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Month: January 2010

Operation Beautiful

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I love the simple yet powerful messages being passed on via Operation Beautiful — “The mission of Operation Beautiful is to post anonymous notes in public places for other women to find. The point is that WE ARE ALL BEAUTIFUL. You are enough . . . just the way you are!”

A young woman I admire, Noelle, was kind enough to share with me her recent adventures posting notes all around the streets of Sydney and in the change rooms at dress shops. Not only did Noelle thoroughly enjoy spreading the love, she was touched by the positive responses she witnessed in women when they saw her anonymous notes. You may wish to read her blog account of this experience: http://diet-coke-missy.blogspot.com/2010/01/operation-beautiful.html.

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Noelee's note reads - "Self Love - It's the new black!"
Noelle's note on this T-shirt in a shop reads: "Self Love — It's the new black!"

Implementing this project at your school or workplace would be a wonderful way to start the year! Think affirming notes left in the toilets, on lockers, hidden in library books . . .

Our girls are currently bombarded with messages that tell them they are not enough. Let’s create more opportunities to be voices of difference.  

Girls Go Green!

There is so much to celebrate in this generation of young women. One aspect that brings me great joy is their care for the environment. earth

Some adults have been slow to grasp the need to change our old ways. But we have no time to waste—and girls all over Australia and NZ certainly aren’t waiting around. They’re creating imaginative new ways to green our lives. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges the planet faces, but girls have the energy, brains and caring spirit to come up with the ideas, and just get on with it and make it happen!

We talk a lot at Enlighten about the damaging role models and expectations girls are bombarded with in the media and in advertising. What this generation of green girls shows us is that sometimes we need to look no further than girls themselves for better role models. (Not to mention inspiration for adults, too.)

These girls are not only making a real environmental difference but are also developing communication, leadership and entrepreneurial skills that will set them up for success later in life. Take Year 11 students Jessica Gill and Laura Ryan, from Perth, who created Switch Off, a competition in which 65 schools vied to show the greatest reduction in energy consumption. The girls approached companies for sponsorship and managed to raise $14,000 worth of prizes such as solar panels. What an extraordinary achievement.   

Friends Kate Charters and Millicent Burggraf were only 14 and 13 when they decided they’d had enough of shoppers using plastic bags that ended up all along the beaches near where they lived in Melbourne. So they did something about it, designing their own reusable bags, and lobbying retailers and shoppers. There was such a huge drop in plastic bag use in their neighbourhood that they were nominated for the UN World Environment Day awards in 2007, among adult environmentalists.

Fourteen-year-old Parrys Raines, aka Climate Girl, has been running a website full of useful environmental information and links, since interviewing other children and finding that many wanted to do something to save the planet but weren’t sure where to start. She is a WWF Youth Ambassador and has also made documentaries about the environmental threats to polar bears and orang-utans.  (I’m happy to say that coincidentally Parrys is one of the beautiful girls Enlighten worked with recently at St Mary Star of the Sea College, at Wollongong.)

parrys raines

Many girls out there really care about others and about planet Earth. Do you have any examples of great youth environmental projects that are going on in your area and that might inspire other girls? I’d love to share them with the whole Enlighten community.

Here are some internet resources that give girls the tools to go green:

A ctNow—informs and empowers young people about a variety of issues, including the environment, and also acts as a volunteering hub for young people: www.actnow.com.au

Australian Student Environment Network—this group of passionate young environmentalists on university campuses has a high school outreach program: http://asen.org.au 

Australian Youth Climate Coalition: www.youthclimatecoalition.org

Change and Switch (Australia)—youth-led non-profit organisation dealing with global environmental and humanitarian issues: www.changeandswitch.org

Conservation Volunteers Australia (and NZ)—offers opportunities for young people in Australia and NZ to volunteer in environmental efforts, and volunteers can work towards the Certificate 1 in Active Volunteering: www.conservationvolunteers.com.au

Greening Our Schools network (Australia)—provides materials such as solar panels, water tanks, insulation and technology improvements for schools, and classroom activities for English, Maths and Science: http://changeandswitch.org/campaigns/greening-our-schools-network/

i-fink—an environmental site written by three award-winning Australian teenage environmentalists, sisters Freya and Imogen Wadlow, and their brother, Alastair:  www.i-fink.com

NZ Government’s annual Green Ribbon Awards—a new category was recently introduced, “Community Action for the Environment: Young People”: www.mfe.govt.nz/withyou/awards/index.html

NZ Youth Environment Forum—each year all regional councils in New Zealand are invited to select three young environmental leaders (15-18 years) to attend a four-day forum “designed to inspire and build the capability of young environmental leaders”. The website also has resources for getting involved in environmental projects: www.sirpeterblaketrust.org/environment/youth_environment_forum/

Switched On Schools Program—Australian Youth Climate Coalition’s teaching resources such as PowerPoint presentations, videos, lesson plans, in-school speakers and workshops: www.aycc.org.au/switchedonschools/wordpress/

Making Sense of Twilight

new_moon_poster_cullensThere has been a kind of hysteria surrounding the Twilight series of late. With the release of the second movie, New Moon, bloggers, commentators (and just about anyone with an internet connection) have rushed to vent their opinions—not on the quality of the movie but on whether the main female character, Bella, is a good role model for girls.

The consensus is that Bella, with her angst-ridden relationship with the vampire Edward, is one of the worst examples our daughters could emulate. Bella is clingy, helpless and self-doubting. She is willing to withdraw from life and sacrifice everything—self, friends, family—for an obsessive romantic attachment to Edward, who while being handsome and chivalrous also just happens to be a stalker battling a powerful urge to consume her and destroy her. Author Stephenie Meyer was inspired by classic literature—Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights—for the first three books, but it is not difficult to see examples in real life of young women who are trapped in a world like Bella’s. Only for them it’s not a dreamy romantic fantasy but a nightmare of poor self-esteem and abusive, self-destructive relationships. No parent in their right mind would like to see their daughter aspire to any of this.

But ironically, in standing up for strong teen-girl role models, what most of the blogs and columns have underestimated is just how strong teen girls are in their opinions and critical reasoning abilities. I think one of the worst things we can do as parents and educators is to dismiss or belittle girls’ love of Twilight, or assume that girls lack the ability to form their own valid opinions of it. Just because Bella makes dubious choices, it doesn’t mean girls are automatically going to do the same. Girls are often highly articulate about why it would be utterly wrong to take the same path as Bella in real life:

I don’t like Bella’s character. Nothing can ever please her. Ever. She whines about absolutely everything, and the only person who seems good enough for her is Edward, which I think is a wrong view to have. —Cherie

Bella experiences crippling depression after she is dumped by Edward . . . If someone wanted to kill me because I smelt delicious, I don’t think I would feel never-ending numbness or pain—maybe more like happiness, joy or relief even. The fact that she can’t function and feels the need to block emotion really does not send the right message. But it’s not just this that I object to; it’s the controlling nature of the relationship. When Edward comes back, he won’t let Bella see her best friend. Turn this situation into a real relationship without vampires—well, that’s domestic abuse.—Maxine

I ended up hating Bella because she is SOOOO needy. But the boys creeped me out too—I could NOT handle having a partner up in my face like that the WHOLE time.” Kris, commenting on Mia Freedman’s blog.

Given the passionate views that so many girls and women have about Twilight—both pro and anti—I actually think it has the potential to be hugely beneficial to girls. It provides the perfect opportunity to communicate with girls and raise crucial issues. One teacher I know who works with a group of 12–18-year-old girls as part of a church youth group started a discussion session after the New Moon movie came out:

When I asked them what they thought of Bella, it took a while to get them to see her faults, but eventually they realised that she was not really that nice after all. She used Jacob relentlessly. She bailed on her friends all the time. She lied to her parents. She put herself in ridiculous danger to prove a point. She endangered the lives of her friends. We were able to discuss these points and talk about what would have been better choices for her . . . They led the discussion themselves and were able to identify the problems . . . We were able to have a great discussion about friendships, loyalty and safety.

Plenty of grown women are Twilight fans and besotted with Edward. Perhapsd_bella_edward_kiss that’s because Twilight takes them back to their own teenage years and the intense emotions of falling in love for the first time, with its almost inevitable pain and drama. What a powerful reminder these books can be for women of the ups and downs teenage girls are going through. Teenage emotions are so overwhelming and big, but as adults it’s easy to lose sight of that and try to minimise what girls are going through. But when we underestimate or make light of teenage crushes, first relationships and first breakups, we can create even more despair and conflict.

I do also think that Stephenie Meyer has instilled some positive values in the Twilight characters, and it can’t hurt to chat with girls about those as well: Bella does not embrace raunch culture; she dresses almost like a tomboy. She doesn’t diet or talk about weight, and she is largely uninterested in her appearance. Yet she is singled out for attention from the other characters, reinforcing that girls don’t have to dress provocatively or obsess over their looks to be loved and valued. Another positive you might have noticed is that Bella doesn’t feel the need to drink alcohol; nor do any of the other characters. And you certainly couldn’t call their alcohol-free lives uncool or boring.

While I don’t suggest for a minute that the Twilight books and movies are works of artistic genius, I do think that there is a benefit in anything that gets girls reading. It is even better if it encourages them to read the classics that inspired Stephenie Meyer.

 But most important of all is the chance Twilight brings women to bond with girls over something they feel strongly about. One of the reasons fantasy fiction is so popular is that it provides a safe space to indulge in fantasies that should have no place in the real world. We can look at the Twilight series as a safe place to let hormones and wild emotions reign for a moment, mothers and daughters alike. Most importantly, it can be the impetus for mothers and daughters to talk. To talk about what a good, nourishing real-life relationship is. To talk about the mistakes we grown-up women have made. The compromises it’s okay to make in a relationship, and the ones we should never make. That it is healthy to develop independence and resilience. We can revel for a time in Bella’s intense story—but talk about the ways in which she could look after herself and respect herself so much more.

Mags’ flawed obsession with body perfect

MTR-193x300Guest blog post by Melinda Tankard Reist, a Canberra based author, speaker, commentator and advocate with a special interest in issues affecting women and girls.

SHOCK horror: nude supermodel has dimple on thigh. In a move labelled daring and revolutionary, this month’s edition of Marie Claire features nude photos of Australian model Jennifer Hawkins airbrush-free. The shoot reveals “brave” Jen with all her flaws.

And what exactly are these impediments? A tiny crease in Hawkins’s waist, a slightly dimpled thigh and
“uneven skin tones”.

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Quelle horreur. As if this isn’t enough, Hawkins notes an additional flaw: her hips. She has them. Miss Universe 2004 is really the Elephant Woman.

According to Marie Claire editor Jackie Frank, the Hawkins images were inspired by a survey of 5500 readers that found only 12 per cent of women were happy with their bodies. That’s right, nude pics of a woman considered one of the world’s rarest beauties are supposed to cheer the rest of us up. The pictures will be auctioned this month, with proceeds going to eating disorders support group the Butterfly Foundation.

That Hawkins has been enlisted in the cause of girls who hate their bodies and are, in many ways, victims of the dominant ideal of female beauty kind of messes with my head. How can these pictures possibly help women feel good about themselves?

Labelling hips, a little dimpling on the thigh, a small waist crease (which looks like what happens when any woman sits down) and supposedly uneven skin tone as flaws is already problematic. Who decided these were flaws and not part of being a woman? And if these are flaws, then how are other women supposed to feel feel?

And what about all the other flaws Hawkins, 26, will accrue if she has kids and when she ages?

The problem is the emphasis on physical attributes over any other qualities a woman might possess. And a freak-of-nature body that gets 24-hour-a-day attention and the best of care to earn its owner an income. Most women will never have a body like this.

Why would an editor and an organisation concerned about body image choose a Miss Universe title holder as the pin-up for the love-yourself-just-as-you-are campaign? The images attract comparisons and judgment, and provide more opportunity for objectification. They have already prompted a rash of emails from self-appointed male judges who said Hawkins was pear shaped, that her bum was unappealing, that her breasts were too small, that she should have kept her clothes on.

More worryingly, the images have prompted women to compare themselves with Hawkins. “She wants to make [women] feel more comfortable about how they look, gee thanks, I now feel worse! I’m a size 10 and I still have more rolls than her!” wrote one.

Another email included a bulimia reference: “If anything is going to have me running to the toilet with my finger down my throat it’s a picture of Jennifer Hawkins naked.”

And who exactly is going to bid for the photos, you wonder.

Perhaps the Melbourne man who posted this comment on the Herald Sun website : “*Pant pant pant* OF COURSE Jen should’ve stripped, what a silly question to ask!”. Or Kit Walker of Geelong, who asked: “Where and how many of these magazines can I get!!!”Or perhaps the charming Darren of South Morang, who referred to his imminent Hawkins-inspired sexual arousal: “It’s likely to have a very positive effect on my body, that’s for sure.”

The whole PC beauty shift is for so many just a hilarious bit of theatre. But there is nothing amusing in mocking or encouraging the anxieties that cause untold misery and suffering to so many women. And the hypocrisy is everywhere, rising up to hit you in your flawed face. In the same newspaper promoting Jen “flaws and all” in a banner headline on its front page were three full pages of “Best bikini bodies: How 10 celebs got the perfect figure”. And who is featured there? Hawkins for “best overall body”.

“Our former Miss Universe easily has one of the most envied bikini bodies in the world,” it says, and Hawkins provides advice on how to “get a bikini body quickly”. (Other celebs are given accolades for “best bottom”, “best post-baby body”, “best tummy”, “best thighs”, “best boobs and abs”, and so on.)

Women are expected to believe that enlightened advances are being made in this quite monotonous and unimaginative regime.

This has been identified elsewhere, in regard to the tobacco and alcohol industries, as air cover: giving the appearance of social responsibility while really not doing much at all.

Marie Claire and Hawkins and her flaws, which aren’t really, will do nothing to lessen body dissatisfaction. Because it’s not really about celebrating a diversity of women’s bodies, as advertisers in the magazines spruiking body improvement products well know.

If Frank and fellow editors are serious about the body image problems their magazines have helped to create, will we see less airbrushing, less attention to the “thin, hot, sexy” cult and more real women, rather than insulting and meaningless token gestures?

See Melinda’s article as published in The Australian.

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