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Club 21, “girl world” exposed: binge drinking, bullying, low self esteem and distorted body image.

AND the importance of moving beyond finger pointing.

Queensland school girls have formed an exclusive club, known as Club 21, which encourages members to be ranked between 1 and 21 based on their thinness, good looks, binge drinking escapades and popularity with boys. This number is then drawn on their hand for all to see.

The club not only operates at St Patrick’s Mackay, but has gone global via the internet and chat rooms.

This story has caused significant shock in the media. However it is unlikely this type of bullying – of each other and those who didn’t make it into the club – came as a shock to many teen girls. It was likely no surprise to their teachers either, who witness the various manifestations of the “Compare and Despair” game that teen girls are so good at playing, in playgrounds right across Australia. Recent studies show three out of five teen girls report being teased about their appearance at school. Girls in particular judge themselves and each other on how they look and on how popular they are bohabbo143v2.jpgth with other girls, and with boys.

When I was a teen girl at high school much of lunch time was spent rating our peers. It was our own little real life version of the magazines we grew up with that asked us, in virtually every issue, to decide whether particular clothes were in, or whether a celebrity was hot or not. We felt powerful playing these games – we may not have been able to control many elements of our lives, but we tried to control how we looked through diets, and we could definitely control each other through ridicule.

We may not have had a number reflecting these scores branded on our hands, but the scores were branded on our psyches.

The rules in girl rating games, both then and now, are not difficult to follow. Be considered hot by your peers and in particular by boys – and score points. Getting a highly desired boyfriend means an instant advance to the top of the club. I was lucky enough to have landed the school “spunk” at one stage and was elevated from classroom “brainiac” to the girl everyone wanted to know almost over night. He dumped me a year later for a girl considered even hotter – at just 14 she was already a model appearing in women’s magazines and parading in labels sold only to rich thirty-somethings. My dream run at the top of the charts was destroyed.

What makes this latest story of highly organised girl competiveness newsworthy is the use of technology to spread the ranks.

In my early years as a teacher in High Schools, I found it relatively easy to intercept notes critiquing other girls. Technology means these same messages can now can reach thousands of recipients in moments. Harmful messages found on toilet walls could be scrubbed off – it is much more difficult to delete messages once they have gone global.

The potential for misuse of the cyber world is alarming. But we cannot blame the internet alone. It is after all merely a tool, it is all too easy to blame the evils of technology rather than examining why our society has become more and more toxic for our young people.

Just why has girl self hatred gone mainstream and global?

Years of watching reality TV and being invited to rank contestants and evict / put below the yellow line / vote off those not entertaining enough or thin enough or sexy enough to keep us interested have no doubt played a role. And if Paris can get famous for being rich, thin and for sleeping around why can’t they? Elements of the media have been most hypocritical in their reporting of this incident. They have judged these girls harshly when these young women have really only responded to the fodder they have been fed by these same image obsessed magazines; magazines that perpetuate the misconception that success is dependent largely on appearances and sexual desirability.

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This incident is also a sad reflection of a society that makes our girls feel lonely. When they cannot find real connection at school, or at home, they look for it in cyber world and find all their deepest and darkest fears and fantasies fed on sites that promote eating disorders as a lifestyle choice, sites celebrating images of “girls gone wild” trashed and flashing their breasts at parties.

The reality is many women play this same compare and despair game too. Studies have shown that while up to 65per cent of teenage girls think they are less beautiful than the average girl, 84 per cent of women over 40 think they are less beautiful than the average woman. A survey released by the Australian Women’s Weekly just this week found that only one in six women were happy with their weight, one in five had such a poor body image they avoided mirrors and 45 per cent would have cosmetic surgery if they could afford it. Binge drinking appeared to be rife too, with a third of the women surveyed drinking too much and one in five women admitting she had been told she had a drinking problem.

As grown up women we no longer rank ourselves from 1-21 but many of us do get up in the morning and let the number that flashes up on our scales dictate our mood for the day.

Many of us tell our daughters they do not need to change in order to be beautiful while we rush for botox. We tell them inner beauty counts whilst we invest in plastic surgery and devour magazines that tell us that it is really only about air brushed perfection after all.

We may saddened by Club 21, but why are we shocked? Girls cannot be what they cannot see. If even the grown up girls are comparing and despairing, is it any wonder that our daughters do not know what “I am me, I am ok” looks like?

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Let’s not blame the victims here. After all, these are young girls – pushing boundaries, exploring and making mistakes. We shouldn’t fall into the easy trap of simply making these girls out to be uber bitches. Rather, they are a sad reflection of the times. We need to dig a little deeper and address the toxic messages our girls are fed and ensure these are countered with positive body image programs and messages of strength and resilience.

News flash! With the upgrades to Edublog, I can now upload the audio of an interview I did with Prue McSween on this topic. Enjoy!

  Click to listen – Dannielle Miller and Prue McSween on cyber bullying and Club 21, Radio 2UE. mp3

Published inBody ImageBullyingCyber world / BullyingFriendshipMagazinesMediaParentsPlastic SurgerySchoolsUnderage Drinking

6 Comments

  1. Storm Greenhill-Brown

    I agree with you Danni. This school is not alone in dealing with these very complex groups of girls. This is a community issue and is of course compounded and sustained by technology. I believe that a connection to others (loyal friendships) and a sense of belonging is paramount to high self-esteem and tolerance of others. If we don’t respect and love ourselves it is very difficult to bestow these gifts to others around us. What a fragile suit of amour…a number.. how do you “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” by clinging to a number and the terror of sliding down that slippery slope of perfection. On the inside those girls must be very alone knowing there is no freedom to be gained by that number. There would always be someone beneath you desperate to pull you down and someone just ahead of you clinging onto that pedestal. And the top girl, well, she’s just waiting to fall. I find it desperate and very sad. Our teenage girls need, more than ever, ways to critically reflect on themselves and their own common culture.

  2. Well said Storm.
    Another point to consider – would a group of High School boys who drink, count sexual conquests and create their own “boys club” have made national news??

  3. Selena

    Great post Danni. “Desperate and sad” is right, Storm! I’m really disturbed by this but am not surprised… girls were so cruel to each other when I was in high school, poring over magazines and then judging themselves and others by the same measures. I’m so glad Enlighten is actually present in some schools to combat this.

  4. For those of you who did not know – Selena is the author of “Faking It”, a BRILLIANT publication that reflects the body of research on magazines, mass media, and the sexual objectification of women. I have mentioned it many times throughout this blog. Essential reading.

  5. billgx

    Danni,

    We had a disturbing story in the news here in the USA a couple of weeks ago about a young girl who was beaten up on camera with the intent of posting the video to YouTube.

    I wrote a bit about it on my blog here: http://billgx.edublogs.org/2008/04/13/25/

    After reading this post, I went back to see if there were any further developments on the story. I found this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1p0jO1EqGg&feature=related of the girl’s parents speaking to the media about the incident. They blame the Internet and the Web 2.0 applications that allow online sharing of these despicable acts.

    But I think you are right on track that this is not a technology issue. This is a reflection of what humanity has become. I think these elements have always been with us, only now it is constantly in our face and everyone is aware of it.

    One thing that I think that we should really think hard about is limiting the amount of media exposure our kids get, whether it is television, computers, or what have you. But as pervasive as it is, the only way this can happen is through very strong parenting.

    If parents will take the difficult stand and say, “In this family, we value being together too much to let all of our time be spent watching TV or hanging out on the computer,” I think our kids will greatly benefit.

    (But this is coming from a TV & Internet addict who makes his living teaching computer technologies!)

    I really worry about my own little girl. At the tender age of 6, she is already all too aware of her own looks and clothing and how she compares to her classmates. How can I as a father help her through these struggles?

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