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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…

Published inBody ImagePower of WordsResources

14 Comments

  1. Jane Higgins

    Love this post Danni. You are so honest about yourself and your experiences and that is why girls respond so beautifully to you and the program you have created. I love books too and when my mum died 6 years ago she passed her most precious possession onto me … her library. My childhood was filled with many fairy tales and I learnt a lot about how to be and not to be a real woman. In his amazing book Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment argues ” Fairy tales … direct the child to discover his [and her] identity and calling , and they also suggest what experiences are needed to develop his [and her] character further.” Pg. 24
    I have hundreds of books on every topic imaginable and add to it every week. When I find myself with spare time – where do I head… the bookshop. When I find myself with money to spare – what do I buy? …. things that feed my soul. Books do this better than most anything else. I learn from them, I become them and the stories touch my heart in intimate and special ways.
    One of the terrific things about being part of the Enlighten Team is the exposure to new books, readings, research, and information on Girl World. So I am off to buy another book!!

  2. Selena

    Wow Danni, an amazing post and a beautiful story. I’m reminded of my beautiful sister who spent her teenage years hiding under layers of clothes because of a skin condition.

    I read and read too as a child, and my favourites were “What Katy Did”, “We of the Never Never”, “The Swiss Family Robinson”, “My Side of the Mountain”, and similar. Back then they were just the books my parents had lying around. Only just now, as I think about it, they were all about children in the big outdoors (or indoors, as Katy was), living life large. Plenty of difficulties to be faced – but no crushes, cliques, pop music, makeup, or angst. Just adventure. Children living in their bodies, not outside looking in.

    I do remember noticing that most girls at school were reading “Sweet Valley High” – my older brother secretly borrowed one from the library, “to figure girls out”, as he said – it didn’t help him. He thought it was ridiculous. As usual I was not in line with the latest fad. Most of the time I didn’t even know what the fad was. Thank goodness!

  3. Melinda L

    That is very moving Danni, thank you for sharing your story.

    My own body image problems were difficult to get through. I was starving myself at age 15 and looking “hot” so “hot” in fact that i became pregnant! I had my baby when I was 16. After I gave birth and then when I finished breastfeeding I was devastated by how I looked. Stretch marks everywhere! Breasts that looked like they had just given up! 😉 And it was very hard to deal with. From that day forward I vowed that I would get cosmetic surgery. Only now am I coming to my senses, even though my head has been opposed to such things for as long as I can remember, it has been difficult to get my heart to comply!
    Reading publications such as “Faking it” and blogs like yours is a tremendous help. It feels as though there is someone on our side!

  4. Melinda L

    i forgot to add…..sadly, while i loved books such as the enid blyton series as a child, as soon as i was 12 I was reading cosmo, cleo etc.

  5. Olivia

    Thanks for sharing your story Danni! That’s so horrible what happened with the oil:-( But now you are a good example to others who have had scarring, etc. happen to them! I hope they draw inspiration and follow your example! Thank you for your inspiration and fabulous spirit!! I absolutely LOVE this blog and what you’re doing! I actually most of my high school life hid in trousers because of eczema on my legs! I avoided wearing shorts, didn’t play sport that involved wearing shorts, and generally spent a lot of time trying to hide it! for 4 years. What a waste! When the reality is if I’d let the sun on them, it probably would have gone away! Ironic! I look back now and think, what a waste. I hope any young girl who’s reading this now will remember these stories and realise that if you’re ok with it, other people will be too usually. And in the end, it doesn’t matter what they think.
    liv x

  6. Danni, you glow so radiantly!! You always inspire with your words and use your words to heal others. Some women are just gifted storytellers and you are definately one of them! I have just finished a beautiful and rich book full of the imagery and connectedness and pain and joy that bonds us together as women. “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant is vivid and leaves so much to savour and think about. Stories have always been my elixir of life too. I get very greedy and often neglect real life in favour of this dream state!! We are all obsessive in our house which i am proud of with 3 boys who love reading! I loved Enid Blyton too-mystery was my favourite genre as a girl and i re-read these even in early high school because teenage fiction left me wanting. Where were the girls having cliff-top adventures and being ravenous for lunch after some high energy daring chase? I got out all of my old books for my son and he loved them- “The Sea of Adventure” and so on. So so good!!! Well, onto the next book now-can’t wait…..

  7. Thanks so much for sharing this important post. What a story of inner struggle and emergence of the beautiful butterfly.

    I’m going to email and ask you if this can be reprinted on my site grammology.com

    The emotions in your comments are as wonderful as the story. You’ve certainly hit a needing subject of girls and how we have to help them love themselves from the inside out.

    I hope I can help as I get stronger.

    Dorothy from grammology
    grammology.com

  8. zoebrownlie

    I saw you on 60 Minutes here in NZ Danni, and am now addicted to your website, as I find it so inspirational! I am so glad to see that Enlighten Education moved to NZ this year, and am sure it will continue to grow and grow, as it is just what is needed.

    Strangely, a book that I feel is very powerful is The Bell Jar. Although very sad at times, I can read this over and over and feel very motivated by it.
    Another one is anything by Susan Orbach, who has helped me and I’m sure millions of others too.

    I look forward to reading your next words of wisdom 🙂
    Zoe

  9. Jo Evans

    Hello,
    Thanks for the post. I work with young girls a lot as a school chaplain and I use your site regularly to start conversations and show the girls some alternative information about themselves.
    I am such a reader and I also have gained so much from some of the beautiful words which have washed, soothed and inspired my mind over the years. Of particular fondness are the Narnia Chronicles. I have seen the first two movies but for anyone who hasn’t actually read the whole series of 7 books I highly recommend it.
    The stories taught me a lot about the journeys we take in life and the things we must take with us: compassion, courage, common-sense, directions from wiser others, belief and loyal friends. I still strive to fill my life with these things. Above all I loved the overarching theme of redemption which runs through these books. We all make mistakes, and I think every hero from the Narnia books experiences judgement errors, pride, selfishness or some other personal mistake and yet the Great Lion Aslan talks them through the reality that we are all human, mistake prone and broken and yet we are all amazing, full of potential and capable, through small acts of love, of achieving incredible things. I will be reading these to my kids when they come along and I highly recommend them!
    Keep up the good thinking Danni –
    Jo

  10. Nikki D

    Danni that post just filled me with emotion and I was quietly wiping away a tear at my desk! A gifted story-teller, you truly inspire us all.

    As one of your students during that period when you were an English teacher it is so interesting to hear about your own journey to acceptance… as a teenage girl I saw you as “having it so together” and as one of the most glamourous teachers I had ever known – with the best set of legs I had ever seen! You were certainly regarded as “hot” by your students – and I think this is because you were confident, smart and vibrant (as well as the legs). And you seemed comfortable in your own skin – and in your presence I felt more comfortable in mine.

    My favourite books as a little girl were actually “The Baby-Sitters Club” series which is quite embarrassing but the friendships depicted in that series were actually quite lovely and reflected a level of acceptance for girls of all shapes, sizes and colours which I loved. The girls had a special bond – and it was through their love of children and their little business enterprise rather than a love of fashion/boys/make up etc. As an older girl I loved a wide variety of books (some of which I had to read in order to write the essay assignments you gave me!) but I certainly got distracted by Girlfriend mag an awful lot! Your words about the desire to be a model really hit home… and it made me think about the issues that often arise when this dream does become a reality and the struggle to remain “perfect” begins…

    Now I have just started reading “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters” upon you recomendation…

  11. Ahhh…Nikki! Nikki was a 3 unit English student I taught back in my very early days in the classroom. You were such a bright, determined and ambitious girl! And how I loved giving all “my girls” a dose of texts that would help them challenge and devlop a strong sense of self.

    I recall listening to you explore what independence may mean through an analysis of A Room of One’s Own, watching with delight as you starting questioning the role of women in society and cultural differences through Wild Swans and Out of Africa…

    And now – after going on to study media at University, and even dabbling in the world of image through your own part-time work as a model and professional dancer, you’ll be working with us on our programs!

    Who would have thought?

    Welcome to the Enlighten NSW team Nikki. You have so many stories of your own to offer now and shall be a changemaker too!

  12. Hi Dan,
    I’ve known nearly all my life and you never cease to amaze me… I loved this article and learnt so much more about you.
    What inspires me about you is your ability to take something that was a tragic and painful event and turn it around. You’ve taken the learnings from it and allowed it to strengthen you in such a way, it is serving a far grander purpose… Perhaps the purpose it was meant to serve. That in it’s self is a valuable lesson to share.

    The young girls in your life are very lucky to have you as a role model. I wish you much continued success.
    Warmest,
    Janelle

  13. Mariana O'Driscoll

    Just a quick note:

    A book that I found was an interesting read in relation to all that is girlie … was Michael Carr-Gregg’s book called Princess Bitchface Syndrome. Don’t let the title scare you off! Whilst working as a secondary school teacher I was lucky enough to attend a professional development seminar where Dr Carr-Gregg spoke. He talked about the need for strong role models in young people’s lives, especially due to the lack of strong relationships within society and also about the disappearance of childhood. A powerful and entertaining speaker and he definitely continues his powerful thoughts in his book.

    I promise, it isn’t as bad as the title suggests.

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