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Month: April 2012

Integrity is the new sexy

Justin Bieber has been getting the media into a feeding frenzy by dishing up tiny bites of the video for his new song “Boyfriend”. Is it too raunchy for tweens? Well, from the snippets that the Bieber marketing behemoth has been teasing us with, it certainly seems that they are aiming for a more mature demographic, as Bieber himself grows up. Shadowy lighting, whispering suggestively in girls’ ears, pimpy comments about having handfuls of cash that he really wants to blow on his girl. See what you think: they play the teaser for the clip during this interview I did about Bieber’s image makeover, for Channel 9’s Mornings.

I was disappointed when I saw the teaser. It’s just so predictable. Even the squeakiest of squeaky clean teen idols has to turn 18 eventually — but I get the sense that when the Bieb did, his management hit the panic button. Quick! We need intense “Blue Steel” poses. Put him in a leather jacket and have girls pawing at him. Make sure they’re pouty girls wearing dangerous-looking jewellery that subliminally makes you think of S&M and ’90s Madonna videos (and maybe a trip to Emergency … seriously, those rings could take an eye out!). Make sure there is a wind machine sexily blowing the girls’ hair the whole time. (Honestly, I don’t know how the rest of us ever manage to be alluring given that we are tragically denied fans blowing at head height in every room. It’s possibly a global crisis that needs to be rectified, stat!)

What really strikes me about Bieber’s new image is that for him to cause a stir by showing a more adult sexuality, he has to do so very little compared to female stars the same age. He gets to keep all of his clothes on; he doesn’t have to thrust or grind anything; and he doesn’t offer to degrade himself. Actually, if you listen to the whole song, he says, “I can be a gentleman, anything you want.” He says he wants to talk, and he promises to love his prospective girlfriend, treat her right, never let her go and make sure that she is never alone. He vows to make her “shine bright”. A couple of years ago, Bieber was quoted as saying, “I’m just a regular 16 year old kid. I make good grilled cheese and I like girls.” And the new “raunchy” 18-year-old Bieber? In “Boyfriend” he has graduated to a romantic scene in which he imagines him and his girl “chillin’ by the fire while we eatin’ fondue”. Cute! Biebs is such a non-threatening, pro-dairy gangsta. *Swoon*

Compare this to female stars who have transitioned from tween to teen, such as Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus. For them it was all about how they were gonna get dirty, how they needed to be “rubbed the right way” and weren’t “that innocent”. It was about getting wasted and flashing their knickers (or lack thereof), doing pretend big-O-style panting and offering to do anything sexually.

In music video world, all too often the message is: when a young guy wants to show he is now a man, he can get a leather jacket and pout; but for a young woman to show she is grown up, she has to get it all off and grind. If you haven’t seen the latest Ricki-Lee video, it pretty much encapsulates the image of female sexuality I’m talking about. Sexy equals wearing your undies in public (hello?) and doing stripper moves. Getting an anonymous food vendor on the street all hot and bothered is actually an awesome self-esteem boost. And the most important thing about sex is that he likes it when you “do it like that”.

Compared to the gymnastics, not to mention the waxing regime, Ricki-Lee had to go through to project a sexy image, Justin Bieber got off pretty lightly, didn’t he?

The music industry is selling its artists and fans short by continually falling back on the old cliches. Yes, sex sells. But the sexuality we are being sold is so narrow, so confining. It doesn’t represent the range of real sexuality that real people experience. When I discussed Bieber’s new image on Facebook, Jenn Lane wrote that her daughter said to her:

Mum, I hope there aren’t really any girls who do think that’s what sex is because they will only end up hurt.

Enlighten Education’s Catherine Manning made this point:

Teen idol crushes are often also about sexual desire — I don’t see anything wrong with that at all — it’s natural. . . . Of course, the problem with music-industry-manufactured sexuality is that it’s often one dimensional and digitally manipulated, so in reality, without the lights/effects, direction, etc., a real sexual encounter is nothing much like the video clips. I think this is what parents should be discussing with their kids . . . it’s up to us to make sure our kids are media literate so that they can put it all into perspective.

Yes, sex sells. But so does honesty and authenticity and raw talent. Just look at Adele. Never once has she relied on creating a raunchy image, or in fact creating any particular image: she is herself, she sings from the heart, and people respond to that. She sings about being a young woman, about real youthful experiences of love and desire — and she doesn’t need to conform to a narrow definition of sexuality in order to do it. I wholeheartedly agree with what Pink wrote of Adele recently for Time‘s list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World:

Her success renews hope in me that the world I live in has good taste — that we still occasionally come back to what’s simple, and simply amazing.

Integrity is the new sexy. I for one am hoping that whenever Team Bieber finally releases the whole video, we see a scene of Justin not sitting by the fire twirling a fondue fork but bringing his girl a nice cheese toastie instead!

It’s hard not to make fun of this — but it’s not Justin himself or his fans that I intend to mock. Many of his fans, now growing into older teens along with him, will love his new video and song, and the last thing I want to do is belittle their very real feelings. Catherine is so right to point out that there is an element of sexual desire — and I would add fantasy — in girls’ teen idol crushes. That’s normal and natural.

It’s the entertainment industry that I intend to mock — its predictability, its lazy thinking, its near-total reliance on using sex to sell. Let’s be honest, if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry, right? If your daughter loves Justin Bieber, don’t make him a forbidden whisper. Just help her deconstruct the images on the screen, and maybe soon she’ll not only be singing along and swooning, but also giggling at the cliches of the entertainment industry.

 

 

Boy-band crushes and body image — the week that was

Last week was a big week in girlworld. Unless you were recently deposited back on earth by aliens, I doubt I need to tell you that One Direction arrived in Sydney for their Australian tour. I was in at Channel 9 to talk on Mornings about whether teen girls screaming and crying over this boy band is healthy and normal (yes!) or something parents need to worry about (no!):

For my daughter, Teyah (13), and stepdaughter, Jaz (17), the best part was that they were allowed into the studio to breathe the actual same air as their beloved One Direction, as the boys made an appearance on Today.

Jaz, 17, and Teyah, 13, in the same studio as their beloved One Direction

The fans squealed. They wept. They trembled all over. But please don’t dismiss their feelings as silly or hysterical. Their feelings are very real and raw. And they have their origins in biology: the frontal lobes of the brains of teenagers are primed for high emotions, fighting, running away and, oh yes, romance.

I actually think it is beautiful to see the fans’ excitement for their squeaky clean and sexually harmless objects of desire. The big appeal of One Direction, according to almost every teen fan you ask, is that they are wholesome, down to earth and hard working. They pose little or no sexual threat. And there is no risk of rejection.

But of course there had to be a media kerfuffle about One Direction’s visit, with dire warnings being issued, and much tsk-tsking about the unbridled libidos of teenage girls these days. (Because the hysteria over the Beatles, Kiss, NKOTB, The Backstreet Boys, and so on and so on, was somehow different, apparently.) It all started when Channel 7 apologised because their Sunrise cameras captured fans in Martin Place holding signs that said “Point your erection in my direction” and “Send your one thing Down Under”. Many voices chimed in to express their outrage about the sexual nature of young fans’ adulation. Some pointed the finger at what many girls were wearing, saying their outfits were too revealing.

The fact is, there was a veritable sea of benign, nonsexual signs being held up by the screaming crowds. And anyone who wants to criticise teen girls based on how they dress should take a look at this Facebook album of One Direction fans and do a reality check. These young women are all shades of gorgeous.

To me, the real issue is why society is okay with young men making highly sexual comments, while girls seemingly should not even think about sex. Case in point: on that Facebook album, many males have left comments about whether the girls are hot or not. How sad that some little girl enjoying her first concert with friends inadvertently enters an online beauty quest. How sad that while girls are reviled for expressing a physical interest in their celebrity crushes, no one tries to stop those males publicly ranking teen girls on their hotness. And we wonder why girls end up playing the compare and despair game.

Why are we so threatened by what Wendy Harmer calls teen girls’ “emerging sexuality with training wheels”? Clementine Ford nailed it when she wrote last week in Daily Life:

The nascent sexual desires of boys are so readily accepted as part of life that we barely blink at the mention of them. . . . But instead of encouraging a similar sexual expression in girls (who experience the exact same explosion of hormones during their teen years), we demonise it . . .

At best, this trains girls to adhere to a system that constructs women as passive bystanders to sex . . . But at worst, it encourages the idea that their burgeoning desires are unnatural and gross . . .

A handful of girls waving titillating signs outside Martin Place isn’t representative of an orgiastic trend sweeping the nation, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. But it is a sign that no matter how much we try and shield girls from sex, they’re going to find ways to explore it and it doesn’t always mean they want to actually do it.

The answer isn’t to keep talking about how uncomfortable it makes everyone . . . it’s about giving [girls] the right tools to explore that sexuality in a healthy way, and trusting them to make the right decisions. They’re not delicate dolls, so stop treating them that way.

Hear, hear, sista!

Another big thing last week in this particular girl’s world was that I was on Life Matters on Radio National, talking to Wendy Harmer about positive ways to raise teen daughters. Of course, we talked about boy-band crushes, but we talked about much more, too. I especially loved having the chance to chat with listeners who called in with their concerns. One was worried about teen girls binge drinking. Another asked for advice on how to bolster the self-esteem of her beautiful teen daughter, who struggles with low body image and is teased at school for being flat chested. And a mother was deeply concerned about her 10-year-old girl who is of average weight yet is determined to stay on a diet because she believes it’s “part of being a girl”. All of their issues were heart breaking, so I was glad to have the chance to offer some practical suggestions for turning these situations around. You can listen to the interview by clicking here.

Hearing the stories of those mothers who are worried about their daughters’ body-image angst makes me more determined than ever to help make things right for our girls. If you know any young women who are struggling with body image, please let them know they can read the chapter on body image from my latest book, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, free of charge. Simply click here for this free sample chapter.

 

The weight-loss industry has no place in our schools.

The following guest post is written by Nina Funnell and was first published in The Age newspaper, 28th March. Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010. You may also wish to read my earlier post on this issue here: Alliance of Girls’ Schools Conference 2012 -Say No To Diets.

Image shared with us on Enlighten's Facebook wall by one of our "likers" Vanessa Henry.


The weight-loss industry has no place in our schools

Teenage girls are under great pressure to conform to a hyper-thin body ideal.

I was 12 years old when I first came face to face with a set of body-fat calipers. It was year 7 health class and we were learning about weight management and body image. The teacher produced a pair of calipers and asked for a volunteer to be measured. No one moved. She scanned the room and eventually landed on me. Next thing I knew, I was lying down on the teacher’s desk as she measured the fat on my thighs.

I suspect she picked me as the guinea pig because I was neither dangerously thin, nor heavily overweight. But as she read out my thigh-fat percentage to the class and declared it to be ”normal”, I frowned. By age 12 I had well and truly internalised the idea that ”normal” meant ”not thin” and anything other than ”thin” was undesirable. When I returned home that day I weighed myself and resolved to lose five kilograms.

Today, the pressure on teen girls to lose weight and conform to a hyper-thin body ideal is greater than ever. While we often hear that celebrity culture is to blame, the dieting industry – a billion-dollar industry that profits off body dissatisfaction – is also responsible for the extraordinary pressure placed on girls.

Every time girls turn on the TV or go online, they are bombarded with ads spruiking weight-loss products. The message they receive is not simply that ”thin is in” but that body transformation leads to a happier life.

Many techniques endorsed by the dieting industry actually mimic and encourage eating-disordered behaviour. Obsessive calorie counting, restricting or skipping meals, denying hunger, weighing food, measuring exercise (with pedometers or other devices) and rigid routines are all associated with eating disorders.

According to eating disorder specialist Lydia Jade Turner, dieting is the biggest predictor of eating disorders and unhealthy weight loss practices are becoming the norm in schools.

By age 17, 90 per cent of girls will have been on a diet of some kind. Eight per cent of teen girls smoke to control their weight.

It is no secret that the dieting industry has a vested interest in recruiting young girls in order to make them lifelong customers.

So why has Amy Smith, the chief executive of Jenny Craig, been invited to give the keynote address at a prestigious girls’ schools conference to be hosted in May this year? Regardless of what she speaks about, why would anyone who directly profits from female body dissatisfaction be given a platform at a girls’ school event?

According to Catherine Misson, the principal of Melbourne Girls Grammar School, which is hosting the event, Jenny Craig’s chief executive is a ”champion of women’s health” who will ”inspire” attendees at this year’s Alliance for Girl’s Schools Australasia conference.

Others are not so convinced. Numerous eating disorder experts from around the world have now made contact with the conference organisers to voice their disapproval over the decision. A petition has also been drafted calling for the replacement of Smith as a speaker.

Signatories to the petition include prominent eating disorder experts. Still more letters have been sent to the organisers and at least one sponsor has withdrawn their support.

The former Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, has retweeted a letter criticising the decision to include Jenny Craig’s chief executive in the line-up, but despite all this the conference organisers have refused to back down.

Regardless of the outcome in this particular case, when 12-year-old girls hate their thighs, the only one who wins is the dieting industry. The diet industry should be kept out of our schools, not given a platform within them.

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