See Jane become a teenager.
See Jane deal with her body.
See Jane struggle.
While adolescence has always been a time of physical (and all kinds of other) changes, the way teenage girls experience those changes is now, in fact, changing. As youth workers hustling to keep up with this shifting landscape, we are grateful for a recent batch of research that helps us keep pace and respond effectively to girls who look in the mirror and aren’t sure how to handle what they see. [[For more research on current trends among adolescent girls, see the article by Kara Powell and Brad Griffin entitled “New Twists on Not-So-New Issues For Girls” at http://fulleryouthinstitute.org/wp/2007/06/new-twists-on-not-so-new-issues-for-girls/. Also see an article on boys and body image by Matt Westbrook, http://fulleryouthinstitute.org/2005/06/new-challenges-for-our-boys/.]]
SEE JANE TRY 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. A 2007 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) 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 the boyfriend of their dreams, sexualization is linked to impaired cognitive performance, eating disorders, low self-esteem, and even physical health problems. [[American Psychological Association (APA) Report of the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, http://www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualizationrep.pdf, 2007, 3.]]
The Parent Trap. Over 77,000 invasive cosmetic surgical procedures are performed on teens each year. [[American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2005 cosmetic surgery age distributions 18 or younger, www.plasticsurgery.org/public_education/loader.cfm?url=/commonspot/security/getfile.cfm&PageID=17849, 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, parents pay for the surgery as well.
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 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.
How You Can Respond
Schedule a Girls-Only series of small groups and invite moms or female mentors also. While you’ll want to have the girls and women meet together much of the time, schedule a separate discussion with the moms and mentors about the messages they may be often unknowingly communicating to their girls when they make either negative or positive comments about their own bodies, as well as their daughters’.
Have a similar conversation with both male and female volunteers and small group leaders in your ministry, discussing the ways our own pursuit of physical perfection as adults shapes the attitudes and behaviors of the girls we work with. Talk honestly about the ways we might be contributing to girls’ confusion by gravitating either toward or away from girls who are wearing clothing that flaunts their bodies. With your female volunteers, role play having a conversation with a girl who is trying to be “more sexy” that sensitively asks her how she views her body as well as why she wears the clothing that she does.
Get middle school girls who are ready to think more deeply together and give them a notebook and some art supplies and let them create their own journals to help them reflect on the pressure to be more sexy. 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 middle school girls to journal and name forces like “pressure,” “image management,” and “sexualization,” we’re giving them lenses to interpret and process their experiences and feelings. Simply being able to identify and name their experiences can help young teenagers make sense out of what feels like chaos.
Help high school girls who are already pretty adept at making sense of that type of chaos (at least on their better days) learn to view their bodies in more reflective and sophisticated ways. Yes, your girls need to exercise and pay attention to nutrition, but it’s not so they can look better in their swimsuits this summer. It’s because God’s made our bodies and God wants to be honored in the way we treat them, and that means we integrate disciplines that help us stay healthy. Through honest discussions and our own self-disclosure, we can help our girls find a healthy middle ground between the two extremes of body obsession and body neglect.
SEE JANE PUSH HOW FAR IS TOO FAR
Just Say No Might Not Do It. First the good news: teenagers who take a virginity pledge delay sexual intercourse and have fewer sexual partners than those who do not. Now for the not-so-good news: the delay of first sexual intercourse is only about 21 months, with the average age being 18.8 for pledgers and 16.11 for non-pledgers. Approximately 75% of teens who make a promise to God, family, friends, future mate, and future children not to have sex before marriage DO NOT succeed in keeping that promise. [[R. Rector, K.A. Johnson, and J.A. Marshall, “Teens Who Make Virginity Pledges Have Substantially Improved Life Outcomes,” A report of the Heritage Center for Data Analysis. Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 2004.]] What’s worse, students who take a pledge are less likely to use a condom at first intercourse, and are more likely to engage in other sexual behaviors (i.e., oral sex, anal sex). [[H. Brukner and P. Bearman, “After the Promise: The STD Consequences of Adolescent Virginity Pledges. Journal of Adolescent Health, 36, 2005, 271-287. E.S. Lefkowitz, M.M. Gillen, C.L. Shearer, and T.L. Boone, “Religiosity, Sexual Behaviors, and Sexual Attitudes During Emerging Adulthood,” The Journal of Sex Research, 41, 2004, 150-159.]] This research suggests that our efforts to help girls “stay pure” might be too focused on avoiding specific behaviors and not focused enough on a deeper transformation of hearts and attitudes toward sexuality.
How You Can Respond
We’re not totally anti-abstinence pledge. But instead of using statistics or fear to get students to “just say no,” perhaps we should try giving students a vision for the benefits that happen when they “just say yes” to God’s desires. Remind students that their hormones are God-given and that God’s intention for them is nonetheless to abstain from sex until marriage. Couple a pledge with a more significant ritual related to abstinence on a retreat or at a special gathering. Involve moms and dads and invite them to think beyond a purity ring and instead give girls a camera so that they can see their purity through a new lens, or a pocket mirror inscribed with the words “God’s Image” to remind them each time they open it that their worth comes not from their sexuality but from God’s image residing in them. And rather than focusing our conversations on “how far is too far” (which rings empty to most of our kids anyway), maybe we can help to shape a new perception of female sexuality that helps girls integrate their sexuality with the rest of life (including their spirituality) so they can set wise boundaries with their bodies before they even enter romantic relationships.
SEE JANE PLAY. SEE JANE SIT.
The Couch Potato-ette. There’s mixed news about girls’ sports these days. While more girls than ever are playing organized sports, overall they are becoming less active and less healthy (yes, even those who play a sport). Outside of organized sports, girls seem to be literally sitting around a whole lot more than they used to. Girls lag behind boys in meeting age-appropriate healthy levels of physical activity, and they drop out of organized sports more often, especially as they transition from childhood to adolescence. [[“Developing Physically Active Girls: An Evidence-based Multidisciplinary Approach,” The 2007 Tucker Center Research Report, available online at http://cehd.umn.edu/TuckerCenter/projects/TCRR/executive-summary.html.]]
It’s True: Some Girls Do Throw Like Girls. Researchers studying the influence of body image on sports 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”. The good news is that adolescent girls on sports teams tend to have higher self-esteem, which improves body image. But sports can be a double-edged sword for girls, especially given that studies show that popular media still overwhelmingly sexualize women’s sports, focusing on women’s bodies rather than their athletic competence. [[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.]] One recent study found that a full 76 percent of teen girls had received sexist comments on their athletic abilities. [[Campbell Leaper and Christia Spears Brown, “Perceived Experiences with Sexism among Adolescent Girls,” Child Development (vol 79, issue 3, May/June 2008).]]
How You Can Respond
Give girls ways to appropriately express their physicality, even if they aren’t jocks. What messages are girls learning about their bodies by the sports or physical games involved in your youth ministry? Are these games targeted only to guys while girls sit on the sidelines and watch or cheer? How can you bring new twists to games so that differences in strength and athleticism are neutralized and the playing field is leveled? A girl who lacks confidence in her body or her athletic prowess and who chooses to sit on the sidelines during volleyball might dive in and play a modified volleyball game in which everyone plays on their knees, or you play with a balloon instead or a real ball. Experiment with minimizing the competition focus of games and elevating the focus on fun and relationship-building (which of course is good not just for girls, but for guys, too!).
Of course, girls will also be far more likely to get off the bleachers and into the game if your female adult volunteers understand the power of their own modeling. Every time your female leaders sit out, they are saying it’s not only permissible but preferred for girls to sit on the sidelines. Instead, involve your female leaders in planning the games, and when it’s time to play the game, hand over leadership to those same women so that girls see women not just playing, but taking initiative and enjoying it.
SEE JANE BUY…AND FEEL BAD ABOUT HERSELF
OK, it’s no shock that girls are a huge consumer market. But recent research shows another twist: teen materialism has been linked directly to self-esteem, especially among younger teens, and especially among girls. When self-esteem drops (particularly in early adolescence), materialism skyrockets. When self-esteem goes up, materialism drops-again, especially if it goes up in early adolescence. Unfortunately, self-esteem usually does not begin to rise again until later adolescence. [[Lan Nguyen Chaplin and Deborah Roedder John, “Growing up in a Material World: Age Differences in Materialism in Children and Adolescents,” Journal of Consumer Research Vol 34 (Dec 2007).]]
How You Can Respond
Give girls opportunities to increase their self-esteem by helping them identify and use their natural and spiritual gifts. Do girls experience themselves in your ministry and church as more than just a kitchen helper or a nursery worker? If not, brainstorm with your team until you develop a strategy for changing the perceptions and roles of young females across the spectrum of church ministry.
Teach girls how to advocate. A few years ago 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.]]
SEE JANE SOAR
While some of these new research findings are downright scary, the more time we spend with creative youth workers, the more hopeful we become. Let’s work together to see the Janes in our ministry love God with their hearts, their minds, their soulsand their bodies too.
- Which of the “Jane” characteristics do you see the most in the girls in your ministry? Which of the “response” ideas would have the most impact and help your girls truly soar?
- What (if any) are the common attitudes or behaviors of the girls in your ministry that are missing from the list? How have you tried to respond so far? What other ideas do you have based on this article?
This article also appears in the September/October edition of YouthWorker Journal.
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