I felt rather conflicted when I read in yesterday’s newspapers about Girlguiding UK’s themed activity packs, designed to provide a focus to meetings. Of the 26 packs on offer to Guide leaders, designed for use by the Guides in their unit, a number appear to focus on physical appearance, style and fashion, with names such as ‘Parties, Chocolate and Showtime’, ‘Makeover Madness’, ‘Passion 4 Fashion’ and ‘Glamorama’. Activities involved include tips on make-up, a discussion of who is ‘hot’ in celebrity fashion, and instructions on manicures.
A Girlguiding spokesperson pointed out, quite rightly, that there are also sections on ethical cosmetics, while other activity packs promote thinking about careers and aim to challenge stereotypes, but it still feels uncomfortable to think that an organisation which is admirable in its promotion of female empowerment should be encouraging impressionable girls (Girl Guides are aged 10 to 14) to engage in activities which focus so heavily on their appearance. In this world, we are surrounded by – bombarded by – images of women focused on appearance, to the extent that this has become a huge subliminal pressure for girls and young women. Is Girlguiding right to be indulging in this? Are they ‘supping with the devil’, or is this simply a harmless bit of fun?
The truth, of course, is that it will all be in the interpretation and in the balance presented to the girls in the Guide units. If these activity packs are taken at face value, and the leaders of the units present them uncritically, then they have the potential to do more harm than good; we cannot leave uncriticised any materials which promote, unquestioned, the value of female appearance over substance. If the emphasis, however, is on critical debate, teasing apart the difference between good grooming or self-care, and dressing to conform to increasingly outdated perceptions of what women should be wearing and how they should be behaving, then these packs have the potential to do good. By the age of 10, a young girl has been exposed to many millions of images which will have shaped her understanding of how women should dress and act, and some work to redress this balance cannot come soon enough.
So … over to the Girl Guide leaders to make these packs work. Perhaps it might also be wise to look again – critically – at some of the wording in the packs, to ensure that it is easier to interpret them as opportunities for learning and growth … ‘pampering’ is not an end in itself, after all, and with its associations with female ‘flakiness’, it is a word with which many women struggle. All this goes to show, of course, is that we still have a lot of work to do before we can really move away from this debate into a world where women and men are valued equally for who they are, not how they appear.
On with the task …