Starbucks and therapy: why women work with girls.

Lately, I have been thinking about some of the work I do with young women and thought I’d share a few things!  This post looks at some of my thoughts with regard to ‘why women choose to work with young women’ and I plan to do a follow-up looking at ‘how we go about work with young women’.  These are my own reflections from practice, they have no empirical evidence and come as the result of sleep deprivation and currently, as I type, red wine!

Anecdotally it appears to me that a growing trend in Christian youth work is single-sex work.  Particularly I have noted the increase in woman who go into youthwork looking to work with young women.  The draw of days on end in Starbucks, solving issues to do with ‘self-esteem’ is massive it seems.  I am not averse to this particular way of working.  I love cafes as much as the next person and see the value in working one-to-one and in small groups looking at issues.  I am concerned however that this trend is indicative of a deficit in the training and development of those going into work with young people (especially women), rather than a deep-seated, planned, needs-led approach to informal education. 

Being involved in delivering youthwork training for a variety of people and groups I’ve noted that very often work with young people attracts those who a)are looking to work out an ongoing issue for themselves vicariously through their work with others b) are looking for a safe place to continue on being an adolescent themselves c) are looking for an excuse to delay meeting the real world.  There are obviously lots of others who are going into youth work to see young people supported to become more, and all that.  And it would be naive to think that nobody goes into working with people to fulfil something in themselves – in fact that can be appropriate if acknowledged and handled in a transparent way.  But my concern is that if those working with young women are looking to solve something in their own lives they could project their own issues onto unsuspecting others. 

It seems to be a thread in conversations I have that many Christian women feel they lack a wealth of female role-models.  Who are the apostolic leaders?  Who are the pioneers?  Who are the really good reflective practitioners?  My concern is that rather than seeing this as a provocation to be those people to succeeding generations, many women going into youth work are looking to fill the need for affirmation, security and worth through some pseudo-therapy in starbucks.  Their meetings with young women are more to do with themselves and their issues than the development of those they meet.  I guess I’m treading a thin line here!  I am not alleging this is what happens in all mentoring sessions.  I am not alleging this is what happens in any one-to-one work, but I guess it could be.  You see sometimes I think we are very quick to ‘buy into’ stuff in Christendom.  We want to be doing the ‘latest’ kind of thing.  We want that funky youth cafe, or that edgy worship event, without necessarily reflecting on the fundamental issue of ‘need’ and the appropriateness of each approach to help facilitate a meeting of that said need.  The ‘coffee shop’ thing is really valuable, but I worry that it may just become the ‘thing to do’ without a reflection on why and how?  Or worse it is something that those going into work with young people need and because they have not had that need met – the need for real relationship; the need for challenge; the need for reflective space – they are seeking to quench that with a saturation of lattes and ‘how do you feel?’ chats. 

I have to declare that all these thoughts are a challenge to me as much as a challenge to others.  I know that I am still a work-in-progress and my own motives and approach need to be reflected upon.  I guess I am just asking whether we need to be doing more as community to try to help people work through things in appropriate spaces, so as to avoid them seeking means that may be inappropriate and damaging.  A 15-year-old can not solve my deep-seated issues about my body –  only I can do that – with the support of God and others around me.  I worry that we are setting up those going into youthwork to fail.  We have been short-changed and now we are seeking to deal with that deficit through our work with vulnerable and impressionable others – treating them almost as vessels to be used to our own means.  I hope I am way off mark with this.  I hope I have just reached the sleep-deprived insanity thing.  I hope the short-changing of generations of women can begin to be addressed in our work with young women.  I hope….



Mr Bossy?

Today I met with an amazing woman who is doing some brilliant work with young people locally.  She is great, inspirational and focused, so I was surprised today to find her perplexed and down.  We chatted, she told me about some feedback she had received from someone at the college at which she is studying.  One of the comments that had upset her, was one stating she was ‘bossy’. Bossy?!  Bossy?!  Where to start!  She is certainly assertive, she is certainly able to articulate her own view-point, she is certainly able to delegate responsibility to others in an appropriate manner, but I really take issue with the idea that she is bossy.

It got me thinking ‘how many men have I heard referred to as ‘bossy”? Silence for a moment…..sigh….uh none!  The word ‘bossy’ is so ugly and speaks to me of ugly things.  It is also a label I only see attached to women.  A man is ‘assertive’ or ‘directive’ – positive attributes- a woman ‘bossy’.  To me the label speaks volumes of a societal idea of how women should behave.  Women should be demure, passive and unsure.  Women should be indecisive, a little ignorant and placid.  Men should be decisive and assertive.

It’s troubling when I work with young women who are practicing being grown-ups and role-playing what they think that means by doing that passive, ‘I couldn’t possibly make a decision’, ‘I just couldn’t say no to him’ thing.  Heaven forbid they make a choice, say what they think or say ‘no thanks’ to giving a boy a blow-job in the public toilets!  They don’t want to be weird – they want to fit in, and fitting in means aligning themselves to these stereotypes of what they think it means to be a woman.  Key attributes celebrated in women seem to increasingly be returning to passivity and naivety.

With Tinie Tempah spewing lyrics which include ‘I just want to have…I’m on a mission, I don’t even want to kiss her, I mean I won’t even miss ya, When I’m done with ya’ (Frisky) is it any wonder that young women are seen as objects to be used, abused and discarded.  And the voice of the woman? Silent.  And the role of the woman? Compliant.  It is so difficult to try to enable young women to make more informed life choices,to  flourish and reach potential, when the messages bombarding them are squeezing them into ill-fitting, abusive moulds.  Even the voices coming out of some of the church are, in my opinion, in this same vein of stifling stereotypes and inappropriate expectations.  Women are to fulfil some 50s housewife image in order to succeed in what it means to be a ‘biblical women’ and to honour God. 

With the seeming revival of all things princess, one who tends to be a damsel-in-distress wanting desperately to be liberated by an assertive, directive man, I hold my head in my hands (metaphorically you understand – I tried to type in this position but it proved clumsy!).  I know bossy is one word.  I know I probably think a little too hard.  I know a messy quickie in the toilets is a bit of a leap from someone being called bossy, but I can see the links – views of women, roles of women, expectations of women.  It is not until people become more at ease with women being able to be decisive, offer direction and be assertive, that we will be able to see young women practicing being grown-up in a healthy and free way.  So I’m advocating the expulsion of ‘Little Miss Bossy’  and she can take that placid pappy princess with her!.

No more nails…

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!

Boobs, babies and sexualising role-play….

I have again very much neglected posting here so I’m trying hard to get back into some kind of blogging routine!

Being on maternity leave has given me a lot of time to peruse things on the internet that make me mad!  Here’s one:

An article in the Daily Mail focuses on the outcry that has arisen from the launch of a new doll being marketed for children that allows them to mimic breast-feeding.  There is a certain irony to this online article.  As I scroll down to read it I glance at the side bar which contains picture after picture of women with very little on, or being portrayed in ways I would say play to objectification.  Why is it then, that the thought of a child role-playing and imitating a perfectly natural human function (breast-feeding) is so utterly offensive, but the portrayal of women as little more than walking talking dolls perfectly acceptable?  How did we get to a point where breast-feeding is something to be squeamish about but breasts as provocative sexual objects perfectly normal? 

Why are boobs so offensive when used for feeding a baby?  Heaven forbid I satisfy my baby’s hunger with a breast rather than a bottle.  In a world where the sight of women in very little bombards us, it seems paradoxical that so many people can’t stomach the thought of boobs being used for feeding.  Where music videos shown throughout the day perpetuate this objectification of women – women as sexual objects – boobs are commodities to flaunt and ultimately purchase, the thought of a breast not being used in this context is obviously horrifying. 

I find it galling that the claim against this doll on sale is that it is sexualising children!  How is this sexualising children anymore than giving a pre-pubescent child a doll to play with? – yes a child cannot breast-feed, but a child cannot have a baby!  If a breast-feeding doll is ‘sexualising’, surely any doll is and should therefore be branded ‘totally inappropriate’.  Let’s ban dolls and let’s ban role-playing.  When my four year old daughter pretends to breast feed her doll (complete with the click of re-attaching the nursing bra!) I shall now be forced to reprimand her and condemn myself as if I had purchased her a padded bikini and miniature high-heels.  I shall now be forced to feed Eden in a small dark corner, out -of-sight, in case someone, somewhere catches a glimpse of my powerful sexualising mammary glands.

There is now, it seems, a hysteria around the ‘sexualisation of children’.  With the recent publication of Reg Bailey’s report on just this, and the proposals for tighter legislation and regulation for retailers and advertisers, the issue has taken centre-stage.  Now I am all for seeing less posters of boobs (!), being able to watch music videos with my children in the day and no longer seeing hideous clothing pitched at my daughter.  The reasons though that I find these things offensive are in the words of Symon Hills’ very helpful article for Ekklesia, “…not the sexualisation of childhood, but the commercialisation of sexuality,” (Symon Hill).  I object to women being portrayed as objects – to the dehumanisation of humans.  I object to the fact that my children grow up in a culture that sees sex as commodity and people as part of the package. ( I love Hannah Rudge’s critique for ‘Bitchbuzz’ on this stuff – much more articulate than mine!)

I worry that many Christians will jump on the band-wagon of some moral outrage to protect our children from the ‘big bad world out there’.  I worry that the highlighting of this issue of sexualisation will lead to more unhelpful sexual repression in churches, stifling healthy, whole, human development.  I long to see a world where people are respected as people and not objects, but also a world where sex and sexuality are not things to be sold, but to be celebrated as a part of what it is to be alive.

My boobs, I must declare, are no longer the shape or size they once were.  They would not be suitable to appear on page 3, or on the latest pop video. They are also not commodities to be sold, or objects that sexualise others. They are however beloved by my baby, who is very happy with them! 

Filthy Feminists taking our jobs…..

So David Willetts,  conservative minister for universities, has declared that feminism has robbed working class men of jobs and stifled social mobility.  I must admit reading his comments I have been convicted of my own heinous crimes in seeking an education, securing work, hoping to be a positive influence within my community and bringing up my children in partnership with my husband.  I now know that the young people I meet who are faced with a continued bleak future without work, debilitated by lack of prospects and left feeling hopeless, are in that position because I am a feminist.  I have inflicted this on them – I have robbed them of vocational opportunities, taken their study allowance, raised university fees, closed factories and taken the very jobs they aspired to have.  I have married above my station in marrying another earner and thus left the country with a legacy of non-earning households.  It is my beliefs, in terms of inequalities still encountered by women in salaries, prospects and work distribution (to name just a few), that have led to working class men trapped by social immobility. 

I must surrender now for the sake of these men – chomping at the bit for my jobs, ever so anxious to climb the social ladder to my dizzying heights of success.  I must stay at home now with my babies, wash more clothes, clean more floors, cook more meals and give up the fight for any kind of fairness.  Maybe our newest addition – Eden Lindsell Wells – 9lb 5 – 26 / 03 / 11 – will change me from raving feminist to 50s housewife overnight…………………………………….or maybe not.  David Willetts I think your social analysis lacks some depth.


My little girl is obsessed with bodies.  I blame her uncle, a nurse, who had for a long time, a skeleton poster on his wall.  Esme, at 3 1/2 knows more about anatomy than me.  So I was surprised when after nursery one day when we were playing gymnastics and I commented ‘You are very strong’, Esme replied ‘Girl’s don’t have muscles Mummy’.  Under further investigation it turns out one of her nursery friends, a boy, told her that girls do not have any muscles.   Needless to say we chatted about what her friend had said, and concluded that everyone needs muscles to move.

On reflection (maybe this is my pregnancy hormones taking charge) I was really frustrated that at not even 4 Esme has seen sexism firsthand.  I know, I know it’s quite harmless and is childhood banter.  She was unruffled, and being the girl she is I am sure she will set the record straight!  The incident left me wondering how on earth any change can ever happen in terms of gender equality when we are so steeped in it. 

Esme and I talk about girls and boys a lot.  She often asks me ‘why do you turn the boobie magazines around?’ following my ritualistic tour of the ‘men’s magazines’ section in the supermarket.  She informs me that the toys marketed at ‘boys’ on tv adverts are for ‘boys and girls Mummy’.  I try to affirm her in ways that don’t just relate to appearance (like being strong!).  She helps me take the ‘boys toys’ sign down in the shop.  And yet I know that in September, when she goes to school all this may be in vain.    And what about when she’s a teenager??!! 

I despair at how some of the young women I know and have worked with despite showing enormous potential, being articulate and emotionally intelligent, seem to just settle for boyfriends who hold these age-old sexist views.  The nursery ‘girls don’t have muscles’ surfaces its ugly head in the relationships of so many young women.  The teasing sexism that leads to the subtle control then the outright abuse and misogyny.  Clever girls, passively accepting because their boyfriend has a car, or buys her presents sometimes and only looks at porn occasionally.  Young women full of potential, giggling sillyly at sexist retorts in order to keep ‘her man’.  I want to shake them, shout at them ‘Girls take a stand, don’t settle:  show your muscles!’


Sometimes I genuinely find it hard to say I’m a Christian. 

I just read an article about wives submitting to their husbands.  One of the key points it made was that wives should submit to their husbands even if the decision the husband makes is against God’s will.  Women, it seems, have no self-responsibility, no brains, and no spiritual discernment.  I don’t understand it.  Did God make me just as a robot, capable of popping out babies, being a ‘homemaker’ and smiling sweetly as the clever men talk over my head?  

I work with young women many of whom are in relationships which have the ‘smell’ of domestic violence; controlling boyfriends, physical violence even sexual abuse.  In chatting and supporting women like this I constantly reiterate the need for them to think about themselves, to see themselves as more than someone’s girlfriend, see themselves as someone who isn’t just in the business of pleasing someone else.  And then I read this ‘Christian’ stuff.  Advocate all responsibility, blindly follow your partner, disconnect any relationship you have with God.  Is this something I can believe?  Is this what it means to be a Christian?

Nick (my husband) and I have never felt we needed to play the ‘headship’ game.  We have never, as yet, had to make a decision that we felt so differently about that he had to ‘lead me’.  We have been married for 8 years and together 13 years.  We have had a baby (and one on the way), moved house, taken numerous jobs, suffered loss, been on holiday, had fights but we have talked constantly, negotiated all the time, been pissed off, but always forgiven and had fun being with each other along the way.  Surely relationships are about balance and mutuality.  I submit to him as he submits to me as we submit to God. 

I know people argue that submission is not about value and worth but it is.  I know people argue it isn’t about power and corruption, but it is; how can it not be we’re human?  To blindly believe because someone has a penis he is more capable of decision making seems ludicrous…..unless brain power, mental prowress and sensibility are contained within a man’s member (I don’t think so).  To blindly believe that a man can be the ‘head’ without abusing power at points seems naive.  We have all been tainted by the fall, but reconciliation is part of salvation.  I believe a marriage that tries to establish reconciliation of gender and relationships is vital.  Maybe I am just a little off kilter….maybe I should shut up and submit!