New twists on not-so-new issues for girls

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“You throw like a girl.”

It turns out that there’s a new twist to this not-so-new accusation. According to recent research, it’s not a physical or anatomical difference that makes some girls throw less skillfully. It’s something far deeper.

Researchers studying the influence of self-objectification, meaning the tendency to view our own bodies as “objects,” have found that the way a girl feels about her body predicts how she’ll throw a softball. If she has learned that her body is an object and she needs to be concerned about her appearance at all times, she is far more likely to “throw like a girl.” [B.L. Fredrickson & K. Harrison, “Throwing like a girl: Self-objectification predicts adolescent girls’ motor performance,” Journal of Sport and Social Issues (vol 29, 2005) 79-101.]

Most of us probably don’t include softball throwing in our list of youth ministry goals. But if it’s true that the way girls feel about their bodies affects the way they toss a ball, then it’s all the more true that the way they feel about their bodies impacts the way they view the One who created them in his image. As youth workers who seek to create space for this Holy One to work, recent research and media reports can help us respond to three “mores” that bring new twists to not-so-new issues for our girls.

More sexy

While you’ve probably heard of—and witnessed yourself—girls who unfortunately develop their sense of value from their sex appeal, a 2007 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) spells out new twists and turns for girls trying to be “more sexy.”

The damage done. Those of us who care about girls have intuitively sensed that the pressure to be “sexy” damages the way they view themselves and others. The APA report spells out the destruction more explicitly. Whether it’s a five year-old girl walking through a shopping mall in a short T-shirt that says “Juicy”, or a magazine article that virtually promises teenage girls that losing 10 pounds will get them a boyfriend, or even a high school girls’ volleyball coach who emphasizes players’ sex appeal to draw bigger crowds, such sexualization is linked to impaired cognitive performance, eating disorders, low self-esteem, and even physical health problems. 1 This sexualization starts early. While writing this article, we witnessed a preschool concert in which two-year-olds danced onstage to “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” The APA task force on the sexualization of girls suggests that perhaps we should question more often whether these kinds of messages are really “harmless” to our girls.

The parent trap. Over 77,000 invasive surgical procedures were performed on teens 18 and younger in 2005, representing a 15% increase since 2000. [American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2005 cosmetic surgery age distributions 18 or younger, cited in APA Report, 16.] While that in and of itself is shocking, consider this: minors cannot undergo these surgeries unless their parents consent. In most cases, since these procedures are not covered by medical insurance, the parents pay for the surgery as well. [APA Report, 16.]

Mom/girl competition. Much attention has been placed on the messages that the media sends to young girls about their bodies, and rightly so. But what about the messages from mom? Youth workers are noticing that more and more moms seem to be competing with their teenage daughters for the perfect body, and wearing the clothes that show off their efforts. Girls are struggling to keep up. With bodies that change faster than they can handle, and certainly more unpredictably than their mothers’, adolescent girls may find themselves in a losing race with their moms to be more sexy.

More pressure

Many girls who grow up hearing that they can do anything a boy can do try to do all things that boys—or girls for that matter—can do. As a result, a new high school hero has emerged: the Supergirl. The Supergirl does it all: varsity sports, student government, theater, community service, and oh yea, youth group too. The result? A new pressure cooker that combines the search for self with the search for the perfect resume. [Sara Rimer, “For Girls, It’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too,” The New York Times, April 1, 2007.]

Look like you’re not trying. Being a Supergirl may be exhausting, but those who don the cape aren’t supposed to look like they are trying. Trying too hard is…well…trying too hard. A real Supergirl can juggle the demands of multiple activities and Honor Roll without breaking a sweat…unless she’s out on the volleyball court, that is. Not only is she not supposed to be trying, but remember, she’s also still supposed to be “more sexy.” As one high school girl who had achieved a perfect S.A.T. score of 2400 wrote in an email message, “It’s out of style to admit it, but it is more important to be hot than smart.” What kind of hot? The email continues, “Effortlessly hot.” 2 It seems that the real Supergirl pressure cooker recipe is something like smart-and-athletic-but-still-sexy-without-trying.

This stress is wearing on adolescent girls. Numerous studies point to the increase in anxiety caused by cultural portrayals of “ideal” sexual attractiveness—specifically appearance anxiety, but also shame, self-objectification, low self-esteem, and higher rates of depression among adolescent girls. [APA Report, 23-24.]

More violence

Getting physical. In fact, the new Supergirl has another “more” to her credit: she’s more violent. This rise in violence can in part be correlated with a rise in overall physical assertion. Of course, girls have always been physical, but the last few years have seen a dramatic increase in the physical exertion and aggression of teen girls.

James Garbarino, guru of high-risk adolescence and especially violence among boys, recently released a book on the phenomena of increased physical aggression among girls in America entitled See Jane Hit: Why Girls are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It. [James Garbarino, See Jane Hit: Why Girls are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006).] Garbarino cites a number of studies that document this increase and shed some light on what’s happening among adolescent girls.

Of self-concept, soccer, and slugging. This “new” physicality can in part be attributed to cultural shifts in attitudes towards women’s bodies, social standing and participation, sports, and, well, “girl power”. In a dramatic shift from even 20 years ago, girls are learning that their bodies are physically powerful in ways that are not just sexual. Sports marketers have helped to carry this trend (Nike’s girls’ sports campaign is one example), though often sexual objectification is still a theme of the media coverage of female sports across the board. [APA Report, 9, 37.]

Alongside the immensely positive impact of some of these trends (girls can play dang good soccer, after all) come a few unwanted side effects. Some alarming trends bring new attention to this increase in physical assertion:

  • A rise in school violence and overall arrests among girls. Twenty-five years ago for every ten boys arrested for assault there was one girl; now it’s 4:1.
  • Across the U.S. and Canada, criminal violence overall for girls is increasing. [Interestingly, this is BOTH because violence and arrests among boys are going down AND because violence and arrests among girls are going up. See James Garbarino, See Jane Hit,3-4, 9.]

A rise in negative sports aggression, violence, and intense competition at increasingly younger ages. Selective traveling sports teams begin in early elementary school for girls. Violence on the field is now not only accepted, but expected and even promoted by some parents, whose own modeling at sports events leaves the door wide open for girls to follow suit.

Garbarino warns that without positive social and cultural “anchors” like the Church, girls’ aggression will inevitably lead to destructive violence. [James Garbarino, See Jane Hit,18.] Garbarino also points to strengthening families and increasing developmental assets available to girls as strategies for helping channel the physical exertion and aggression rising among adolescent girls.

Youth worker implications and action points

Just for girls

At the Fuller Youth Institute, we hear regularly from youth workers determined to shelter girls from the downpour of more sexy, more pressure, and more violence. Here are some of the best ideas we’ve developed or come across:

  • Schedule a Girls-Only series of small groups or a Girls-Only weekend retreat to talk to your girls about the new pressures they are experiencing. Once our ministry picked up a small group of girls from their high school in a limousine and drove them around town as a way to introduce a weekend centered on their identity as “princesses” of God, helping them think through the various cultural pressures competing to define who they are. While the limo was borrowed from a local funeral home in a low-budget attempt at celebrity, it was a great launching-point for discussions on what makes girls feel important and valued. For a couple of those girls, that weekend initiated a pursuit of authentic identity that continues five years later.
  • Get girls together and give them a notebook and some art supplies and let them create their own journals to help them reflect on the pressures discussed in this article, as well as others they want to write about. After a few weeks or months, have a check-in lunch and ask them to look back through their journals, identifying common words and themes that they can discuss together. By teaching girls to journal and name forces like “pressure,” “image management,” and “sexualization,” we are giving them lenses they can use to interpret and process their experiences and feelings. Simply being able to identify and name their experiences can help girls make sense out of what feels like chaos.
  • Give girls rubber bands and ask them to write down areas in which they are feeling stretched like a rubber band. While some of the stretching they are experiencing might be positive in that it helps them to grow and learn, odds are good that your girls will also be able to name ways that they are being hurt by being too stretched. Ask them to share their list with a mentor (small group leader, parent, friend’s parent, or relative) who is praying for them and who can ask them about those pressures every few weeks. You might encourage girls to carry their rubber band in their purse or on their keychain as a reminder that everyone has a limit of how far they can be stretched, and that they need to let someone know when they feel like they might be reaching their limit.
  • Schedule a girls-only movie night, complete with comfortable pillows and lots of snacks. Select a movie that depicts the pressures your girls face, and then healthy and/or unhealthy responses to those pressures. Make sure you schedule at least 45 minutes after the movie is over to debrief with your girls so they have a chance to share their thoughts and feelings.
  • Give girls periodic opportunities to express the “mores” they are experiencing in the context of prayer. Consider developing a girls-only prayer room or a girls-only prayer corner in your youth room where girls can post their own prayers or create something tangible that represents what they’d like to express to God. (Of course, in the spirit of equal opportunity, we also encourage you to develop a “guys-only” prayer corner.)
  • Consider developing a rite of passage for girls that confers the identity of “daughter of God” upon them. Consider giving girls mirrors and some fingernail polish and have them paint the words “God’s image” on the mirror as a daily reminder of the source of their image and identity.
  • Have an honest discussion about modesty with your girls by asking questions like: How would you define “modesty?” When you think of modesty, what images come to mind? What do you do about modesty when stores seem to sell only super-short and super-tight everything? As a group, brainstorm simple ways that girls can begin to develop a healthy sense of modesty that avoids legalism and yet recognizes the sacredness of their sexuality.
  • Give girls ways to appropriately express their physicality. Evaluate the assumptions your ministry makes about sports or other physically-involved games—do you target these only to guys while girls sit on the sidelines and watch or cheer? What does that communicate to the girls in your ministry?
  • How can you give more opportunities for girls to experience themselves in ministry as more than just a pretty face, a pressured leader, or a nursery worker? Wrestle as a team with ways to develop whole-person ministries to young women.

Influencing the influencers

Of course, focusing only on the girls in front of us can feel a bit like holding up an umbrella to a tidal wave. You can stop a bit of the downpour, but the boat may still capsize.

As youth workers, our best strategy combines the above chances to influence girls directly with our unique opportunity to influence those who influence girls. After all, we can make our experience with girls meaningful while we’re with them for a few hours each week, but girls live within systems and relationships that affect them 24/7. By experimenting with the ideas below, you might not only raise up a team of umbrellas, but surround girls with a community of people who can help them develop their own raingear.

  • Discuss this article with your female adult leaders, asking them to share examples of the three “mores” in their own girls.
  • If you allow your girls the opportunity to express these new twists to old pressures through poems, collages, songs, or paintings, give them the chance to present their art not just to each other, but also to the guys in your ministry. Ask the guys to share what they were thinking as the girls shared their artwork, and brainstorm together how your ministry can be a safe haven for both genders.
  • At your next parents meeting, divide the parents based on the gender of their children and let the parents of girls chew on some of these findings. Consider asking both a mother and a father to co-lead a discussion that helps parents wrestle with: What healthy and unhealthy messages about girls did I absorb while I was growing up? How am I passing on these messages to my daughter? What would I like to do differently?
  • Partner with the person in charge of Adult Education or Women’s Ministry at your church to host an event for girls and their moms, as well as other caring female mentors, to talk about how they may be unknowingly sending damaging message to their girls. Give plenty of time for girls to share their stories, as well as for adult women to share how those stories have impacted how they think about both themselves and the girls they care about.
  • Talk to parents about how they can advocate for girls within the school system. Maybe even gather a few parents to talk with school administrators about ways that issues of girl violence, pressure, and sexualization are currently being addressed in schools. What kinds of messages are being sent to girls by the way issues are—or are not—handled? How could parents, administrators, teachers and coaches work together to improve what’s happening with girls?
  • Teach girls how to advocate as well. In 2005 a group of 13-16 year old girls was able to convince Abercrombie and Fitch to pull a line of T-shirts boasting slogans such as, “Who needs brains when you have these?” across the chest. Their “girlcot” is only one of a number of successful examples of girls advocating for the reduction of cultural sexualization of women. [APA Report, 41.] In a similar vein, other young women are beginning to fight against sex slavery and sexual exploitation of girls and women around the world.

As youth workers, and as parents of girls (between us we parent four of them!), we long for the day when the phrase, “You throw like a girl,” isn’t a critique but is actually a compliment. As these new twists make clear, we have a long way to go. Yet as the New Testament also makes clear, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have brought about a New Creation reality that brings hope and healing for our girls as much as anyone else. This is the primary “more” we have to offer them, and it trumps by far the “mores” of our culture. Part of the joy of ministry for us all will be watching young women discover their identity in Christ and boldly living out that identity as they press through the “mores” around them.


 

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Footnotes
  • 1. ^ American Psychological Association (APA) Report of the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, http://www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualizationrep.pdf, 2007, 3. (1 instances in the document)
  • 2. ^ Sara Rimer, “For Girls, It’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too,” The New York Times, April 1, 2007. (1 instances in the document)