Every Single Sense

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Last week our Theory Capital T class did something a little different.

I arrived to class after a full afternoon and subsequent night of being sick. TMI? Well, it’s important to a story about senses. My body felt soft. Not in a tactile way, but in a feeling way. I felt soft, and slow, and like I was approaching the world a little gentler than normal. I felt like my body and I were in conversations – in negotiation – and all other interactions were secondary, superfluous.

And then, arriving, I remembered that this class period was to be different than most. Led by three graduate students, we were going to experience a workshop intended to trouble our definitions of the senses – what they are, how many we have, and what we can do with them.

We are taught, very early, about the Five Senses. Once we’ve mastered those tricky body part names, we start to learn their functions. Mom or Dad point to their eyes, these are for seeing; point to their ears, these are for hearing; wiggle their fingers, these are for touch; they stick out their tongue, and so do we, and this is for tasting; and they beep our noses… and this is for smelling! And it’s fun, and we giggle, and so we have learned our Senses.

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Any six year old can tell you what the senses are, and with glee.


And then, later in life, when we are in the grocery store and can feel the angry heat of the customer in front of us, we don’t know how to say exactly how we have sensed this. When we are at a concert, and the music seems to mold into the curves of our longing, the words ‘and ears are for hearing’ sound tartly insufficient. When we feel nostalgia at ancient ruins along the side of a Southwest river; when flashes of color fill our brain
as we meet a new person; when the combination of the weight of a pen with its satisfying and repetitive click can sooth us. When we step onto the edge of a cliff, or arrive at the top of a mountain, or have travelled deep into a canyon, and can feel the weight, and the grief, and the fullness of the world.

Our words are limited. The senses are limited. IMG_3232


Our vocabulary has stunted us.


 

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Words are only good insofar as they connect humans. That is the point of language, for me, right now. We go through life, experiencing, and then have a desire to share that experience with someone else. And so we invent words that will describe. And yet, in defining very real ways that we experience the world, we have silenced, negated, erased, other just as real methods of experience. Which is the exact opposite of connecting – it’s isolating.

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The problem is, once we have those words to describe, we are limited to those words that describe. And we are thusly limited in what we perceive to be our experiences. Our words shape our experience.


Our words shape our experience.


If you want to understand a culture, study their untranslatable words. What experiences are so common in another part of the world that they would develop a word for it, that somehow no other language’s culture has adopted? Words that describe the hesitation you have when you’ve forgotten someone’s name, tartle (Scottish); tenderly running one’s fingers through another’s hair, cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese); or the road-like path that the moon makes with its reflection on water, mangata (Swedish). 

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And so, with senses. We have our five words. And yet, we have so many experiences that we take into our bodies, minds, and emotional beings using senses beyond these five. But we have no words for those. And so… do we even have those experiences? Or, when we do, how do we talk about them? How do we express what we have just experienced?

And this is why art and music and movement are so powerful. Because they go outside the bounds of words, and beyond the reaches of linguistic definitions. With paint, or notes, or sport, we can reach across borders and between cultures. We can evade the limiting construct that is our language.

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So, of course.. all of these posts (and all of our conversations) must inevitably circle back to So What? So who cares what a bunch of adults did in a university campus building on a Monday morning in November? Who cares about the – albeit interesting – idea that our language is limiting, that there are likely more words needed to describe the human experience? How does that relate to the way they – or anybody – works with kids?

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Well.

I don’t know yet. I suppose it has something to do with acknowledging that the world is bigger than the words we have created allow us to describe it. I suppose it has to do with understanding that we are all of us sensing much more than we can tell, literally. I suppose it has to do with approaching our relationships with youth in a way that understands that, as humans, they – and we – are having a much deeper experience than our clinical words have prescribed.

I suppose it comes down to openness. To admitting that we don’t know everything, don’t have all the right words.. that we’re still learning.

I like the idea of troubling our senses, and how we talk about them. And I think, if we are ever going to be able to really understand each other, it’s what we’re going to have to do.

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Revolutionary Love*, and other taboo woman feelings

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I am an unmarried, childless female who has worked in the nonprofit sector for almost 10 years-all of my adult life and then some-, am currently earning a higher education degree in Child and Youth Care and, upon graduation I plan to – you guessed it – work with kids. Insert all the touchy feely emotions here. Typical, right? Bleeding heart lady who just wants to “do good” and play with kittens and look how high her head is in the clouds with all this talk of peace and love and fairness.

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In a field that seems overwhelmingly female, it feels (there I go feeling again) as if the words Love, Touch, Sensitive, and Intuitive need to be carefully monitored, if not avoided altogether. We avoid admitting the Love that is so inherently a part of the work that we do with youth, for fear of it being misinterpreted, misplaced, or, perhaps, thought of as less than. As weak, and an invalid reason to pursue a career, a life’s work. To be perceived as, dare I say – feminine.


In a field that is overwhelmingly female, it seems as if the words Love, Touch, Sensitive, and Intuitive need to be monitored, if not avoided.


Side Bar: Why are love and sensitivity necessarily feminine? And, even if they are, why would we try to de-feminize a field that so desperately needs the care? And what does that even mean, to de-feminize? Do we take Love out of the equation because Love is feminine? And how in the world do you take Love out of a profession that is literally all about caring for other humans? What would a love-less job in youth work even be?

The last two weeks alone give me ample ammunition for making a case for Love. Is that language use inappropriate? Yet really.


(Paris. Colorado Springs. Syria.)


And pause. Because this isn’t a post on global affairs. And what about the kids?! Of course – I’ll get there.

In fact, let me lay out the plan for the rest of the post, in reverse order. Ending back on the concept of Love as a priority of our work, I’m going to step through the ideas of relationships, control, and feminism.

Aw, no. She said the f-word.

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[Take a deep breath, and watch this video. Emma Watson (yes, the Harry Potter girl) does a brilliant job of deconstructing the word “Feminism,” relating just how the social system we currently have is toxic not just to women, but also to men. If you don’t have the full 13:15 minutes, skip ahead to 6:55, where she quite eloquently lays out how gender inequality is disrupting the lives of men, as well as women. (Though I recommend watching it all – it’s an oldie, but a goodie.)]

Okay, are you back?

Great.

So. Why is this a gender equality issue? Because Child and Youth Care workers are primarily female. Because Child and Youth Care workers earn less than other fields of work. Because Child and Youth Care is viewed as a touchy feely, womanly and Love-y career path. Because Love is viewed as a woman thing.

But it’s more than that, even.


In reality, it’s all tied together. Sensitivity, the Paris attacks, misogyny, racism, the refugees, Robert Lewis Dear, Love: it’s all related.


We can know it’s related, when this article exists, explaining a “feminine” approach to terrorist attacks. We can know it’s related, when it took a photo of a drowned child to pull on the heartstrings of the world. We can know it’s related, when this guy feels it’s his right as a white man to kill for his beliefs; and, too, when he is considered a national “hero” by some of his countrymen – not a domestic terrorist – even as they spew out the other side of their mouths that Syrian refugees won’t be welcomed because they are terrorists… it’s all related.

It is related, because these all exist within the system that we have created. And, within that system, we keep responding in the same ways. More fear, more hate, more people mad enough to kill, to keep people out of their country, to blame and shame and identify a new they. 

The truth is, these situations are going to keep happening. Again and again and again, adding their headlines to the long list of eventual global history. And with each and every one, we have a choice as to how we respond. If there is only thing that I know to be true, it is this: I do not have control over people’s actions; I do have control over how I respond to those actions. I have control of my response. Always.


I have no control of other’ actions; I only have control of my response.


So then. I promised feminism, then control, now relationships.

Child and Youth Care, as a field and a school of thought, was founded on the revolutionary idea that it’s all about relationships. That, at the end of the day, the only thing that is going to make an actual, transformational difference in the lives of anyone-children, youth, adults, whomever-is relationships.

The classic example of this is that youth in government residential care would be better “reached” through playing basketball outside with their caseworkers than by sitting around a table inside, discussing their progress. This is the heart of the CYC school of thought: that it is the relationships that are transformational—not the analysis, metrics, or tools used.

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And the global situation being what it is, I would say that idea of relationships as revolutionary, of love as transformational, of human care as human right… is it. Paramount, imperative, overdue. It is the thing that has any chance of doing anything, at this point. In the broken system, more factions and fights and Others aren’t going to be solving problems anytime soon – keeping people out isn’t working.


If there was ever a time when relationships were important, now is it.


And perhaps, with the hopeful thought that since children are the leaders of tomorrow (well, a few tomorrows from now), our field may have a chance at influencing the future, we could actually make a difference by what and how we do within our work as Child and Youth Care workers.

And so if all of this work is built on the distinct premise that our difference is to be made in the relationships that we develop with the children and youth with whom we work, with what do we approach those relationships? Those mutually-benefitting, actual relationships?

Typically, I tend to enter my relationships with love.

I enter with vulnerability, with openness, with the knowledge that I can and will be changed by the other person. I acknowledge myself and the other human as creators, and the space between us as the canvas on which we can create. I enter with passion, with purpose, with the sense that whatever “we” create is better than what I can do.


Child and Youth Care is about honest relationships with Youth.


And so I enter Child and Youth Care.

Not because I am woman.

Not because I want to control.

I enter, because I intend to be, and to become, in relationship.

I enter, because I love.

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*This post deeply inspired by, but not once referencing, the work of Hans and Kathy Skott-Myrhe, specifically their 2015 article “Revolutionary Love: CYC and the Importance of Reclaiming our Desire,” from the International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies, 6(4), 581-594.

 

When Youth Voices aren’t saying what we want… or speaking another language altogether

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This is a follow-up to my most recent post; I’m still ruminating about the idea of Youth Voice, and how, where, and why youth are speaking.. and what they are saying. That, alongside how adults are responding to those words. Right now, it seems like one of the most relevant things to be considering within the boundaries of working with teenagers.

To set the stage, I invite you to stop for a moment. Think back. Do you remember being fourteen? Actually remember – not just what you think you remember, or think you ought to remember, based on what you think “youth these days” think/act/feel? Close your eyes, concentrate. What grade were you in? Who was your homeroom teacher, your crush, your best friends – and your “enemy”? What the fashion statement of the year? Do you remember what you dressed up as for halloween, and why? How about the things that would keep you up at night, talking and scheming with friends? What were the papers you were writing for school; how and why were they irrelevant to you?


Do you remember what made you mad… and what you did about it?


Chances are, it wasn’t what the adults of your time expected, or even wanted.

When I was fourteen, I was beginning to have the thought processes – and writing about them – that I am still having. I thought about simple living, and about minimalism; I researched the eating disorders of my best friend and considered what Beauty really meant; I felt deeply wronged by my school’s policy to do a “modesty check” on every girl’s dress for formal events – and even further appalled at what would be said to me and my friends during these checks. I was engaged in my critical thinking, and the adults who didn’t take me seriously were just wasting my time.

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So then. How can we harness the creative and critical work of youth, without wasting their time, without minimizing them? How do we encourage the great thoughts and work that are emerging in our youth?

The truth is, fourteen year olds (and 12, and 17, and 9) aren’t going to get riled about what adults want them to, necessarily. They have different issues.


And they have smart ways to approach those issues.


Teens are speaking up. They care about their world. Some are looking at how their generation (and, if we’re honest, the generation above them… their parents, us) is so engrossed in social media and the “unreal” world, and are stepping out of it. Teenagers are leading the way. They are saying smart things about their bodies and clothes, about their media use, about rape culture and how to treat other humans.

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But we (adults) often ignore, downplay, look over these words and actions – because it doesn’t look the way we think it should. It doesn’t fit into our agendas for what we want youth “voice” to be saying. In fact, [insert youth opinion here] occasionally goes directly against what makes us comfortable, or feel good. 


Sometimes, it actually looks like rebellion. (Imagine that.)


One of these “rebellions” is taking place over the issue of school dress codes. Now Elisabeth, you might be saying, students everywhere have fought their school’s authority over dress codes. Always. What’s the point?


Well.


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Recently, young women, and their male counterparts, are recognizing and calling out their schools’ restrictive – and, largely, female-specific – dress codes as being part and parcel of the much larger, society-wide rape culture. They are reading the fine print of their schools’ policy handbooks, and seeing how the wording is directly linking female students’ choice in attire to male students’ ability to… concentrate, at best. Refrain from indecent thoughts and actions, at worst. It doesn’t take a degree to see the quick leap into shaming a woman for being assaulted, abused, or attacked, because she was… “asking for it.” And schools are upholding these standards, even defending their position that girls ought to dress (well, not dress, really) a certain way to avoid causing problems for the boys and, by consequence themselves.

…A bit more weighty than just fighting the color of shoes, hey?

Basically, the overwhelming message is: hey wait a second. We’re being policed on our clothes, because of what thoughts how we dress gives boys? Yeah no thanks.

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And, it’s not just this one girl, with one group of friends, at one school. No, it’s happening here, and here, and here. Here, too. Again. And again. How many more do you want?


Young people see a problem with the way society – and their schools – are subject-ing young women. And they’re speaking up.


A scholar I have quoted before – Shauna Pomerantz – wrote an article about these youth’s body-positive activism within their schools. “Many adults say that young people are politically disengaged,” she writes, “but this example offer thoughtful political engagement.”

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Young men and women – boys and girls – are standing up and protesting with incredulity the idea that females are responsible for the actions of males. Fourteen year old girls are telling us this. And how are we as adults responding? We suspend her from school; write her up; fine her for her “rebellion.”

So sure… let’s talk about youth voice. Because it isn’t a thing adults need to jumpstart. It’s something we need to recognize. And then, let’s stop fighting them. In fact, let’s give them a freaking megaphone.

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A Story on Listening to Kids.. turns out, we may not be as good at it as we even think we want to be.

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Within Child an Youth Care, we talk a big talk about “letting kids speak,” “listening to the voice of the child,” and promoting the “agency” of youth.

But what does it really mean, to “let” kids use their voice? And why, of all things, is it in the adults’ power to give or not give kids this space, as if it is an added bonus – a charitable act?

A couple weeks ago, at an annual conference that celebrates nonprofit and small community success in the central WA region, I found myself in a situation that gave my theoretical CYC training some room to play in the practical world. The after-lunch session was to be a roundtable discussion, wherein each person chose a table corresponding with one of four key topics: recruiting volunteers, developing leaders, reducing waste & increasing recycling/repurposing, and engaging youth in community. Each table group, then, was to come up with a feasible project within their topic that a small community could use (we were located in Waterville, WA, pop. 1151). After about an hour, the groups would present their projects, as well as a rudimentary project plan.

Pretty typical conference fare.

(Even more typical, I suppose, for a student – group discussions are the stuff of academic dreams.)

What was different about this group discussion was the set-up of leadership. At each table, holding brightly colored flags that indicated the topic of the group, were elementary students. These, along with an adult co-facilitator, were to be our leaders. Finding a chair at a table where a girl clutched a red flag – engaging youth in community -, I sat down and waited for others to join. Our group was eclectic: we had an educator/youth worker from a town close to the Canadian border; a homeschooling mom from Waterville; the mayor of a small neighboring city; a drug prevention program worker; myself, a CYC student; and Kymberly, our grade six leader.

As the group was taking our seats, Kymberly looked around anxiously, then spotted a man walking by. “Alan,” she called, “I think you’re at my table, with me.” He stopped, looked at her agenda, and proceeded to agree and sit – with the apology that he would also have to leave in just fifteen minutes. This clearly threw Kymberly off, as she saw she was losing her adult support at the table. (Alan did end up leaving, and his presence at the table was largely silent – he clearly was unaware of his role as Kymberly’s aide.)

What happened next was not necessarily surprising, though it was rather uncomfortable. Upon the loss of her co-facilitator, Kymberly proceeded to clam up, wholly uncertain of how to go about leading a full table of adult strangers. These strangers, then, proceeded to try to get the assignment done – conscientious citizens that we are. The resulting experience was one of push/pull, as we would take two steps toward our goal of the project, then back again as we would ask for Kymberly’s lead. Some of the adults seemed happy to lead the process (get the work done, do as expected!), while others of us were less comfortable with taking Kymberly’s role away from her – despite the fact that she seemed to shrink from the task.

Given the topic of our table, I felt Kymberly’s presence to be especially poignant. Here we were, a bunch of adults, contemplating the ways to engage the youth of our communities… and, here we were, struggling to do just that! I remember at one point, as the group asked “well, how do we know what will interest them?”, I pointed at Kymberly with a laugh, and said “well.. what interests you, Kymberly?” I continually found myself returning to and referencing the imposed structure of our roundtable discussion – pointing out that if we could manage just doing this for an hour, it would be good practice towards actually engaging the youth of our community in a way that is meaningful to them.

Despite a rocky experience of feeling under-led, then overstepping our adult bounds of leading for Kymberly, the table had one collective – and unspoken – moment wherein we all stepped up for Kymberly’s leadership.

At the end of the hour, a microphone was passed around the tables, and a representative shared the group’s work. When it came to be our turn, Kymberly cautiously took the mic, and proceeded to read her notes from the hour. What came from her mouth was jumbled at best and, while I know that she had been tracking with the conversation we had all had together, the quick turnaround time for her to give the presentation did not give her the space she needed to collect and express her thoughts well. I could see confusion on the faces of others in the room, and when she finished, tentative applause rippled through the room.

The emcee looked to the adults at our table, and none of us moved to take the mic and “clarify” what Kymberly had said. I am proud of our group, though, and our silent agreement to stand behind Kymberly’s words, scattered and off-topic though they were. The eye contact we shared while she spoke was an agreement to support her, to begin practicing the very thing we had concluded in our proposed project: that youth programs will only succeed with direct leadership from the youth themselves. So, may they lead, and may we be humble enough to follow that lead.

A classmate of mine looked at this very issue a few weeks back in his own blog, and I appreciate his rawness as he indicts adults for not actually caring about children’s voice, despite our words. But of course: it is much easier to sit at a roundtable and talk amongst adults about how to engage youth in community, without having an eleven year old distract us with a tangent about her swim team and how they took a bus to Wenatchee last summer. It is much easier to care about the voice of youth in theory, and not when there’s work to be done. In truth, it is hard to be led by a shy, uncertain grade schooler.

But isn’t that the point?

This is a call to step back, and also to step into the unfamiliar. Because the reality is – it is uncomfortable to do what is unknown. And letting youth lead? That’s unknown. There will necessarily be a learning curve, for all of us.

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De-Cliquing the Field of Child and Youth Care; a self-reflection.

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A couple of weeks ago in one of my first semester courses as a Master’s student in Child and Youth Care at the University of Victoria, my teacher had a classmate read aloud an article written by Heather Modlin, a Ph.D. student in the same department, and published in the online journal of the International Child and Youth Care Network (CYC-Net). Two things happened for me as I listened to Heather’s words being read: 1) I related immensely, finding myself nodding along like a happy pony; and, 2) I started to gain a vocabulary for a tension I myself had felt, but was yet unaware existed elsewhere and for others in the field.

Under the title and umbrella of understanding the agenda of Child and Youth Care as predominantly political or individual, Heather explains a division she has seen in the field of Child and Youth Care between those who see their work as following an agenda that “challenge[s] the societal status quo,” and others who believe it is our role to “provide direct assistance to young people and their families who are struggling.” These two conflicting agendas, she posits, have created cliques within the field; the cliques further generate general animosity between the two; and all this contributes to feelings that the one is “lesser than,” while the other is left out of a conversation to which they don’t have the tools to join.

How do we bridge the gap, then, and make these conversations existing within the halls and classrooms of Child and Youth Care relevant to the average youth worker? Even the word “practitioner,” to a practitioner, may seem unnecessarily heavy. Why not just worker? Why not someone who works with kids? But, of course, it’s the same thing. And so we enter headlong into a conversation that has as much to do with the words used as it does with the actual content of discourse.

If our agenda is to examine the philosophies of power to better understand the contexts of power through which we work with youth, well. Let us do that, then, and also take the next step of implementing how this is relatable and useful for those in contact with young people. Let us write our words and share our thoughts in a way that is understandable to, and helpful for, those furthering the practice.

I begin to address a real-life example of this in my last post on beauty and how we define girlhood; even in recent media attempts to change the status quo of Beauty, the conversation exists within and because of capitalism. Throughout the post, I hint towards Foucault’s idea of power, and how we can never separate ourselves from the layers of power that have made us–we cannot ourselves separate from the context in which we live. I appreciate the words of a colleague of mine, who made the easy-to-understand comparison of this and The Truman Show, a 1998 film in which Jim Carrey’s character lives in a contrived world, but it is the only world he knows. His reality exists within this created reality, just as ours exists within the decades–no, centuries–of layer upon layer of social, political, and economic power plays.

At the end of her article, Heather asks us as Child and Youth Care scholars and workers to reexamine our agendas. For anyone, in any profession, I think this is wise advice. Why are we doing what we do, what is our agenda to be here, doing this thing? This becomes even more important when it has to do with the real lives of real people.

I understand what it is to be a youth worker. Currently, I am learning to understand what it is to be a Child and Youth Care student. My hope is that as I continue my practice (in the truest sense of the word – think yoga or piano) in both, I may find that they do not have to be mutually exclusive. I would hope that my learnings will affect my teachings, and positively. Too, that my lived experiences will give guidance to what and how my potential future research adds to conversations in the field.

What do you think? Are these concepts mutually exclusive? Can we have a field of study wherein more pragmatic workers feel supported by the research being conducted by theoretically-prone scholars, and those in academia feel their research is utilized and appreciated by those providing the day-in, day-out care of youth and their families?

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Girls have been placed in Two Boxes, when maybe they’d rather inhabit a third non-box (of their choosing).

I recently read a scholarly article titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Un/Defining the ‘Girl’.” These words alone give a sense of urgency–nobody likes to be between rocks and hard places (or between walls and swords, as they say in Spanish)–as well as a sense of This or That, Either Or, option A or option B. Take this dichotomized urgency, and now couple it with the notion that we perhaps have been defining Who is Girl incorrectly all along, and must return to our premises and “undefine” her. Phew! – and we’ve only just unpacked the title…

But it’s enough. Enough for you to wonder –


So What?


So what? you ask. I’m curious, you say, about how this affects me, affects the kids I work with. You, the counselor on the night shift; you, the day care provider; you, the outdoor leader; you, the special education teacher. How does the discussion on who is female and what is girl have anything to do with you? How does this change your experience of your kiddos – be they girls or boys or any other option of their choosing – and the everyday, lived situations in which you find yourselves, interacting together?

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And, fair enough, maybe it doesn’t. Just yet. But it will, I think. Because as definitions change, the hope is that they morph into something that is closer to reality than what existed before. And that these new knowledges give you more appropriate tools to better understand the young humans who walk through your door, are brought in by their parents, and go on your trips. In short: understanding the context, you will be able to better understand the kid.

Are you sold? Well, keep with me for a bit – let’s talk about girls, and power, and beauty, for just a minute. I think this will give us a starting point for understanding why this is important to all of us, and not just the theoretically-inclined.

In the article I mentioned above, Shauna Pomerantz looks at two ways we have defined the “Girl.” First, as Objects. In this definition, girls are a disempowered group with little to no agency of their own. They – as a collective – experience a definable “dip” in adolescence, during which time their self-esteem and well-being plummets, and is under threat of being demolished. They are attacked by media, by peers, by societal norms, and desperately need help managing this difficult life stage. Sounds serious, right?

However, while it may well be true that some girls experience some element of adolescent angst, there is no wholesale experience of girls to justify the notion that they are all floundering in the middle of their teenage turmoil, needing an outside agent to pull them from the mires.


Objects are acted upon: they need saving. 


I haven’t talked to many people (read: nobody) who are surprised by the idea that women – old and young and even younger – are scrutinized for our appearance–and have been, for quite some time. (Check out this youtube video that has attempted to capture female beauty standards throughout time.) Our bodies are given value based on a standard of beauty that, increasingly, is absolutely and impossibly in nobody’s (no body’s) ability to reach. Somehow, the arbitrary fact of a gap between a girl’s thighs is believed to have some impact on her worth, and any middle schooler could tell you about it. It’s not even just that, though – the truth is that there is no “set” ideal; the ideal is a constantly moving target, and girls will constantly fall on one side or the other of it (because pssst: it doesn’t exist). Pomerantz talks about this as the “trap” that girls are in – they are “too something and not something enough” (Pomerantz, 149).

Now, though, a new angle to the problem has shown up. As folks are looking into the ways that external pressures on women to Be Beautiful might be affecting young girls and, simultaneously, seeking ways to “save” girls from the negative side affects of such a culture, a new voice has been showing up on the scene. The Beauty Empowerment Campaign voice. This is the voice that tells young women that they are beautiful just the way they are, and also wear this stuff on your face. Your body doesn’t need to be photoshopped, so buy this bra and panty set. Every body is different and beautiful in its own way, and here is the shampoo/pair of jeans/lotion/etc. to make you really “own” yours.


The conversation is the same: it’s still all about Beauty.


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In an earlier post and its subsequent comments, I even touted some of these very campaigns. They’re furthering the conversation, right? But are they? I’m not so sure anymore. Turns out, a lot of people aren’t so sure anymore.

Because how is this not objectifying girls in the same way as before? Sure, the words may be different, but the message is just the same. The conversation is the same: it’s still all about Beauty. Even in terms of Empowerment, we are only “empowering” based on beauty. (And somehow, even this “empowerment” shows primarily one kind of beauty, and rarely includes women with disabilities, or racialized women who aren’t being exoticized.) So, in our efforts to “save” girls during this precarious time of their lives, we are instead reinforcing the very same beliefs that are binding them. What’s with that?

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We are so hung up on beauty, that we can’t even bring our conversation out of that realm. And the leaders of this empowerment? More often than not, the women and girls used in these campaigns have bodies and faces that still fall within the conventional standards of beauty. Aerie may not be using supermodels to sell their clothes anymore, but the “average girls” they’ve found to replace them still bear a certain resemblance to a certain standard. Now, girls are taking in these images with the added weight of comparing their own bodies to the “average,” as opposed to the “ideal.” How intimidating!


Next: girls as subjects and, conveniently, agents in the marketplace.


The other “box” girls are placed in, according to Pomerantz, is that of Subject. This is the go-get-’em, kick butt, flower power, girls rule & boys drool paradigm. It’s a good one, and let’s pause to remember our own time spent with Lisa Frank stickers and lunch boxes. At the same time, this is another imposed definition on who girls are, and how we relate to them. In fact, the line drawn between these two (girl as object, and girl as subject), in media at least, is getting blurrier and blurrier. It’s a fine line between: the #realyou is sexy (so buy our underwear), and Blair Waldorf’s heralded views on shopping, and happiness, and that the two ultimately equal each other.

The really unfortunate part is that Corporate Beauty Companies have managed to commandeer both “boxes” that Pomerantz identifies. They have learned that collective anger toward conventional beauty standards will drive girls and women in droves to the beauty aisles of the drug store. This is another article for another time, but let me just say: capitalism has managed to appropriate both the empowerment of women, as well as the “girl power” rhetoric. It is “powerful” to own certain things, to be a consumer of certain items and in certain ways. (Do I need to remind you of Lisa Frank’s impact on the purchasing power of young girls in the 1980s and 1990s?)


And the real kicker? Some of these ads that aspire to redefine what bodies we view as beautiful are actually photoshopping those very bodies.


Companies tell young girls that girls with power and agency are those that buy their products… sick, right? Capitalism has stepped right in and helped us muddle up our perspective of who girls are: buyers of beauty products and clothing, because… they deserve it. (Go ahead, splurge.)

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[And let me take a moment to be honest about something. I don’t hate them all. Like this Ram commercial, I really like the message. Do I know that they are using feminism to sell trucks? Sure. Do I still like the image it shows of women? Yes. Cue dilemma, and discuss.]

So how does this relate to you? Well. Pomerantz’s article goes on to call for work to be done to find a third – or fourth or fifth or Nth – space in which girls may be understood. To move away from seeking to find a singular way to define girls, and instead blow up the notions that girls must be any one thing, and find place space for girls to just “be.”


This is where you come in. 


It is our job, as youth workers, to create this space for girls to find their own definition, beyond the trap of the “shoulds” and the “too’s” and the not “enoughs.” Or, at the minimum, to cultivate an environment in which girls can create this space for themselves. Where they can be part of the male-centric term Youth, and can just Be.

Think of the girls you work with. Think of the many ways in their lives that they experience being objectified, being subjectified. Now. How can you, as someone with a given position of power, ease their role as object and as subject? What can you do to move the conversation from Object or Subject, to something else? Can we give girls the space they need to define themselves? As youth workers, what is our role to ensuring that girls aren’t placed in the same boxes as ever, and given new spaces in which they can form identities that feel true to them?


Can we give girls the space they need to define themselves? 


For me, I see taking the conversation away from Beauty entirely will help. “Empowering” girls doesn’t mean telling them they are beautiful just the way they are; maybe it means asking them Why Beauty? and How Does Your Body Help You do the Activities you Like to do? and What Books Have you Been Reading Lately? and Hey Did You Get to Look at the Blood Moon Through a Telescope?

I really like this TEDtalk by Sarah Kay (this is just the beginning – check out her whole talk, too!), a spoken word artist. As a young woman, she is beginning to think of the world her future daughter may enter. Her words go beyond “you’re beautiful no matter what” and enter into the realm of “let’s learn the universe.”

Let’s learn the universe, girls.

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Pomerantz, S. (2009). Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Un/Defining the” Girl”. Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, 1(2), 147-158.

Where do girls who aren’t acknowledged fall on the empowerment spectrum?

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Last week’s readings have me examining feminism and what female/girl empowerment means. Specifically, in terms of those pockets of our society that do not fit into the normative conversation: be it racial, geographical, socioeconomic, or any other factor that creates an “other.” When we think of “girl power,” or young women self-actualizing, building self-confidence, and embracing a powerful femininity, it is often in the context of a white female. Why is this? (Or, really: why is this still, because we of course know by now to point to historical acts of colonialism and suppression, yet they have lingered… and now what?) And how is this limiting CYC practitioners in providing care for the whole of their community’s population? For those women and girls who do not have the same basic expectations of and from society, what does the conversation of female empowerment mean? Could it be that they are, in fact, hurt by it, because they are even further “ghosted” out of the common discourse?


For those women and girls who do not have the same basic expectations of and from society, what does the conversation of female empowerment mean?


Indigenous girls growing up in Canada are an example of this “other.” Because of their otherness, they are excluded from the typical conversations of girlhood (de Finney, 170). De Finney lays a case for how narratives/stereotypes of indigenous girls and women, “wilful ignorance,” and “playing Indian” have all led to this concreting of native girls as less-than and something separate from the “typical” conversation of girlhood. There are no strong indigenous female figures in media, no role models for these girls to emulate or see as representations of themselves in mainstream society.

Another way to look at this is to turn to the discourse of power. Power is implicitly and explicitly a part of this conversation, it must be. Power is part of the framework of a society – if you are operating within the framework, you are operating in the context of that power (Zinga, 259). What strikes me is how the convergence of power, capitalism, and the normative conversation of female “self-actualization” can create a space of complete use and disposability of the lived experiences and cultural histories of an entire population of girls. Stores stock items that are emblazoned with “Indian” symbols and artwork, and popular culture icons use headdresses and attire to play the part of “sexy Indian.” Girls – white girls? – are encouraged to consume this media, buy these products, and claim their own identity… at the cost of indigenous girls who, now, are experiencing both an excluded “otherness” as well as cultural appropriation.

I don’t have answers to the questions I raised as I began this post. Right now, it seems like what we need are more questions. Questions about power and rights and equality and fairness. Questions that go beyond how we got here, and begin to ask where do we go from here. From what to so what.

One thing seems clear, though. If we as practitioners want to focus on empowering girls, our work will not be complete until it is an empowerment that reaches all girls. (And then, why stop there: we can open the box of what is gender, what does it mean to be a girl, or a boy? If there were to be a “female empowerment” program, who would that necessarily be excluding, if there are those that do not fit even into that binary?) Questions. Let’s keep asking them.

de Finney, S. (2015). Playing Indian and other settler stories: disrupting Western narratives of Indigenous girlhood.Continuum, 29(2), 169-181.

Zinga, D. (2012). Journeying With Youth: Re-Centering Indigeneity in Child and Youth Care. Child & Youth Services,33(3-4), 258-280.