Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan on Girl Guides

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I am very slow on the uptake, so it wasn’t until quite recently, as I was walking through my local shopping centre with a friend of mine who is a teacher, that the penny dropped. I commented that today’s teenage girls looked, generally speaking, about 10 million times better that I remember any of us doing at that chronically pustulant and sebaceously over-supplied age.

She looked at me as if I were 10 million types of idiot and explained that it was because, these days, they don’t leave the house without grooming themselves to at least C-list celebrity levels of shiny glamour. “They’ve spent three hours straightening each other’s hair,” she said, pointing at a pair of glossy best friends. “That one’s got better make-up than we would manage for our poshest night out. Let’s go and push her down an escalator.”

Since then, I see the effort everywhere, and it’s been making me sad. (And envious. Even with the aid of modern products and technology my dumpy little teenage self would never have made the grade. So don’t forget that bitterness, a deep and abiding bitterness, is colouring much of what follows.) Even that bastion of conservatism, the Girl Guides, is now kowtowing to the modern world and has created modules such as Party Planning, Chocolate and Showtime as well as Passion 4 Fashion and Glamorama, which encourage activities including trying on make-up, discussing celebrity looks as well as giving massages and manicures to get badges. And that makes me even sadder. Maybe even a little bit angry.

Why? Because I feel that girls in their natural form – inside and out – are being herded into smaller and smaller spaces. Metaphorically, I mean. They can still spread out on a bus on their way back from the shopping centre, that’s for sure. (Stand up! Move your bags! I am an 108-year-old woman who’s got to get home and put two washes on!)

Obviously, we all enjoyed playing about with make-up and doing each other’s hair when we were young – and still, if in slightly more sophisticated fashion, do. (Though I count myself lucky these days that my improving unguents are more Bobbi Brown than Constance Carroll.) But it should be a fun, experimental thing. Not your life’s work from the age of 13, which is what – when I look at the parade of high street glamour before me – it seems in danger of becoming. A recent survey revealed that two thirds of women are scared to go to work without a full face of make-up, and it doesn’t feel like madness to suggest that ever higher maintenance habits, being formed earlier and without any correctives or alternatives being offered, can surely only lead to even more startling and depressing statistics among future adult generations.

Guides provided a space where the pressure to be trendy was lifted

Girl Guides traditionally provided a valuable cultural space where the pressure to grow up, be trendy (or stylish, or whatever the cool kids are calling it these days) was temporarily lifted. It gave youngsters leading chaotic lives a bit of structure and the teaching of a modicum of self-discipline, and offered a way of simply ‘being’ for an hour or so a week. We wouldn’t have used the word then, of course, but I think we felt it was a relief to be out of the increasingly sexualised world we, as teens, and even pre-teens, were finding ourselves to be in. How much more so it must be in these hyper-accelerated, hyper-eroticised times.

The ‘Parties, Chocolate and Showtime’-type elements of the current Guiding activities are only a small part of them, of course. You can also learn about space, careers (‘Top Job!’) and football alongside the old orienteering, first aid and camping skills.

But this just makes the encroachment of the less helpful aspects of the modern era more obvious and less justifiable. We need more freedom – aesthetic and actual – for girls, not less. More spaces in which they are assured that what they look like doesn’t matter, more places where they can see that perfection is neither the norm or necessary. That’s even more useful than knowing how to make an antiseptic bandage out of sphagnum moss.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe girls can cope with everything and I’m taking it all too seriously. I am, after all, 108 years old. I think I’ll go and peg my washing out to take my mind off things.

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