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On Wednesday of this week the Sydney Morning Herald’s Daily Life published a post I wrote with Nina Funnell that I wanted to  also share here. We received an incredibly supportive response; I trust you too will find the article worth sharing. 

Fans at a Keith Urban concert in Boston last week watched on as a 17-year-old girl was allegedly raped, apparently unaware that a sexual assault was taking place. Photo: Harrison Saragossi

Fans at a Keith Urban concert in Boston last week watched on as a 17-year-old girl was allegedly raped, apparently unaware that a sexual assault was taking place. Photo: Harrison Saragossi

Last week, it was reported that a 17-year-old girl was allegedly raped at a Keith Urban concert in Boston, while onlookers watched and filmed the incident on their phones.

In the same week in Australia, the story of a 14-year-old girl who was reportedly sexually assaulted during recess at her Adelaide school also broke. The girl is said to have been taped to a tree, bound with a garden hose and repeatedly assaulted by a group of eight boys who allegedly exposed and rubbed their buttocks and genitalia against her, while other students stood by watching and laughing. Images of the attack were later posted on social media exacerbating the trauma for the girl.

Have we become so incredibly desensitised to assault against girls and women that some now think of sexual violence as mere fodder for our phones? And to what extent do people even recognise sexual assault when they witness it, or know how to intervene?

In our discussions with young people around gender and relationships, we have learnt that many young people do not realise what sexual assault looks like, especially when it doesn’t conform to the knife-wielding stranger in an alleyway narrative. Tellingly, at the Keith Urban concert one witness told police he thought it was just “a couple having sex on the lawn”. Others who filmed the incident claimed they didn’t know what was happening so passed their footage on to police so they could figure it out. It was only once a lone woman approached the crowd and asked the girl if she was consenting, to which she replied “no”, that the alleged rapist was finally physically pulled away.

Confused ideas about what does and doesn’t constitute rape also impact on trials. Research shows that juries often expect to see signs of physical violence and injury, under the mistaken belief that all rape involves extreme physical force.

These myths – that most sexual assaults are committed by strangers; that all sexual assault involves physical force; that victims usually scream or fight back (as opposed to being paralysed by fear); that sexual assault always involves a penis and a vagina – are part of the reason that some individuals fail to correctly interpret incidents they observe.

One of the most revealing examples of this problem occurred last year during the now infamous Steubenville rape case, where two footballers were found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious girl at a party.

At the trial, witness Evan Westlake gave evidence against his teammates stating that he had observed one perpetrator smacking the unconscious girl’s hip with his penis while the other perpetrator inserted two fingers into her vagina. When asked why he didn’t intervene Westlake answered, “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.”

Yet earlier that night Westlake observed another party-goer prepare to drink drive and in that instance Westlake did intervene. He tricked the drunk teen into handing over the car keys, demonstrating a clear capacity to act as an ethical bystander in that context.

Westlake’s choices that evening reflect both the success of anti drink-driving messaging, and the need for stronger messaging about sexual violence and consent. Westlake’s decision to intervene in one context but not another also indicates that intervention skills are of no use, unless a person is also taught how to assess when and where they are needed.

According to research, the main factors which determine whether or not a person is likely to intervene in a situation such as a sexual assault include: noting the harm and interpreting it correctly; feeling personally responsible for the safety of others; feeling personally powerful enough to speak up and take action; having practical intervention skills and effective “scripts” to follow; and feeling that other bystanders around them will support them.

In other words, it’s not enough to simply teach “right from wrong”. Students need targeted education on sexual assault and informed consent combined with the explicit teaching of ethical bystander skills. It’s also important that we praise the positive stories of ethical bystanders, such as the woman at the Keith Urban concert who took action.

Focusing on positive stories is not only validating for those being praised. It’s also an important strategy in normalising ethical behaviour.

After all, when news reports focus primarily on the behaviour of those who mock or ignore the plight of sexual assault victims, this can end up creating a mistaken perception that this is the dominant social attitude. The reality is the exact opposite: most people are appalled by sexual assault and disgusted by those who ridicule victims. Reaffirming that support for victims is the dominant view discredits those who feel otherwise.  More importantly, it speaks to those bystanders who do care.

It lets them know they have numbers on their side.

* Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling Lifeline 131 114, Mensline 1300 789 978, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.

To read the book Nina and I wrote for teen girls on dating and relationships, view the site here: LOVEABILITY. 

The following guest post is shared with permission from the author, the wonderful Matt Glover from MGA Counselling Services. Matt wrote this following a discussion I had with him and two other professionals I admire, Sarah McMahon from BodyMatters and Jacqui Manning, The Friendly Psychologist. Sarah has also put together an excellent resource on how to select a therapist for eating disorders which may be viewed here.

Recently I was having a discussion with Dannielle Miller from Enlighten Education about what to look for when choosing a counsellor or psychologist.  In Australia, we still live in a culture that places some stigma on seeing a mental health professional, and so we are hesitant to ‘ask around’ like we do when looking for a plumber or dentist. If you’re wrestling with a mental health issues, a relationship problem, a personal issue, or just feel plain stuck, make sure you check the following before booking a session with a counsellor or psychologist.

1. Check the qualifications. While Psychology and Social Work are regulated industries, Counselling is not. Anybody can set themselves up as a counsellor and charge a premium without even a single hour of training. Online certificates and diploma’s abound in counselling, but these are little better than nothing at all. Many of them do not require any sort of supervised placement and barely scratch the surface of best practice when it comes to the different models of therapy. For counsellors, I would suggest sticking with those that have a Bachelor degree or above, from a reputable university. When you ring to make a booking, ask where the therapist did their training.

2. Check the accreditation. Make sure the counsellor you see is accredited at more than student level with one of the professional bodies. The professional bodies maintain a code of ethics for the industry and ensure that individual therapists are engaged in ongoing professional development and supervision. As a counsellor, I’m accredited through the Australian Counselling Association, but there are equivalent associations for Psychologists and Social Workers.

3. Check the experience. Regardless of your heart for helping people, it takes a while to become really proficient in the helping industries. I say to aspiring counsellors to try and get work with a larger agency before thinking about  private work or opening your own practice. I worked for 14 years for other organisations before opening MGA. When you ring a therapist, ask them how long they’ve been practicing. If they say “two weeks”, wish them well for their career, hang up, and call the next person on your list.

4. Check the specialty. Most of us have a field that we specialize in, based on our own interests and history. In my practice, we focus on sexuality, spirituality, and mental health, with individual therapists at MGA having more focused areas like relationships, eating disorders and the like. If you’re after some help with depression, for instance, make sure your therapist has experience working in that area. Associated with this point is the model of therapy. There’s lots of different ‘therapies’ – some will suit you and others won’t. CBT has been popular in the past but seems to be going out of fashion in recent years. Gestalt is still popular, as is person centered therapy. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is the model we use at MGA, but each client is treated according to their needs, not pushed through a conveyor belt.

5. Check the “fit.” If you find you don’t really click with your therapist, find somebody else. I don’t have any research to back this up at all, but my feeling is that at least 50% of a good outcome in counselling depends on how well you get along with your counsellor. If you have a counsellor that is rude, irritating, talks about themselves all the time, seems uninterested, hurries you along, doesn’t listen or even smells funny, then you won’t get the most out of your time together. You may even miss some important, helpful suggestions because you really just don’t like them very much. Sometimes a good outcome does take time, but you want to take that journey with somebody who you connect with well.

6. Check the reputation. This is a little harder to do, but ask around to see what sort of reputation a therapist has. Personal recommendations are not a rock solid guarantee (you have to get along well with them remember) but it’s nice to know that there is some good reports about the person you are seeing.

7. Check the responsibility. By this I mean, check that you have responsibility for where the sessions go and what it is you cover. I do a lot of work with the transgender community and I’ve lost count how many times clients say to me that their previous counsellor talked about nothing but their gender transition, despite the client wanting to see them for an entirely different reason. (Eg, bullying at work) In sessions, make sure you talk about what YOU want to talk about. As things unfold, you may uncover other things that you need to work on – a skilled therapist will help you do this. But if your counsellor insists on making you talk about things that seem irrelevant and they won’t give you a reason why, think about whether you should continue with them.

8. Check the practical stuff. Ask how long the sessions are, what the fees are, whether it has disability access, whether it is close to public transport, is there parking available, what are the opening hours and so on. Whatever practical things are important to you, ask about them. Also check to see if your therapist has any long holidays planned – sometimes a break in momentum can set you back, so if they’re going to be away for six months, ask for somebody else.

The lovely Jacqui and I on the set of channel 9's Mornings show.

The lovely Jacqui and I on the set of channel 9′s Mornings show.

Jacqui offered a few final thoughts in addition to these I thought worth sharing here too: “Also, I’d say that if the work feels confronting, that’s OK, therapy is meant to make shifts and sometimes these can feel uncomfortable but it shouldn’t stay that way for long. The therapist should be skilled at going at your pace, but if they’re not, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask them to slow down. And if you don’t click with one therapist? Don’t give up on the process. It’s like finding a good hairdresser, it can take time to find the right person to trust, but you don’t stop getting your hair done if you have had one bad haircut.”

This week I was invited to join regular panelist, Principal of Southport High School Steven Mcluckie and three times Olympic champion Hockey Player Nikki Hudson on ABC Radio Gold Coast’s parenting panel hosted by Nicole Dyer. I think the discussion is well worth a listen.  My perspective on a few issues was quite different to the other panellists- particularly in relation to girls and clothing choices (an issue also explored at my blog here).  Your thoughts?

LISTEN: Role Models for girls and more – ABC Radio Gold Coast audio.
 

Last week I noticed a number of teen girls I am friends with on Facebook were lamenting their “winter bodies.”  I posted this on my Page for them; feel free to share and republish for the young women in your life.

FEELING THE WINTER-WEIGHT-WOES?

1. Don’t obsess over slight weight fluctuations. We are actually genetically programmed to crave foods that will make us heavier in winter as our bodies strive to store fat. A 1-3 kilo gain may feel huge to you, but honestly? No-one else will notice and your health will absolutely not be compromised by this – promise! In fact, a few kilos may increase your resilience to disease and allow you to recover from injury faster. Sadly, however, I cannot promise you that constant weight whinging may not annoy your loved ones to the point of giving you a Chinese burn. And it will absolutely steal your sense of happiness. So yeah…self- loathing? That is hazardous to your health.*

2. Your body is not designed to fit in with fashion trends. We have been conditioned by media images that demand a look that is so thin, very few of us are able to achieve this through healthy means. Further, this media ideal is often made even more unobtainable as it is artificially distorted through photoshop etc. When we are bombarded with messages like these, we may begin to think we will only be loved / successful / accepted if we are also very thin. Reality? Many studies find our peers, and the opposite sex, find us more attractive when we are slightly heavier than we think is ideal. And there is no study (I dare you to find even one!) that shows ideal photoshopped-model-types lead happier, more loving lives. In other words – we are absolutely our own harshest critics. Take your body loathing and divide it by 100. Then subtract this score by another 100. Then go eat something yummy and nutritious.

3. Show YOU the love! If you really think you need to manage your weight as you just aren’t eating well ( and we all know how to get this back on track surely? We have been raised on nutritional advice since before we could read) and you really aren’t moving enough? Fabulous! Good on you for calling time out! But don’t start with self-hate. When the body feels hated it craves comfort, and for most of us, comfort equates with food. Since birth we have been programmed to be comforted by eating hence why babies often suckle simply for security or a sense of serenity rather than out of hunger. Start – and finish – with LOVE. Always! Go for long walks in the winter sunshine, get a massage, paint your toe-nails, buy a cheap pair of larger sized pants so you feel good while learning to reconnect with your body (rather than feeling literally stifled) and tell you body all the time how much you appreciate it and care for it.

Our bodies are, after all, our best, and most, forever friends. Diets? Not so much.

* Obviously I am making light here – there are serious mental and physical health ramifications associated with excessive dieting / food obsession. 

Winter pampering.

Winter pampering.

Show and Tell

This week I am hoping you’ll indulge me and allow me to share two projects I have been working on behind the scenes that have  both just been launched.

Screen shot 2014-06-24 at 11.10.20 AM

As the co-founder and CEO of Australia’s largest provider of in-school workshops for girls, Enlighten Education, and as an author of three books aimed at supporting young women, I am often asked, ”But what about the boys?“

Yes. Boys absolutely need and deserve support. As the mother of a 12 year old boy, this matters to me at a deeply personal level.

Disengagement from school, the pressure to look buffed, feeling like they cannot express the full rage of emotions, fall outs with their mates, limiting gender stereotypes… all are issues plaguing our boys. Meanwhile we also need to do the urgent work that is required to educate them in order to help eliminate violence against women.

My two decades of experience in education, and my expertise in designing multi-award winning, engaging programs that can be delivered in schools, lead me to design our debut program – ”Myth Busting; busting stereotypes that harm boys.“ I also called on the wisdom of colleague and anti-violence campaigner Nina Funnell in producing elements of this – it truly is a considered, positive, and pro-active initiative.

And because I believe boys need more strong male role models, I recruited two highly experienced, qualified presenters with proven track records of working face-to-face with boys and men to lead these conversations that matter.

I am really proud of this initiative and of my team. I know that together we will create some really good fellas. Do check out our new site here: www.goodfellased.com

And secondly, the advertisement Nina Funnell and I were asked to create for the Australian Of The Year Awards has just ben launched! This ad will feature on every commercial Tv station nationally,and on all QANTAS flights. I will confess to shedding a tear when I first watched it – don’t the young women I was working with that day (from Stella Maris college in Sydney) shine?

What an honour to be asked to help promote building up the many local heroes we have in our community!

Last week I shared three of the five things I, and the other noted Feminists I asked to contribute, believe we need to stop saying to girls now. You can read this post here: “That skirt is sending out the wrong message” and 5 other things we should never say to girls.  It’s now time to share the other messages that, even though they may be well intentioned, do in fact have the potential to harm.

4. “She is only interested in exploring her sexuality as she’s troubled.”

It can be confronting for us to accept that our children will grow up and become sexual beings. However, self-motivated sexual exploration and age-appropriate information about sexuality are vital to our daughters emerging as healthy, whole women. Given that for many girls puberty will start in their early teen years, we should start having conversations with them about sex and sexuality while they are young. We need to offer them alternative voices and role models of sexuality to those they are exposed to in the media and in pornography. This is especially important given that advertisers and broadcasters certainly will be targeting them with messages about sexuality long before their early teen years; to me it seems damaging for girls who are just developing their own sexuality to be influenced largely by porn-inspired examples of sexuality. I am concerned not just because there are too many hyper-sexualised messages bombarding our girls, but because the ideal being presented to them of female sexuality is so narrow. Just as we are told that only a leggy size-8 model can be truly beautiful, we are now being told that only a busty, wet and wild blonde (who is solely focused on male pleasure) can be truly sexy. Women’s (and men’s) sexuality is, in reality, so much more diverse and complicated.

But before we can begin having truly meaningful conversations around our girls’ sexuality, we need to also establish a positive and non-judgemental attitude because in my experience, a negative or stigmatising attitude towards girls’ sexual development may cause harm, particularly when it comes from parents, teachers or other trusted figures. 

Writer Emily Maguire offered an important caution against pathologizing female sexuality:

The idea that teen girls are asexual unless ‘activated’ by some external force. This is so common – this denial of the fact that teenage girls might be into sex (doing it, talking about it, imagining it, whatever) because they’re sexually developing human beings. It’s like, a boy who is distracted by lust, eager to gain sexual experience and proud of himself when he does so, is normal. A girl who acts this way is a dupe with low-self-esteem, a cautionary tale. Yes, there are external pressures on girls to look and behave in particular ways related to their sexuality, but more acknowledgement that not all sexually active/interested teenage girls have had their sexuality imposed on them by advertisers, pop culture or predatory men would be good. In fact, a lot of them, a lot of the time, are simply doing what feels good. (Or what they think might feel good, getting better at figuring out what that might be as they go along).

Nina Funnell, who co-wrote Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships, with me, also warned against shaming:

We still teach girls to equate promiscuity with low self-esteem and poor self-respect. Meanwhile boys are told that it’s only natural that they would want to sow their wild oats. The reality is that both boys and girls have sexual urges, libidos, pumping hormones and a desire for physical intimacy, pleasure, arousal and connection. So why do we shame girls, and teach them that they must have low self-esteem if they crave the exact same thing boys crave?

5.  ”Pink is for girlie girls!”

Emily Maguire in her essay  “Letter to the Girls I misjudged” laments the fact that as a young girl she associated all things traditionally girly with weakness and took great pride in being seen as “one of the blokes.” This idea was extended by Clementine Ford in her post “Betraying Our Girlhood”;

Taking up arms against the demonisation of girlhood isn’t about reclaiming our right to love lipstick or dresses or have the occasional conversation about Ryan Gosling’s bottom – although those things are all perfectly fine. The fierce determination to distance ourselves from anything perceptibly “girlie” only furthers the stereotype that women who like “girlie” things are stupid and one-dimensional – and indeed that girlieness itself is stupid and one-dimensional. Some girls – like me – rejected boys’ toys entirely as children, loved pink and watched movies about high-school girls falling in love, yet they still grew up to be strident feminists. We’re all different.

As adult women, Nina Funnell and I have both admitted to each other (almost tentatively for fear of losing some feminist credibility) that as little girls we were bower-bird like in our pursuit for all that was shiny, pretty and pink. We adored our Barbies, were besotted by anything princess-like and suspect that were they around back then — we would have sold our little glittered-up souls for a Bratz. And yet like Clementine, we somehow managed to turn out just fine ( we explored this idea in a piece published by the Sydney Morning Herald: Barbie’s not an issue if girls can think for themselves). Raising healthy, well-adjusted girls has less to do with the toys they play with ( or the colours they chose to wear) and more to do with the values we instill in them. By teaching our children to think critically about cultural goods and by equipping them with skills to navigate complex cultural messages we will be empowering them for life. Education — not panic — enables girls to see clearly, think critically, and reinvent their worlds.

Girls too need to be told that there are many ways in which they can chose to be a girl and a woman. Enlighten Education Presenter, and Manager for WA, Nikki Davis agreed:

When I work with teen girls I tell them upfront that I have always been attracted to very traditionally “girlie” things – I demanded to choose my own (usually pink) clothes from age 3, dressed up as a Princess at every available opportunity and I still love high heels and make up. I then go on to tell them how important feminism is to me and how powerful I believe we all can be as women.  I love to see the relief on the faces of a number of girls in the room as they realize that they don’t have to trade in their nail polish or love of clothes to be strong and independent with opinions that matter. I think telling girls that they have to fit into any sort of “mould” is incredibly limiting and we risk perpetuating age-old ideas around women having labels like ‘sporty’,  ‘girlie’ or ‘tough’. There’s no reason why a woman can’t be all of those things if she chooses to be!

Once again, I’d love to hear from you. What messages do you think we deliver to young women that are harmful? 

 

I often find myself frustrated by much of the dialogue that surrounds teen girls as it can in fact be very damaging. Sadly, those that use these assumptions and stereotypes are often those who may well have girls’ best interests at heart, but are possibly unaware as to how harmful the messages they are delivering really are.

I asked a number of leading feminists and educators to set the record straight for us and ensure that when we aim to support girls, we don’t  inadvertently matters worse for them. Over the next few weeks I shall share their responses.

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Image taken from Jezebel -

1. Skirt length = a measure of morality

The policing of the way teen girls wear their school uniform really concerns me. Whilst uniform guidelines are fine and part of life for both genders, framing these in terms of morality is not. So many teen girls tell me they have been told things like: “You’re a good girl, but that skirt length sends off the wrong message” , or “You’re distracting the boys…”. This is the slippery slope that excuses the harassment of girls based on their clothing choice and ultimately may lead them to feel shame about their bodies ( an idea I have explored before here).  Author, columnist and academic  Dr Karen Brooks agrees:

I think what bothers me most about this whole uniform and clothing issue is that somehow, female clothing has become a visual barometer that measures a woman/girl’s morality and ethics and somehow also controls men’s. That’s why claims that if a man or boy is distracted/loses control/rapes/abuses/harrasses etc. then it’s the girl/woman’s fault carry weight in society. We still somehow believe that a woman’s dress indicates her morality and invites or rejects (male) attention. Well, if that’s the case, why is that women and girls who wear hijabs or dress in non-revelaing clothing are still raped/attract unwanted attention/harrassed and are also held accountable for male behaviour when it is transgressive and/or violent?

Teachers surely know it’s not the short skirt that warrants changing, but antediluvian attitudes that let males off the hook.

It’s the Damned Whores and God’s Police model all over again, yet what girl’s are being told is that what they wear is a way of modifying, “policing” male behaviour and their own sexuality as well. There is a false notion circulating that women can control men and keep ourselves “safe” by our clothing choices. What utter nonsense.

Clothing is not the issue. Society is. Yes, we need to take responsibility for our behaviours, regardless of sex. As long as we allow men and boys to shift blame for their choices, for their harassment or worse of women, nothing will be resolved. Clothes do not maketh the woman, but actions maketh the man (and woman)!

Feminist web site jezebel recently published a thought provoking piece, “Is Your Dress Code Sexist? A Guide.” This paragraph particularly resonated with me:

Look: I understand the desire a school might have to encourage students to dress respectfully and semi-professionally; out-of-the-ordinary or extreme clothing is distracting on a purely asexual level. Could you study next to a guy in a clown suit? Or a woman wearing an enormous Pharrell hat that plays music? I couldn’t. The key is to make it clear that both men and women need to adhere to any rules put in place, and that the rules are to ensure student focus is on the instructor rather than on other students.

And the reality is that no matter how careful an organization is to make sure they don’t sound …sexist…, women have more at stake in adhering to dress codes than men do, because women’s fashion dictates that women must wear less in order to be fashionable. Girls get so many sets of conflicting instructions that they’ll be punished by either their peers or their school no matter what they do. Wear revealing clothing, or you’re a dork, says the media to women. Don’t wear revealing clothing, or you’re a slut, say institutions to women. Talk about distracting.

When I asked her for her input, journalist Tracey Spicer said she thinks it is also important for us to honestly reflect on how we dressed as young women too:

What I really hate are the casually sexist comments about how young women are dressed for a night on the town. All this ‘They look like hookers!’ and ‘They’re asking for it’ stuff. For goodness sake, I used to dress in revealing outfits at that age, as I was discovering my sexuality. That doesn’t mean I’m asking to be sexually assaulted.

2. Mean Girls

Social commentator and writer Jane Caro wishes we would question the rhetoric around girls as “mean girls” :

The idea that girls are bitchy and nasty to one another, whereas boys are simple creatures who fix things with a good thump (?).

We expect women to tend relationships, to do the emotional care taking, girls know this but when they are young, they’re just learning about relationships and they do them badly. Instead of congratulating them for taking on this difficult and complex task (understanding how people relate to one another), we jump all over them & stereotype them as mean girls. This drives me nuts! I also hate the moral panic around ‘bullying’, which often ends up with us bullying the supposed bullies. We need to be much clearer about what bullying is and what it isn’t, and that most kids are both victims & perpetrators at various times. As are we all.

It is the first point Jane raises that was explored at the Festival Of Dangerous Ideas session entitled All Women Hate Each Other. I was privileged to speak at this alongside the truly awesome Germaine Greer, Tara Moss and Eva Cox. You may watch this session here: http://play.sydneyoperahouse.com/index.php/media/1654-All-Women-Hate-Each-Other.html

Melissa Carson, the Co-ordinator of Innovative Learning at boys’ school Oakhill College also believes the boys-as-less-complex creatures myth is dismissive of the complex nature of mate-ship and equally as damaging to boys: “I’ve worked closely with young men for over ten years and I can tell you they do stew on their friendship fall-outs. They report feelings of sadness, anger and frustration over their friendships and often don’t know how to resolve things. They are every bit as complicated as young women and in need of just as much support.”

3. One mistake and you’re out!

The “one mistake and you’re doomed” approach to educating young people drives me insane. I often hear this in the context of cyber training; messages like:  ”If you ever post something on Facebook that’s not ideal, you’ll never be employed and will be socially shamed. And you will never be able to make that go away.” Implication? You may as well give up now if you’ve done something silly as you can’t ever make that right. Sadly, it is messages like this that lead young people to despair and to want to hide their errors for fear of being judged. Incidentally, I often wonder just who will be employed in the future if this was in fact true as I can’t imagine there will be anyone who hasn’t at least done one thing on-line that wasn’t smart at some stage in their youth. Again, Dr Karen Brooks agreed:

As for the cyber mistake. Oh puhleez! Yes, we need to educate young people that what they post could be potentially damaging and may impact in the future, but when and if they do post something inappropriate, we should also rally to ensure they understand that they can overcome this. In fact, understanding you can move beyond the inappropriate photo or posting can not only build resilience, but instil valuable lessons in how to cope with negative feedback, distressing reactions, how to negotiate an emotional and psychological minefield, but also how important it is to own what you’ve done/posted. Take responsibility and learn from it and move on (nothing to see here!). If it hits you in the face in later years, then take responsibility again, but also contextualise it and demonstrate how much you grew from that moment and what lessons you took away from the (bad and silly) experience to become the person you are now.

Yes, we catastrophize to ours and the kids’ detriment. So much for resilience, we’re teaching them to fall apart at the first mistake and to cry “my life is over!”. Ridiculous!

Author, speaker and advocate Nina Funnell concurred:

The most dangerous thing we can ever say to a young person is that there is no way forward, no light at the end of the tunnel, no possibility of recovery. And yet this is exactly the message they hear when we tell them that once you post something online, it is there forever, the damage is permanent and will never lighten. If a young person has made a mistake, catastrophising the situation will only lead to catastrophic outcomes and already we have seen one case in America where a teen took her life following a school seminar which reinforced the notion that she could never get a job or a university degree since she had already made an online mistake. Instead of this doom and gloom approach, we need to help teens develop resilience, the strength to overcome setbacks, and the insight to be able to put their mistakes into context.

More things we need to stop saying to girls NOW next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What messages do you think we deliver to young women that are harmful? 

The following guest post is by the wonderful Angela Mollard. Angela is a columnist, parent and author of parenting book The Smallest Things I loved contributing to this post (originally published in Sunday Life, May 25) which is reflective of articles I’ve written on this very theme, including a piece that was published in the feminist anthology Destroying The Joint; Beyond jeering – an unapologetic love letter to teen girls. 

Me with girls from the Australian International School, Singapore.

Me with girls from the Australian International School, Singapore.

Remember when we could barely get through a week without a pity party for Jennifer Aniston?

“Poor thing,” we’d collectively exclaim, as another magazine cover would reveal she was permanently lonely, grievously scarred by Brad, intimidated by Angelina and either pregnant or DEVASTATED by baby loss, often in the same week.

Occasionally she’d find a new boyfriend and the magazines would go on 24-hour bump watch, or she’d get her hair cut and look particularly foxy, and we’d all breathe a sigh of relief and think, phew, thank goodness for that, Jen’s alright.

It’s a thing we do with young women — build them up, obsess about their hair/clothes/boyfriends/character, then when they do something silly, or we get bored, you can feel the global tut of disapprobation.

“What’s that, everyone? An apology for treating me like one big sop story for so many years?”

It happened to Gwyneth Paltrow (Oscars speech 1999) and Anne Hathaway, and right now it’s Jennifer Lawrence — “oh I tripped again, is it still cute?” – who’s about to plummet from acclaim to disdain.

It’s one thing if you’re famous and can mitigate the fallout with a $5 million campaign for Chanel, or a trip to the Bahamas with your 30 favourite besties. But when the scorn and the faux hand wringing leaches down to young girls as a whole, we really need to step away from our assumptions and see them for who they really are.

Because if you believe the hype — and the occasional breathy columnist — girls are in crisis. They hate their bodies, they can’t communicate with boys, they’re obsessed with selfies, they’re the victims of porn-style sex, and they have terrible relationships with their parents.

No one talks about boys like this unless they’re a young footballer running amok, in which case they’re the architect of their own stupidity.

Well I’m calling bullshit, because if every sentence that starts with “girl” then ends with “neurosis”, “body-obsessed”, “eating disorders”, “anxiety” “self-harm” and “social media addict”, we may as well hand-deliver the script at birth and leave them to live it out. Girls can’t be what they can’t see and yet there’s an industry thriving on telling them how badly they’re messed up.

So here’s what I see.

I see girls communicating better than ever. It may not be face to face, but they’re expressing themselves and talking about their lives, whether via Facebook, Instagram, Kik or Snapchat.

Dannielle Miller, author of Loveability: An Empowered Girls Guide to Dating and Relationships, points out that social media has broadened their friendships beyond the school gate.

“Look at Debbie and Sue in Puberty Blues — they either had to meet up or talk on the phone. Today’s kids are powerfully connected and that’s reinforcing their human relationships.”

Yes we hear of girls being “dumped” online or via text, but wasn’t it ever thus? I’ll never forget Mark Munro (sorry mate, but I’ve waited years for this) enlisting his friend. “Angela, it’s Tim here. Mark doesn’t want to go out with you anymore. Bye.” There are still those jerks (of both genders), and long may they be pilloried.

What else? Oh, I see literary heroines aplenty. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Tris from Divergent make Little Women look like, well, little women. But it’s John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars — due out in cinemas on June 5 — that’s become a social media supernova.

Quirky, philosophical and funny, it tells the story of two teens who meet at a cancer support group. Like Love Story, the best-selling book in the US in 1970, it’s bittersweet, but with none of the “love means never having to say you’re sorry” nonsense. The characters, Hazel and Gus, are the furthest thing from clichés, but their love is every teen’s — “As he read,” says Hazel, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

Granted, one of the agonies of modern love is the public way in which it is played out. Status updates and Facebook feeds give a constant reminder, but as Miller points out, that’s not “teen typical”. As she says: “All of us are trying to make sense of relationships in the age of technology.” Seeing the person you love move on brings pain, but it also grows greater resilience.

Porn? Yes, it’s a thing. But increasingly visible are the messages to counter it. In her school workshops, Miller teaches girls how to set their own boundaries and to challenge the idea that “boys do” while “girls get done”.

As for fears that they lack “commitment” — that relationships are now referred to as “having a thing” — it’s just semantics. As a 21-year-old friend told me: “The idea that we don’t have real flesh and blood relationships is just stupid. Me and most of my friends are in relationships and we talk about our feelings, hopes and aspirations.”

Body image concerns and learning how to protect themselves from abuse remain critical issues for girls. But as Jennifer, Gwyneth, Anne and now J-Law have proved you are so much more than the messages peddled about you.

I’m thrilled to be sharing this brilliant post by a colleague I adore; the always-wise Dr Karen Brooks. This was first published by The Courier Mail, 26th May.
I had the opportunity to talk to this on channel 7′s The Morning Show. You may watch this segment below.

At the Positive Schools Mental Health and Wellbeing Conference held at the Brisbane Convention Centre last week, teachers were told the emphasis on self-esteem in education and parenting has failed our children.

Rather than creating happy, confident kids, the self-esteem movement has contributed to what behavioural psychiatrist Dr David Sack calls “a generation of self-obsessed, irresponsible and unmotivated kids”.

Other experts describe kids unable to deal with adversity, anti-social behaviour, gross egotism, selfishness and an overweening sense of entitlement.

Described sometimes as cottonwool, eggshell and even teacup kids (because they’re so fragile), children raised under the self-esteem banner have no resilience and crumble at the first sign of criticism or difficulty.

Where and how did something so well-intended go so wrong?

The self-esteem movement began in 1969 with the publication of Nathaniel Braden’s book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem. Over the next 30 years, his idea that high self-esteem was the most valuable gift we can give to children was absorbed into the popular consciousness, the education system and parenting.

Evidence of its pervasiveness can also be seen in reality TV and the huge self-help industry, including motivational speakers.

But it seems as if the ideas and methodologies Braden spawned have backfired.

Deakin University Adjunct Professor Helen McGrath, argues “… a lot of the people who gloat about how to develop self-esteem are now writing about how this is actually a dangerous thing to do because what we are really doing is producing kids who are narcissistic because we focus too much on telling them how good they are, how wonderful they are, how everything they do is fantastic”.

Some have been taught to have no resilience and crumble at the first sign of difficulty.

Some have been taught to have no resilience and crumble at the first sign of difficulty.

Handing out ribbons to every child in a race; discouraging competition, ensuring no report card contains words that might offend, upset, or indicate (God forbid) how ordinary or bad a child’s performance at school really is, we’ve created a conformists’ paradise of mediocrity, where those at the top are given the same kind of accolades as those at the bottom and no one strives anymore.

After all, what’s the point when everyone is “special”, “gifted” and “smart”?

Focused on showering praise and positive comments upon our kids to shore up self-esteem, even when they don’t deserve them, it’s only recently we’ve noted the concomitant rise in depression, body dysmorphia, bullying and anxiety.

Discouraged from giving honest critiques of students’ abilities and understandably nervous about the fallout when they do, teachers are forced to pander to the ideals spouted in this outdated and hideously damaging self-esteem movement.

The consequences of this are not only a dumbing-down of every level of education but a fear of candid and constructive feedback – the cornerstones of life-learning. Parents who fight their kids’ battles – whether it be poor test results, being left out of a team or bad behaviour in the classroom, are teaching kids they don’t need to deal with adversity, change their manner or try harder either – not when mum or dad steps into the ring on their behalf.

Yet kids only blossom when they can move out their parents’ shadows.

There’s no doubt that social networking facilitates narcissism, encouraging a generation to use any means at their disposal to shore up their fragile self-esteem and seek approval (“likes”). In the cyberworld, increasing risks are taken to maintain a distorted sense of self-importance and relevance – think of sexting.

Dr Lauren LaPorta, chairman of the department of psychiatry at St Joseph’s Regional Medical Centre in New Jersey, argues that through social media, “Relationships become shallower and more fleeting; self-interest exceeds the common good. The costs of narcissism, then, are paid by the society at large.”

Dannielle Miller, CEO of Enlighten Education, who runs self-esteem and school-to-work-transition workshops for young people, believes that self-esteem is all about connectedness, compassion and community – an ability to empathise with others. She says in order to value yourself, you must value the person next to you. Appreciating the skills you have, upskilling where necessary, she encourages young people to respect what others bring to situations, to be prepared to start at the bottom and to adapt.

Like many other experts, Miller believes high self-esteem isn’t the problem as much as false self-esteem. Steve Baskin, writing in Psychology Today, would agree. “Self-esteem is not something conferred, it is earned through taking risks and developing skills. When children stretch themselves, they expand their sense of their own capability and then feel confident to tackle the next challenge. Confidence comes from competence – we do not bestow it as a gift.”

In other words, despite what Braden argued in the 1960s, self-esteem does not cause high grades, high grades (earned through intellect, study, dedication, passion and a combination of all these) cause high self-esteem.

In shielding our kids from the vagaries of life, we’re doing them a huge disservice. We insulate them from experiences that encourage growth, mental toughness and build healthy self-esteem. Worse, we reinforce the notion they’re not capable of coping on their own.

If we want to prepare our kids for adult life – one that’s often harsh – then we owe it to them to give them a gift all right: resilience.

Dr Karen Brooks is an associate professor at the UQ Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies.


1613882_10152158812673105_2873685670766955317_nOn Wednesday of this week I had the enormous privilege of attending the In Style Magazine Women Of Style Awards as a Finalist in the Charity and Community category.

I was so incredibly thrilled to be short -listed, particularly in this category, for Enlighten was established as a social enterprise and as such, is quite a unique entity in the domain in which we chose to work.

Social enterprises are:

  • Driven by a public or community cause, be it social, environmental, cultural or economic.
  • Derive most of their income from trade, not donations.
  • Use the majority of their profits to work towards their social mission.
  • Accountable and transparent.

Other social enterprises you may be familiar with include The Big Issue and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen.

Why was Enlighten set up in this way? After spending most of my early career working in the not-for-profit sector (as an Education Officer employed by the Catholic Education Office developing innovative programs to assist students at risk) I know how frustrating it is to try to do meaningful work that will have a long-term impact if one needs to continually rely on donations and external funding support. Sadly, those working in this sector often spend the vast majority of their time looking for funding rather than actually doing the work that inspires them ( and that the community assume they will be doing)! The table below may surprise you – I certainly find the use of donations being spent to merely drive the hunger for more money at the very least problematic.

 

Screen shot 2014-05-24 at 11.35.43 AM

 

Whilst working as an Education Officer in the area of school to work transition and in seeking and creating innovative approaches towards this, I began studying a Masters in Business Administration and writing a course that was approved for study for the NSW HSC on social entrepreneurship. I became obsessed with the idea that business really could move the world by generating not just profit, but social change.

I decided, therefore, when I established Enlighten Education with my partner Francesca Kaoutal that our business would need to be self-sufficient; and that the work we did would need to be valued enough for clients to be prepared to place a value on it. I was also loathe to establish my girl-changing idea as a charity as I did not want to have to be in a position where I would need to accept donations off commercial entities that might perhaps want to see brand placement be part of the trade-off, or associate our work with their marketing -to- teens / girls and women agenda (think Dove’s Real Beauty campaign and their work in schools). I wanted Enlighten to be commercial free!

And might I add that running Enlighten this way is not easy. If we were a charity, we would be eligible not only for donations, but for significant tax breaks ( like all small businesses, I will admit to finding taxes sometimes crippling). Charities receive income tax concessions, franking credits, goods and service tax concessions, fringe benefit tax rebates and more! On a personal note, I would be earning far more too if I was employed in a similar role in a non-profit ( in fact, I took a 50% pay cut for the first 5 years that I ran Enlighten and still earn far less than CEO’s of similar charitable organisations).

So to see our highly successful social enterprise ( we work with over 20,000 teen girls each year , have developed a team of over team of passionate, talented women who deliver our programs across three countries, give back by actively supporting charities, do much advocacy work in the community, pay taxes that contribute to the country’s overall benefit, and have received widespread acclaim for our work) recognised as a valued player in the community was an absolute confirmation of the way in which we have chosen to be change-makers.

So inspired by Samah! Do read about her work.

So inspired by Samah! Do read about her work.

As a business woman, I think more entities who wish to make positive community changes need to also look at our model and consider becoming a social enterprise too rather than a charity for surely, giving increasing financial pressures on the always cash-strapped charity sector, we need to seek more entrepreneurial, self-sustaining models.

In saying all this, I was absolutely thrilled for the other two Finalists who were both actively involved in more traditional charitable work – Olivia Newtown John, and the winner Samah Hadid. Samah is an absolute dynamo and I am thrilled she and I will soon meet to compare stories and plan the revolution.

The world needs many change makers – including those who seek creative ways to bringing about this change.

Yep. I am damn  proud of Enlighten and all she has achieved, and will continue to achieve for our girls. And yep; I was damn proud to see this externally acknowledged.

You may wish to read more about our work in the community here too: http://www.enlighteneducation.com/in-the-community/

 

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