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Month: May 2011

Babies, not Barbies! Sand pits, not glitz!

IMG_0271
Danni Miller with Junior Activists at Sydney rally.

I am feeling pumped after this week’s national Pull the Pin protests against the glitzy, sexualised child beauty pageants as seen on “Toddlers & Tiaras”. This type of competition is heading to Australia if American company Universal Beauty goes ahead with its July pageant in Melbourne. Tuesday’s protests were our way of saying “This is not going to happen on our watch”, as I told Kerri-anne.

I was honoured to speak at the Sydney protest in front of Parliament House and was thrilled to see that so many people want to protect little girls from being primped, waxed and fake-tanned to look like women, then sent out to be judged against an incredibly narrow, limiting definition of beauty.

Pull the Pin, the movement created by Enlighten Education’s simply amazing Catherine Manning, would like to see child pageants banned. So would I. And so would the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ chair Phillip Brock. He says that placing girls in pageants could lead to anxiety and depression because:

Infants and girls are objectified and judged against sexualised ideals. The mental health and development consequences of this are significant and impact on identity, self-esteem and body perception.

When will the government listen?

We know the pageant organisers won’t. They’re making too much money out of the toddler equivalent of the compare-and-despair game women know all too well. This is big business — two words that should never be seen in the same sentence as childhood.

Case in point: Eden Wood. The six-year-old US pageant contestant who is being used to publicise the Universal Royalty event is promoted as “the prettiest little girl in America”, but The Sydney Morning Herald dubbed her “Little Miss Pricey” when her agent said it could cost up to $20,000 for the paper to interview Eden. Annette Hill, the founder of Universal Royalty, wanted $5,000 to be interviewed.

These pageants are not about developing girls’ talent and confidence, as pageant fans say. These pageants are about currency: cold hard cash, and the message that girls’ currency is their looks.

Enlightens Cath Manning, speaks at the Melbourne rally (Photo by melbourneprotests.wordpress.com)
Enlighten's Cath Manning, speaks at the Melbourne rally

It breaks my heart to look at the pictures of Eden Wood on her Facebook fan page. In many of them, she has been heavily Photoshopped. In some, it isn’t just that she no longer looks like a child but that she doesn’t even look real any more.

US pageant contestant Eden Wood, 6
US pageant contestant Eden Wood, 6

Phillip Brock says the photos of Eden Wood:

can be interpreted as alluring and appealing to the sexual instincts of the observer, and if that observer is an adult then it’s voyeuristic.

Some supporters of child pageants expressed concern that children went to the rallies. Girls and young women have the right to express their opinions and make their voices heard. That some school-aged girls chose to come at lunchtime to show their support is a testament to just how passionate girls are about protecting their younger sisters from being forced to become too sexy too soon and to be judged on their looks. One Year 12 student attended the Sydney protest to conduct research for an assignment, as did a university student. Susan Moretti, whose 17-year-old daughter goes to a school Enlighten has worked with for years, sums up the deep protective feelings of many teen girls:

I just had to calm my daughter down . . . she’s so outraged over this! It’s been talked about at school and ALL the girls feel so badly for the little ones who are cajoled to enter the pageants. I think they may even start a rally of their own by the sounds of their sentiment!

Melbourne Pull the Pin rally
School girls (and Betty Grumble aka Sydney-based performance artist Emma Maye Gibson) at the Melbourne Pull the Pin rally (Photo by melbourneprotests.wordpress.com)

Thank you, everyone who showed their support at the rallies in capital cities around the country. In Sydney, we even had a great-grandmother stop by to thank us for saving her great-grandchildren. The two policemen on duty at parliament house were both dads and they were behind us 100 percent. It seems that we had a lot of Sydney dads on our side: as two men in suits walked by, one of the organisers, Jenn Lane, overheard them saying they would never want their young daughters to be in beauty pageants. A member of a Muslim women’s group in western Sydney came along and offered to involve her community in the movement in the future. The rallies helped to publicise the issue, with media all over the country covering it, including Channel 10 news.

We need to keep up the pressure and keep spreading the word. One way in which you can be heard is by signing the online petition here:. As I so often say, the standard we walk past is the standard we set. Let’s not be complacent.

I always think laughter is one of the best ways to get a point across, so I’m passing on this gem that a friend forwarded to me:
prenatal pageants

And if you haven’t seen Tom Hanks’s send-up of Toddlers & Tiaras yet, you just have to watch it. Even a pageant parent would have to be made of stone if they can keep a straight face watching the “Miss Ultimate Sexy Baby” contest. Who knew Tom Hanks could sashay like that?

Girls on film

It’s three minutes till the end of the world. If you’re a guy, sweat is trickling from your brow as you defuse a bomb or outwit the leader of an intergalactic army. If you’re a woman, you undo the top button of your blouse and look alarmed yet sexy . . .

Photo by Oreos, Creative Commons licence

Do you feel as though every time you go to the movies you’re seeing the same old story unfold? You’re not imagining it. A study was done recently that showed in Hollywood movies, guys talk and get stuff done, while girls are eye candy.

Men get 67 percent of the lines, leaving just 33 percent of the talking to women. Forty percent of women wear sexy, revealing clothes, versus fewer than 7 percent of male characters. I just don’t think it would fly if I spent 30 percent of my waking life partially naked, yet that is exactly what women do in blockbuster movies. Men are shown partially naked only 10 percent of the time.

The Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism looked at the 100 top-grossing movies of 2008 for the study. They confirmed what many of you will already suspect: 13 to 20 year old girls are being hypersexualised in Hollywood movies. The characters most likely to be shown provocatively are teenagers, at 40 percent of the time.

Disturbingly, other research has shown that the effect is just as pronounced in movies and TV shows for children 11 and under. Watching TV with her young daughter, Hollywood star Geena Davis became so concerned about gender bias that she set up the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Her institute’s research showed that for every female character, there are three male characters; in a group scene, there are five males to one female.

To me, the most disturbing thing was that the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies. — Geena Davis

When women are involved in writing a script, the percentage of female characters jumps by 14.3 percent, according to the Annenberg study. But Hollywood is still dominated by men. On the top 100 movies, women made up only:

  • 8 percent of the directors
  • 13.6 percent of the writers
  • 19.1 percent of the producers.

I asked my friend Jane Manning, a filmmaker, whether she thinks it is as bad here in Australia.

My hunch is that we would have a better result. The film industry here didn’t really get going until the 70s, and more women were participants from the beginning compared to the US. Australian television has many female key players, and female viewers wield substantial power. Many of the most successful TV programs — Seachange, The Secret Life of Us, Love My Way, Paper Giants — have had strong female roles and key women on the creative team. — Australian Filmmaker Jane Manning

There are more women working in film here, according to Australian Film Commission research — though we still have a long way to go toward equality. Here women make up:

  • 15 percent of the directors
  • 21 percent of the writers
  • 35 percent of the producers.

Jane has been making films and TV programs for 15 years and recently directed episodes for Who Do You Think You Are? on Christine Anu, Cathy Freeman and Tina Arena. She has also just finished directing a number of the episodes in the brilliant new television series “In Their Footsteps”.  Jane says she has never encountered extra challenges in making programs about women but she has seen the patterns described by the US research arise here:

I worked on a TV series where the head writer was an old-fashioned male, and the female characters tended to be confined to the love interest / subservient mould. Incidentally, the series failed to get an audience, and when the TV station conducted focus groups to find out why, they discovered women hated it. This kind of thing is becoming rarer, because more women are in key writing roles in Australian television.

Stories — and their slant — always arise from who is doing the storytelling. The only way gender portrayals on screens will ever be balanced is when the number of female writers and directors is on a par with men in the industry. This is probably a way off yet, but the gap seems to be closing in Australia. I don’t believe any externally imposed guidelines to influence gender portrayal would ever work. The best, truest stories always break rules and guidelines. — Jane Manning

I am always saying that girls cannot be what they cannot see, so I smiled when I saw this quote from Geena Davis:

We know that if girls can see characters doing unstereotyped kinds of occupations and activities, they’re much more likely as an adult to pursue unusual and outside-the-box occupations. I really believe that if you can see it, you can be it.

We might not have the power to change the film and TV industries overnight but we can celebrate great movie-making that shows girls they can be so much more than the breathless, scantily clad ornament by the hero’s side. Here are some of my favourites for teens: Hairspray, Whale Rider, Bend It Like Beckham, The Piano, Matilda…

I’d love to hear yours!

Girlworld meets the Boyzone

I am thrilled to be one of the keynote speakers in July at the conference of the Federation of Parents and Friends Associations, of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, in NSW. I will be speaking on how to raise amazing girls and clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller will be talking about his area of expertise, boys. I am often asked what I believe are the greatest challenges girls face and I am also often asked “What about the boys?” So I am grateful to Aurora, the diocese’s monthly newspaper, for giving their permission to share this article in which both Andrew and I get to answer those very questions.

Girlworld by Dannielle Miller, Enlighten Education CEO

danni presenting to girls
What kind of a girl were you?
Bossy. Busy. I was determined to expand my empire from ruling over my little sister to becoming “President of the Universe”—until I hit adolescence. My inner dialogue then became darker and more focused on how I looked. As I had scars (I have a third-degree burn) I became convinced my body’s “flaws” would limit my potential. How telling that, as little girls, we believe we have fantastic powers and unlimited potential, yet as older girls we start to feel powerless and see our currency as based on how we look!

It took me some time to reclaim my Presidential Powers.

What gifts do girls offer?
I find young women simply delightful! They are honest (ok, I admit at times they may be brutally honest—like the teen girl who recently asked me “So did they have make-up back when you were a teen too?”), affectionate (girls at our events will literally line up to hug and kiss me), and passionate. If you capture their hearts, their minds follow.

I think as teens, girls in particular can look so grown up and act so worldly, we forget that they truly still need our love and attention.

It’s tough raising girls—right?
There are absolutely many challenges. We know body image is a huge concern for many young women; in fact surveys have shown as many as 94% of girls say they do not think they are as beautiful as the average girl, and up to 25% say they would like to change everything about themselves.

Binge drinking is a huge concern too—teen girls are the biggest binge drinking demographic in this country.

The most problematic thing is that girls can look as though they are doing well. They are experts at putting on the “I’m all right” perfect girl façade. Yet behind bedroom doors, they may well be imploding.

The key I think to parenting girls and boys is to reach out. Read what parenting experts have to say (not just my book of course, but get lots of viewpoints so that you are informed), talk to the parents of their friends. It really does take a village to raise a child.

What is the single biggest challenge facing girls today, and how might parents address it?
I believe that despite all the progress feminism has helped women make, the ultimate glass ceiling still seems to be our bathroom mirrors. Girls caught up in playing the “compare and despair” game will not reach their personal or academic potential. Their inner dialogue will convince them that despite all they achieve, unless they can fit the increasingly narrow ideal of beauty that they are bombarded with, they will not be “worth it”.

I love the fact that healing our girls really encourages parents also to heal themselves. Girls cannot be what they cannot see. Our girls will not see themselves as whole unless we as parents see ourselves as whole too. We “big girls” need to stop engaging in toxic self-talk, lamenting the ageing process, yo-yo dieting . . . we need to step up and be role models for our daughters.

If you could give parents of girls one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t believe the self-fulfilling prophecy that mothers and teen daughters are destined to fight and drift apart. Don’t expect her teens to be troubled. Rather, connect with her. Enjoy her. Teens need us just as much as they did when they were toddlers! Every stage of parenting has its challenges but every stage also has joy . . . see the joy now too.

If you could give teachers of girls one piece of advice, what would it be?
See her as a whole person not just an academic candidate. Don’t dismiss her personal issues. If a teen is fighting with a friend, that matters most to her. You can forget learning until there is a resolution! It is strange to me that we never take time to explicitly teach such vital skills as resolving conflict. When we work with girls in schools they hang on our every word when we help them learn how to make sense of “Girl World”! We have a generation of young women who are being expected to cope with an increasingly complex world, yet they may only have child-like strategies to fall back on.

Boyzone by Andrew Fuller, clinical psychologist

What kind of a boy were you?
I was quite a shy boy but very lucky. Not only did I have my parents and family, I had an aunt and uncle who owned a farm so I got to play and roam. My neighbours also adopted me and I had breakfast with them every morning until I went to secondary school.

What are the joys that boys offer?
Boys are gung ho, wild, touchy pranksters who love stories, games, jokes and mucking about. They are the masters of minimalism. If you ask them to write 50 words on something and they write 51 words, they think they have overdone it. They are the practitioners of just-in-time management which is why they will leave almost any chore to the last possible moment.

It’s tough raising boys—right?
Keep boys busy and it’s pretty straightforward. They want to know you are there for them but they don’t want you in their face. Let them know that you respect them and even though they will pretend that they don’t want to hear you, make sure that they know you love them.

What is the single biggest challenge facing boys today, and how might parents address it?
We’ve narrowed the definition of success so much that many kids, girls as well as boys, think they are failures and cannot succeed. We can be the antidote to this craziness by insisting on our children’s right to be individuals and to find success in their own ways. Be the person who turns to young people and says, “I have no idea what you are going to do with your life or how you are going to get there but I know you will be an absolute world beater.” Believe in them.

If you could give parents of boys one piece of advice, what would it be?
Mothers of boys need to know that they provide a role model for his future relationships with women. Care for sons but don’t be too ready to rescue them. Love them but expect them to solve their problems. Don’t let them wriggle out of hugs or conversations with you. Know when to “become invisible” when their friends are around but be there as a backup.

Fathers of sons need to learn to stop trying to improve their sons. If a father can accept his son for who he is and believe in him, he does more to build his confidence and self-esteem than all advice and lectures put together.

If you could give teachers of boys one piece of advice, what would it be?
Boys thrive best as part of a “gang”. The most important gang they will ever belong to is their family. The second most important gang is your classroom. Run your classroom like a gang! Have clear rules and high expectations. Be the leader of the gang. Let boys know how to succeed and they will shine. Also know that boys’ love of games and competitions overrides any lack of motivation they may feel so run your classroom like a mix between a computer game and a game show!

To learn more about Andrew Fuller, go to www.andrewfuller.com.au. To read Aurora, click here. And for more information about the Federation of Parents and Friends Associations’ July conference, call Linda McNeil on (02) 4979 1303 or email her at linda.mcneil@mn.catholic.edu.au.

Celebrating the Lives of Paris and Cameron

butterfly heartWe truly love all the girls we work with, and we have all been deeply affected by the deaths of beautiful Paris Wilson and Cameron O’Neill-Mullin, both aged 16. We had the honour to work with both girls in an Enlighten presentation at St Hilda’s, in Queensland, three weeks before a ski tubing accident claimed their lives in Goondiwindi. Paris was a student at St Hilda’s and Cameron was an exchange student from Maryland, in the USA.

Cameron was still wearing her pink Enlighten 21-day armband and at her mother Tricia’s request, we are sending 20 armbands so that Cameron’s family members can now wear them, too. We are honoured to spread the love to Tricia’s family overseas and are incredibly moved to have had an impact in Paris’s and Cameron’s lives.

In celebration of their lives, I would like to share with you the eulogy that Paris’s older sister, Bianca, read at her funeral service. It is one of the most beautiful and moving eulogies I have ever read. Bianca described the one last perfect day together they would have if she could steal Paris back from heaven.

I closed my eyes and set the scene in the city of love, Paris, on a sunny yet breezy day. You were wearing your, sorry it was my, blue and white angel dress, until you decided I gave it to you.

Your hair was naturally, yet perfectly, curled and it wisped around your face.

Firstly, I helped you do your makeup, instructing you on which of the many brushes to use first.

We would be walking down the quiet alley ways and main streets, tasting all the foods that people would be offering us, especially not hesitating on the chocolate.

We would be surrounded by people, though we would feel as if we were the only ones in the world.

We would talk in different accents, speak so fast that we couldn’t understand each other, and laugh until it hurt.

We would flirt with French boys and you would flutter your incredibly long eyelashes and flick your beautiful blonde waves in the wind.

Then they would tell you that you were really nice to take your little sister out for the day.

Eventually we would enter a boutique, and you’d pick out a million and one outfits to try on and parade around the store in, just to show everyone how amazing you looked.

You would then call up mum and dad, trick them into believing it was me talking, and then ask for their credit card number.

Bianca then described Paris as a butterfly:

My reasoning for this is because you make friends so easily, you touch people – not only their head but their heart, you’re not afraid to show your true colours, and most importantly, you have what they call the butterfly effect, where a flap of a butterfly’s wings can change the course of weather around the world.

That is what your breathtaking smile is like, when one person sees your smile, they smile, and eventually the world will smile back . . .

My memory of you and the image of your face is 100% perfect, whether you were breathing or not.

I love you so much Paris Cassandra Wilson, my student, teacher, best friend, baby sister and now my beautiful guardian angel.

May you fly peacefully and freely.

Butterflies were released at the ceremony.

The eulogy was printed in the Goondiwindi Argus. Our thoughts go out to Paris and Cameron’s families, friends and everyone whose lives they touched.

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