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Month: July 2008

Books Alive 2008

Books Alive is an Australian Government initiative developed through the Australia Council for the Arts, the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body. Its aim? To encourage Australians to pick up a book and read.

As an ex-English teacher and avid reader, I love books. They feed me – intellectually and emotionally. I was delighted to share my family’s passion for reading in the Sunday Telegraph last wekeend (if you click on this jpeg image below you should be able to read an enlarged version).      

When did my love affair with books begin?

When I was two years old I was badly burnt. I received third degree burns all down my right arm and neck. As is often the case with burn victims, I also suffered two major secondary infections – german measles and the potentially life threatening golden staph.

My Great Grandmother burnt me when I went with my Grandmother, her daughter, to visit her in Tasmania. She poured hot cooking oil down me as I set nearby watching breakfast being prepared. As a small girl I was always told this was an accident, yet I questioned why no one ever spoke of this women again, let alone saw her. Why hadn’t we forgiven her I wondered, after all, accidents do happen. It was only when I was older that the truth emerged. Great Grandma had been unstable and had shown signs of violence towards my beloved Grandmother when she was a small girl too. Everyone felt instinctively that she had done this to me deliberately.

I don’t remember whether it was done to me deliberately and ultimately, it does not make any difference. It happened.

What do I remember? Despite being so small, I do remember moments of this event, in particular my Grandmother’s face as she came through the doorway in response to my initial screams. I recall thinking I must be very badly hurt as she looked stricken.

I remember my Doctor too, as I was hospitalized for almost 6 months he became a central figure in my life. Dr Jemisson was kind, gentle, and doting. In his eyes, I could do no wrong. I was his special girl. Heaven help any nurse who dared keep me waiting! I remember gifts: in particular books. Perhaps this was the start of my love affair with words, as words so often soothed me to sleep -literally. I loved being read to. I escaped pain and boredom through tales of Princesses with power and through hearing about the adventures of other little girls who faced great dangers and emerged triumphant.

I soothed myself with words too. I could not yet read of course but I would talk to myself when frightened, repeating over and over the mantra “You’ll be ok, you’ll be all right.” It was my secret spell – and I would caste it to give me strength.

And my strength pulled me through. And I kept my arm. It just looked different to those of my friends with its red, raised, twisted flesh. It’s flap of skin near my elbow that looked taunt when my arm was stretched out, and hung loose when my arm was bent. Yet as a small child this difference did not concern me – I was so much more than my body!

I was a busy, bossy little girl. I had a younger sister to organise, lollies to eat, Barbies to collect and of course, once school started, more books to devour. Childhood for me was not about my body. Rather my body was merely and instrument to carry me from one adventure to the next. When I wanted to join my friends at the beach, I just had Mum cut the toes out of one of my father’s socks and popped that on to protect my arm from the sun. Problem solved!

Yet by the time I turned 10 years of age, things definitely changed. I started noticing boys. And I started noticing the girls the boys noticed. At school the boys preferred the alpha girls – popular, pretty, often good at sport. I was a pretty enough girl and had a few close friends, but as I was more interested in reading than netball, I was definitely not alpha material. It wasn’t just at school though that I received messages about what defined beauty and sexual attractiveness. My Barbies, Charlie’s Angels, ABBA…all taught me that to be a desired woman, I would need to be thin, beautiful and immaculately groomed. No scars allowed.

I entered adolescence and, like most girls, began a new internal conversation. I was no longer casting spells to heal myself. Instead, I was engaging in darker, self destructive thoughts and telling myself that I was not enough. Not pretty enough, not thin enough, not popular enough. Growing up into an adolescent girl, my feelings of inadequacy due to my scarring became quite overwhelming; I was still a bright and ambitious but my main preoccupation was with my scars and how best I could hide them from the world.

And as we choose to believe we are less because of how we look, and our inability to conform to a perfect image, we become less.

I hid. I hid my arm. I wore skivvies underneath my summer uniform, wore jumpers all year round, I avoided pools and beaches. My arm no longer seemed small – it seemed enormous. A huge, horrible, disfigured limb I would be forced to drag through what had been my oh- so promising life.

Yes, teenage girls are good at drama.

I vividly recall by the time I was 15 day dreaming about what my life would be like if I had not been burnt. I was tall, had very long legs and fancied that I could have been a bikini model if it had not been for my arm. How telling that as an adolescent my dream job was to be a bikini model! For many adolescents being some type of model is the dream job. It is not the actual job itself that appeals; it is the kudos, the knowledge that your body has been declared special. Worthy of attention. “If I looked that way, then they would love me…”

It was only in my adult years as an English teacher that I finally explored ways in which I might come to terms with my burns, indeed in many ways teaching forced me to come to terms with them as I was now a role model. If I could not accept myself, how could I possibly ask my students to accept themselves?

I searched once again for soothing words. And found them in the writing of women. Women like Naomi Wolf in the Beauty Myth – “We don’t need to change our bodies, we need to change the rules.” In women like Sofia Loren. “Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than the belief that she is beautiful”, and in the words of the young women I now taught, “I love how you wear your scars Miss, you don’t let them wear you.” Words healed me. And my self-talk became, once more, focused on my strengths rather than my perceived weaknesses.

I was ok. It did turn out all right.

In fact – life is magnificent. And I am a shiny girl. So here’s to all the writers who have healed and inspired me through their words.

Books can do more than merely entertain. They can help shape us. 

So, this week my dear readers, if you have not already done so, check out the professional library link (“My Library Thing”) on this blog and indulge in some of my favourite writers on all things girl related.

Read. And read to your children.

P.S I’d love to hear which books have helped shape you…

NZ: Our girls…”Barbie Bitches”?

I am really enjoying sharing some guest posts written by various members of my amazing Enlighten team with you all! A warm “Butterfly Effect” welcome to New Zealand’s Program Manager Kelly Valder…

 

Guest post by Kelly Valder – newzealand@enlighteneducation.com

“Barbie Bitches” – what a term huh? For many it brings to mind platinum blonde hair extensions and lots of cleavage combined with skimpy pink clothing and an attitude that dictates that pretty and thin is everything and those who don’t shape up are clearly “losers”. And of course this term is used in the US (where Paris Hilton and co. are idolised) and sometimes in Australia ( Big Brother’s Bridgette leads the pack there at present) but not really in NZ…

Well, believe it or not, this term – and others like it – is now being thrown around here. Who would have thought? How did we get to this? In order to look for answers we firstly need to look at what’s happening around the globe.

A simple internet search under ‘teenage girls’ through international newspapers and educational journals exposes a variety of issues that are all alarming. In the U.S.A. it is reported that more than one in four teenage girls has at one time carried at least one sexually transmitted disease. A recent study of 25,000 European teenagers found that girls were three times more likely to commit acts of self harm than boys. Earlier this year in Australia, we learnt about Club 21, a group of teen school girls who encouraged their members to be ranked between 1 and 21 based on their thinness, good looks, binge drinking escapades and popularity with boys. And this is just a snapshot of some of the issues… scary!

So what’s happening here in Aotearoa?

• A New Zealand study found that 80% of females were within normal weight limits, but only 18% of them thought their weight was normal; 1
• 1 in 4 NZ teenage girls may suffer from the symptoms of an eating disorder; 1
• Dieting is a $100 million industry in NZ; 1
• The prevalence of emotional health problems, including depression, eating issues and suicidal behaviours, are alarmingly high amongst female students. The rates of these problems in NZ youth are up to twice those found in a recent national mental health survey of young people in Australia; 2

Not surprisingly, it seems then that our Kiwi girls are becoming just as obsessed with their looks as other teens around the globe.

What links may be emerging between the pressures girls are feeling to be beautiful and thin, and their behaviour?

Girls are no longer just silently imploding – they are also acting out. In March, two scantily clad teenage girls were found unconscious on an Auckland pavement, supposedly from an overdose of booze, party pills and ‘P’ (methamphetamine or crystal meth). Earlier this year a Napier family had their house targeted by aggressive and violent teenage girls. Education Ministry figures show a 41 per cent increase in girls being stood down, suspended or kicked out of school for assaults between 2002 and 2006. The way violence is dished out is changing too. Experts point to a new gang-like mentality among schoolgirls where a popular “queen bee” uses friends to bully or hurt to cement her position of power. The term “Barbie Bitches” became a frightening new part of our vernacular.

A few weeks ago the Good Morning programme featured a story on “Barbie Bitches” in our NZ schools. School principals reported that reality television has played a major role in creating these gangs of “Barbie Bitches” who are bullying either physically or through the cyber world. A quick look at television programs such as “Living Lohan” and “Americas Next Top Model” point to the fact that our educators may be right; these type of shows encourage girls to be ultra competitive and to play unfair in order to win. Don’t like someone? Just vote them out! Behave badly? Doesn’t matter as long as you look gorgeous doing it!

I can’t help but think that our NZ girls are crying out for positive role models and we need to step up and take action to provide them with some real alternatives right now!

Is it all doom and gloom? No. Not if we get on board and make our young women a priority. Our schools and the MoE are addressing  these issues with a low tolerance approach plus other more general initiatives including the ‘Team-Up’ site with information for parents and caregivers, new anti-bullying resources for schools released this month and ‘Ka Hikitia‘ an initiative aiming at improving educational outcomes for Maori students.

Thankfully, Enlighten Education, whose award winning programs I am proud to bring to NZ, is not the only organisation to realise that our girls are in crisis. There are fabulous resources, such as headspace.org.nz, that have been established to support our young people, their families and schools. However, Enlighten’s focus is unique as its programs have been specifically designed to cater to the particular needs, and the learning styles, of teen girls.

The Enlighten Education workshops are about celebrating all the things girls love about themselves, challenging them to rethink negative and destructive behaviours, and changing the way they respond to their environment and each other. It gives them the tools they need to “unpack” the images and messages they are bombarded with by the media as well as looking at strong, intelligent female role models who can inspire them to be all they can be. The CEO and co-founder of Enlighten Education, Dannielle Miller, summed up our wish for all girls beautifully in her recent post:  

“She’ll be a teen who will set boundaries, deconstruct all the mixed messages she will be presented with, and make choices she is truly comfortable with. She will not allow her sexuality to be shaped by misogynist music, plastic Paris-wannabe dolls, or the contemporary media environment that would have her believe that everyone is up for anything, all the time, and that to be hot she will have to get more make up and less clothes. She’ll grow up on her own terms. That is my wish for her. That’s my wish for all girls. That is what I will continue working towards.”

Barbie Bitches? No thanks!

1 Scary Statistics from around the world, article from www.nzhealth.net.nz taken from the BBC, Time, NewsWeek and research from the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
2 A health profile of New Zealand youth who attend secondary school, Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 04 April 2003, Vol 116, No 1171.
3 The health of New Zealand youth, Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 04 April 2003, Vol 116, No 1171.

 

 

Let’s get smashed – a South Australian perspective on teen drinking

Guest post written by Enlighten Eduaction’s Program Manager for South Australia, Jane Higgins.

What is really happening to our young people when they drink themselves into unconsciousness? Why do they feel the need to do this? What is missing from their lives?

According to recent media headlines, youth binge drinking has risen to epidemic proportions. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Director Penny Allbon, has reported that 9% of South Australian  adolescents (some 11,000 young people aged 14-19) are drinking alcohol at risky levels.

Further,
 one in five 16 -17 yr olds binge drinks weekly (1)
 44%, 12 yr olds have drunk alcohol in the past 12 months (2)
 24% of young people have used cannabis, 9% ecstasy and 8% amphetamines (3) and
 25% of deaths in this age group are related to alcohol (4).

It begs the question, what is being lost every week? Not just the many brain cells or lives, but the self esteem, the sense of self-worth, and the contributions these young people could be making to their own lives and the lives of others.

In Australia drinking is a significant part of every rite of passage. The ABC program 4 Corners (9-6-08) presented a segment called “On the Piss”. A young woman profiled articulated it beautifully when she said “What’s a wedding without booze? What’s a funeral without booze?” getting drunk is indeed a national pastime. It highlighted how young people are finding it incredibly difficult not to drink as alcohol surrounds them at every event they go to, and is a major element in the life of everyone they are connected to. The excellent new anti-drinking campaign “Drink Wise”, launched by the Australian Government, also challenges us to rethink this “booze goes with everything” approach.  

While alcohol has become part of every event we celebrate, drinking also occurs even when there is no  celebration, no milestone being marked. Some of today’s youth are drinking way beyond the glass of champagne or stubbie of beer at a friend’s birthday. They are regularly consuming a bottle of vodka in a session and then teaming it up with a caffeine loaded drinks such as Red Bull or V to make sure that when they are really drunk they are also really buzzed too. In a recent study of 4,271 University Students in the USA, they found mixing caffeine and alcohol resulted in the students being twice as likely to:

 be hurt and require medical attention
 travel with a drunk driver
 be at risk of being taken advantage of sexually.

I find these statistics very, very concerning. But sadly, not surprising.

What did surprise me was another article published in The Sunday Mail (9-6-08) on how being drunk and posting the antics on My Space, Facebook or YouTube has now become an instant means of gaining celebrity status for some young people. I personally don’t find anything glamorous about having vomit all over oneself, or having to spend the night in hospital from an injury caused by drunkenness, let alone knowing that those pictures are out in cyber space for all to see! This trend has particular implications for young women for as we have seen in the media, society is generally less forgiving of vision of the fallen woman – I cannot imagine headlines screaming about a male actor getting drunk and passing out in quite the same way they do when it is a Britney or a Paris. 

The Sunday Mail also visited Hindley Street to obtain a snap shot of what is really going on there on a Saturday night. Their video, Adelaide’s Binge Drinking Shame, can be viewed at
http://www.news.com.au/adelaidenow/video/. 

We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend this issue is not real. What is motivating this epidemic, and how do we protect our kids from doing so much harm to themselves and other people?

I don’t profess to have all the answers. However, my experiences as a mother, counsellor and as a senior presenter with Enlighten Education all lead me to conclude that we must strengthen our children’s sense of themselves, and educate them. We must teach them how to respond thoughtfully and authentically when they are faced with a decision about whether to bow to peer, and media, pressure. We must develop in them a deep sense of knowing what is really healthy and right for them. We must love them deeply too, and give them a strong sense of their uniqueness, beauty and purpose in the world.

Sanctions will only work up onto a point: we can limit the hours bars are open, tax alcohol, and ban alcopops, but in the end what do we really want? We want them to make safe and healthy choices for themselves and the only way of doing this is by teaching them to love themselves and showing them that they are indeed incredibly precious.

I favour a proactive appraoch. If our young people are personally fulfilled they will make better choices and limit the harm they do to themselves and others.

And binge drinking will no longer be needed to fill an empty void.

1. “Supporting Families of Young People with Problematic Drug Use”, 2008 released by the Government’s Advisory Body, The National Council On Drugs.
2. V. White, J. Hayman ‘Australian secondary school students’ use of alcohol in 2005 Report’ June 2006, Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer at The Cancer Council Victoria
3. Teen Health, 2007 Vol 257 Issues in Society – Spinney Press
4. Professor John Toumbourou – Deakin University

P.S Danni’s previous post, “Getting trashed is so hot right now“, also offers some powerful insights into teen drinking and links to some really helpful resources.

Stealing innocence

The following link is to a discussion I had on Sunrise with former Democrats leader Lyn Allison on the art versus child porn debate. This issue reared its ugly head again as Australia’s Art Monthly chose to make a political statement by using higly sexualised naked images of six year old girl Olympia in their July edition. 

Dannielle Miller on Sunrise – child nudity in art

Below is a letter Melinda Tankard Reist had published in the Sydney Morning Herald today:

You say dignity, I say torture porn –

and ne’er the twain shall meet

Art is about “giving people dignity”, the critic Robert Nelson told ABC radio this week. “We’ve got to have faith in art,” he implored.

Nelson is the father of Olympia, whose naked photos appear in Art Monthly Australia’s latest issue. The photos were taken in 2003 by her mother, when the girl was six.

Flicking through Art Monthly, I wondered whether Mr Nelson had looked at the magazine that featured his daughter before he gave us his thoughts on art and human dignity.

Call me particular, but I don’t find images of semi-naked, bound women with protruding sex organs all that dignified. I looked really hard, but I couldn’t see much dignity in the photograph of a Japanese schoolgirl trussed in rope and suspended with her skirt raised to reveal her underwear.

Torture porn just doesn’t stir my soul.

Some of Bill Henson’s images are there (of course – this issue was a “protest” in defence of his work). They are  followed by selections from the work of the Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, probably best known for his passion for taking photos of girls and women exposed and bound.

There’s his slumped, bound, schoolgirl picture and an image of a woman with her clothing stripped back, the ropes squeezing her naked breasts and contorting her into a pose that displays her genitals. A third uplifting work depicts a woman on the ground, strained forward, her naked spreading backside to the camera.

Faith in art?

A little further into the magazine you come upon the work of David Laity. What offering of truth and beauty does Laity give us? An image of a woman being bound with the tentacles of an octopus as it performs oral sex on her.  That’s some dignified octopus.

Then there’s an image of a woman bending over so we can see her … well, you get the picture.

The photographs of Olympia need to be viewed in the context of the images positioned around her. On their own, the images that show Olympia reclining naked, her pose and look more that of an adult, can be seen as sexualised. But surrounding her with these other images superimposes a further, more sinister, meaning on them.

The former Democrats senator Lyn Allison told Sunrise the controversy was just about little girls playing dress-ups. But don’t dress-ups usually involve putting clothes on, not taking them off? And does this game usually end with your photo published in a gallery of female genitals? The magazine’s editor said he wanted to “restore dignity to the debate”. Does he really think he’s achieved that?
Artists who recognise there should be ethical constraints to art; artists who don’t think it advances humanity to tie  up naked girls and capture their images  – now that would be dignified.

Melinda Tankard Reist

Canberrra

Love to hear your thoughts.

 

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