It was a normal Monday night at Girls’ Brigade. The young women were sitting around chatting and laughing. Beauty and celebrity magazines appeared from their bags and soon the air was filled with chatter about who was wearing what and which celebrity was dating who.
‘What’s the message that you receive about what it means to be a girl from reading that magazine?’, I asked
The girls wrote down some thoughts on pieces of paper. ‘I’m not thin enough’ wrote one. ‘I’m not rich enough’ was another answer.
I wasn’t surprised by these responses but the words on one particular slip of paper hit me like a sucker punch: ‘I am not enough.’
Those four words still resonate with me. Too many girls still believe that they’re not enough. Our culture is full of identity thieves who are bombarding young people, particularly girls, with paradoxical messages that subvert their God identity; that they’re the image-bearers of God with unchanging value and worth.
100 years ago, the greatest force of socialisation was the family, church and school. But today, the media is a major force in shaping and forming the culture in which we live, work and breathe. Here are 3 messages about what it means to be a girl that are being communicated in popular culture today:
1. Be a living doll
In Living Dolls Natasha Walters argues: ‘Living a doll’s life seems to have become an aspiration for many young women, as they leave childhood behind only to embark on a process of grooming, dieting and shopping that aims to achieve the bleached, waxed, tinted look of a Barbie doll.’ This image of the doll is very apt; dolls don’t talk and don’t have a voice. Dolls are manipulated to do what the owner wants to do with it.
From a very young age, the toxic mix of consumerism and liberal capitalism teaches girls that their bodies are projects to be improved upon. Dr Steve Bidduplh, psychologist and author of Raising Girls argues: ‘Today's advertising actively creates anxieties. This amounts to nothing less than a war on girlhood... Every aspect of a girl's appearance now presents an opportunity to fail.’
A significant number of companies are making a lot of money out of creating a self-hating generation of girls by selling them false images of perfection which are unattainable. Girls are taught that their physical appearances are never, ever good enough.
2. The sexy lie
Linked in with the pressure to be a ‘living doll’ is society’s manipulation to get women to invest in what Dr Caroline Heldman describes in her fantastic TED talk as ‘the sexy lie’.
Sexual objectification is the process of representing or treating a person like a sex object or a commodity - one that serves another’s sexual pleasure – while completely ignoring their personality, talents and giftings. Although men can be sexually objectified (Diet Coke advert anyone?), our media culture mainly chooses to use women’s sexualised bodies to sell products which have no natural link to sex like crisps, fizzy drinks and even cars.
This objectification culture is marketed to be empowering for women. But the truth is it’s fundamentally disempowering for everyone concerned. A subject acts but objects are always acted upon. There is no power in being a sex object – it will always be a less equal and more passive position.
The sexual objectification culture in music, TV and films encourages girls and women to self-objectify themselves. Girls learn to think and treat their bodies as objects to be made pleasing to onlookers. Magazines encourage women to scrutinize their own bodies and make harsh critiques of themselves and other women’s physical appearance. The creation of a culture which reduces women to a collection of body parts is unfair, unjust and not what God intended.
3. Relationships are disposable
Seven years ago, I stopped reading celebrity magazines. I became sick and tired of hearing about the love life of Katie Price and other celebrities! In our culture, relationships are just another disposable thing.
Consumerism tricks us into believing that our human desires for happiness can be fulfilled by consuming and acquiring things – bigger houses, better cars etc. When an object is no longer considered worthy, it’s disposed of. The consumerist pull of our society is also affecting our relationships. Jonathan Grant in Divine Sex explains, ‘Sexuality has fallen prey to consumerism’s scheduled obsolescence which thrives on short-term commitments and favours transient human relationships. Consumerism trains us to acquire, consume and move on, with novelty as our guiding impulse.’
Sadly, our culture teaches young people to be consumers of everything, including sexual intimacy.
Challenging the status quo
We at Girls’ Brigade Ministries believe it’s time for a new hope-filled narrative for girls. I’ve met young women in the UK, Ireland and across the world who are challenging the status quo. Despite the culture surrounding them, girls are refusing to be limited and demonstrating that they are, in fact, limitless. Girls are generation-shapers, hope-bringers and transformers of culture.
And we, as a Church, can also help empower a generation of girls to rise in gospel hope. Tomorrow on International Women’s Day, GB Ministries is launching a UK Girl conversation to shine a spotlight on the issue of girls, faith and culture. You can join in here.
Dr Claire Rush is Participation & Advocacy Co-ordinator for The Girls’ Brigade England & Wales. She will be blogging here next Monday on how the Church can turn up the volume of hope for girls.