Monday, 24 June 2013

Baby it's Cold Outside

On Friday I needed to take time out to explain to my class of twelve year olds why it was completely unacceptable to call a girl frigid because she won’t go out with you.

We’d just spent three weeks worth of PSHE lessons talking about boundaries, sex and the importance of personal choice. We’re going to spend some more time going over it again.

It started when I got asked, during question time, what ‘frigid’ means. I have to be honest, I stiffened; this is one of the things that gets me riled. I explained that frigid means cold - as in refrigerator - and then asked the context in which the word had been used.

I then had to explain to the class that frigid is, more commonly, a derogatory word used by someone to put people down for saying ‘no’ to them. It’s a word used by people with a wounded pride. By people who do not respect someone else’s right to say no. By people who don’t really care about you. That it’s a way of telling someone that they are cold and unfriendly because they won’t do what you want.

I likened it to someone asking you to give them the brand new iPod you had just been given for your birthday and them calling you a cow (or worse) when you won’t.

It’s possible I rammed it home a bit far. But I’m OK with that. You see, I think ‘frigid’ is one of the most powerful and damaging words in the teenage lexicon. It’s a word that segregates a girl from the crowd, it deems her an untouchable, it degrades her opinions, eats away her self-esteem and tells her it’s not OK to say ‘no’. Again and again I have seen girls who determine that they will never be called frigid again. That they will be accepted, that they will fit in, that they will be what the boys want . . . . whatever that involves.

I may be riled, but I’m glad this conversation came up. I had been dancing around the topic, but this question forced my class, and me, to face up to a nasty reality of teenage relationships. It’s one I’m writing into the lesson plans for next year.

It’s one we need to write into our conversations with our sons and our daughters. We need to make sure they understand that being called frigid is as outrageous as being called a nasty name for not handing over our treasured possessions to anyone who asks for them.

We need to instil in our girls a confidence in their own opinions, strength in their decision-making and a self-esteem that does not base itself in other people’s opinion of them.

We need to bring up boys who have the ability to hear the word no - in any situation - without kicking off, who value other people’s opinions and . . .  who have a self-esteem that does not base itself in other’s opinion of them.

It’s not rocket science. But it's not easy either. It’s not like teaching our children their times tables or helping them learn how to conjugate a verb in French. We’re going to have to invest some time in this. But we will see a return.

We’re going to have to role model saying ‘No!’ and hearing ‘No!’. We might have to make it possible for our children to say ‘No!’ to us sometimes, just so that they can learn that they have the power to do so and, importantly, that they have not wrecked a relationship by doing so. 

We need to say ‘No!’ to them, not just because what they want isn’t happening today but because they have to learn to understand that not getting their own way is not rejection.

We need to help them grow into adults who are considerate of other people’s feelings, who put other people first but who understand they do not carry the responsibility for making their friends and partners happy.

It’s like teaching them to walk a tightrope. It’s going to take time and sometimes they are going to fall and get hurt, but, with enough practice, they’ll work out how to walk forwards with confidence.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Where did all the Dads go?

On Sunday, some of us will be celebrating our Fathers, but not all of us. A report came out today, which announced that over a million children in Britain are growing up without a father in their lives. That figure is taken based on children who see their dads less than twice a year, which by my reckoning hardly counts itself.

I can say that because my two children only see their biological father twice a year and I know that hardly counts. When they were smaller and I was a single Mum myself, the relationship they had with their dad was nothing short of fiction. They had created a Daddy in their imagination, had pretend conversations with him and dreamed of what meeting him would be like.

I remember one poignant moment when my then four-year-old daughter spoke to her Dad for the first time in two years on the telephone. I only heard one end of the conversation but it was clear he had apologised for the lapse in communication when Megan replied “That’s OK Dad, I speak to you most days on my tweenies telephone.”.

It broke my heart. Just like it used to break my heart when she and her sister would ask “why doesn’t Daddy ever talk to us?” What are you meant to say? I wanted to say that it was because he is clearly a muppet who doesn’t begin to get what he is missing out on. But I refrained because I didn’t want to damage whatever relationship they did have with him.

But I worried – I worried whether maybe I should, actually, tell them he’s a muppet – because the alternative is that somehow it’s their fault. That my precious girls weren’t worthy of more than this, not worthy of regular contact and undivided attention. Or that this, when someone can be bothered, attention is an acceptable form of love. That neglect is normal. That giving up on people is OK. I didn’t want them to grow up not expecting more than this from people who profess to love them.

Because that’s the reality of an absent Dad – or Mum. It’s a message, shot right to the heart, that you weren’t worth hanging around for.

My girls have done OK. I have done everything in my power to shout a louder message to them  - that I would move heaven and earth for them because they are so incredibly valuable. I think I’ve managed to pretty much drown the other message out. It’s what single parents do. We wrap our children in a love so strong the arrows of neglect can’t pierce it.

The Centre for Social Justice report damns politicians, on all sides, for a ‘feeble’ response to what they describe as a ‘tsunami’ of family breakdown. It calls on the government to do more to encourage marriage, but I’m not sure what I think about that.

Don’t get me wrong. I think marriage, as it is designed to be – a promise between two people to love, honour and support each other through thick and thin, is a beautiful thing and is the answer to a broken society. But I don’t believe a tax break will achieve this. A tax break encourages, by definition, a contract of convenience, which, when it ceases to be convenient, will be broken and the family torn apart just the same.

What we need to do is to encourage responsibility, commitment, sacrifice, selflessness, patience, kindness and courage. What we need is a cultural revolution, which holds up those attitudes as worthy, that celebrates brave and reckless love rather than romance and sexual gratification and that champions those who stick at it rather than those who get a lucky break.

It’s a revolution that should start in the church – in many places it already has, organisations like Care for the Family, Time for Marriage and Relationship Central are dedicated to supporting and strengthening families. Romance Academy and XLP are committed to changing attitudes in younger generations. We need to do more.

Around the country thousands of young people are growing up in ‘Men Deserts’, there simply aren’t men around. In some areas as many as 75% of families are single parent families. The church needs to invite people in and role model what family really looks like; supportive, attention giving, sacrificial family. We need to love children though our kids work, walk and talk with them through our youth programmes all the while demonstrating what commitment really looks like.

My mum has worked with young people through the church for decades. I will never forget overhearing what one of the boys from the local estate said to her at the Christmas party she threw for them. “You do so much for us Daphne, even though nobody else cares where we are. Thank you”. His family rarely knew what he was up to, hardly cared. But he knew that in that place he mattered and that he belonged and he saw a team of people who worked together, week after week, for no personal gain, to take care of him and his mates. It made a difference.

I’m married again now and my girls have a Daddy who loves them as if he had fathered them and he has been there for them now, longer than they were without him. It would be easy to sit back comfortable, but as a family we try to look out for those who still feel alone. We invite our single parent Dad friend and his daughter over for dinner regularly, we've had a boy from the youth group live with us for a year when he had nowhere else to go and we try to share this precious family gift that we have been given with those could do with a bit of it themselves.

My challenge to you is this – we live in a broken world and the reports and the politicians will continue to debate it for many years to come. But we can start to make a difference in our communities today– inviting people for tea, taking kids out for the day for a treat and getting involved in the kids work at church. What are you going to do?

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Are Disney princesses too sexy?

I’m not sure if you’re aware of the rebranding Brave character Merida recently suffered. Once a normal-looking girl, the redheaded heroine received a substantial makeover… For want of a better phrase, she was “sexed up”.

There are now reports that Disney/Pixar has reversed its decision to make Merida’s hair a little glossier, her waist a little slimmer and her neckline a little lower. But how does the way our childhood heroines look affect our own self-perceptions?

Like Barbie, many onscreen females are somewhat idealised, to say the least: think Lara Croft, Esmeralda, Jasmine… the list goes on. Then think about plot lines  Prince Charming falls for Cinderella after she gets a makeover. Would he have fancied her in rags?

And it’s not just cartoons that do this to their female characters: Danny in Grease loses interest in Sandy as a sweet schoolgirl but loses his mind when she “shapes up”, smoking, squeezing into black leathers and grinding around like she’s got ants in her pants.

Now I’m not going to lie: I loved to see Ariel swish her red hair and watch Belle swirling across the dance floor in her twirly yellow dress as a youngster. Girls love that stuff. But there’s something really refreshing about Merida: she isn’t obsessed with her appearance and her entire aim in life isn’t to marry someone rich and handsome. I didn’t love the film, but her character was a break from the norm.

Columnist at The Times, Caitlin Moran, wrote of the original Merida: “This is the first Disney heroine ever not to have massive knockers, a 12-inch waist and the kind of mouth that could suck a potato up a straw. Well done, Disney! Well done for finally entering the 21st century.”

And of the ‘new and improved’ version? “A new picture of her showed her with a jacked-in waist, bigger tits, a lower-cut top and a load of eyeliner,” she says. “On top of this, Merida was no longer holding her bow and arrow and was, instead, standing with her hands on her hips, in the internationally recognised pose of, ‘I am a bit of a vapid pain in the arse now.’”

Moran points out that the “non-sexy, non-married, galloping, bow-shooting Merida” earned Disney £354 million at the box office during its first year of release. “Listen: Merida wasn’t for you, you bloodless, cash-counting idiots,” she says. “She was for every ten-year-old girl who hates itchy dresses and kissing, and just wanted to carry on being herself for a bit longer.

“You can’t put a price on a girl being able to watch a big Disney movie that says that’s an OK thing.”

Now I’m not going to come right out and link this sort of sexualisation to an increase in the number of young girls in the UK with eating disorders, or to a rise in demand for cosmetic surgery. But I do think it’s important to think about what we are exposing young girls (and boys) to. 

Let’s encourage them to do more with their lives than becoming thinner, sexier and more marriageable! Let’s show them how to become dignified rather than Disneyfied. And let’s make sure we stand up to the industry giants when they mess with the heroines who, like Merida, just want their “freedom”. That’s something we at Liberti are passionate about.

(This is the last ever Liberti blog from Joy Tibbs. To keep reading her insights, please visit the blog site of our ‘brother’ magazine, Sorted by clicking here. You can click here to visit her website or follow her on Twitter: @joyous25.)

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

In the eye of the beholder

Plus-size model Jennie Runk says she is surprised by the amount of attention her beachwear adverts for H&M have attracted, but I can’t say that I am.

The size-16 model tells the BBC: “When my Facebook fan page gained about 2,000 new likes in 24 hours, I decided to use the attention as an opportunity to make the world a little nicer by promoting confidence. I've since been receiving lots of messages from fans, expressing gratitude.

“Some even told me that my confidence has inspired them to try on a bikini for the first time in years. This is exactly the kind of thing I've always wanted to accomplish, showing women that it's OK to be confident even if you're not the popular notion of ‘perfect’.”

Runk describes a childhood full of self-loathing: of large thighs, braces and wire-rimmed glasses. “Having finally survived it, I feel compelled to show girls who are going through the same thing that it's acceptable to be different,” she says.

“You will grow out of this awkwardness fabulously. Just focus on being the best possible version of yourself and quit worrying about your thighs, there's nothing wrong with them.”

I think it’s great that H&M has chosen such a beautiful, inspirational woman for this campaign, and I’m delighted that she has inspired women to get back in their bikinis.

But it seems that there is still something of a disconnect when it comes to women and body image. Because although we like to identify with these adverts and similar ‘real woman’ campaigns from Dove and M&S, research shows that when we buy clothes, we want to see them worn by slender models and mannequins; even if we’re carrying a few extra pounds ourselves.

While we take comfort from models that look more like us, we still aspire to look like the airbrushed models shown in Vogue and Cosmopolitan. We admire natural beauty but still lust after perfection.

It’s also interesting to note the way we see ourselves compared with the way other people see us. As the latest part of its Campaign for Real Beauty, Dove hired a forensic sketch artist to draw several women, based only on their descriptions of themselves. The artist then draws a separate portrait of each woman based on descriptions of them from relative strangers.

The resulting sketches are displayed side by side and in every single case the ‘stranger’ portrait is more flattering than the woman’s own version. A tagline of “You are more beautiful than you think” is then added. (You can watch the YouTube video here.) 

However many campaigns we see that tell us ‘it’s ok to be normal’, they will always be futile if we are unable to accept ourselves as we are. Often we think it’s ok for our friends to be a little overweight, have a giant spot or start going grey, but if it happens to us it’s panic stations!

I don’t really know what the solution is, apart from praying about it and being the best versions of ourselves we can be. That means looking after our bodies but not having unrealistic expectations of them; seeing beauty in others but also in ourselves; and working on being beautiful (kind, generous, truthful etc) on the inside too.

If you’ve got an extra minute, it’s worth checking out this short blog entry from photographer Jaime Moore about real princesses. And (completely off topic, but amusing none the less) if you have an additional ten minutes, watch this video of two Dutch guys experiencing simulated labour pains!

Read more from Joy in the next issue of Liberti magazine.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Be careful what you buy!

The recent collapse of a building in Bangladesh that killed more than 700 people has provoked reaction from across the globe. 

Firstly, because so many people lost their lives. Secondly, because labour conditions had clearly been so terrible for so long. And thirdly, because some of the people in charge – on the ground and overseas – have tried to shirk their responsibilities and pass the buck.

The collapse of this illegally built structure was the third deadly factory-based incident in Bangladesh in just the last six months. While the factory owners and managers are clearly guilty of negligence, so, to some degree, are the firms they were supplying in Europe and beyond.

Now it would be easy at this point to point the finger at companies like Primark, especially as this particular firm has found itself in hot water in the past in relation to child labour infringements. However, it’s not just the low-end fashion firms that are to blame – some at the very top of the chain have also been embroiled in worker-related scandals. I would go as far as to say that the problem is pretty much industry-wide.

It’s encouraging to hear that Primark and Loblaw have agreed to compensate the families of garment workers that were killed while making their clothes. And it’s also a good sign that representatives from 45 companies, including Gap, H&M, Nike, Wal-Mart, Primark, Marks & Spencer and Tesco have met with officials from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association in Dhaka to discuss factory and worker safety going forward.

But what’s all this got to do with us? Well, according to Reuters, around 3.6 million people work within Bangladesh's garment industry, making it the world's second-largest apparel exporter. Around 60% of these exports are shipped to Europe. So although we may be reluctant to accept it, we too are partly to blame for the maltreatment and even the death of workers in the developing world because of the choices we make as consumers.

Most of us work in environments where we are safe and comfortable; where health and safety measures are legislated and enforced. We are paid a fair wage and given holidays and other perks as standard. We expect to be treated well by our employees and protected from abuse and discrimination. We know our rights and we are determined to stand up for them.

On the other hand, these factory workers – the majority of whom are women, by the way – do not have such an easy ride. Many work long hours for next to nothing because they have no other prospects and need to feed their families. There is no job protection for workers and if injury occurs and the employee can no longer work, there is rarely any compensation.

As you try to do your bit for the environment by buying organic cotton or feel a bit smug about keeping those in developing countries in employment by stacking your wardrobe to overflowing, think about what your buying habits actually mean to the people making those clothes: those in Bangladesh and beyond.

Now many of us have tight budgets, and that’s fine: buying ethically doesn’t necessarily mean breaking the bank. But it might mean buying one item from a ‘safe’ source rather than three from a company that outsources its work to unknown entities.

One great way to monitor what you’re buying – whether it be clothing, food, banking services or other goods – is to download the Good Shopping Guide app, which is available from iTunes and the Apple store. It costs just £2.99 and provides a list of the good, the bad and the ugly in terms of the environment, human rights and animal welfare.

Read more from Joy in the upcoming issue of Liberti.

(Also, click here to get a Christian take on this situation. This blog from Rhythms looks at the biblical command to clothe and feed the poor, and how this has been turned on its head so that the poor are not only clothing us, but are dying the process.)

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Bishop of London calls for “human compassion” at Thatcher funeral

The death of Margaret Thatcher on April 8 provoked reaction from people across the globe.

Some recalled the strength and fervour of the UK’s first female prime minister, while others focused on her perceived failings and injustices. 

However, at her funeral on April 17, she was remembered as a wife, mother and friend as well as a politician.

The Bishop of London, Right Rev Richard Chartres, said: “Today the remains of the real Margaret Hilda Thatcher are here at her funeral service. Lying here, she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings.

“There is an important place for debating policies and legacy; for assessing the impact of political decisions on the everyday lives of individuals and communities. “Parliament held a frank debate last week. But here and today is neither the time nor the place. This, at Lady Thatcher's personal request, is a funeral service, not a memorial service with the customary eulogies.

“At such a time, the parson should not aspire to the judgements which are proper to the politician; instead, this is a place for ordinary human compassion of the kind that is reconciling. It is also the place for the simple truths which transcend political debate. Above all it is the place for hope.

“But it must be difficult for those members of her family and close associates to recognise the wife, mother and grandmother in the mythological figure. Our hearts go out to Mark and Carol and their families, and also to those who cared for Lady Thatcher with such devotion in her last years.”

Bishop Chartres recalled Baroness Thatcher’s attitudes to the people she worked with during her political career. “The letter from a young boy early on in her time as prime minister is a typical example,” he said. 

“Nine-year-old David wrote to say: Last night when we were saying prayers, my daddy said everyone has done wrong things except Jesus. I said I don't think you have done bad things because you are the prime minister. Am I right or is my daddy?

“Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that the PM replied in her own hand, in a very straightforward letter, which took the question seriously: However good we try to be, we can never be as kind, gentle and wise as Jesus. There will be times when we do or say something we wish we hadn't done and we shall be sorry and try not to do it again… 

If you and I were to paint a picture, it wouldn't be as good as the picture of great artists. So our lives can't be as good as the life of Jesus.”

The Bishop also reflected on Margaret Thatcher’s incredible rise to power: “It is easy to forget the immense hurdles she had to climb. Beginning in the upper floors of her father's grocer's shop in Grantham, through Oxford as a scientist and, later, as part of the team that invented Mr Whippy ice cream, she embarked upon a political career.

“By the time she entered parliament in 1959 she was part of a cohort of only 4% of women in the House of Commons. She had experienced many rebuffs along the way, often on the shortlist for candidates only to be disqualified by prejudice against a woman; and, worse, a woman with children.

“She applied herself to her work with formidable energy and passion. But she continued to reflect on how faith and politics related to one another.

“In the Lawrence Jewry lecture, she said that ‘Christianity offers no easy solutions to political and economic issues. It teaches us that there is some evil in everyone and that it cannot be banished by sound policies and institutional reforms…

'We cannot achieve a compassionate society simply by passing new laws and appointing more staff to administer them.’

“She was very aware that there are prior dispositions which are needed to make market economics and democratic institutions function well: the habits of truth-telling, mutual sympathy, and the capacity to co-operate.”

You can read the full funeral address from Bishop Chartres here

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Girls who run the world

In an interview for the May issue of British Vogue, Beyoncé Knowles described herself as a "modern-day feminist". This got me thinking about what the term ‘feminism’ means today and whether it is a positive or a negative thing. (As a disclaimer, this is not a deep, philosophical debate, just a few personal thoughts.)

For some women it is about being able to do all of the things men can do… and more. Whether that means doing the DIY, playing football, entering the political sphere or preaching in a church, it is about proving that the ‘weaker sex’ is actually no such thing.

For some people, feminism is almost militant stance, a championing of the ‘Independent Women’ and ‘Single Ladies’ against the rest of the world. It is the overcoming of prejudice and criticism of women as meek, powerless housewives, and raises the question: do women need men to get on in life?

Others think of feminism as a more collective idea. It’s about encouraging all women to achieve their potential regardless of their age, ethnic background and social outlook. It’s about equal rights for women and deals with issues such as voting, maternity leave, workplace equality and domestic violence.

For others it is about sexual liberty; the pursuit of bedroom equality. An environment where women can sleep with who they want, when they want without being referred to as sluts; to be able to live a Sex and the City lifestyle and read 50 Shades of Grey on the bus without criticism.

Whatever it means to you, feminists are often criticised because the concept is perceived as an anti-male stance. Some women do appear to act as though men are an inconvenient ‘other’ as they take on the world. Other women are seen to present a double standard because they want to dress in a super sexy way like Beyoncé or Rihanna without being treated like sex objects.

Head of Family Law at Slater & Gordon, Amanda McAlister has even blamed the Sex and the City lifestyle for an increase in alcoholism and, as a direct result, higher divorce rates.

Some argue that the stress of ‘doing it all’ – having a successful career, raising a family and living it up at the weekends – may be taking its toll on women. I know that for me personally, being a woman can be exhausting!

Beyoncé says in the interview that “we have a way to go” before women and men are considered equal, and I would tend to agree. Until women are paid the same amount as men for doing the same job, allowed to be part of church leadership teams, respected in sporting circles and treated as valuable human beings rather than sex objects, there is still work to be done.

Proverbs 31:10-31 gives us an interesting biblical perspective on the ‘virtuous’ wife: of a woman who is successful in the home and in business; who is respected by those around her and cares for the poor. I think this is a good model for all women.

Some of Beyoncé’s song lyrics may be a little questionable, but I’ll finish with some simple words I liked from the upcoming interview: “Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman and I love being a woman.”

Read more from Joy in the upcoming issue of Liberti magazine.

(Photo credits: Image 1 Parkwood; Image 2 Claudio Mariotto; Image 3 Hollywood Branded.)