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Month: April 2009

What price perfection?

This month, alarming research was published showing that eating disorders now plague very young children. The study’s findings included a child only 5 years of age who was hospitalised with Early Onset Eating Disorder (EOED).

It was Dr Sloane Madden from The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, New South Wales, who raised the alarm: “What we are seeing clinically, and what is being reported anecdotally around the world is that kids are presenting in greater numbers at a younger age,” he said in a recent interview. “They certainly will tell you that they believe that they are fat, that they want to be thinner, and they have no insight into the fact that they are malnourished and they are literally starving themselves to death.”

Dr Madden went on to say that the number of EOED cases is expected to rise unless there is a change in the media’s obsession with fat and weight. “I think that there needs to be a move away from this focus on weight and numbers and body fat, and a focus on healthy eating and exercise,” he said in a Sydney Morning Herald interview. “You can see that in current (television) programs like The Biggest Loser, where it is all about numbers and weight, it’s not helpful for those people and it’s certainly not helpful for this group of kids.”

Not helpful either is Australia’s Next Top Model. Early reports about this season’s show indicate it will, once again, feature bullying and an unhealthy preoccupation with weight. In the first episode, to air on April 28, Perry tells his fellow judges – the model agent Priscilla Leighton-Clark and former model Charlotte Dawson – that some contestants look like “Frankenstein”, “a wild pig”, “fat”, “a moose” and that one has “something spaz [spastic] with her teeth”. All this from a show hosted and produced by Sarah Murdoch, a member of the Federal Government’s newly formed advisory group on body image.

Richard Eckersley in his excellent book Well and Good – Morality, Meaning and Happiness voices the concerns of many:

No sensible person would argue that there is a simple, direct relationship between media content and people’s behaviour. But nor should any sensible person accept the proposition, implied by some cultural commentators, that what we see, hear and read in the media has no effect on us. Maybe children today are savvy, sophisticated consumers of media – as we are often told – but this does not mean that we can be complacent about media influences.”

It is more important than ever that we give our young people the skills they need to deconstruct the many media images they are bombarded with every day. With this in mind, the following books and web sites provide ways to begin this essential dialogue with the young people you care for:

Web sites

Enlighten Education – http://enlighteneducation.com: My company’s web site. We deliver in-school workshops for girls on self-esteem, body image, managing friendships, personal safety and career pathways for girls.

The Butterfly Effect – http://enlighteneducation.edublogs.org: My blog, featuring weekly posts targeted to educators and parents of teen girls. Check out “Danielle Miller’s videos”, “My Book Collections” and the “Articles of interest” page for suggestions.

Girlpower Retouch – http://demo.fb.se/e/girlpower/retouch: A site that shows how easy it is to distort the images we see in magazines to change someone’s appearance.

Jean Kilbourne – http://jeankilbourne.com: Writer and documentary maker who explores the way women and girls are portrayed in advertising.

The Beautiful Women Project – http://www.beautifulwomenproject.org: American art project celebrating diversity and real everyday beauty.

Girl Guiding UK – http://www.girlguiding.org.uk: The section “Girls Shout Out” has some particularly interesting reports on teenage mental health, active citizenship and the pressures girls feel growing up.

Kids Free 2B Kids – http://kf2bk.com: Australian site that raises awareness about the damage caused by the sexualisation of children and acts to combat this.

Young Media Australia – http://youngmedia.org.au: Australian organisation with a particular interest in developing media literacy in young people.

American sites that help young people develop media literacy skills to combat unhelpful media messages about beauty and body image:

American sites offering resources and professional development for teachers who want to nurture media literacy in the classroom:

Books and magazines

For girls

New Moon Girls – American magazine aimed at 8- to 12-year-old girls, with accompanying web-based activities: http://www.newmoon.com

Indigo 4 Girls – Australian Magazine aimed at 10- to 14-year-olds that describes itself as a “positive, body friendly, age appropriate magazine for girls”.  http://indigo4girls.com

Girl Stuff: Your full-on guide to the teen years – Book by Kaz Cooke, Penguin Group Australia, 2007

Body Talk: A Power Guide For Girls, Elizabeth Reid Boyd and Abigail Bray, Hodder Headline

The Girlosophy series by Anthea Paul, Allen and Unwin

The Girlforce series by Nikki Goldstein, ABC Books

For Parents and Teachers

Faking It – A special publication that deconstructs the female image in magazines, available through Women’s Forum Australia: www.womensforumaustralia.org

Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel – Book by Jean Kilbourne, Free Press

The Beauty Myth – Book by Naomi Wolf, Vintage

Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body – Book by Courtney E. Martin, Free Press

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture – Book by Ariel Levy, Schwartz Publishing

Well and Good – Book by Richard Eckersley, Text Publishing

It is also more important than ever that we all take stock and ask ourselves whether we too are getting caught up in playing the compare and despair game. Many of us tell our children they do not need to change in order to be beautiful, while we rush for Botox. We tell them inner beauty counts, while we devour magazines that tell us beauty is really only about air-brushed perfection after all. If even the grown-ups are struggling, is it any wonder that our daughters are? Our children cannot be what they cannot see.

It is up to us to show them what the state of “I am me, I am okay” looks like.

Teens and P*rn: dealing with difficult truths

Please note: the blogging platform I use, Edublogs, filters out words like p*rn, hence the need to use asterisks. If you wish to comment, please use symbols to avoid your text being automatically deleted.

Warning: the sites hyperlinked in this blog post include sexually explicit personal accounts of sex and p*rn*graphy.

P*rn is nothing new, but it has never been more accessible than it is today. In the excellent 2009 UK television series The Sex Education Show, three out of ten high school students interviewed said they learned about sex predominantly through viewing p*rn*graphy on the internet and mobile phones, or in magazines. According to the show, the average teenager claims to watch 90 minutes of p*rn a week.

What messages will this generation receive about desirability if their emerging sexuality is largely shaped by p*rn? In episode one of The Sex Education Show, viewers saw the reactions of teens of both sexes when they were shown images of real breasts; they were unimpressed because these breasts didn’t sit up like silicone-enhanced ones. When shown images of women with pubic hair, they gasped in what seemed to be shock or disgust. Presenter Anna Richardson surmised: “What’s sad is they are putting pressure on themselves and each other, convinced by the sexual imagery they see that porn-star plastic is perfection.”

Equally as sad is the very real risk that young people will get caught up in sharing things on line in a way that they may later deeply regret. Recently, a Sydney schoolgirl was investigated by police for sending a naked image of herself to her boyfriend via her mobile, an example of the growing phenomena known as sexting.

More research into the short- and long-term impact exposure to p*rn is having on our young people is vitally important. The Australian Government’s recent report Adolescence, P*rn*graphy and Harm is an essential starting point, and it addresses some very real challenges in its conclusion:

Though restricting exposure will remain a priority, an over-reliance on this approach to protect against the perceived harms of p*rn*graphy is problematic as it fails to recognise the realities of ready availability and the high acceptance of pornography among young people. Moreover, it fails to examine the holistic way in which adolescents’ sexual expectations, attitudes and behaviours are shaped in our society and the complexity of factors that give rise to the cited harms. Protecting young people necessarily requires equipping them, and their caregivers, with adequate knowledge, skills and resources (e.g. media literacy; sex education; education about pornography and rights and responsibilities of sexual relationships; safe engagement with technologies) to enable successful navigation toward a sexually healthy adulthood, as well as tackling factors predisposing to sexual violence.

This is not an issue we can afford to ignore. At my company, Enlighten Education, where we discuss a wide range of topics with young women in schools, including cyber safety and responsible use of technology, we have deliberately chosen not to run workshops on sexuality because families have their own values they wish to instill, and girls need to hear messages about sexuality at different ages, depending on their cognitive, emotional and physical development. We do believe, however, that by helping girls develop a strong sense of self, we are equipping them to be better able to make their own choices and to view themselves holistically – not just as a body but a heart, soul and mind, too.

How will you give the young women – and men – in your life the knowledge, skills and resources they need to move beyond X-rated visions of sexuality? I would love to hear how you’re all tackling some of these difficult truths.

PS Talk about timely: in today’s news there are reports that American comedian, actor and singer Jamie Foxx has been forced to apologise for urging 16-year-old tween idol Miley Cyrus to “make a sex tape and grow up”. A joke based on pressuring teen girls to make sex tapes is really no joke at all.

No Diet Day – May 6th

May 6th is No Diet Day. This event, which began in Britain in 1992 with an anti-diet campaign called Diet Breakers, is now an annual internationally celebrated day that encourages community awareness and discussion about healthy attitudes to food, and celebrates diverse body shapes.

I think it is a day well worth commemorating at your school or workplace, hence the early heads-up. Here are some ideas you might like to pursue:

  • Fundraising: The Butterfly Foundation, an organisation supporting Australians with eating disorders, is asking for groups to host a morning or afternoon tea, at which guests make gold coin donations to the foundation. For a fundraising kit, contact romy@thebutterflyfoundation.org.au
  • Film screenings: Hairspray is one of my favourite feel-good movies to show girls. For older girls, Muriel’s Wedding offers some great messages on choosing to be yourself. Do you know of others?
  • Art projects: I love Nancy Bruno’s Beautiful Women Project. This series of photos and stories focuses on real women and what makes them truly beautiful in the present moment. A wonderful idea might be to ask girls to record an image of themselves at their most beautiful and to write an accompanying reflection on what real beauty means to them.
  • Closet clean-outs: Encourage girls to clean out their wardrobes and donate to charity any clothing they’ve been keeping “until they get thin”.
  • Sharing the love: Girls could make cards that celebrate diversity and send these to their family and friends. How about these ideas: “I like you the way you are”, ” You’re beautiful because . . .”
  • Awareness campaigns: Love Your Body Day (www.loveyourbody.nowfoundation.org) runs an excellent poster design competition. Some of the past entries are fabulous (including the one below by Australian Anand McCorquodale, from Pyrmont, New South Wales) and may inspire your own budding artists to reflect on how they can spread some positive body image messages.

Any other good ideas we can share?

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