Women of Influence
In a world where the pressures on girls are greater than ever, one age-old influence still rises above all others.
A scared but determined Faye Fualau boarded a plane from Samoa to New Zealand with her twin 3-year old girls.
She was 29, broken-hearted but thinking only of the future of her precious toddlers.
“My girls were going to have opportunities, schooling and sport. I knew I was bringing my girls to the good life and what was best for them,” she says now.
She still longs for Samoa. She didn’t earn much there – a dollar an hour back then, but it was a more simple existence.
But she will remain in Christchurch so Fayreen can be a PE teacher and Mayreen a doctor.
Now 16, the girls are grateful.
Mum is the top influence in their lives. Even singer Beyonce – whom the girls adore – can’t match their mum.
“She was our mum and dad you know? She bought us from the hard life and has sacrificed so much,” says May.
It is a common theme among young woman: Sacrifice, strength and selflessness – the influence of their mum.
Across the city at Burnside High School, Nataija Petrovic sums it up.
“They just have enormous buckets of love and always put us first,” she says.
Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology lecturer in human services Rachel Lattimore says mums are more influential than friends because they are a “constant”.
“Caregivers are the ones who are there for them when there are issues. Friends come and go and often fall out, but if you have a fight with your mother you don’t fall out – they stay there and love you,” she says.
Vicki Burns, a social worker with the St John of God Waipuna youth agency, says maternal relationships are integral to a sense of belonging for a young woman.
“If the relationship with mum is bypassed or if it is not a secure relationship, young people can fill that sense of belonging with other things or people,” she says.
In her work, she sees that void filled with a man, a baby, drugs and alcohol.
But it can also be filled with another maternal influence, like an aunty, nana or sister.
Jahvanah McCausland, 17, knows this well. Her nana is the top influence in her life, closely followed by female youth workers at Christchurch’s Te Ora Hou.
“My mum and dad split up before I was born. She [her mother] dropped me off at my nana’s – Dad’s mum. He didn’t even know who I was,” she said.
Nana went to court expecting to battle for Jahvanah. “Mum never showed up,” Jahvanah says quietly.
There are times she misses “a mum” but not “her mum”. She apologises if that seems harsh.
“Sometimes I miss the simple stuff. Seeing a mum and daughter getting a formal dress altered and think I never got to do that and it hurts.”
Once in awhile Jahvanah gets a negative reaction because of her family background. But, as she says on a billboard she features on in Christchurch for Te Ora Hua, it doesn’t matter where you come from, what matters is who you choose to be.
On one side of the billboard are all the words associated with her background: Crime, drugs, weapons, neglect, hurt and brokenness.
On the other side is what she learnt at Te Ora Hou: Loved, beauty, wise, caring, family, calm.
“I know I am loved. I have my nana,” she says.
In the Christchurch suburb of New Brighton, Sylvia Elkayem, 6, has spied the camera as she and her siblings and mother are interviewed for this story.
She jumps off the couch and tears down the hallway yelling behind her, “I’m putting on my pretties”.
She triumphantly re-emerges in a pink dress.
Mum Martha Baxendell says she never dressed her three girls in pink.
But still Sylvia and her sisters Maisie White, 11, and Kiera Heartford, 16, have learned what a girl “should” look like.
“Pretty is wearing new and fashionable clothes, lots of makeup and having your hair done really nice,” says Maisie.
She is thoughtful about the topic on the influence on girls around what they look like.
“Everybody tells you you should be pretty – not Mum or Kiera, but at school and the people on television – you just, like, hear it all around,” she says.
Kiera has experienced firsthand what society appears to judge her on and she is unhappy about it.
“I put up a Facebook photo which was your typical teenage girl photo – really posed. Usually I have a photo with my sisters. With this photo I had three times the amount of ‘likes’ – from people I didn’t even know. It’s not right,” she said.
Christchurch Youthtown co-ordinator Jade Manyweathers says social media platforms like Facebook and Ask.fm have created a new influence – the “friends of friends” influence.
“I am horrified at the number of girls who are told to go harm themselves by people they don’t know.”
Lattimore says social media makes advertising and celebrities more accessible, which can “insidiously” influence young woman.
“Young women know these images are not real, are Photoshopped. But there is knowing and then being caught up in an image of perfect body and skin which is promoted – it still has an impact on them,” she says.
Women of all ages need to ask who said you had to be pretty, Lattimore adds. If it is advertising and media, it’s time to challenge that.
Creating anxiety is advertising’s goal, says Canterbury University head of media and communications associate professor Linda-Jean Kenix. “Quite cleverly they [advertisers] separate us from our money by creating anxiety – ‘you are not pretty enough, not cool enough, not hip enough, but if you have this product you will be’,” she says.
Student Bhavna Lata has already learned that. The message to young women is that “I must have great hair, great skin, look a certain way”.
Mayreen, Fayreen and their friends Jordan Meddings and Bhavna idolise singer Beyonce.
“She is just so confident, independent,” says Bhavna.
But even Beyonce in all her “fierce” glory comes second to the dominant influence of the key maternal figure in a young woman’s life – whether that’s a mum, nana, or aunty. They still rank No 1.
WHO INFLUENCES YOU?
Mayreen Fualau, 16, studying to be a Navy doctor: Mum, friends, family as in uncle, aunties and cousins.
Fayreen Fualau, 16, studying to be a PE teacher: Mum, friends, boyfriend.
Jordan Meddings, 16, studying medical sciences: Mum, my friends, my goals or what I want to be.
Bhavna Lata, 16, studying for the sporting industry: Friends, family, Beyonce and celebrities in general.
Jade Manyweathers, Youthtown youth co-ordinator: Mum, friends and my youth.
Rachel Lattimore, senior lecture CPIT: Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird, story detective Trixie Belden, poet and author Maya Angelou.
Martha Baxendell, mum and community co-ordinator: Mum, Beatrix Potter, Madonna.
Kiera Heartford, 16, student: Mum, my year 7 & 8 school teacher, Maria Elena Moyano.
Maisie White, 11, student: Kiera my sister, my teacher, Amy Ridpath.
Sylvia Elkayem, 6, student: My friends, Holly and Naia.
Clara Fergus, 17, student: Mum, my coach.
Wan Zhi Tay, 17, student: Mum, grandma.
Nataija Petrovic, 17, student: Mum, my older sister.
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– The Press