Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Painted Little Princesses - A post about the sexualisation of young girls.

“A woman without paint is like food without salt.”

This quote, written by comedy playwright Titus Plautus sometime between 254-184 B.C, at first glance appears to be an archaic quip, unlikely to be at all relevant in our modern world. Written by a playwright whose work was overwhelmingly concerned with men sowing their wild oats, perhaps a bit of sexist, Roman “bantz” is to be expected, despite the fact that Shakespeare is said to have been heavily influenced by his work.  His point isn't terribly subtle; that a bare-faced woman without makeup was somehow incomplete, perhaps a bit bland and unappetising. There's also the crude comparison being made between women and food; women were a pleasure in life, existing only for the consumption and delectation of men, and therefore they had to be as palatable as possible. Still; good job we’re past all that nonsense nowadays, right?

Let's fast forward to July 2015. It’s the night of my daughter’s school “prom,”which marks the end of seven years of primary school.
I watch, transfixed, as a parade of “painted,” eleven year old girls are dropped off by their parents. Off the shoulder numbers, slinky cocktail dresses, tight sheathes and mini skirts. Bright red, scarlet coated lips, full mascara and eye liner. Hot pink blusher and lashings of bronzer. They look like contestants in a beauty pageant, all teetering about uncertainly on five inch heels, as if they are playing dress up with their mum’s clothes.

It breaks my heart.

Because here it begins.  A life time of preening before mirrors and decorating themselves.  A lifetime of hairspray and leg waxing and lip gloss.  A lifetime of squeezing into tight clothes and even tighter shoes; that leave blisters and make the balls of the feet ache to high Hell.  A lifetime of slavish devotion at the altar of beauty, that shouldn't begin at all, not really. It certainly shouldn't begin at the tender age of eleven.

If you're reading this and thinking “oh Lord, here's another angry, joyless, fun-spoiling feminist, on a crusade to make everyone plain and wear comfortable shoes,” then you're wrong (well, partly.) While it does disturb me that such young girls feel the need to make themselves up like this, it's actually the glaring inequality of it that worries me the most.

A quick glance at the boys who attended the prom, told me that already the lives of these children are desperately unequal.  The boys were to be found sporting artlessly mussed hairstyles or tidy shaved crops.  Comfortable, lace up shoes. Loose fitting, cool cotton shirts and baggy slacks.  In their outfits they had the freedom to run around madly on the dance floor, chase one another, or flop down onto the ground or onto a chair, legs relaxingly stretched out in front of them.

Meanwhile, the girls hugged their bodies with their arms, sat carefully and gingerly so as not to ruffle dresses, hitch up skirts or accidentally expose themselves.  There was no running in five inch stacked heels or wedge sandals. Movements were careful, deliberate and contained. The inequality of movement was very evident, and it's the saddest thing I've seen in a long time.

Did those little girls (because they are little girls, for all that they ape womanhood) enjoy dressing up for their prom? Of course they did. So did my own little girl. I have no desire to deprive her of the transformational fun to be had in experimenting with make-up. As children grow and approach puberty a disturbing dynamic develops, as evidenced by the marked difference in the appearance of this particular bunch of eleven year old boys and girls. These children are social media savvy; they're no stranger to Instagram or Snapchat. Virtually anything can be accessed via their mobile phones, and if your child doesn't have one, you can bet that their friend does.

 This leaves them open, and extremely vulnerable, to viewing the kinds of things that we probably didn't see until we were well into our teens.  For girls, this often manifests itself by a desire to appear sexually attractive, long before they've even worked out what exactly that means.  Pouting selfies, complete with hand on hip and nonchalant head-toss are very much de rigueur – I know, I've taken a look at some of their public Instagram accounts. Their lives seem to revolve around seeking the approval of the boys, regardless of how deserving said boys are; the need for validation from them is so entrenched that I'm not sure they even realise they're doing it.  Meanwhile, the boys couldn't care less; they continue playing mine craft and football, lapping up the attention and treating the girls with careless indifference.

Young girls are taught that this state of affairs is, for them, empowering. That to pout suggestively into your mobile phone is somehow a feminist expression, as long as you do it confidently – confidence is empowering, girls! But how can something which is restrictive of movement, time, and money be empowering? Surely being restricted – in more ways than one – is the very definition of an absence of power.

I don't doubt that looking sexy and attractive can feel empowering. The approval, the rush of compliments, the attention, can feel very much like power.  This is an illusion.  For starters, the very definition of sexy in our world means something very specific; prominent breasts, slim figure, hairless skin, long hair, wide eyes and long lashes, full lips, perfectly straight and impossibly white teeth.  This is the image of womanhood that we see most commonly in pornography and men's magazines.  This is the image that is found desirous by men; and by men I mean white, rich men, for
they are the ones who are the driving force behind the porn and media industries.  It is their vision of
womanhood that holds sway and to that we must all aspire.

To hell with you if you're not slim enough.  Or too old.  Or have skin too dark or too pale. Or you're not Caucasian.  Or you're hairy.  Or your breasts are too small.  Or your teeth are crooked. Or your nose is too big. In short, most of us.  And if you fit the mould now, hang fire; one day you won't, because you're not going to stay young forever.

Power that is dependant on your waist size remaining less than 25 inches, requires you to rip out your body hair at the roots, and necessitates you resembling Dorian Grey, doesn't really sound like power to me.  If your power is dependant upon the approval and vagaries of men;  rich, white men mind, then it's not really power at all.

Criticism of this unbelievably sexist framework, invariably results in accusations of jealousy, that go along the lines of this:

“You're just saying that because you wished you look like her.  You're saying that because you're old/fat/old/bitter.” The whole conversation is stacked against women. Let's pit us  against one another and do you know who benefits? It's not women.  It's never women. This is patriarchy in action, and we all collude in it, because to go against it is an uphill struggle.

Perhaps a disproportionate number of radical feminists are older, or  have short hair, or unshaven legs, or actually, more likely, just don't give a damn about being seen as attractive or not. Do you think this is because we’re jealous, embittered harridans? Or is it merely because we’ve suffered more under patriarchy because we don't conform, and thus are well versed in the damage it does to women? Or maybe we’re just tired of conforming to a pointless and inevitably unattainable standard of beauty that appeals largely to men, and have wisely ditched the razor blades, tweezers and stiletto heels? Or maybe, we actually do conform to patriarchy’s idea of womanhood, but resist the urge to objectify ourselves because we actually have at least a modicum of understanding of structural oppression and see how sexualising ourselves is a huge part of this.

The standard of beauty expected of young girls and women is increasingly high. The spread in usage of beauty treatments, nail bars, etc has rocketed in the past fifteen years. To shun this, and to attempt to plough a different furrow, is a really hard ask, particularly for girls who are still years away from adulthood. At a time when feminism is apparently a mainstream concept in the West, and liberation for women ought to be a reality, why have the acceptable parameters for womanhood shrunk to such narrow margins? Why are women more universally sexualised than ever before? Something is amiss.

So let's stop conflating feminism with heavily stacked, so-called choices, and instead start talking about how we can equip our young girls to see themselves as more than a heavily filtered, pouting image on Instagram. Let’s give our young girls the tools and the courage to live life outside of the male gaze; beyond a consideration of how male centric preferences may impact upon them. Let’s start questioning – wholesale – our vision of womanhood and female sexuality, and above all else, can we please stop naming it empowerment. Your empowerment is my sexual objectification, and it's hurting my little girl.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Who is our God? A post for Lent.

“Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” Philippians 3:19.

John Pritchard writes in The life and work of a Priest, that as the head of a sunflower stays turned towards the sun, so we ought to keep our hearts and minds always fixed upon God.
Today is Ash Wednesday, and as I sit here, my forehead recently smeared with oily ash, I’m pondering how much this is true of me. The question I want to ask of myself this Lent is: What do I keep my attention fixed upon most often? What dominates my thoughts and my desires? What are my priorities? What do I care too much for that it's stopping me from lifting my head up and keeping my eyes fixed upon God? Which makes me want to ask the question: who or what is my God?

Who is our God?

Is our iPad our God? Our tablet, or our mobile phone? Does it claim our attention in the evenings; something we disappear into, and zone out, so we don't interact with the people around us? How often do we check it? Are the “push notifications” which buzz and ping perhaps drowning out the quiet, whispering voice of God?

Is food our God? Is it more to us than just sustenance and fuel? Food is, of course, a pleasure and meant to be enjoyed, but has overindulgence become a habit? Has the mentality of “treating yourself” and “deserving it” become a well-worn mantra; over used, and over-done. Do we eat to fill a void inside us that God ought to be filling? Or do we deny ourselves food in an attempt to wrestle back control of a body that we sometimes feel powerless over? Is denying ourselves food the only thing we can control, in a world where we feel out of control, and disempowered, and ignored?

Is coffee our God? Can't get up in the morning without having it, right? Can't do without it.
What about chocolate? Or wine? Are Friday nights just not worth living through if we can't kick back and relax, without a glass of Shiraz or Chardonnay, or whatever our poison is?

Is the gym our God? Do we live for the adrenaline rush that only comes after we’ve done 10k on the treadmill, or 50 lengths of the pool? Do we need the addictive endorphin rush that comes from knowing we’ve smashed our personal best, or we’ve beaten our latest target. Is winning our God?

Is work our God? Do we live to work, rather than working to live, despite that this keeps us out of the house and away from our  family. Or are we  just addicted to being busy, all the time, and are unable to just sit still, and be?

Is our mirror our God? Are we obsessed by our own image, and scrutinise it incessantly for any flaw? Do we take – and re-take – endless selfies, which we painstakingly apply the most flattering filter to, in order to upload onto our social media so we can bask in the number of “likes” that we get? Is our own image our God?

Take a quick leaf through the Old Testament, and you'll quickly learn that nothing ticks off God more than His people worshipping false idols. We might not be burning children, or engaging in orgies (well, not all of us) but I'm certain that our modern preoccupations with worshipping ourselves, celebrities, and the all-mighty dollar, aren't going to impress Him either.

Give it up. Give it all up. Give up trying to be in control and let God take the wheel for once. Give up all those things – all that stuff – that you think you need and that you consider essential for your daily happiness. Strip back the over-reliance on the iPad, or the caffeine, or whatever you rely on to get through the day. Make yourself vulnerable, and allow yourself to rely on God instead. When you deliberately punch holes in your daily life, in your routine or your habits, then you create space for God to move in.

From dust we came, and to dust we shall return. Repent of sin, and turn towards Christ.”

Sin encompasses those things which separate us from God; in fact, you could argue that this is the very definition of sin. During this Lenten-tide I'm going to give up my over reliance on comfort and all the many crutches that I think I depend on. I'm going to allow that hollow place deep within me to remain empty for once, rather than stuffing food into it, or endless cups of coffee, or whatever I do in order to fill it, and I'm going to allow God to address it instead. It is a God-shaped space, after all.
And like the sunflower following the light of the sun, I will turn towards Christ.

Friday, 6 January 2017

A post-Christmas post on Epiphany

We have a Nativity set which I bought from Chester cathedral a few years ago. When we put our Christmas decorations up at the beginning of December, we place our nativity characters inside the wooden stable that my dad made; Mary and Joseph either side of the tiny manger, a lone shepherd with one sheep, and an angel. Our three kings, we place in another room. This year they were on the bookcase in our dining room, and every few days they slowly processed across the room, into the living room, upon the fireplace, and finally, today, they arrived at the stable, because today it is Epiphany.

Now, there's so much wrong with this whole set-up, that I don't even know where to begin, and that's not even mentioning the fact that our beautiful ceramic Nativity characters are all wearing cable knit-wear. Just for starters, as my eight year old pointed out, why is the shepherd there before Christmas Day? Or the Angel? Or indeed, any of them? In short, why keep the Kings (or wise men, or Magi, or whoever) from the party until January 6th when the whole thing is out of sync anyway, chronologically inaccurate, and largely arbitrary?

I don't have a good, logical reason, except that I like Epiphany. Here's why:

The business of Christmas is finally over; there's nothing left in the tub of Celebrations other than bounties and empty wrappers (if your family are complete monsters of course), you're starting to crave vegetables and salad, someone has callously shrunk your best jeans, and the only exercise you've had in twelve days is the upper body workout of cramming (unsuccessfully) a mountain of cardboard and wrapping paper into the recycling bin.

You're back at work. The kids are (probably) back at school. There is a cold, dead, empty space in your living room where your brightly lit tree once stood, and everything looks as bare and as lifeless as the naked trees outside. Normal programming has resumed on the telly; and honestly, there's nothing festive whatsoever about Homes under the Hammer, not when you could be watching a kids’ movie, or something to do with food, or anything other than regular daytime television. Advertising, which a short while ago was encouraging us to gorge and splurge and spend, is now telling us that we’re fat, debt ridden, missing out on endless bargains, and we probably need to buy a sofa. Again.

Lord, it is so depressing. No more lounging about, forgetting what day of the week it is, while you punctuate every trip to the kitchen by sticking your hand into an open box of chocolates, and when you answer every food or drink related query with “oh heck, why not. It’s Christmas.”

Now it's January, and it's not so much comfort and joy, as discomfort and despair. And you know it's right to keep these things in perspective, and remember those people who are really suffering right now, and wham: along comes guilt to add to the misery cocktail, and it's all just grim beyond belief.

Now is when you need an epiphany – a moment of sudden realisation.  You see, all those lights which
marked the Christmas season weren't just there to make it look pretty. They were there to remind us all that light is the essence of Christ – He illuminates dark places, and no amount of darkness can extinguish Him.

No amount of darkness.

Not the darkness of January, brown and sloppy though it may be. Nope, not even on those days when it rains non-stop, and there is mud everywhere. Not on those days when merriment is a distant memory, over-indulgence a thing of the past, and self-denial and deprivation are the order of the day. Not on those days when here, in the Northern hemisphere, the days are still so short, and the darkness feels thick and all encompassing.
Not the darkness of Aleppo. Or Damascus. Or Baghdad. Or any of those dark, dark places, where it must feel like there isn't even the tiniest chink of light anymore.

I have hope that there is light, because God is with us; Emmanuel has come. We live in post-Christmas times.

Those three little kings on my living room side-board bear cable-knitted, sparkly testament to the knowledge Jesus is the light of the world; He came to bring light to the gentiles; to all of us. Those ancient magi travelled far to find Him, then they didn't quite know where to look. They probably didn't expect to find Him in such humble circumstances:
He was a child.
He was poor.
He wasn't powerful, or imposing, or bedecked in jewels and fine robes.
He wasn't remotely Kingly.
And yet, the magi (well, they were reportedly rather wise) knew Him and recognised His majesty.

So we know that light shines in unexpected places; it doesn't always look like we think it might. It might look like the very opposite of what we think it should. We might even mistake it for the dark.

Cling on friends. Cling on. Look for light and nurture it, like a hand around a flailing lighter flame, on a windy day. Look in unexpected places. And keep looking, for the darkness cannot overwhelm it. It really can't.

In place of the gaping wound that our Christmas tree left, we replace it on January 6th with our Epiphi-tree* - a bundle of branches collected from the woods, decorated with glitter, and placed into a slim vase along with some pebbles for ballast. We adorn it with shiny ornaments, and more kings. There's even a camel. It marks the season and it makes the demise of Christmas just that little bit easier to bear.

It reminds us to look for Jesus, in everything we do. It reminds us to keep the light of Christmastide shining all the year through. It also reminds me that I still have a few Roses chocolates left, so I better get cracking on them. Well…it is January after all.

*I would dearly love to take the credit for this term, but that honour must go to Homer Simpson.