Saturday, May 20, 2006

Foofing and youth power

I seem to have the attention of quite a few people who do youth work right now, so I thought this would be a good place to ask.

What is your opinion of "Foofing?"

I don't know that it is a Nationwide con practice, though it is big at youth cons in our area.

Basically, it is fairly benign hazing done on youth attending their first con. The foofee lays on the floor (sometimes is held down.) The foofers put a bunch of whipped cream on their stomachs and then put their faces in the whipped cream, blowing on it and making a Bronx cheer noise.

It is a bone of some contention in our youth group as our youth group is run by an (elected) group of very extroverted girls with very close to perfect bodies. They see foofing as this sacred ritual of bonding.

Of course, Frat Boys probably see some of their appalling little rituals of drinking and violence much the same way.

I imagine my chubby self as I was when I was 16 or so. Far less chubby, actually, than I am now but far more insecure. Would I have felt like the biggest girl at the youth con? If so, would I have agreed to be foofed, knowing the whole room was seeing my belly, but too afraid of not being accepted to say "no?" Would the popular kids have even thought to foof me, our would they have looked at my insecure self and known I wouldn't want that, thus excluding me and insuring I knew my discomfort was obvious?

Recalling young CC as I do, I suspect I would have publically declared "Foofing is SO lame" and gone off someplace with a book for awhile. Then I would have later noticed that I just didn't fit in and wondered why.

Being a YRUU leader is hard, y'all. When the issue came up for us, we were really torn. We want to give the youth leadership power. But the leaders they choose often really don't seem to notice or care about the power balance within the youth. Perhaps it is hard to see from where they sit, all though when we point out that foofing might make some people really uncomfortable, the standard response is:

"Well, we will just convince them to do it as a bonding thing. They'll be ok with it if we talk them into it. They might seem shy at first, but they really want to. Everyone loves foofing!"

Never was peer-pressuring the less powerful youth into doing something they really don't want to couched in so lovely a term. What's next? Telling unhappy foofees to close their eyes and think of England? (More seriously, with the bodily contact and the whipped cream, the activity does have a very sexual feel, making the power dynamics of the popular kids pressuring the less popular still creepier.)

One of the other leaders eventually came up with a "foofing compromise" detailing that foofing would be the second night, people would have to consent to being foofed the day before, there would be no pressuring and that alternate activities would be available.

The first night of the con, we caught the group playing strip poker, so foofing was cancelled.

(Neither the foofing compromise nor the decision to cancel was my decision, but I did basically agree with both. Actually, I didn't love that foofing was going to happen at all.)

We've had similar issues with other things, another example being whether we could show Rocky Horror Picture Show at an overnight. (Full disclosure: I'd probably seen the rated-R Rocky Horror a dozen times before I was eighteen. And I honestly think it didn't do me any harm. But I had a fake ID and parents that didn't give a damn.) The prevailing opinion among the youth leaders seemed to be that if some people couldn't get their parents to sign a permission slip to see a rated-R movie, that wasn't the youth leaders' problem.

What is a youth-positive way to handle these issues when we have parents to answer to as well? (As well as our own concerns that even if the popular group is ready for this somewhat heady stuff, the other kids are not.)



Steve Caldwell said...


If you're looking for youth advisor information and support, you may want to join the Advisor-L email list provided by the UUA.

Here's the info page for this email discussion list:

Advisor-L -- Discussion Resource for YRUU Group Advisors

The complete A-Z list of all UUA-sponsored email lists can be found online here:

These email lists are useful resources for nearly every area of church life and are a very useful congregational support service supported by the UUA's Annual Program Fund from our congregations.

Jamie Goodwin said...

WOW.. Youth activities here seem to be very different than your area CC. From what I have seen the youth themselves are very concious (even more so than adults in some cases) of making sure everyone feels "safe" not just in the physical sense but in the emotional sense as well.

My one suggestion, and it might be something that is already happening, try to get a Youth Chaplain program going and require your YRUU leaders to go through it. Perhaps if they are taught how to deal with how serious emotional issues can be they will have better understanding of how their actions can affect others.

Anonymous said...

My view as a former (employed rather than volunteer) youth advisor is that it is always the adults' responsibility to insure that youth programs are safe environments. No matter if the youth leaders recognize that they also have this responsibility, and no matter how much "youth empowerment" is the motto, it is still always the adults responsiblity.

This means that adults must be paying attention to how the more vulnerable or quiet or marginalized youth are being treated. In situations where the youth leaders have been helped to be alert to these issues, too, great! But that never means that the adults can stop paying attention.

Foofing and other forms of hazing weren't part of our congregation's youth group culture, so I managed not to have to confront it directly in my time.

I did overrule R-rated movies the youth leaders brought to overnights at the church. "Pulp Fiction," I was amazed to have to explain to my outstanding youth leaders, was not in any way appropriate. And I didn't care that "everyone" knew that "everyone's" parents was okay with it. I hadn't asked the parents permission, and I didn't have their permission. I think I did okay the movie "Pi," however, which was an error in judgment on my part because I hadn't seen it before and should have realized it would require at least some context. A lot of the kids got bored and restless during that one.

What I tried to do when I saw group dynamics veering off into domination by the extroverts or the in-group was to pull one of the responsible alpha-kids aside and ask them if they were noticing what I was noticing. I had to be quite blunt sometimes. Once, during a City Year Serve-a-Thon service project, I had to pull a youth leader aside and say: "Have you noticed the way X is leading the other kids in making fun of Y? Can you make that uncool?" I took this approach before intervening directly myself, and it usually worked. Youth leaders sometimes did this on their own, which is the goal.

Helping a group welcome newcomers (freshmen, new kids in town, oddballs) is especially difficult. Our fall retreat was our most successful venue of doing this, and we managed it without hazing. I'm not entirely sure I know how we did it.

At the only district con I attended as a chaperone, I was struck at how much the youth leaders favored and validated the extroverted kids and how little they did to expand their in-group. I wasn't in a position to suggest that someone remedy this, and the district adult advisors didn't seem to care. I was at a loss at what to do -- and felt marginal myself and unsure what the rules were for adults.

One related observation: In the three years that I was an advisor at that particular large church, I noticed that each group of youth delegates we took to G.A. decided, usually by the end of one day of trying to participate in the Youth Caucus, that they'd rather stick with the adults from our congregation. Youth Caucus seemed cliquish, dominated by strong personalities who weren't looking out for everyone, and not especially safe. Part of this may have had to do with the fact that the kids who went as delegates from my church were (in the context of G.A.) straight-arrows who felt a bit out of place in the counterculture YRUU scene.

I fully confess that I was a skeptic about the whole YRUU thang when I was an advisor, and focused on leadership development, strengthening ties between the youth group and the church, and integrating youth into the Sunday morning worship. (I also did a lot of redevelopment of the Coming of Age program.) I invested no energy in district or national YRUU, and can't say I regret it. But I believe I was practicing "youth empowerment" in ways that served the kids very well.

LaReinaCobre said...

At the YRUU district con I attended as a chaplain, there was a lot of talk among the youth about consent, and I did not see or hear about any hazing. Some of the youth were often cuddly, but I did not know the folks well enough to be able to recognize if this was off-putting to other youth attendees.

I have seen foofing happen at young adult cons; it seems like it's nostalgic thing in that case, not a "welcome to our world" scenario.

I definitely echo Chris's suggestion of talking to the "powerful" youth within the conference situation. Also, during orientation, foofing could be brought along with issues of consent. Perhaps all the new folks could be allowed to give their uninterrupted (by experienced youth) feedback on what they think of foofing. Giving them that space to be heard among the larger group could go a long way to helping them feel comfortable with sharing thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I came up with pretty much the same suggestion: take the leaders aside and talk to them about their responsibility to be sensitive to everyone's safety and comfort. Tell them they were elected to leadership because they are more socially advanced than average so they have a lot to teach the ones who are less experienced/skilled/comfortable and they can do a lot to help the others learn what they already know.
That is, flatter them into being helpful. Kids will rise to your expectations, so make them think of themselves as responsible teachers and sensitive people and they will mostly do that. Maybe come up with some suggestions, like making sure everyone has a chance to give input. Or pausing after asking a question so that the ones who process more slowly and thoughtfully have a chance to catch up with the ones who shoot from the hip.
But, yeah, keep a watch on it.

PeaceBang said...

My opinion of "foofing?"

"Hi, we were wondering how you would feel if we forcibly held your child down on the ground, put whipped cream on his belly and then put our lips on his belly?"

Think of putting this to a group of parents and applying it to every kid and to every advisor. The answer would be a horrified NO!! Half the people would leave the church, and rightly so.

So if it's not appropriate for everyone, why is it appropriate for anyone?

Anonymous said...

Your group does it differently than ours did. When I was in youth group, foofing was a pretty normal activity. It involved neither consent nor whipcream: several people would pounce without warning (and, typically, without much in the way of planning) on a victim and blow on their unadorned stomach. It happened at both regular Sunday evening meetings and lock-ins. But if you were a "virgin" (i.e. attending your first lock-in), you were in dire peril of imminent foofing.

I was a chunky kid and wasn't terribly pleased about the idea of people pulling my shirt up. But I'll admit that foofing was kind of bonding. In our group no one foofed as a form of cruelty--it was a way of including everybody, and everybody eventually got foofed. I went into that youth group freshman year as a painfully shy wallflower with no self-esteem, and left at the end of my senior year as the outgoing president of the group and a former two-year youth represenative to the board of education. So anecdotally I have to say that a foofing youth group is not necessarily a cliquish, in-group-oriented, or unhealthy one. During my time as a youth group board member (three years, including my stint as president) foofing was never raised as an issue, either by any of the group members or by the advisors. I think that if the question had come up, we might have decided to make an announcement banning foofing.

Looking back now as an adult (and post-Anita Hill), it seems like a less than perfect activity. I can really understand why people, either advisors or youth, might have trouble with it. At the time, though, foofing was an integral part of UU youth culture for me and many others, along with wink, fishbowls, circle worship, lock-ins, and Youth Sunday. I have to imagine foofing is a potentially upsetting activity that needs to be monitored: in my experience it need not lead to hazing, bullying, or violation, but obviously there's potential there.

Anonymous said...

They didn't have foofing back when I was in LRY.
But I do have a friend who has really extreme psoriasis -- all over. I can picture a group spontaneaoussly pulling up someone's shirt to foof (with or without whipped cream), and finding that. It would be embarassing for everyone I would guess.
The trouble with "fun" things, is it's usually not fun for everyone.

Cindy said...

These are great comments. I think there's one more important point, and that is that the practise of foofing, or any other non-concensual/pressured physical contact practise assumes that there is no one in the room who is a survivor of child sexual abuse.

It's bad enough to be chubby, or shy and have people pounce on you. But for kids who have had their boundaries ripped apart, to come to the place that we want to be the safest place that we can create, and have their abuse/assault replicated is a terrible violation.

The five stages of group building
which our youth really understand, is a great way to articulate that practices like foofing are not appropriate for cons -- there are always new youth, and so they always need to start over with trust building -- the youth can pretty clearly see that foofing is not trust building for new kids.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm late, but it's PHUUFing. It's an acronym...(what in YRUU isn't?) It stands for "People Having UU Fun". And I'll have you know that it went on the downlow a while back and I guess has recently come back.
There are consent issues and community building issues involved, but when I was 13 and at my first YRUU con, I was PHUUFed. But the way it was done was by an older youth that I was friends with, and that's how it was usually done...when I saw it done. Of course I was held in the air but a couple people I didn't know very well...but it was also explained to me before it happened too.
But I get the concern, and if it wasn't being done in the right way, I'd be concerned.
But wait, your youth were playing strip poker?