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I recently noted that the program for this year’s Alliance of Girls’ Schools Conference, to be held in Melbourne 25th-27th May, was to include Ms Amy Smith, the current CEO of Jenny Craig. As I believe a woman who represents the diet industry has no place at such a prestigious event aimed at educators of young women, I sent an initial email of concern to Jan Butler, the Executive Officer of the Alliance.

On Tuesday I received a reply from Ms Catherine Misson, the Principal of Melbourne Girls Grammar, assuring me that Ms Smith is, amongst other things, ”transforming the organisation (Jenny Craig) into a champion of women’s health.”

I am pleased to see the organisers of this conference have considerably extended Ms Smith’s bio in the conference program since receiving my initial email. She sounds like a truly remarkable, accomplished woman. However, I am still deeply uneasy about  her inclusion and felt compelled to explain why. I responded with the letter below. With the aim of eliciting support for my stance, and initiating vital discussion on girls and dieting, I then shared this correspondence via Twitter and Facebook. I was incredibly heartened by the positive response and particularly encouraged to see Kate Ellis, amongst other prominent educators, women’s advocates and health practitioners, circulate it too.

I have not received any response as of yet, other than a call from a Suzy Wilson who told me she was the PR representative for Jenny Craig. Ms Wilson asked me, “What is your problem?” and told me my letter was a “vicious attack” on Amy Smith. I think my letter clearly articulates what my issue is, and it is clearly not a personal attack on anyone.

If I receive any further correspondence, I will of course honour my offer to provide the Alliance with a platform here to argue their case.

*Letter begins*

Dear Catherine,

Thank you for your response to my concerns regarding the selection of Amy Smith as a speaker at the Alliance’s conference this year.

I have the utmost respect for the members of the Alliance Planning Committee and hold them in the highest regard. I am sure that all the members genuinely have girls’ education at heart and selected the conference speakers with care and diligence.

However, with due respect, I do feel that I need to stand by my convictions and state my position. Amy Smith may be a highly talented and accomplished woman, but I feel it sends the wrong message to educators of girls that the Alliance is giving a platform to a speaker whose current success is tied to the dieting industry. This industry contributes to some of the most serious issues affecting the health and wellbeing of girls: poor body image and eating disorders.

Constant dieting can cause “an obsession with weight and an increased likelihood of developing an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia”, according to research presented at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy conference in 2011. In the words of respected Australian eating disorder expert Lydia Jade Turner, the Managing Director of BodyMatters Australia, “Dieting is the biggest pathway into an eating disorder.” Research cited by the Butterfly Foundation notes that adolescent girls who diet at a severe level are “18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder within 6 months” and “over 12 months they have a 1 in 5 chance of developing an eating disorder.”

The rates of eating disorders and poor body image in girls are alarming. Research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that “disordered eating is emerging as a norm in Australian society with 90% of 12–17 year old girls and 68% of 12–17 year old boys having been on a diet of some type” (http://thebutterflyfoundation.org.au). 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.

According to the 2011 Mission Australia Youth Survey, body image is one of the top three issues of personal concern for young people in Australia. Poor body image has been identified as such an important problem that it was the subject of a parliamentary inquiry.

Looking beyond the research, Enlighten Education works with 20,000 girls each year around Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. I speak to girls, and most importantly listen to them, about body image. On a daily basis, I meet girls who physically, psychologically and emotionally are paying a high price for dieting and for their body anxiety, which is all too often spurred on by advertisers and marketers from, amongst other industries, the dieting industry.

The sad fact is that diet companies continue to play on girls’ and women’s body anxiety to sell a product that doesn’t even work. Ninety percent of people who go on a diet will lose less than 10 per cent of their body weight and be back where they started, or heavier, in five years, according to research presented first at the Australian New Zealand Obesity Society in 2009 and again in 2010 at the International Obesity Summit. “In fact, weight tells us very little about a person’s health except at statistical extremes,” says Lydia Jade Turner. “Although it is commonly assumed that being ‘overweight’ is automatically unhealthy, in North America research shows that the overweight category (BMI = 25 to 29) is now outliving every other weight category.”

I am generally an enthusiastic supporter of the Alliance conference, and I feel that all of the other speakers the committee has selected are brilliant choices. I will attend the conference, as always, and Enlighten Education will have a stand, but it is with regret that I must tell you that Enlighten Education will not be sponsoring the conference this year, as we have in the past.

Enlighten Education was recognised in 2011 as Finalists for a Human Rights Award by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission for our work at furthering the wellbeing of girls. In light of that, and for all the schools and the girls that we work with, I feel that it is important that Enlighten Education acts according to our principles—and that means that we cannot sponsor an event where there is an association with the dieting industry.

On an individual level, as a parent whose daughter attends an Alliance school, I also wish to register my dismay at the choice of Amy Smith as a speaker.

Please know that I write this from genuine concern about the message that having a speaker associated with the dieting industry sends to the educators of girls. It is not a reflection on Amy Smith herself, and certainly not on the committee, whom I hold in great esteem.

As I initially expressed concern about the committee’s selection of Amy Smith in the public forums of Facebook and Twitter, I wholeheartedly extend to you the opportunity to respond in the same forums. If you would like me to publish your response on Facebook or Twitter, please do let me know.

Yours sincerely

Dannielle Miller
CEO, Enlighten Education
21/3/12

*Response received 22/3/12*

The Alliance responded and have made it clear that they are comfortable with their selection of Ms Smith. They have also made it clear they are not happy with my decision to raise these concerns publicly. As an educator, mother to two girls, author of two books aimed at improving body image anxiety, and as a  media commentator on girls’ issues I believe it would have been unprofessional of me not to have done this. I also stand by my response.

20 Responses to “Alliance Of Girls’ School Conference 2012 – Say No To Diets.”

  1. [...] human rights finalist for 2011 & CEO of  Enlighten Education Dannielle Miller emailed her concerns to the conference organizers, she was told by Ms Catherine Misson, Principal of Melbourne [...]

  2. [...] I recently noted that the program for this year’s Alliance of Girls’ Schools Conference, to be held in Melbourne 25th-27th May, was to include Ms Amy Smith, the current CEO of Jenny Craig. As I believe a woman who represents the diet industry has no place at such a prestigious event aimed at educators of young women, I sent an initial email of concern to Jan Butler, the Executive Officer of the Alliance. On Tuesday I received a reply from Ms Catherine Misson, the Principal of Melbourne Girls Grammar, assuring me that Ms Smith is, amongst other things, “transforming the organisation (Jenny Craig) into a champion of women’s health.” …  I responded with the letter below. With the aim of eliciting support for my stance, and initiating vital discussion on girls and dieting, I then shared this correspondence via Twitter and Facebook. I was incredibly heartened by the positive response and particularly encouraged to see Kate Ellis, amongst other prominent educators, women’s advocates and health practitioners, circulate it too. I have not received any response as of yet, other than a call from … the PR representative for Jenny Craig (who) asked “what my problem was” and said my letter was a “vicious attack” on Amy Smith. It clearly is not. Read Dannielle’s letter here. [...]

  3. Jane Higgins says:

    Girls + diet industry = problems! Big problems!
    Who doesn’t get that?

  4. Susan Columbine says:

    I am leaving this reply to support your stance and concern. I feel perhaps that it is something you may use to show the schools that partipate the reaction of a mother who nursed a child through an eating disorder.

    My daughter fell ill and it was no bodies fault.

    But once we started to fight the illness, I found I needed a lot of support and understanding, the school my daughter attended was a lifeline. They were amazing and without their fantastic attitude and care we would have found it a lot harder to recover.

    This school has also had a teacher fall prey to this insidious illness, and wrote a book again acknowledging the incredible support she recieved during her recovery.

    This school achieves a very high degree of success from it’s students because a a girls school it acknowledges the right of all young ladies to be who they are. This school encourage all girls to be the best they can be to the best of their ability, and acknowledges that not all will reach the highest benchmark. They still celebrate each and every girl from the 99.9 enter score to the young apprentice starting a TAFE course.

    The reason I highlight this is because this school would never allow an industry that causes their wonderful girls to doubt themselves. In fact I challenge the Alliance of Schools to do their homework, and watch a brilliant show that explains just what advertising and industry do.

    They create a demand for their services by pointing out a perceived flaw, oh you know you have a little muffin top there, tsk, tsk, not so healthy!
    Here I have the solution to that, buy all my prepackaged food and you will be so much better off.

    The diet industry is there to make money, no other reason. Just as you would frown at the successful CEO of McDonalds at such a conference I fail to see how the leader of another industry should be allowed to peddle their wares at such an event also.

    Eating disorders are serious life threatening diseases, they are triggered by body dissatisfaction and dieting. Again you would never dream of a tobacco company at the conference , I personally put the diet industry in a similar category, and before you scoff, remember cigarettes were once promoted as a ” health benefit”.

    Please do not confuse success with money making ability, there are many successful people out there who don’t run large companies with large turnover.

    Yours Sincerely
    Susan Columbine

  5. Danni Miller says:

    Susan – I haven’t heard the issue described more eloquently. THANK you. xxx

  6. Glenn B-May says:

    Danni,
    Stand firm and tall on this issue. When a corporate monolith can grab an opportunity by the throat that will deliver them GENERATIONAL leverage in their market, it takes somebody with similar sized conviction and decency to wrest it from them. Let’s make it clear what’s at stake here.
    First, Jenny Craig has INFLUENCE like few other corporates. Cashed up. Big. Respected by and large. When they wield the cash, people listen. And what are they saying? That they know what’s right for people who DO NOT LIKE THEIR BODY IMAGE. And as a result of the Alliances invitation, they can now authoritatively proclaim that IT’S OK NOT TO LIKE YOUR BODY IMAGE AND WE HAVE THE PRODUCTS TO HELP YOU. And they have the perfect forum to convince the most vulnerable demographic in this regard. Girls. What an opportunity it must be for Jenny Craig when they can have permission to embed this message, via the pulpit of the Organisation deemed responsible for leading educational institutions for girls, into the consciousness of young girls. I cannot, for the life of me, understand WHO of proper moral construct and values, would allow this! Strategic alliances are normally built between like-minded individuals holding authoritative influence in their professional networks. I can only shudder to think the relationship and how it has evolved between the Alliance leadership and the leadership of Jenny Craig. Abhorrent.

  7. Christopher Webb says:

    Yeah, it’s really enlightened to try and ban someone because you don’t like the company they work for.
    Is that what you preach to the people you claim to be helping – if you don’t like their views shut them down.
    You should rename your outfit as the Unelightened Thought Police.

  8. Danni Miller says:

    Thanks for commenting Christopher. You raise a really important point – the issue of freedom of speech.

    I will state that I have never aimed at banning Amy Smith or Jenny Craig. I understand that Jenny Craig is a legitimate business and have made it clear I appreciate Ms Smith is a highly accomplished woman. My letter, above, expresses my concern over the selection of the leader of a diet company being selected as a speaker at a conference for leaders of girls’ education.

    As an educator, author, media commentator, and advocate for girls I felt I had a professional responsibility to voice my concerns ( which may I add was not easy to do given the Alliance is made up of women I deeply respect) . As a friend to many young women struggling with eating disorders, and a mother to two young girls, I also felt compelled to speak my truth. Under freedom of speech, I also have the right to do this. As a sponsor of this event, I also have the right to withdraw my funding if I do not wish to see my funds spent spent legitimizing the diet industry in this way.

    A colleague, Nina Funnell, offered me feedback which I think also raises a valid point: “If a respected expert in the field such as yourself can’t offer feedback and raise concerns without risking attack how on earth can girls- who often feel disenfranchised and powerless- be expected (let alone encouraged) to stand up for the things they believe in. The teenage girl in me is cheering you on.” Teen girls have incredibly radars for inauthenticity. I would feel quite the hypocrite talking to them about standing up for what they believe in if I didn’t model that I have the courage of my convictions.

    In terms of what Enlighten teaches young women I can assure you we do not preach anything, nor would we ever act as thought police. Our company’s mission statement makes this clear: “ Enlighten encourages girls to reach their own conclusions
and to know their own minds. Rather than telling girls what to do, we focus on informing, inspiring and empowering them. We
encourage girls to be discerning consumers and critical thinkers and to find their own voice and power in a complex world.” Education is the key. In fact, in much of my writing on young women I warn of policing and patronizing.

    In all honestly, based on the Alliance’s response to the expressions of concern they have received to date, I do not think they will reconsider their choice of speaker. However, my goal in making my concerns public was to illicit vital conversations on girls and dieting and body image. This issue has absolutely achieved this.

    This morning a teacher at a girls’ school posed a query of what girls in schools learning about freedom of speech might make of the protests. I encouraged him to get his students to read widely from both perspectives and debate the issue. Debates like this, that will now begin happening in our classrooms, also are an absolute win.

  9. Christopher Webb. says:

    At least you have confirmed that your aim is to “illicit” discussion on dieting and body image.
    On the one hand you claim that you encourage girls to reach their own conclusions and on the other you’re withdrawing your support in order to silence a speaker.
    Who do you want to ban next? The chiefs of tobacco companies, Crown, KFC, McDonald’s, the TAB. I note this website rejects any comment that uses the word that describes what people do when they go to Crown!
    Your modus operandi is to side with competitors of Jenny Craig and to shut down the company’s managing director.
    The conference kerfuffle is a beat-up and a stunt by Bodymatters and Unenlightened Education.

  10. Danni Miller says:

    I’m sorry Christopher I genuinely do not understand the points you are making so I can’t reply, but note I have not censored your right to continue to attack me in this ill-informed and bewildering manner.

  11. Simone Patterson says:

    Chris, you are suggesting Danni and Enlighten Education have ulterior motives. Only a person who has NO knowledge of who they are, what they have done to inspire, and help so many girls cut through the BS and see who they really are, and realise their potential would suggest that they are just in it to try to ‘police’ what people say and think. The diet/meal replacement industry have NO place at a girls education conference. If this person was an educator on healthy eating and exercise in the name of health and wellness, then YES! That would be acceptable, but this is Jenny Craig, an international multinational corporation who prey on womens self loathing to sell their product, that does not even work in the long term (and there are statistics to prove this claim). This is a fight worth fighting and when a bloke actually takes the time to visit your blog to say otherwise, he proves it by his actions.

  12. Christopher Webb. says:

    Simone Patterson,
    You really should acquaint yourself with what is under discussion here.
    It is a staff conference not a “girls education conference”, and it is patronising in the extreme to suggest that teachers shouldn’t be allowed to hear a speaker, even if her crime is to head up Jenny Craig.
    Are you seriously suggesting she’s going there to try and flog dietary products to a group of teachers?
    Anyway, you’ve given the game away with your description of Jenny Craig as an “international multinational corporation” – clearly that disqualifies her right away.
    She used to work for Telstra…would you have let her speak then? Probably not, it’s a wicked capitalist outfit.
    She used to work in advertising…would you have let her speak then? Probably not, she’s hand in glove with the wicked multinationals.

  13. andrea says:

    I’m the mother of a 27 year old female educator. She is a PE and English secondary teacher. . She was a joyous, beautiful and healthy young woman. At 163cms tall and 60kgs she eputomised a muscular toned PE teacher.

    After a couple of years along comes the man she fell in love with who despises “fat” and is a fitness fanatic.

    My daughter was in no way fat or unfit.

    Due to this man and his family’s fitness obsession and aversion to fat – my beautiful healthy daughter is now gaunt, pale and drawn. She now weighs a very unhealthy 50kgs

    Her partners pet name for her is “fatty”

    A good attitude for an educator? A good attitude for a male?

    Keep up the good work Danni. A lot of our educators are of the same age and thinking as my daughter and with that way of viewing themselves they don’t need to be further influenced by Jenny Craig’s presence at this event.

  14. Simone Patterson says:

    Ok Chris, but you are missing my point completely. I’m just pointing out that they are HUGE in their field, giants in the competitive diet industry. That’s the only reason I described them that way.
    I have an iPhone, I drink coca cola so I am not anti corporation! To put that one single sentence under the microscope, I suspect is an attempt to draw attention away from my other points. Why bother?

    I am fully aware that she is not addressing the students themselves. That does not make it an acceptable choice for the Alliance of Girls schools. If they had complete conviction in their speaker selection choices, they would have not taken the decision to remove all wording from their promotional material for this gathering which connects her to JC or the diet industry. But they did.

    And no, I don’t for a second suggest that she will promote the JC product to the attendees, but by inviting her to participate the Alliance of Girls Schools is endorsing the company as one they approve of. And in my opinion, that is not okay.

  15. Christopher Webb. says:

    Not everyone has an obsessional hatred of the Jenny Craig organisation, Simone Patterson.
    If someone wants to pay the company to help them lose weight, then so be it.
    If someone else wants to pay $135 a session with one of the people that you appear to be supporting, then so be it
    I’m all for people making up their own minds, and not being railroaded by Jenny Craig’s competitors and/or opponents, who are trying to silence the managing director at this conference.
    Having her as a speaker on a panel is not endorsing the company she works for, anymore than having Gail Kelly on a panel is endorsing Westpac.

  16. Hannah Quinn says:

    If this particular representative appears, I sincerely hope she will be discussing the possibility for a women to aspire to and become CEO of an international corporation, or whatever other role she aspires to, and some of the basic knowledge and steps and attitudes required.

  17. Simone Patterson says:

    Here is an article in todays the Age newspaper which states why the diet industry is an unethical and deceitful one. It’s not just this one brand, and it’s not just about this industry. The Alliance should not be allowing representatives of ANY industries with poor ethical standards to speak at their gatherings, full stop.
    http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/a-diet-that-works-fat-chance-20120327-1vwf6.html

  18. Christopher Webb says:

    Standing up to the Thought Police.
    Bravo to these letter writers in The Age!

    http://www.theage.com.au/national/letters/behind-protest-lies-hypocrisy-20120327-1vwfx.html

  19. [...] understood, I sent the Alliance a more detailed letter of concern which you may read at this link:http://enlighteneducation.edublogs.org/2012/03/22/alliance-of-girls-school-conference-2012-say-no-to….I also decided to withdraw my company’s sponsorship of the [...]

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