Growing up as a girl in the 1980s was not a positive experience for me. I often felt ostracized because I didn’t fit cultural expectations for what it meant to be female. I hated dresses and dressing up. My dad, a Mennonite pastor, didn’t make a lot of money, so I often wore my brother’s hand-me-downs.
Being athletic and opinionated didn’t help, especially in environments — like the Mennonite churches we attended — where girls were taught to be demure, quiet, domestic.
And yet, I am grateful that I came of age in the ’80s rather than now. Pressure to conform to societal expectations about gender is persistent, as are the messages girls receive about what it means to be female.
But now, girls also face the scrutiny wrought by the internet, and in particular social media, where they learn their value is based on the cute-but-often-sexualized factor of their selfies and the likes they receive from peers, and where curated images demand they be always bright and beautiful, at least by the standards demanded by their Instagram and Snapchat feeds.
Jenny Rae Armstrong addresses the challenges today’s girls face in From Risk to Resilience: How Empowering Young Women Can Change Everything. In a wide-ranging cultural critique, Armstrong convincingly argues that girls must fight against a myriad of barriers that stand in the way of their becoming who God has created them to be.
Rather than focus only on these challenges, though, From Risk to Resilience is ultimately a hopeful book, positing that by helping girls become resilient change-makers in their communities they also have the potential to transform the world.
From Risk to Resilience opens with what Armstrong calls “a primer of the problem,” describing what it means to grow up as a girl, acknowledging that in most cultures being born female is seen as a liability. So much so, in fact, that gendercide — the practice of selective abortion — is a common enough practice that male-to-female ratios in some countries, like China and India, are widely skewed.
Girls in these cultures are reminded of their lesser worth through the kinds of resources they receive from their families, their lack of educational opportunities and the cultural messages that situate a girl’s value in her sexuality, her purity and her ability to procreate.
Christians are not immune from this tendency to devalue girls, Armstrong writes. She turns to the Bible, noting that while Christians often focus on the actions of men in Scripture, “the stories of women and girls weave an intriguing counterpoint into the biblical narrative, often providing a scathing cultural critique. . . . The sisters and strangers, wives and widows, daughters and slaves and concubines and mothers of Scripture testify that even heroes can behave like villains, and that the culture has a long history of colluding with the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable.”
Armstrong asserts that we must wrestle with biblical stories because they don’t provide an easy guidebook of how women and girls are to be treated. Scripture is often used as a cudgel to keep girls in their place.
The Bible has often been used to codify the silencing of female voices, the affirmation of girls’ sexual purity above all else and the channeling of girls’ energy into “helper” roles rather than allowing them to pursue their callings and gifts, no matter what those might be.
According to Armstrong, that God chose to enter the world through a teenage girl from Nazareth tells us all we need to know about the value God places on girls and how God must feel about the world’s low view of them.
Armstrong explores the challenges girls face worldwide. She addresses the lack of educational opportunities, noting that girls who receive a secondary education reap not only economic security but other benefits of health and safety. Those who lack education, even in Western churches, also lack the critical-thinking and interpretive skills that might compel them to question messages about women’s submission and men’s power.
And that power has been destructive, both within the church and without. Girls face gender-based violence at alarming rates, so much so that Armstrong terms the violence perpetuated against adolescent and post-adolescent girls the “oldest injustice in human history.”
We are familiar with the fact that one in four women are abused, Armstrong writes, but may not know that for a majority of women the abuse occurs before they are 25. The ways we raise girls and boys open doors for that abuse, through the language we use to talk about girls, the facile acceptance of jokes and mockery aimed at girls, our lack of discussions about sexual consent and our willingness to discount the stories of victims, who learn that in naming violence they will not be believed.
Armstrong addresses the many ways girls are rendered powerless and viewed as commodities, expendable in the marketplace, rather than image-bearers of the Creator, just as they are. The commodification of girls exists not only in places where they are married off at a young age for a bride price but also in Western culture, where girls’ sexuality is sacrosanct, their bodies objectified on Instagram and in film and in the Christian marketing apparatus that sells sexual purity as the most important thing a girl can offer the world.
I’m grateful that Armstrong so powerfully names the challenges girls face, outside of and within the church. A strength of From Risk to Resilience is its hopefulness. Armstrong’s deep longing for girls to find justice is woven into every page, as is her foundational belief that Jesus calls her — and all of us — to the redeeming work of making the world more hospitable for girls. Girls have the potential to help change the world. We need to create opportunities for that transformation to unfold.
Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.