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Deconstruction builds up girls

Rachel Gardner tells Claire Brine why she wants to help young women gain confidence

What stops young women from being themselves?

LAST year, youth worker Rachel Gardner asked 1,000 women aged 16 to 25 to respond to these three statements: The kind of girl I’m not is…; The kind of girl I am is…; The kind of girl I want to be is…

‘Overwhelmingly, the young women felt they weren’t pretty enough, good enough or kind enough,’ says Rachel. ‘And when they answered the question about the kind of girl they wanted to be, 95 per cent of them had written “confident”.

‘I started thinking: “What are the things that stop young women from being themselves, speaking out, playing sports and doing physics at A level? And if I were to consider all the negative ideas that are built up around girls and deconstruct them somehow, what will be left?”’

What was left was the idea for a book, which Rachel called The Girl De-Construction Project. In it, she invites young women to explore their identity by considering topics, such as perfection and fear, from a biblical perspective.

‘I’ve split the book into four sections, because the Bible talks about people loving God with their body, mind, soul and strength,’ Rachel explains. ‘In the body section, we look at nudity and what it means to live filter-free in a culture that is so oppressive around body image. I also talk about sexual desire as being a good thing, rather than something that needs to be repressed.

‘In each section, I’ve included some questions and exercises, inviting girls to consider ways in which they might want to deconstruct and then reconstruct some of their ideas and attitudes. It takes a brave woman to say: “I think it’s a lie that I have to be perfect, but what am I meant to do instead?” The book is about uncoupling ourselves from negative stereotypes and exploring what it means to be a woman in the light of who Jesus says we are. I want to give women the chance to rebel in a way that is honouring to themselves.’

Rachel also uses her book to tell the story of an online campaign she initiated last summer, after she learnt that a clothing store in Kent was displaying a neon sign which read ‘Send me nudes’.

‘I was incensed,’ says Rachel. ‘I know that the advertising was about nude palettes and clothing, but there was also a connotation to sending nude selfies. So I set up an online petition, saying: “Does anyone else think this sign is not OK?” Within 72 hours, 9,000 people had signed it. I think it woke people up to the sexualised messages that target young women, and made them wonder why such messages are allowed to get so far without anybody stopping them.’

While Rachel hopes her book will challenge some of the more damaging ideas that young women hold about femininity, she knows that it is not going to be easy. Modern culture, she says, is part of the problem.

‘When I was a teenager and looked at celebrity pictures in magazines, I knew that I was looking at airbrushed images and therefore they weren’t real or attainable,’ she says. ‘The problem today is, you’re sitting next to a girl in maths and, although in the flesh she doesn’t look like those celebrity glossy images, her social media account is full of the most incredible selfies. You know she has spent hours choosing the best make-up, lighting and filters, but she’s still the girl sitting next to you. And suddenly, if that look is attainable for her, then it should be attainable for you too. The pressure is on, because if it’s possible for you to put an image out there of you looking perfect, why wouldn’t you?

‘We need to help girls learn to be kinder to themselves. And as older women, we need to check our behaviour too. I see so many women posing for photos by sucking their cheeks in and pouting their lips, and we need to stop doing that. I have a six-year-old daughter who is watching my every move, so when I look in the mirror I need to consider how I talk to myself. I don’t want her to hear me saying: “Oh no, look at my crow’s feet.”’

Rachel says that young women today often feel a pressure to ‘get sorted, to know themselves to the nth degree and to present themselves as having it all together’. She offers another perspective.

‘Jesus says that he made us and gave us skills that we can explore for the rest of our lives, but the question is: will we surrender ourselves to him and discover the life that he has for us? He promises to give us life in a way we have never experienced before. I imagine Jesus wanting to take these young women by the hand and saying to them: “Let’s go on an adventure together. And as you run with me, you’ll begin to see that you are far more creative and beautiful than you ever thought you were.”’

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