By Sarah Ralph
On the 11th October 40 girls from Newcastle and the surrounding area came together to celebrate International Day of the Girl with an event they co-produced with Girl-Kind North East, a project which I co-organise with Sarah Winkler-Reid of Newcastle University. UN International Day of the Girl is a global day of recognition, activism and celebration held annually. With its aims in mind, the girls who participated in the Girl-Kind 2017 event held a march through Northumbria University campus to highlight girls’ rights, choreographed a dance, screened a short film they had made about catcalling, created a pop-up gallery of their artwork, and put up stalls to sell homemade merchandise with the money donated going to a local women and girls charity. There was also a considerable amount of glitter! Friends, family, colleagues and students assembled to see the girls’ creations and hear what they wanted to voice about growing up as a girl in the North East.
A landmark study (2016) by the children’s development organisation Plan International UK demonstrated a clear North-South divide in the experiences of girls in the UK, with girls living in local/unitary authorities in the North East of England being some of the worst regarding their rights based on life expectancy, child poverty, reproductive health and educational outcomes. Newcastle, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland were all in the bottom 15% according to the five indicators measured. In addition to these broader factors, girls also face the added burden of gender stereotyping, harassment, and pressures regarding physical appearance that are more exclusively associated with ‘being a girl’.
The Girl-Kind North East school-based workshops and Day of the Girl event gave girls from the region a chance to address their struggles, celebrate their achievements, and let people know what they are thinking. The project grew out of research Sarah and I conduct on girls’ lives and growing up in Britain: Sarah’s exploring girls’ relationships and friendships in school, and my work looks at how girls use media in their relationships growing up.
Media coverage articulates a vast array of social anxieties and panic trends about girls: body obsession and unhappiness, disordered eating, sexualisation and consumerism, and ‘narcissistic’ use of social media. Much of this reporting is pessimistic and ominous in tone, girls are often represented as either helpless innocents or brainless consumers. This reflects – as I have discussed in my work on young women’s responses to stardom and celebrity - a long history of discourse in which media culture, and the ‘masses’ who consume it, are positioned as feminine and then pathologized.
My co-organiser Sarah’s research, undertaken in a London School, also challenges assumptions underlying these anxious debates. Rather than passive sponges, she encountered active, skilled and critical meaning-makers and witnessed the amazing achievement of young people’s sociality. Pupils tenaciously shape each other into acceptable persons, and this policing and punishment can be a source of great pain. These processes are intensely gendered, to be an acceptable girl involves walking many fine lines, not least in terms of sex. As a girl in our study put it “if you do too much you’re called a slag, but if you don’t do enough, you’re called a nun”.  But peers also provide each other with much love and support, and are often critical of the social processes in which they are engaged.
Although school is saturated by these peer dynamics, a dedicated space to explore these issues is rarely provided within the curriculum. Working together, and drawing from both our disciplines, Girl-Kind North East carved a space for girls to explore their selves, relationships and contemporary representations of girlhood. Rather than take a problem-centred approach, pre-defining what issues are most important or troubling, we started with a question: What do you think are the challenges and opportunities of being a girl in the North East? The girls’ answers were the starting point of this project, and their thoughts and ideas were turned into exciting and engaging creative interventions for the Day of the Girl Celebration.
The next phase of the project is for Sarah and I to work on two full reports of the workshops and Day of the Girl event: one for the girls involved, and one for teaching practitioners. These will be based on full details from evaluations of the project we gathered using questionnaires in a final reflective workshop. From preliminary exploration of these we can quantitatively track notable rises in confidence speaking to adults, confidence speaking to peers, and knowledge about the challenges and opportunities of being a girl in the North-East. However, it is the qualitative responses that have particularly resonated with us, and demonstrated the value and benefits of putting our combined research knowledge into practice. One participant - asked about what reasons she would give to another girl in recommendation of taking part - commended our efforts thus:
'It is great fun to do with your friends. You meet some amazing people and you get to make a difference to the ways girls in the North East are viewed. I met some lovely leaders, who I will miss! You are not judged at all and you feel completely safe to express your ideas. (You also get good pens and free food!)
[Portions of this blogpost have previously been published on the British Sociological Association website]
 L. Russell et al. 2016. Girl’s Rights in the UK, Plan UK London. Accessible online at
 Holmes, S., Ralph, S. and Redmond, S., 2015. Swivelling the spotlight: stardom, celebrity and ‘me’. Celebrity Studies, 6(1), pp.100-117.
Ralph, S., 2015. Using stars, not just ‘reading’ them: the roles and functions of film stars in mother–daughter relations. Celebrity Studies, 6(1), pp.23-38.
 Winkler Reid, S., 2014. ‘She’s not a slag because she only had sex once’: Sexual ethics in a London secondary school. Journal of Moral Education, 43(2), pp.183-197.
Winkler‐Reid, S., 2017. “Looking Good” and “Good Looking” in School: Beauty Ideals, Appearance, and Enskilled Vision among Girls in a London Secondary School. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 48(3), pp.284-300.