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By Rev. Allie McDougall

With International Women’s Day approaching on the 8th of March, it seems only appropriate to reflect in this edition of Field Notes on the cultural and spiritual condition of girl- and womanhood, much like October’s assessment of men and masculinity.

If we take an appreciative look at the progress of women in the last century or so, we can see that women have fought for and earned a great deal by way of rights, mobility, autonomy, and economic participation. When I consider my own journey of growing from girlhood to womanhood and observe the experiences of young women rising up behind me, I am concerned about the ideological, social, and spiritual conditions of womanhood and femininity. How much has changed, really? What are the prevailing messages that girls are internalizing, and women are shaped by?

The formation of girls and young women has been, for decades, if not centuries, subject to the whims of patriarchal social expectations. There is a standard of acceptable womanhood that is prescribed by the dominant culture, and that standard shifts depending on what is valued, desired, and demanded by the social landscape. For women born in the first half of the last century, the pressure to conform as an ideal wife, mother, and churchgoer were predominant.

With the Baby Boomers came the second wave of feminism and the liberal feminist movement, which helped break down many social and legal barriers for women and introduce a multiplicity of choices for girls and women that had not been previously accessible. Expanding the options for women has meant expanding the potential pressure points.

For young women today, the pressure to be a good wife and mother (if they have chosen these things) still hovers over top of the demands of education, careers, and the survival of difficult economic circumstances. The message received in the last 50 years or so is that women can have it all, but it has only been since COVID that we are realizing the cost and stress of doing just that. The pandemic saw the removal of vast numbers of women from the workforce to address labour in the home.

These are all pressures that address the existence, role, and functioning of women, but what of their appearance and bodies?

Despite the best efforts of previous waves of feminism, sexual objectification, impossible beauty standards, aging stigma, and body image continue to plague women of all ages. The objectification of women on this level is driven by advertisers and industries that stand to profit from women’s insecurities. The idea that is communicated to young girls is that there is something about you that needs fixing or modifying so that you can finally attain the ideal face, body, skin, hair, wardrobe, and find happiness and the love of a man.

The script that advertisers use has stayed the same but the products themselves have changed. Recently, designer skincare products have skyrocketed in popularity with tween girls. Medical aesthetic treatments like Botox and facial fillers, and even more invasive surgical cosmetic procedures are on the rise once again, echoing the plastic surgery craze of the 80s and 90s.

The trends for girls and young women are driven by, as in decades past, celebrity figures. What is new for the 2020s is the addition of influencers on the ever-pervasive social media platforms consumed by youth. Beauty standards are being foisted on girls from A-listers like the Kardashian sisters to Instagram models who live in their own city. The prevailing narrative is that in order to be the right kind of woman, you must consume the correct products and subject yourself to the correct treatments to look acceptable and desirable – all while making money, advancing in your chosen career, maintaining a home, and finding a partner (more on modern dating practices for a future edition).

As a woman who has struggled to find my path and has experienced my fair share of gendered struggle in the world and in the church, my heart burns for the world of expectation placed on girls and women and for the women who have gone ahead of me in the struggle. There is so much that threatens the flourishing and spiritual fulfillment of girls and women, and I have not even touched on the issues of misogyny, violence, and abuse.

Sisterhood and mutual support are essential for women of all ages in navigating this context and the church is fertile ground for women to connect with and work through these issues. Younger women need the wisdom and experience of their elders. Elders need to understand how the game has changed and be willing to address those changes in women’s organizations and fellowship groups.

The issues that women face are so often rooted in questions of identity and personhood and when I wrestle with these myself, I remember the women who were close to Jesus. He did not make demands on them according to their sex but called them to His side as disciples and students and coworkers for the Gospel. This has been my anchor while the standards and pressures of acceptable femininity have been moved and renegotiated by bad faith actors.

Jesus calls us, all of us, just as we are and according to the specificity of who God has created us to be.

Rev. Allie McDougall is the Assistant Curate of St. Paul's and St. Stephen's, Stratford.