THE Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Report, published last week, telling of a growing gap between the happiness levels of girls and boys, provides new evidence of the fragility of young people’s mental health (News, 2 September). Girls have particular issues: a concern about their bodies; and a need for affirmation, which leads them to spend a disproportionate amount of time on social media.
Anxiety and depression are often around in the teenage years. The traditional protections are a healthy self-respect and respect for others. From a faith perspective, identity is not limited to bodily appearance, nor is it dependent on the opinions of others. It is given by God, and then developed through time and through relationships.
This life is the place where we acquire the resilience to deal with the cards that life deals us. And yet many young people, particularly girls, seem not to be acquiring this resilience. They are in a double bind. Society tells them that they can do anything, be anyone, express themselves in a multitude of ways. At the same time, however, images of bodily perfection and achievement are rained down on them, forcing them to compete with manufactured stereotypes.
Boys receive double signals, telling them, on the one hand, that girls are their equals in everything, and, on the other, through porn, that the girls whom they know are sexual objects who really want to be conquered and humiliated.
In this dysfunctional mess, I can see why Muslim girls might choose to wear the hijab and adopt what is becoming known as “modest fashion”. At the very least, it signals a reticence and seriousness for which present-day secular society seems to have no equivalent, and which it does not understand.
Of course, the theology behind any kind of female head-covering is fairly dubious, although hardly unknown from a Christian point of view. But covering the head has meaning beyond that of the patriarchal oppression of women. Monks often pray with their cowls over their heads, their privacy protected not only from the intrusive curiosity of others, but also from the criticism and hatred that they might believe that others have for them.
The question for us is how to help young people internalise what this “covering” represents — which is the utter uniqueness and preciousness of the human self, and God’s presence to us in the depths of our personal being. Christian mission to the young should begin where they are hurt.
The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.