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Month: April 2011

Pink Princesses vs Action Heroes

Enlighten’s Catherine Manning, one of our Melbourne workshop presenters, was in the toy aisles at K-mart last week with her two daughters and two nieces, ranging in age from 8-12. In the girls toy section, Catherine was appalled to see a whole row of “My Cleaning Set.” Inside the glossy pink packaging was a mop and bucket, broom and—hold on, don’t get too excited—even a dustpan and some cleaning spray!

Holy Peanut Butter Cups, Batgal! Can you think of a more boring toy? Catherine says—and really, I have to agree—that the girl pictured on the box “looks to me like a little girl destined for a life of misery.”

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Just as Catherine was contemplating buying one so she could discuss it with teen girls in her Enlighten workshops, something awesome happened that has got all of us here at Enlighten smiling: Catherine noticed that her daughters and nieces were standing further down the aisle, holding toy irons, with indignant looks on their faces.

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Left to Right: Mietta, Eden, Sasha and Lucinda.

The girls were incensed by the stereotyping they found in the boys and girls toy aisles, so she encouraged them to each write a letter to K-Mart. Here is a sampling from their passionate and articulate letters:

When you look in the girls aisle it’s all just pink, princess stuff, and boring cooking and scrubbing products, but the boys get fun building stuff, and puzzles and cars.  I still don’t know why marbles, puzzles and mighty beans are in the boys aisles.

The girls toys make little girls think they are the maids and they’re in prison and they serve the boys their food, massage their smelly feet and look after them and serve them breakfast, lunch and dinner!

. . .

You might think that black, blue and all dark colours are for boys but to me they are girls colours too.  Just like pink and yellow and red aren’t just girls colours . . .  There are just things in this world called ‘colours’ and they don’t belong to anybody and they are all different just like no person or people are the same, they’re all different! —Lucinda, 9

It isn’t fair that boys get all the fun, and we get all the house jobs.  When I think about being an adult, I definitely would like to think that my future partner would think that they’re NOT just jobs for girls! I would love to see some girls toys that lets girls be creative and constructive.  This could be like building something like a dolls house, or a billy cart, or just other fun stuff.

It is unfair how girls have, like, toys that they’re ‘meant’ to play with as though it’s wrong to play with the boys stuff. —Eden, 11

The dolls are always dripping with makeup.  It makes me feel like I’m supposed to look like them, and it makes me feel a bit sick.

I think that girls are being taught that they should ‘prepare’ for when they are older, because ladies do cooking and cleaning for their families while the men go outside and actually do FUN stuff!  I think the boys are laughing at us because they think that’s how it’s gonna be too!

Lego is soooo fun!  I love building random, weird stuff! Me and my younger brother recently built this MASSIVE skyscraper thing!  If there are any toys that are girls or  women, they have hardly any clothes on.  My brothers dressed up as fairy princesses last week—have you stopped to think that they sometimes like to play ‘girl’ stuff too!

Why do you even need to have a ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ aisle?  Why don’t you mix them up so we all get to look at different toys and decide ourselves what we should play with?  — Mietta, 12

I think it’s very interesting that all the girls feel that girls and boys should be allowed to choose what they want to play with, not have it foisted upon them because of their gender. Indeed, the problem isn’t inherently that there’s anything wrong with playing with a mop or an iron, but that thanks to marketing, packaging and the way the store displays its merchandise, kids and adults alike get the message that girls should clean and boys should build stuff. Look closely in the background of that picture of the Amazons brandishing those plastic irons and you’ll see that Catherine’s son Jem in fact looks pretty interested in something in the “girls” aisle.

Catherine notes, “Maybe if there was more equality in the toy shop, there would be more equality in the workplace.” In 2011, women still earn only 84% of what their male counterparts do and make up only 20% of company board positions. Justine, on Enlighten’s Facebook page, makes a similar point:

I have known kids to enjoy playing with these toys but only because at a certain age they like to imitate adults . . . it wouldn’t have killed them to put a boy on the packaging as well, but the reality is probably that it is mum kids see doing the housework most often = THAT’S the problem!

Girls show us time and again that they are perfectly capable of using their brains to decide what is fair and what isn’t. And there are plenty of feminists around today who survived playing with Barbies and toys such as the astonishing “Perfect Wedding” that Irin Carmon writes about at Jezebel. But still, I think that our toy aisles aren’t merely reflecting our unequal gender reality, they are actively helping to create and reinforce it. If you were in any doubt about the messages marketers are sending boys and girls about who they’re meant to be, take a look at these “word clouds” that The Achilles Effect did, based on an analysis of the words used in toy advertising aimed at boys or girls. Sadly, I don’t think I even need to caption them for you to work out which is the boys’ and which the girls’:

Toy companies and stores would be smart to take notice of girls such as Lucinda, Eden, and Mietta, though—because we’ve all had enough of gender stereotyping. With that in mind, I have a fun activity challenge for you this school holidays: encourage your daughter to design a toy that will accurately prepare girls for life as a successful woman! I would love to post the results here on the blog. She can make a drawing and scan it, or even build a model then take a photograph of it. Then email me the scan or the photo, and I’ll publish it here! My email address is: danni@enlighteneducation.com. Entries close 20th May. The most creative entries we receive will win copies of our inspiring Enlighten posters so do make sure you also forward your contact details.

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Shrinking Violets, Inner Amazons

The other day a friend was telling me about being at a party where she heard an adult saying to a girl in her late teens, “Wow, look how tall you’re getting!” The girl immediately blushed and slumped her shoulders, as if trying to shrink from view. She looked down and mumbled, “I hope I stop growing soon.”

It’s easy to forget the intense self-consciousness that is so much a part of girlworld. But if we think back, even the most extroverted of us can remember those moments when we  felt as if a spotlight was shining just on us, and the whole world was staring and seeing (what we perceived as) our flaws.

Like the girl at that party, I thought that I needed to change myself. In my diary when I was 14, I lamented the fact that the plastic surgeon told me he couldn’t fix the burn scars I have on my neck and down one arm. I covered them up with long sleeves instead, no matter how hot it was. I believed those scars meant I would never be loved.

Melodramatic much? Sure, but that fear was painfully real at the time.

When a girl says she’s going to “die” because she has to give a 5-minute talk in class, it sounds like a total overreaction—but that may be how she truly feels. Self-consciousness and shyness come out in girls blushing, clamming up around new people to the point of seeming rude, underachieving or dropping out of activities they’re good at so that they don’t outshine their friends, apologising or even getting angry when they receive a compliment. Binge drinking and other risky behaviour can also be misguided ways of handling social stress. This is all pretty puzzling to adults—unless we remind ourselves what it was like to be a teenager, simultaneously wanting to stand out and fit in.

With all that we have learned and experienced, we can help the shrinking violets in our lives find their inner Amazon: their true strong, confident self who always speaks her truth . . . and stands up to her full height!

Know the power of your words. No one spoke up to give the teenage girl at the party some perspective. In fact, one woman nodded and said, “Oh yes, you want to be able to wear high heels.” The subtext: if you grow too tall, you’ll tower over any potential date and will be doomed to a sad, lonely, high-heel-less spinsterhood. (Not only were the girl’s fears reinforced, they were reinforced with utter nonsense!)

To her, and to all girls, I say: whether you’re short or tall or somewhere in between, you are beautiful and you will be loved. And it won’t make a speck of difference whether the bottom of your wardrobe is crammed with Birkenstocks or Manolo Blahnik stilettos. To grown-ups, I say: we all have to be careful with our words.

Eat an elephant. For some girls, social occasions can be especially hard. Michaela, one of Enlighten’s Facebook friends, stands in front of groups of strangers and talks every day for her job, but she was “cripplingly shy” when she was a girl. Her advice to girls is to start small:

You can eat an elephant if you take small enough bites, right? So think about one thing you’d like to work on that challenges you in social settings, and give yourself one small goal. For example, maybe think about saying hello to just one person you’ve not met before. If you manage it, that’s great! Just one hello. Then build from there. . . . The more you do it, the easier it gets.

Socialise. Try to create opportunities for your shrinking violet to get to know other girls in a nonthreatening, nonstressful environment. This will help her learn the skills she needs to break the ice and make friends. Organise one-on-one opportunities for her to hang out with another girl at your place. Girl guides and other fun community or church youth groups can also be a great way to gently introduce girls to social situations that may otherwise make them anxious.

Practise and prepare. For girls who become overly anxious about public occasions, being fully prepared can be a real confidence booster. Zerlinda, another Enlighten Facebook fan, says she got over her adolescent dread of public speaking by “doing lots of practice, being thorough, being informed, knowledgeable, prepared”. Michaela had a similar strategy for social events: she would visualise how she’d like the social event to go and the kind of things she’d like to say and do.

Choose a role model. Zerlinda looked towards people she admired for ways to become less shy:

I don’t compare myself to anyone, however, I have role models who I have learnt from or who have inspired me. I have adapted those qualities that impressed me, to suit my own style and requirements.

Parents are the most important role models of all, so look inwards, too. How do you respond when someone gives you a compliment? Do you sometimes struggle to find your voice to express your beliefs and feelings?

Find your inner Amazon. I recommend that girls spend some quiet time visualising their own inner Amazon, who is strong and powerful, and who they can summon up whenever their confidence gets wobbly. At the end of my book, The Butterfly Effect, I give a full visualisation exercise that girls in our workshops find really empowering. (It’s great for women, too.)

Celebrate difference. Our aim should be to support girls and help them develop the confidence to be themselves—not to force everyone to be outgoing. Some people are naturally quieter than others. If a girl is especially shy and quiet in class or is really struggling in the playground, then of course we need to help her develop the skills to contribute in class and in social groups—while always respecting individual differences. In fact, girls who are naturally more introverted can actually turn that tendency into a helpful strategy. Zerlinda says:

I learnt to accept myself as being an introvert and learnt to cope by ensuring I have my quiet/alone times to refresh, de-stress and find peace.  I made a conscious decision to accept myself as an individual; to accept my flaws; highlight my abilities. I made a conscious decision to like who I was/am . . . to love me for being me!

Do you have any other strategies you’d like to share to help girls overcome self-consciousness and shyness? I’d love to hear what works for you.

P.S The beautiful posters featured here are part of a series I commissioned and are available at our Enlighten shop. I think every young woman should have images like these adorning their bedroom walls!

Eating Disorders and Primary School Children

Last week the Herald Sun reported that children as young as seven are being hospitalised with eating disorders. Equally as alarming, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead’s eating disorders clinic, which specialises in working with people aged seven to 17, has experienced a 270 per cent increase in admissions since 2000.

The crew at Kerri-anne asked me to come on and discuss this worrying trend with viewers yesterday. I asked for Melinda Hutchings — an eating disorders survivor, ambassador for The Butterfly Foundation and author of the incredible Why Can’t I Look The Way I Want?: Overcoming Eating Issues to accompany me to offer her personal insights.


As is always the case with live breakfast television, there wasn’t enough time to offer all the insights we would like, so I have asked Melinda to be my guest blogger this week.

image001 A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2009 found that between July 2002 and June 2005, 101 children aged from five to 13 years old were newly diagnosed with an eating disorder. About two-thirds were affected by anorexia nervosa; the rest were experiencing “food avoidant emotional disorder”, a condition unique to children, which involves extreme weight loss driven by high anxiety levels, rather than wanting to be thin.

And according to a 2003 study of 135 South Australian children conducted by Professor Marika Tiggemann, of the School of Psychology, Flinders University, two-thirds of girls in year 1 believed that being thin would make them more popular. Even more believed weight gain would attract teasing.

Children spend much of their early lives at school, an environment that can be competitive, with hierarchies often based on physical appearances. A negative fixation on weight and size potentially lends itself to self-destructive thoughts and behaviours, which can be triggered by situations, comments or events that bring up feelings of anxiety and worthlessness. These include family arguments related to eating (e.g. “You’re not leaving the table until you’ve eaten everything on your plate”), feelings of being misunderstood, rejection by peers (e.g. “Go away, we don’t want to play with you”) or feeling like a misfit.

Negative emotions can lead to unhealthy thought processes and feelings of insecurity around body image. If left undetected, these feelings can lead to the onset of an eating disorder.

In my book Why Can’t I Look the Way I Want?: Overcoming Eating Issues, there is a chapter dedicated to the early warning signs. These signs are often subtle and can be passed off as “normal” behaviour – unless you know what to look for. Common warning signs include avoiding eating in front of others, making excuses to avoid family meal times, obsession with food preparation and a change in attitude towards food, e.g. becoming vegan or cutting out entire food groups under the guise of wanting to be “healthy”. In addition, ritualistic behaviour when eating, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, insisting that meals are eaten at a particular time each day or obsessive use of the same crockery and cutlery is cause for concern.

There are also warning signs before the warning signs. If a child is constantly complaining of headaches and tiredness, or appears to have trouble coping at school, this could indicate there is something deeper going on. Emotional issues, including feelings of inadequacy, often manifest as physical ailments, so stay aware of any symptoms that persist or behaviour that indicates difficulty coping, such as falling behind in class.

Becoming vigilant about the early warning signs means there is a very real chance of catching the behaviour before it spirals from an eating issue into an eating disorder.

Here are five tips for parents and carers:

1. Eat with your child as often as you can so that you become familiar with their eating habits.

2. Watch for changes in those habits, especially anything that appears unusually strict and lasts for several weeks.

3. Listen to the language your child uses around food. If they start talking about diets or calorie contents, or complain that they are fat (when they’re not) this is a red flag.

4. Watch for a change in disposition. If your child displays hostility around meal times, they could be experiencing internal conflict towards food.

5. If your child eats large amounts of food constantly but doesn’t realise how much they are eating and/or aren’t enjoying it, especially during times of stress, this could indicate obsessive eating.

In the event your child begins to display an aversion towards food and changes in their eating patterns, seek medical advice as soon as possible so that they get the right treatment without delay. Early intervention is critical in reframing the mindset before it becomes entrenched.
Melinda Hutchings

Toddlers & Tiaras? Pull the Pin Now!

The type of child beauty pageant made infamous by the reality TV show Toddlers & Tiaras is coming to Australia. We’ve all been outraged by what we’ve seen of these totally inappropriate, hypersexualized competitions.

Enlighten’s own Catherine Manning, one of our stellar Melbourne presenters, is putting her outrage to good use. She’s started Pull the Pin, a group that’s organising public rallies around the country to send a message to politicians and pageant organisers: we don’t want child beauty pageants in Australia.

This week I’m handing over to Catherine so she can talk about Pull the Pin and how you can get involved. Catherine, you have a heart of gold—but more than that, you are a woman of action!

I also had a great in-depth discussion about why child beauty pageants are so damaging to girls’ self-esteem and body image on Adelaide radio, which you can listen to here.


When the news hit that an American child beauty pageant company, Universal Royalty, is holding a pageant in Melbourne in July, I was amongst the many thousands of people who felt sickened—not just by the images of little girls being blatantly adultified and sexualised in these pageants but also by the fact that such a beauty competition for children would even have a market here in Australia.

It’s one thing for little girls to play dress-ups, donning frocks and heels, putting on some lippy and parading around the lounge room—but when adults come along and turn it into a fierce competition for money and prizes, complete with professional make-up artists, hairdressers and photographers, that’s just creepy and every kind of wrong.

I feel compelled to take action, so I have started the Pull the Pin campaign, which is coordinating public rallies on Tuesday, 3 May, at 12:00 p.m. on the steps of Parliament House in capital cities around the country. The aim is to make our voices heard in a way that is sensitive to pageant participants but sends a clear message to politicians and the community that we don’t want child beauty pageants in Australia. The reason I have chosen that day is that parliament will be in session in Melbourne, so it’s a great opportunity to send a message to the politicians in the city where the pageant is planned to take place.

I will be arranging for some engaging speakers in each state to articulate our concerns, and some peaceful protest “action” on the steps of parliament, such as bubble blowing, skipping, face painting, hopscotch—ordinary things that children really like to do and should be doing.

I have been encouraged by the many people who have contacted me expressing an interest in participating in the rally action, and am now looking to you to help me organise the rally in your state or territory.

If you would like to get involved and help coordinate things on the day, please email me at info@sayno4kids.com. It would be great to have a diversity of people involved to show that this issue is one a wide range of Australians feel very strongly about. I want to thank my friends at Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants and Collective Shout for their support on this issue.

Some discussions in the media and online about the pageant and rally have suggested a “catfight” between those parents who are for pageants and those who are against. I certainly don’t condone anyone personally attacking pageant parents. But I also don’t think it’s acceptable for parents to have girls as young as 3 years old coiffed, waxed and primped, then paraded in a competition against other little girls. As Dr Karen Brooks writes in The Courier-Mail, “For years, experts have stated how damaging it can be to introduce children at such an early age to this kind of subjective and superficial evaluation.” Responsibility does need to be taken by parents, and also by governments that allow these competitions to be run. Ideally, I’d like to see a worldwide ban on child beauty pageants.

Some of the adult cosmetic practices inflicted on little girls competing in these pageants, such as waxing and spray tanning, should also be illegal for children, in my view. We used to be able to rely on common sense—who’d have ever thought we’d have to protect young girls from their parents actively sexualising them for prize money? (Anyone who doubts that these girls are being sexualised didn’t see the episode of Toddlers & Tiaras in which “a mother screeches ‘Flirt! You’re not flirting!’ as her six-year-old daughter practices her routine,” as Nina Funnell describes over on Melinda Tankard-Reist’s site.)

I’m tired of hearing pageant parents and organisers compare beauty competitions to sport. If a child engages in a sporting activity, when they lose they know they can go home to practice and hone their skills for next time—but when they compete in a beauty competition and lose, they can only feel unworthy and unable to do anything about it.

Girls are already constantly bombarded with narrow beauty ideals in our culture, from Disney princesses and Barbies and Bratz dolls, to music video clips telling them they should look and behave like grown women. We should be combatting the message society sends our girls that they’re “not enough”—not foisting beauty competition culture upon them.

Pull the Pin is motivated by our care for children and their rights. My hope is that the little girls who compete in pageants will be pleased to see that someone else is saying “no” on their behalf. Anyone who’s watched Toddlers & Tiaras knows that often the little girls’ pleas of “stop” fall on deaf ears in pageant land. The rallies and our peaceful protests may just give them the courage to say “See Mummy, those people are having fun with their little girls just doing normal, healthy things. I want to do that too.”

We want to send a really strong message that Australians don’t want this type of exploitative beauty competition here. And we want to encourage  parents considering entering their children to think twice and act in the best interests of the children, not their own or the pageant organisers’ pockets.

Catherine Manning is an Enlighten Education presenter in Victoria. She is also the director of the children’s rights advocacy group Say No 4 Kids, which campaigns to end children’s exposure to highly sexualised material in the media and public domain.

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