look to challenge values etc. I have done ‘pamper’ type things with girls at their request, but then facilitated discussion on some of the key ‘feminist themes’ – i.e. objectification. Also I have tried to do things that have a little twist like a ‘fair-trade fashion show’ which enables young women to do beauty things but also helps them to explore issues of global poverty.
      I don’t think we should force girls to do things like play pool – these things are so entrenched in my opinion that for many young women things like that just aren’t on their radar- but I think it’s worth being purposeful in trying them to rethink and broaden their horizons. I really like the chill-out space you described – sounds brilliant. Ownership for me is the key to all of this. Keep up the fantastic work : )

  8. Nicky Gleeson August 22, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    Hi Ruth,

    i picked up your link through Sally Coleman on FB.

    your spot on.

    • ruthwells August 22, 2011 at 7:36 pm #

      Thanks Nicky – Glad you enjoyed it : )

  9. Laura Anne August 22, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    Soooo with you – that’s why I’m planning on returning back to voluntary youth work with the Girl Guide Association.

    Bring on the camping, the learning, the fundraising for charities THEY choose to fundraise for, the climbing, go-karting and all the rest. 🙂

    • ruthwells August 22, 2011 at 7:36 pm #

      I think uniformed organisations have a lot to teach us and Im so glad you are planning a return to working with young people. Enjoy the tree-climbing!! : )

  10. serena August 23, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    Here via Sophia Network. I work with Brownies, girls aged 7-10, and we notice this behaviour even at that age. We try to encourage them to be active, decisive, and a little bit mad … I’m sure they wouldn’t be half as free with boys present.

    I agree with some of the commenters that it’s about HOW you include these activities. I sit on the fence with pampering evenings etc – I got fed up with them being the ONLY “girls’ night” thing ever offered at church, while the boys ate curry and drank beer (things I enjoy), but I do enjoy a little pampering every now and then. We used one in a very positive way with our Brownies – we treated them on Valentine’s Day, rather than let them spend the whole evening worrying about who had the most cards and was therefore the most popular (as I’m sure happened all day at school). However, even then, the emphasis was on fun and silliness – we made our own face mask from bananas, yoghurt and porridge, and it was VERY messy!

    So yes, a thorny issue. Pampering as a treat, maybe. But as the only way to talk about self-worth? What about brains, character, all of those things?!

    • ruthwells August 24, 2011 at 7:30 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Serena – lots of great points. It is indeed a thorny issue, really interested in the idea about valentine’s day and treats – good ideas – thanks! : )

      • serenaeta August 24, 2011 at 7:40 pm #

        You’re welcome. Thanks for articulating a lot of things that need saying about how we treat young women.

  11. ruthgb September 16, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    Thanks for this Ruth – it’s a great honer of thought and, I hope, focus and action for those of us passionate about young women discovering who they are and whose they are! We’ve seen both positive and negative results from our ‘oasis’ zone at various GB events and local groups. For me there’s a huge challenge about the conversation moving from ‘me’ the clone consumer to ‘me’ the amazingly conceived and created young woman with a vision and purpose beyond ‘me’. Let’s not settle for a ministry that encourages conforming, but be passionate to see lives transformed …..in, thru and beyond the beauty zone! Bring it on

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