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Month: May 2010

Sticks and stones

Last week, I did a post sharing media I have been doing aimed at encouraging schools to be more proactive in dealing with sexual harassment. I received a comment from one of my blog readers that at first shocked me . . . and then got me thinking about another issue that affects all women and girls: the tendency in our culture to demean women for their looks rather than to engage with what they have to say. The comment was short, and cutting:

We’ve seen your talks at schools. If you’re so keen to set a good example then don’t turn up to school looking like mutton dressed as lamb. — Kim

I wondered exactly what it was about me that came across that way to her. When I do my self-esteem and skills-building workshops with girls, I wear an Enlighten Education uniform of sorts. We are often up and jumping around with the girls, so skirts and high heels are definitely out. It’s jeans or tights in winter, or mid-length shorts in summer, and then a black T-shirt embroidered with our butterfly logo. 
danni
Then I realised that the comment had drawn my attention away from the real issue: too often, when women raise their voices, they are criticised not for what they say but how they look.

Even now, in 2010, is that the currency of a woman or a girl  her looks? Is a female’s Achilles heel still her appearance? If you strike her there, do you take away her only power?

It isn’t the first time I’ve spoken out about sexual harassment or a women’s issue and been criticised not for my arguments but for the way I look. I have been helpfully informed that I seemed to have put on weight. I was sent an e-mail telling me that I couldn’t be a feminist because I have blonde hair. During the 2009 scandal involving Matthew Johns and teammates having sex with a 19-year-old girl, I wrote an article in defence of the young woman, who was being blamed and insulted in the media and on the internet. A reader commented that I was just jealous because I was wasn’t desirable enough to get a football player of my own.

I’m in good company. The woman whose writing had the most profound effect on me when I was young, Naomi Wolf, received a torrent of criticism for being too pretty to be a real feminist. On the other side of the coin, Germaine Greer has long been attacked for all sorts of supposed flaws in her appearance and femininity. Earlier this year, Louis Nowra described her in The Monthly as “a befuddled and exhausted old woman” who reminded him of his “demented grandmother”. It should be noted that Greer herself is no stranger to flinging looks-based insults, famously describing a fellow writer as having “hair bird’s-nested all over the place, ****-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage”.

Comments that target a woman for how she looks, rather than her ideas, are designed to do one thing and one thing only: to shut her up.

Yet it only spurs me on. The same can be said for other Australian writers and commentators I spoke to who also regularly receive such criticism. When I discussed this phenomenon with Emily Maguire, author of Princesses & Porn Stars and a regular writer on gender and culture, she told me:

There’s no way you can present yourself that won’t attract criticism from the kind of people who think that criticism of a woman’s looks will hurt more than criticism of her ideas . . . It only makes me more sure that this stuff is worth speaking out about. — Emily Maguire

Melinda Tankard Reist is an author and commentator who often appears in the media to speak out against the sexualisation of girls and women. She publicly commented on the decision of former Hi-5 performer Kellie Crawford to pose for a lingerie shoot in Ralph in order to “find the woman in me” after so many years as a children’s entertainer. Melinda asked people to question why the Wiggles didn’t need to “prove their manhood by stripping down to their jocks”. Much of the criticism she received afterwards didn’t address that question but told her that she was “a bitter ugly woman”, “sad, old and dog-ugly” and that she had “saggy breasts and a droopy arse”.

Old, saggy, mutton dressed as lamb — age is a common theme to this type of criticism. Rather than seeming to gain wisdom, experience and authority — as is virtually expected of men — women are often deemed of decreasing value with each year they move beyond their 30s. We see it throughout our culture. How many good roles are there for actresses over 40? How many women newsreaders have career longevity without resorting to Botox? It is as if once women have passed a certain age, it is time for them to step off the stage. It’s no wonder that many women are angsting and trying to achieve the body of a 20-year-old — an impossible and time-wasting task. Zoe Krupka put it perfectly in a post on the website New Matilda:

How are we meant to do our work in the world and develop wisdom if we are still focused on the size of our butts? — Zoe Krupka

One would hope that the situation was improving, but in fact, it seems to be getting worse. And it is often women who use the strategy of attacking a woman’s looks. Dr Karen Brooks, social commentator and author of Consuming Innocence: Popular Culture and Our Children, told me:

I have had my appearance criticised ALL the time . . . This has been happening to me for 13 years and it’s getting worse . . . I should add that most of the negative comments are from women. — Karen Brooks

Perhaps there is an element of fear of change that drives women to this type of criticism. Perhaps this technique just comes all too naturally to women who have spent their whole lives learning how to play the “compare and despair” game. Perhaps the ultimate sin for women is to show confidence and to love themselves, so critics feel that outspoken women need to brought down a peg or two.

Whatever it is that drives looks-based criticism, the thing that hurt me the most about the comment I received on my blog was that this woman claimed she had seen me present to girls. At every school Enlighten Education has worked in, the girls line up afterwards to ask for a hug, a kiss and to tell us they love us. They tell us that it changed their lives. So it made me sad to think that in the presence of all the joy and positivity and love that bursts out of these girls, for at least one woman the lasting impression was my looks, something that the girls never notice or comment on.

Imagine the change we all women and men could make in the world if we took personal attacks out of public debate. Imagine if we all engaged in the debate, made respectful counterarguments, added our own ideas into the mix. Imagine if we all pledged to stop trying to silence one another. I have the greatest respect for the women thinkers and activists I have mentioned here. Do I agree with them on every single issue? Of course not. But I pledge to always argue my case while according them the respect they deserve. It will always be their ideas that I engage with, because ideas — not physical appearances — live on forever.

A comment I received from another woman sums it all up:

Common sense, dignity, rights, respect, responsibility — these basic human values should be blind to looks, age, gender. — Paola Yevenes

Danni with students

Getting serious about outcomes for girls

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Picture featured in Daily Telegraph, 21/5/10

This week I have been asked by the media to offer parents and educators suggestions of ways forward in combating two important issues: the sexualisation of young girls, and the increase in sexual harassment in our schools.

I thought it worth sharing two of the interviews I have given.

As you may be aware, the parents and teachers of a US dance troupe have recently come under fire for letting the 7- and 8-year-old girls in the group perform overtly sexual dance routines. On the Kerri-Anne show, I was asked to help make sense of this and put it in a broader context. Watch the vision below and let me know what you think: too sexy, too soon?

 

Also this week, in the Daily Telegraph, I called on schools to respond thoughtfully and comprehensively to episodes of  sexual harassment. Ultimately, schools must  be proactive and create a culture where all students feel safe to learn and are not subjected to inappropriate and unwanted taunts or sexual advances. Despite my grave concerns, I know through my work that there are also many schools who are doing a brilliant job with this; I’d love to hear about strategies and programs you are familiar with that work.

Let’s move forward and demand more for our children.

After all, the standard we walk past is the standard we set.

Are 14-year-old girls really nothing but trouble?

A recent UK survey of parents with children over 18 years of age revealed that 14-year-old girls are considered the most difficult to parent. Kathryn Crawford, co-editor of the website that conducted the survey, said:

New parents live in dread of the ‘Terrible Twos’, but parents of teenagers will tell them that the worst is yet to come. Ironically, many toddler traits surface again when children become teenagers, but often become even more difficult to deal with . . .

The general consensus is that the teenage years are beyond doubt the worst.

India Knight, of the London Times, felt compelled to write a defence of teen girls:

They’re funny and sparky and interesting, intellectually curious, with a big appetite for life and new experiences (if not so much for food, alas, these days) . . .

Most teenagers aren’t difficult at all. They are pains, which is a different thing. They’re just trying stuff out, experimenting, kicking against boundaries in a way that may be exasperating but is hardly much more . . .

She resists the demonisation of teenagers that has got to the point where many people’s first instinct upon seeing a group of girls at a bus stop is to steer well clear of them.

Ms Knight, I couldn’t agree more. I unapologetically love teenage girls. And yes, I really do mean love. In my book, The Butterfly Effect, I talk about the feedback girls give us after Enlighten Education workshops. They say they loved the way we made them feel; they loved us; they were inspired by the power of the love we showed them.

At first I was surprised by how often they use the word love. Now I believe that it is the fundamental secret to Enlighten Education’s success. Without big, bold in-your-face love, there can be no connection between us and the girls we work with. Our love gives them a safe place from which they can explore their world.

In a society saturated in sex, shopping and self-centredness, ironically the one thing that can still truly shock and delight girls is simple, old-fashioned love.

Too often we assume that our daughters know that we love them; that our love for them is instinctive and so needs no explanation. But as this survey shows, rather than receiving messages of love from adults, teenage girls often get the message that they are hard to handle, troubled, unlovable. Too often we talk about the teen-girl years with a roll of the eyes, as a time that we must simply endure. Teen girls are Queen Bees, Wannabees, Bitchfaces, Princesses, Divas, Mean Girls, Drama Queens.

They may be some of these things at times. Yet they are also so much more. When I look at teenage girls, I see:

  • The 16-year-old who is my friend on facebook, whose profile page declares her to be a fan of Blu-Tack, Minties, Dory the fish from Finding Nemo and Bubble O’Bill ice-creams – and also features her reflections on gender differences and learning Italian.
  • The 15-year-old who had a baby, as a result of being raped, and turned up at the school carnival the next week to join in sporting events and cheer on her classmates.
  • The 14-year-old who sends me copies of her drawings of a fantasy world she has created, and badgers me for contacts in the publishing world as she wants to create her own line of products, ‘beginning with a book series and then obviously working my way up to films and merchandising’.

Try not to let the slammed doors, angry silences or adolescent sarcasm blind you to your daughter’s essential lovableness. Don’t be distracted by the toxic culture our girls are immersed in, for there is a risk that it can blind us to an even more important reality: the lovableness of all girls.

Don’t be afraid to show your daughter you love her.

You can show your love in such simple ways, in everyday moments, just as the parents of these girls have:

When it’s really cold and rainy, I come home from school and she’s got a cup of hot chocolate and pancakes made for me and my PJs ready to get into. Then we sit under a nice blanket and watch movies all night. Gemma, 16

My mum writes me little surprise notes and sticks them in my lunch box sometimes. I love them so much, I stick them in my school diary. I’ve never told her that I look forward to seeing them so much, as she’d probably do it all the time then and somehow that would spoil it. When I feel sad during the day, I look at the letters and smile. Michelle, 14

I love when me and my mum go shopping together, and after buying many things we will sit in a cafe and just talk. I feel comfortable to talk to her about my life, friends, etc. and it just makes me feel better that I can trust my mum and have that time with her. Steph, 16

I talked to Kerri-Anne on Channel 9 about all of this recently. My hope is that it helps a little in banishing the myth that teen girls are nothing but trouble! 

Facing Up to Sexual Harassment in Schools

Lately I’ve been concerned about a rise in sexual harassment in schools. Too many girls, and some female teachers, are being expected to turn the other cheek in the face of harassment from boys — whether it be verbal taunts, degrading comments on Facebook, explicit text messages or actual physical assault. Some schools are doing a brilliant job of dealing with this issue, but unfortunately there are many schools who are yet to grasp the seriousness of it.

We are on the brink of a disturbing new reality here. Boys are being exposed to a pornification of our culture — in music, on TV, in films and on the net — so it is perhaps little wonder that increasingly they feel that sex-based harassment is acceptable. It is up to schools and parents to teach them that it’s not. 

Too often the victims are left with the burden of trying to combat harassment. Recently a school told me that boys’ sexual comments and attitudes towards female teachers had become so problematic that they needed to take action. So they asked me if I could suggest ways to help their female staff become more resilient to the boys’ sex-based harassment. I applauded the fact that they wanted to take action on behalf of their female staff — but the onus should not have been on those women. Women and girls should never be taught to put up with sexual harassment. It is the boys who need to be taught that girls and women deserve respect, just as every human being deserves respect.

Another recent incident got me thinking about all this. A Year 9 girl stood up in class to get a textbook, when a boy lifted up her skirt for everyone to see and started taunting her. She began crying but managed to compose herself and sit down — and then another boy reached inside her blouse to try to rip her bra off.

The school’s response was to give the boys detention. Given that the same school gives detention for behaviour such as failing to do homework, this was an offensively weak punishment. For the girl, it was like being humiliated all over again. The boys received no counselling on why what they had done was wrong. And because the adults didn’t take it seriously, the boys didn’t either.

It was only when the girl’s incensed father pointed out to the school that what the boys did was actually an assault — a criminal offence — that the penny dropped. The school suspended the boys and called in their parents. Then the boys grasped the seriousness of what they had done, and they gave the girl a genuine apology. Like all kids, teen boys need adults to set and enforce boundaries.

When asked what the school’s sexual harassment policy was, the principal said, “Well, we don’t condone sexual harassment.” That is a laughable response — but actually, we shouldn’t scoff, because this principal is not alone. Plenty of schools don’t have policies. Perhaps they haven’t got around to it, they don’t think harassment is happening in their schools or they don’t grasp how damaging it is. Since this incident, the school is developing a sexual harassment policy. If something like that happens again, there will be guidelines to follow and everyone will understand that sexual harassment is never okay.

Implement a Sexual Harassment Policy at Your School

Formulating a policy for your school does not have to be a daunting task: the Australian Human Rights Commission has exceptional resources to help educators. Below is a summary of what a good sexual harassment policy contains according to the Commission. For more details and guidance, download the full information kit here. It also includes lesson plans, activity and resource sheets, and there’s a DVD available — all of which are very well written and sure to get meaningful discussions going in your classroom.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, a good school sexual harassment policy includes:

  • A strong statement on the school’s attitude to sexual harassment
  • An outline of the school’s objectives regarding sexual harassment 
  • A plain English definition of sexual harassment 
  • A definition of what sexual harassment is not
  • A statement that sexual harassment is against the law
  • Possible consequences if the sexual harassment policy is breached
  • Options available for dealing with sexual harassment
  • Where to get help or advice.

The Human Rights Commission stresses that a written policy is not enough. Ask yourself:

  • Are people aware of the policy? Do they have a copy of it?
  • Is it provided to new staff and students?
  • Is it periodically reviewed? It is available in appropriate languages?
  • Are there training and awareness-related strategies associated with the policy?

School is of the front lines in the battle against sexual harassment. The home is another important one. So I am heartened that there are not only women but also men who are calling for adults to be good role models and to teach kids the importance of respecting all human beings — girls and boys, women and men. This poetic and inspiring call, by a man, for less objectification and more respect of women and girls moved me so much I cried:

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