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Month: August 2011

Size Apartheid. We’re Over It.

In the past week there has been much discussion over size. A diet book aimed at girls from 6 years old and up caused outrage by nutritionists and lead to me having a rather heated debate with Kerri-Anne on her television program regarding the current hysteria over the widely reported obesity crises (my argument? Basically that health may take many shapes and sizes and we need to stop obsessing over numbers, particularly when it comes to measuring and weighing our children). The National Eating Disorders Collaboration Conference (NEDC) was held in Sydney just yesterday too; its aim was to collaborate on best practice approaches towards treating and preventing eating disorders which are sadly on the increase and are now manifesting in children as young as 7. Simultaneously (in perhaps one of the worse examples of poor timing ever) Fairfax fashion writer Georgina Safe  caused an on-line furore over her opinion piece which slammed a plus-size fashion parade at the Fashion Festival of Sydney. 

Given the debates that are raging over how much space women should be allowed to quite literally take up, I thought it timely to offer a response to Ms Smart and turned to the fabulous Wendy Harmer for this. Wendy has just launched a new “online playground”, The Hoopla, aimed at women. I  was a guest over there earlier this month: you may like to read my post “Love thy daughter, Love thy self.” The following guest post is also featured at The Hoopla this week.  

 

Try as she may, there’s no way Fairfax fashion writer, Georgina Safe, can dress this one up. In her opinion, some of the plus-size models in the recent Myer “Big Is Beautiful” catwalk parade were fat and ugly.

How else can you interpret this: “While there were some pretty faces, others were wanting. Granted, some of them were regular citizens rather than professional clotheshorses, but this still defeats the purpose of inspiring consumers to buy the clothes.”

Hmmm. That’s as plain as the nose on your, or their faces. Safe even takes a swipe at one model who, on being selected for the show, said she’d be able to relax and eat a few cream puffs.

Oh, the outrage!

Safe goes on to say: “Plus-size shows and models should be judged by the same standards as any other fashion shows and models, as was observed by the director of plus-size agency Bella Model Management, Chelsea Bonner… ‘Plus-size models have to be just as aspirational, just as tall and just as heart-breakingly beautiful as any other model,’ Bonner says.”

But, hold on. Weren’t some of the models “regular citizens”? I imagine that was partly the point of the exercise, wasn’t it?

The parade took place as part of the Fashion Festival of Sydney and, as far as I can tell, was supposed to be an inspiration for big women who want to be fashionable.To make fashion more democratic and accessible for we ordinary schlubs.

But then there was the problem, according to some, that the plus-size models were not integrated into the main catwalk shows, but relegated to their own frumpy parade.

No problem for Safe, who clearly agrees with size apartheid, and writes: “But I disagree with Bonner on another point: while she applauded Fashion Festival Sydney for staging a plus-size show, she says true size equality would not occur until models beyond sample size were integrated into all runway shows. ‘Just chuck one or two in each show; don’t make an issue of it, just do it,’ she says.

“Frankly, why should we? Standard-size models, like Olympic athletes, are a genetically gifted species. Most consumers understand they will never look like them. The simple fact is that clothes look better on beautiful, slender young women. If the collection is lacklustre and the models are less than top-notch, what was the point of Tuesday’s show?

“The only truly stunning model on the runway was Lawley who, by the way, appears to have whittled down from a size 14-16 to a size 12.”

(Which means, given her height, she wasn’t a plus-sized model anymore by the standards of the majority Australian women, who, in most statistics I read, come in a comfy size 14-16.)

Safe misses the point, in my opinion, when she compares models with Olympic athletes.

Our athletes are applauded for their strong, fit bodies. By contrast we know that young women in many runway shows are dangerously underweight and when young girls try to emulate them, they risk developing eating disorders.

We also know that so many “regular citizens” look at fashion shows and cannot see a thing to wear as modelled by size 6, teenage coathangers. With the fashion industry in the doldrums, it would seem sensible to appeal to the majority of larger-sized women, of which I am one (too many “cream puffs” I suppose). I took a lingering look at many of the clothes and found a few there I’d buy.

Really, what is the point of sending a snippy fashionista along to a show that’s trying, for once, to make bigger women feel good about themselves?

If the clothes weren’t exactly “inspiring” as Safe says, that’s one thing. Making rude comments about women’s prettiness or otherwise is another. And in this article, Safe reveals her own character as “wanting”, if you ask me.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for a breakfast of cream puffs.

Zombies, Barbies and Bulletproof Vests: Why Science Is for Girls

If I asked you to name five great scientists or inventors, chances are you wouldn’t have much trouble coming up with a list pretty quickly.

But how many on that list would be women?

Girls could be forgiven for thinking that all the important scientific and technological breakthroughs were made by men such as Newton, Einstein or Bill Gates. The truth is, brilliant women have been involved in science and technology ever since someone first rolled a log down a hill and called it a wheel. They have just never got the kudos they deserve.

In fact, the Nobel Prize committee tried to stop perhaps the most famous female scientist of all time, Marie Curie, from attending the ceremony to receive her second Nobel Prize, in 1911. A widow, she had taken a lover and it was thought no one would want to sit at her table because it was a scandal. She went anyway, and dined with the King of Sweden. Rock on, Marie!

Girls cannot be what they cannot see, so it’s time women in science and technology had the spotlight. I stumbled on a cartoon that gives us a great way to engage with girls on this topic: “Zombie Marie Curie”. Zombies are hot right now and perhaps the only thing that could have made this cartoon more relevant is if they had slipped a vampire in there as well. I think it deserves a spot on the wall of every high school lab; it’s available at xkcd.com and is free for noncommercial use.

Comic by xkcd.com.

I am always impressed by how much girls care for others and want to make a difference to the world. So I think another way to connect with girls about science is to show them that it isn’t all just theory in a textbook — it is a way to change the world, to change people’s lives. Take these achievements for starters:

Kevlar: Countless lives have been saved thanks to kevlar, which is in the bulletproof vests worn by soldiers, police and security guards. It finds its way into safety helmets, fireproof clothing, skis, hiking and camping gear and the cables that hold up suspension bridges. Thank you, Stephanie Kwolek, who invented it at Dupont in the 1970s.

Hedy Lamarr, actress and inventor

Mobile phone communications: If you like old movies, you’ll know the glamorous 1940s star Hedy Lamarr. But you might not know that with George Anthiel she co-invented a form of coded wireless communication to outwit the Nazis in World War II. The technology she helped invent now makes mobile phones and other wireless devices possible.

Computer programming: The first computer programmer was Ada Lovelace. A mathematician, she wrote a program for the prototype of a digital computer created by Charles Babbage, back in the 1840s. 

Prostheses for breast-cancer survivors: Ruth Handler invented the Barbie doll in 1959. Heaven knows Barbie doesn’t exactly have realistic body proportions, yet as a breast-cancer survivor, Ruth Handler later developed Nearly Me, a range of realistic-looking post-mastectomy breast prostheses. Speaking of Barbie, in an attempt to inspire girls to enter the male-dominated field of architecture, Mattel and the American Institute of Architects recently held a competition to design a Barbie dream house. Female architecture graduates Ting Li and Maja Paklar won, with a design that is as green as it is pink: it has solar panels, locally sourced materials and other eco-friendly details. When I was a kid I loved Barbie and I sneakliy fancy sitting down to play with this, so it’s a pity that Mattel is not putting the female architects’ design into production. Oh, the irony!

Barbie Dream House by architecture graduates Ting Li and Maja Paklar

Blissymbols Printer: To help people who have disabilities that prevent them from speaking, 12-year-old Rachel Zimmerman wrote a software program that translates symbols a person points to on a touch pad into written language.

Girls like Rachel Zimmerman continue to achieve amazing things in science and technology. When Google held its science fair this year, 10,000 young people aged 13 to 18 entered and girls won the top prizes in all three age categories. Shree Bose uncovered problems with a popular ovarian cancer treatment. Lauren Hodge found that chicken can bind to toxic chemicals in marinades when it is char-grilled. And Naomi Shah used her own statistical analysis and a new mathematical model to quantify how air quality affects asthma symptoms.

I would love to get some conversations going in classrooms about the achievements of girls and women in science and technology, so here are some ideas for conversation starters or assignment topics:

  • Do you think women who have made scientific or technological breakthroughs have received as much recognition as their male counterparts? Why?
  • Do you think there are barriers to girls entering careers in science and technology today? If so, what are they?
  • How would you use science or technology to change the world?

 

 

 

Sugar, Spice and Stronger Stuff

Teenage girls have been getting a lot of media lately, much of it alarmist, with headlines such as ”Do you know what your daughter’s doing tonight?” and ”Lies, scams and deceit — just your average teenage girl”. In on online feature recently, Australian fashion editors had a go at girls for dressing like ”streetwalkers”.

Girls see this media coverage, too, so I guess it’s no wonder they often say to me after an Enlighten workshop that they thought it would be “just another boring lecture about the things we do wrong”.

While we must be realistic about the very real issues that girls are facing, I believe it is just as important to recognise the positives and engage with girls, not alienate them. We need to move beyond finger wagging. I know that Martin Luther King Jr wouldn’t have inspired anyone by declaring “I have a nightmare!”

Writer Emily Maguire’s piece in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this month, “Sugar, Spice and Stronger Stuff”, touches on this issue and talks about how best to help our girls navigate the sometimes dangerous world in which they live. I am grateful to Emily for allowing me to share an excerpt with you here.

Emily Maguire is the author of three novels and two non-fiction books. Her articles and essays have been published widely including in The Monthly, The Australian and The Age and in 2007 she received an Edna Ryan Award (Media Category) for her writing on women’s issues. Emily was named as a 2010 Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year and is the recipient of the 2011 NSW Writers’ Fellowship. Her latest book is “Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice.”

 

 

We need a reality check. . . . A minority of teenage girls routinely abuse alcohol or illegal drugs. A minority put themselves at risk of social stigma or criminal prosecution by sexting carelessly. A minority of those who are sexually active don’t practice safer sex. But most understand the potential dangers of drugs, alcohol and sex and make choices which minimise those dangers. Those who continue to put themselves at risk need specific, possibly professional, intervention. Impersonal, generalising panic over behaviour is unlikely to change it.

But of course, not all harm can be avoided by even the most sensible girl. There is, for example, the barrage of media messages about their apparent physical unacceptability. According to a 2010 Mission Australia survey, body image is the top personal concern for young people. Sexual assault also remains a major problem with the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society reporting that 38 per cent of female secondary students have had ”unwanted sex”.

It’s scary stuff. Little wonder that some parents are tempted to lock their daughters in a room free of TV, internet and phone. But one day those girls are going to have to step outside and then what?

Although we wish the world was a safer place and should work to make it so, we need to prepare girls to live in it as it is. This seems obvious when talking about boys: of course they need to learn resilience and determination and rebelliousness against those who would hold them back or harm them. But we’re still so damn precious about girls. We pretend that passivity and fragility are innate, even as we expend a great deal of energy on instilling and enforcing them.

. . .

In her book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, Rachel Simmons details the ways in which adults ”discourage the emergence of physical and direct aggression in girls” and ”either encourage or shrug off” the ”skirmishes” of boys. In one study, adults told girls in their care ”to be quiet, speak softly or use a ‘nicer’ voice about three times more often than boys”.

Teenage girls are often criticised for being sullen and underhanded, for resorting to passive-aggressive silences and unexplained bursts of tears, yet we’ve spent a decade or so training them to suppress. What do you do with the natural teenage rushes of emotion and hormones and excitement and rage when you’ve been repeatedly told not to draw attention to yourself, not to argue back, not to speak unless you have something nice to say?

We know girls face a sometimes hostile world and yet we train them to be meek in the face of it.

. . .

If girls are human then they should be allowed to explore the full range of human experience. They should be allowed to look to rock stars as well as pop princesses, pirates as well as sailors, vigilantes as well as stoic victims. They should be allowed to find inspiration in rebels with or without causes.

Fictional role models are a start, but there are plenty of real-life teenagers who demonstrate courage and resilience. Jessica Watson is already a role model for many teenagers, but how about Ellyse Perry who, at 16, played for Australia in both cricket and football? How about Angela Barker who spent her teen years in a nursing home after suffering a severe brain injury and now campaigns for the rights of young people with disabilities? Or Kalinda Griffiths who began her career as an indigenous health researcher at 17? How about the 170,000 young people who are primary carers for parents or siblings?

Poster available at www.enlighteneducation.com.

These kinds of real-life examples don’t just serve as inspiration to teenagers; they serve as a reminder to adults that teenagers of both sexes are capable of much more than our society gives them credit for.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Many teenagers possess powerful self-awareness (the flip side of teenage self-obsession) and a great capacity for constant questioning and insightful cultural critique. What they tend to lack is self-control, the ability to envisage the consequences of their actions and, obviously, life experience. That’s why we adults need to have their backs. We can encourage toughness while offering advice on how to minimise damage to the self and to others.

If a girl knows you’re on her side — that you won’t treat her as stupid or fragile or dishonest or assume she can’t handle anything more challenging than buying top-up credit for her phone — then there’s a better-than-even chance she’ll listen to your advice about when to bite her tongue and when to scream like a banshee. And when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, it’s more likely she’ll tell you about it if she knows you won’t panic about her lost innocence and vow to guard her with a shotgun until she’s 21.

. . .

There’s the example of the 14-year-old who was at the movies with her friends when a man in his 20s put his arm around her shoulder and asked her to come sit with him. She said no and he went away but she was shaken. Talking it through with her friends, there were suggestions that her outfit was ”kind of sexy” and so maybe she shouldn’t dress like that any more. Others in the group thought that was unfair: her outfit was amazing and she felt great in it. She just needed to be ready for men who thought she was older or looking for a boyfriend or whatever. Together, the girls came up with a strategy: the next time she (or any of them) had an adult man crack on to her she should say — very loudly — ”I’m 14!” and if he persisted, she would — louder still — tell him he should be ashamed of himself for trying to pick up a child.

There’s no doubt the ideas behind this solution came from a thousand conversations with adults and peers and from various forms of media. When it came to the crunch, the girls were able to talk it through, support each other and come up with a strategy that acknowledged unfortunate realities while refusing to cower in the face of them. Talk about empowering.

Unfortunately, when the girl told her parents about the incident, she was banned from going to the movies with her friends. Again, an understandable impulse but the girl feels punished for fighting her own battle and will either stop doing so or — more likely — will be sure to keep future battles a secret.

It can be dangerous out there. We can teach girls to be frightened and meek, to aim to be mere silent witnesses rather than victims. Or we can teach them to fight, not just for themselves but for others who can’t. We can teach them that the world can be terrifying, and that sometimes, they should be terrifying right back at it.


Mothers, Daughters, and the Ritual of Writing

For most girls, writing holds enormous power. It can be the key that unlocks pent-up feelings and thoughts they’re struggling to say out loud. It can be their chance to explore ideas about who they are and who they want to be. The blank page or screen becomes the space where they can think things through, create something beautiful or just plain vent.

Many of you reading this no doubt spent hours poring over diaries and writing poems and impassioned letters as a teen. Remember the cathartic feeling you got once a big tangle of ideas and emotions suddenly became a whole lot clearer on the page? Or that high you got when you felt you’d got your point across at last (even if you would never, ever actually send that letter to the person)?

I meet a lot of parents who worry that the connection they have with their daughter is weakening as she grows up. Often they feel that they don’t know what’s going on inside her head any more. Tapping into this natural love girls have for writing can be an incredibly powerful way to deepen our connection with them.

Over the past few months, I’ve been in touch with Tricia O’Neill, the mother of 16-year-old Cameron O’Neill-Mullin, who along with her friend Paris Wilson took part in an Enlighten workshop just a few weeks before a ski-tubing accident claimed their lives. Paris’s sister, Bianca, wrote the most beautiful, touching eulogy for Paris. And writing was a big part of Tricia and Cameron’s relationship as mother and daughter.

Four years ago, Tricia convinced Cameron and her older daughter, Kylie, to stop buying her gifts for special occasions and instead write her letters. After a while, the girls didn’t always find it easy to come up with an idea to write about, so she would give them a suggestion. This had a side benefit: “It gave me a chance to see what was going on inside their heads about a specific topic,” says Tricia.

This past Christmas, Tricia asked Cameron to write down what Kylie leaving home to go to university had made Cameron realize about her family. Cameron was funny and loving and clever when she wrote about “the rabbit” (Tricia’s husband, who likes to eat salad), “the iPad” (her metaphor for Kylie’s new university friends) and “the teddy bear” (Cameron and Tricia, because a teddy bear is always there for you when you need comfort). And she opened up about so much more than just the topic she’d been given — she delved into her strengths, her gifts, how she dealt with other people’s perceptions and her gratitude for her parents.

Click on image to enlarge.

On Mother’s Day last year, Cameron wrote Tricia a list: “57 Things I Have Learned from My Mother”, ranging from life lessons (“How to love” and “How to manage what I want and what I need”), through to funny things (“How to burp” and “How to buy really great tickets”). It blows me away how heartfelt and real and full of wisdom the list is.

“It brought me great joy that day, and now — what can I say? I cry when I think about it but they are both tears of sorrow and tears of joy,” says Tricia. “She knew herself and she knew she was loved and she knew how to love.”

"57 Things" page 1. Click on image to enlarge.
"57 Things" page 2. Click on image to enlarge.

Cameron and Paris were both wearing their Enlighten Education pink wristbands at the time of the accident. Tricia had some made up for family and friends with the girls’ names on them. I wore one of those bands bearing their names while I was writing my second book, which is for teen girls and is coming out early next year. As I was writing, I had the feeling that Cameron and Paris were both with me on the project, my muses, helping to guide me to write well so that I might help to heal and empower many girls.

I wore my Enlighten Education pink wristband bearing Cameron's and Paris's names as I wrote.

Tricia treasures all of the letters written by her daughters, Cameron and Kylie. And she also treasures what Cameron wrote during her Enlighten workshop when our Queensland Program Manager, Storm Greenhill-Brown, asked the girls to envision their future.

I would like to follow my dreams, passions and instincts; make a difference for people; and make an impact on the world.  I would find what makes me happy and stick with it; not be afraid of changes; and let myself get caught up in what I love.

Cameron O’Neill-Mullin, March 2011

I think Cameron is making a difference for people and making an impact on the world, because the writing ritual that she and her sister, Kylie, had with their mother shows us all a pathway to building strong, loving relationships with our daughters. I hope that this simple but powerful act of asking our daughters to write will catch on! We might just be amazed by what comes out when we ask our girls to put their thoughts and feelings on the page for us.

 

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