The Worst Place for a Girl to Grow Up

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Middlesbrough, my home town, recently collected perhaps the least wanted accolade in the country: the title of Worst Place for a Girl to Grow Up. The predictable avalanche of outrage which followed sprawled across the Teesside branch of social media and spawned a hashtag: #GirlWhoGrewUpInBoro.

Patriotic smoggies turned out in force on social media to rubbish the report, commissioned by the University of Hull and Plan International UK. #GirlWhoGrewUpInBoro was used alongside descriptions of successful women who grew up in the town, in defiance of the idea that it was ‘the worst’ place to grow up as a girl.

Reading these tweets is mostly a positive, optimistic experience, but as with all movements online, it is very easy to get lost in the echo chamber that’s erected by social media. As the voices with which you choose to surround yourself begin to raise, you find yourself shouting too. Such is the case with #GirlWhoGrewUpInBoro – a movement that was ignited by a ham-fisted study and perpetuated by a too-sensitive audience.

The Worst Place to Grow Up title is pointlessly inflammatory and clearly intended to provide a neat little word-bite that draws people to the study. It has also served to annoy the people most affected by the study’s contents, to the point that those people aren’t bothering to consider the actual statistics within. This is both a flaw of the study’s authors and of its readers.

While the conclusion of the article is ridiculous, the statistics within are based on factual research and indicate some pretty serious problems in the area. Rather than having such an emotional response to a stupid label, the citizens of Middlesbrough should be more concerned that their town ranked bottom or near-bottom in a number of standard-of-life metrics.

It is hard to understate the impact of these metrics. They are: GCSE results, percentage of girls under 18 not in employment, education or training, life expectancy, teenage pregnancy rates and childhood poverty levels. Despite the fact that, on a factual basis, Middlesbrough is in dire straits on these fronts, apparently we find being called a bad place to grow up more concerning.

We live in an era of outrage. Social media has allowed us to construct a network of voices that say just what we want them to. While the internet and its myriad sources of information is bigger, faster and more available than it’s ever been, we choose to insulate ourselves into online tribes and close our minds. There is never any shortage of those who agree with you; you can forget that there’s an alternative.

While this study was presented in a remarkably thick-skulled manner with an overly-broad title being ascribed to a town that is home to some 145,000 people, it does raise far more important points. It is obviously unpleasant to consider, but the world’s problems aren’t solved by unicorns and rainbows. If we as a town are to improve, we need to address criticism and make some difficult acknowledgements.

The North-East has traditionally trailed behind the quality of life and wealth experienced by many areas in the South. This is a national shame and rather than using this study to ask questions as to why this continues to be the case (and why the gap is, in fact, widening) we choose to think with our hearts and react with fury at the perceived insult that has been dished out to us.

The insult is ridiculous and should never have happened. But in times like this we need to look past it. If our town is to improve, we need to learn to ask the tough questions to the right people and to hold them to account. The reasons for the anger and the hurt are understandable, but the world doesn’t revolve around us being offended and it is far more productive to tackle the tough questions instead of the easy ones.

Why does my home continue to suffer, Mrs May? What are you going to do about it? When we begin to ask these questions with the same fury, we could well get somewhere.

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