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Month: July 2012

Dr Jekyll and Mrs Hyde

I had a revealing conversation with a single parent of a 12-year-old girl the other day. His daughter had been feeling particularly moody, he said, as she was just about to menstruate. I asked if she had had this premenstrual phase of her cycle explained to her. “Yes, she knows all about her periods” was his response.

Yet I suspected after talking with him further that, as it is for many young girls who are given “the talk”, this conversation was reduced to an explanation of how to care for herself physically during her period. In its most simplistic form, it is often a chat about pads versus tampons, and tends to come with the dire warning that if they are not “careful” they could now fall pregnant.

The fact is, once our girls menstruate, we don’t tend to be very helpful in advising them beyond sanitation, abstinence and, if we are particularly switched on, contraception options. Rarely do we discuss how to deal with the fact that for many girls and women emotions may be heightened during the premenstrual phase and behaviour altered.

And even if we do allude to premenstrual tension (PMT), it tends to be in terms that promote and reinforce the archetypal “crazy lady” myth, which would have us reduce everything a woman expresses during this time to hysterical ramblings. It is particularly apt that women are often referred to as being “hysterical” during this stage in their cycle, as the term derives from the Greek word meaning “womb” (hence the term “hysterectomy”). Historically, society would have us believe some deep flaw within our wombs is literally making us insane!

One day she is all smiles and gladness. A stranger in the house seeing her will sing her praise . . . But the next day she is dangerous to look at or approach: She is in a wild frenzy . . . savage to all alike, friend or foe . . . Semonides, Greek philosopher (c. 556–468 BC)

Premenstrual tension has been recognised as a medical condition since 1953 and has even controversially been used as a defence for murder—hence the headline to this post, which comes from a newspaper report chronicling a 1980s court case in London in which PMT was raised (unsuccessfully, I might add) as a defence for homicide.

Premenstrual tension may include physical symptoms such as leg cramps, bloating and headaches; emotional changes such as increased depression and anxiety and lower self-esteem; and behavioural changes including increased irritability, social isolation and being accident prone.

I have been known to suffer from particularly bad PMT at various points in my life. Leg cramps? Check. Bloating? Absolutely. Increased depression? I have been known to weep at the thought of making yet another school lunch. Irritability? My ex-husband used to always joke that I would threaten to divorce him once every month.

Despite knowing my feelings at this time are certainly heightened, I also believe they are valid. In fact, as I’ve gotten older I’ve learnt to be very attentive to them, as I can often more clearly see, for example, what is wrong in my relationships at this stage. Usually I tend to repress these darker feelings. In a sense, my inner voice stops whispering and starts screaming at me (okay, okay, and often at others) that week!

I am no longer so quick to silence my womb and my female intuition.

Rachel Hansen, a colleague and sexual health educator, offered me her insights:

In my 20s, I used to dismiss PMT as that time of the month when I was particularly irrational, but I now think of this as a time when I actually allow myself to acknowledge and express the full range of my emotions. Talk about liberating! Menstruation has traditionally been associated with craziness and all things negative. I think that we women have to reclaim this time in our lives, to reclaim it as a particularly special, empowered time – heck, perhaps the closest we get to being Superwoman each month!

A friend who is a mum to two girls explained to me how she supports her eldest daughter to not ignore, but rather manage, her mood swings:

She would get so emotional and fiery, to the point where she was confused and didn’t know what was ‘wrong’ with her and why she kept arguing with us. I sat her down and explained that it’s very normal to feel the way she does and that her feelings are legitimate, but that in the midst of those more out-of-control moments around period time, we need a word to remind her, and us, as to why she’s struggling to articulate herself. I told her to choose a word that reminds her of something calm and happy that she could use, so that she can just say the word, and then that will be our signal to just stop and hug her, to show her that we care about her feelings, but that we need to pick up the conversation later. (Most of the time, what worried her so much is forgotten later anyway.) Her word is ‘unicorns’. This works really well for us and for her, and has made a huge difference.

Psychologist Jacqui Manning offered me the following really practical tips for girls (and women) to help them better understand and manage this stage:

  • Talk and/or read. You might think you’re the only one who feels moody or down, but chances are there are some good female friends and/or family members who feel similarly at this time of the month. Remember they are different to you, they might not experience everything you’re talking about, but chances are you’ll have some common ground. Knowing you’re not alone can really help!
  • Download an app to your smartphone that logs your periods so you’ll be able to check dates and know whether your impending period might be having an effect on you. Set a reminder a few days before your period is due so you know that if you’re suddenly feeling really down on yourself or upset for no reason it might just be related to your changing hormones.
  • Try to surround yourself with positive people that make you feel good about yourself and be kind to yourself during your most vulnerable days. Rest more, listen to uplifting music, don’t attempt too many challenges at once, don’t drink (alcohol is a depressant on your system), eat healthily.
  • Take it one day at a time and realise that just as quickly as your moods have taken you into a dark state, they will swing just as quickly up again to return you to what’s normal for you. Say to yourself, “All I need to do is get through today/the next class; that’s all I need to focus on.” And remember that as bad as it feels at that moment, you won’t remember it in a year (or hopefully a week!).

Of course, it’s also important to distinguish the feelings that really are worth listening to during this period (pardon the pun) from those that are okay to merely let wash over us. A good friend offered me this when I asked for her thoughts on PMT last week:

Danni, it’s all a bit too close to home for me today given that I’ve spent the morning in bed feeling bloated and crying for no clear reason at all. Based on the thought processes I was having, it has something to do with a letter that was sent about me in high school, a sad movie I once saw, and the fact that my boyfriend doesn’t have time to go out to lunch today. The TRIFECTA!

Certainly our womb-words can seem somewhat confused and irrelevant, but they can also be deeply insightful.
I’m choosing to embrace the journey and help my daughters embrace it too.

This image and the one at the top of this post are from our series of FREE Facebook cover photos that we had specially designed for all our Enlighten Amazons. Simply click on the image or click here to have one of these gorgeous images on your Facebook timeline.

Generation Cleanskin: Part 3

In the final instalment of Susan Johnson’s exceptional piece on teens and body image that we have been running here for the past few weeks, teen girls speak frankly about how they respond to the relentless pressure to lose weight and be skinny, while teen boys talk about how they deal with the pressure to work out and “bulk up.” 

Saturday afternoon at Indooroopilly Shoppingtown, in Brisbane’s west, is teenage heaven. The movies, the food court, the clothes shops: teenagers in large groups or in pairs come to meet each other or eye each other off, checking each other out in that overt, challenging way that only teenagers can.

A group of giggling girls is meeting up: the girls come here almost every day after school. It’s free dress at their school, and the first pressure felt by these girls is the pressure to wear the right clothes, the “right” brands. Zoe Robberts (“I’m almost 14”) is in Year 9 and lives at inner-west Bardon: “Yeah, you have to have nice clothes, like the brands, and there’s pressure every day on what you wear. You can’t wear the same thing twice in a week.” Bella Nielsen, 13, also of Bardon, adds that “when you’re in primary school no-one judges anyone but when you’re in high school it’s all about first impressions. If you don’t look pretty, no-one will hang out with you or they’ll ignore you and there’s lots of cyberbullying going on around … on Facebook, [there are instances where] people really bully others.”

“I got called ‘fat’ one time on Facebook,” says Kiara Cavenagh, 13, of Middle Park, and a bigger girl than her friends. Her dad is tall and she comes from a family with “big bones”: “I feel pressure because all my friends are so skinny and I am, like, not skinny.”

Immediately all her girlfriends rush in with a chorus of “But you’re so pretty, Kiara!” and Zoe Morgan, 12, of St Lucia adds: “You’re like a mini Adele [the British singer]”. It turns out that Kiara sings too, and superbly (she led me to some YouTube videos) and has won a couple of local singing competitions. Which all means that possibly because Kiara is happy in other areas, being larger than her girlfriends is less of an issue: “I can’t be bothered to diet, even though I feel pressured [to be skinnier]. I like food too much! It tastes too good …”

Bella, on the other hand, feels the pressure more: “You walk around here and there are girls who are really pretty and their hair’s just perfect and, like, every day you see yourself in the mirror and you’re so used to seeing yourself you start picking out the little flaws and everything. You don’t see how pretty you are, you just see the bad stuff like, my stomach’s too big, my thighs are too big, and all that … ”

Zoe Morgan feels pressured too: “I’m happy with the way I look but you can never be, like, perfect to yourself … sometimes I see a girl who’s, like, really pretty and really skinny and I’m like, ‘I don’t like her! She’s so skinny’ … ”

Zoe Robberts says a lot of the pressure comes from boys: “Everyone’s trying to look pretty for them, to impress them … guys don’t have to worry. Boys don’t have to worry about anything.”

But her friend Bailey Vowles, 13, of western suburban Sherwood, disagrees: “If you’re really short for a boy you get called ‘cute’ and you probably wouldn’t want to be cute in Grade 8, you’d probably want to be hot. Boys want six-packs.” Bailey concedes, however, that much of the pressure girls feel comes from the boys as well as the media: “Personally, I’ve never dated anyone and I just think the pressure you have from boys to impress them is just, like, everywhere.” Friends Ben Stickley, 14, of northside Wooloowin and James Manteit, 15, of westside Chapel Hill, sheepishly admit that boys do indeed notice girls’ figures but appear nonplussed when asked about pressure. James: “Going out with a girl, I’d prefer that she had a good physique but we’re also friends with girls who are not, like, the best-looking people, but they’re just good to talk to.”

Ben: “Yeah, if they were, like, fat and stuff I’d care but I guess as long as the person’s nice, and nice to hang out with … ” Both think there is just as much pressure on boys as girls. James: “Girls definitely like boys who are muscled.” If James had more money he would spend it on clothes but, as it is, he tries to wear tight clothes to reveal his torso. He regularly works out.

Kean Coghill, 16, of Doolandella, met Aaron Eastment, 15, of Oxley, also in the outer west, at the shopping centre last year. The pair of mates now regularly travels there to meet their friends and look over the talent. Kean reckons “girls are mainly interested in looks these days” and both he and Aaron plan on starting bodybuilding soon. Aaron: “Yeah, most guys want to bulk up.”

Kean admits that, like most guys, “I do go for good-looking girls but they have to be nice too. But to be honest, the first thing you go for is good looks.” Of Aboriginal descent, Kean is sporting a new tattoo in honour of his grandfather who recently died. He wears a chain around his neck and a “snapback”, an American baseball-style hat worn backwards. He regularly straightens his hair, too, and wears the “right” brands, but that is about as far as his fashion-consciousness takes him.

Aaron, of mixed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, has been wearing braces for two years (“It hasn’t stopped him getting girls,” says Kean). Aaron’s fashion routine sometimes extends to straightening his hair but within minutes it is curly again so mostly he doesn’t bother.

They can’t talk long, these boys – they’ve got places to go and girls to meet. So they say goodbye and walk out into the mini-city of the shopping mall, the meeting place of thousands of teenage boys and teenage girls, skinny, plump, bosomy or muscled, anxious to look hot.

 

I would like to thank Susan Johnson and the Courier-Mail’s QWeekend for allowing me to share this insightful investigative piece. Susan Johnson is a full-time journalist and the author of seven novels; a book of essays, On Beauty (part of the Melbourne University Press series Little Books on Big Themes); and a memoir about her experiences of motherhood, A Better Woman.

Generation Cleanskin: Part 2

In part 2 of Susan Johnson’s excellent investigative piece on teens and body image that I introduced here last week, she looks at the effects of the unprecedented pressure on girls to wax and to see dieting as an essential part of being a woman. I am pleased to have contributed my voice to those of the experts quoted in this part of her must-read feature!

 

If anxiety over body size has long been recognised as part of the territory for teenage girls, now a new pressure has been added: being free of body hair, as if perpetually pre-pubescent. Once common only to Middle Eastern cultures, bodybuilding, gay culture and pornography, body hair removal has permeated mainstream culture, making its greatest impact on young women. Fashionista Victoria Beckham’s wish (“I love Brazilians – they ought to be compulsory at 15, don’t you think?”) looks as if it may be granted.

Since the late 1990s – when television show Sex and the City popularised the “Brazilian”, a hair removal practice that originated with the G-string bikinis of Rio – waxing or shaving the pubic area has become increasingly common. One American study estimated that 20 per cent of American and Australian women now remove their pubic hair, the largest group being women under 25.

Exact statistics do not exist in Australia to quantify the proportion of teenagers denuding themselves of body hair, but the anecdotal evidence is telling: at a Brisbane high school Year 12 formal last year, talk among those who attended revealed there was only one girl in the Year 12 class who went to the dance with body hair. The rest came sans leg hair, underarm hair and pubic hair.

The recent proliferation of waxing clinics throughout Queensland, together with the increase in waxing injuries seen in doctors’ surgeries and hospitals, suggests body hair removal is undergoing a popularity boom. An inner-city doctor told Qweekend she had seen a marked increase in her practice of burns and infections as a result of hot wax accidents. In Victoria, the Monash University Accident Research Centre’s Victorian Injury Surveillance Unit estimated about 90 people a year were admitted to hospital with waxing injuries.

One of Queensland’s biggest chains of waxing salons, Brazilian Beauty, is owned by Francesca Webster, 39, and her partner Andrew Bryant, 41. They opened a store in inner Brisbane’s New Farm in 2004 and now have 14 salons throughout Queensland and interstate, many of them franchised, with an annual turnover of $10 million. Although it is company policy not to treat anyone under 18 for Brazilian waxes, Webster says they sometimes see mothers bringing in daughters for bikini-line waxing before swimming carnivals.

Dannielle Miller, a Sydney author and CEO of Enlighten Education, which specialises in girls and body image, is not surprised that young women are now facing yet another pressure regarding body image. In her work lecturing in schools, she sees some 20,000 young women annually and says she is “staggered” by the overwhelming number of teenage girls unhappy with their own bodies. “Almost 99 per cent of young girls will say they are overweight, or not beautiful enough, or that they need to be changed in some way,” Miller says. “In our desperation to combat obesity, which may or may not be valid, there is now such a fear of fat in our culture that one of the results is girls doubting their bodies and thinking that their value is measured in the numbers on the scales.”

Miller says an overwhelming number of young girls have mothers who are on a perpetual diet. “Girls see dieting as a rite of passage and part of what it means to be a young woman in our culture: to be a female is to be on a diet. Girls learn very early that they need to take up less space … the ultimate glass ceiling for girls seems to be the bathroom mirror.”

According to Miller’s data, seven out of ten 15-year-old girls are on a diet, with 8 per cent “severely dieting”. She says that 94 per cent of teenage girls “wish that they were more beautiful” and 25 per cent say they would like to change “everything physical” about themselves.

Boys appear to be catching up with girls in potentially dangerous dieting practices, including starvation, purging or vomiting: 16 per cent of girls have engaged in such practices and 7 per cent of boys. “Pressures on young males are definitely on the increase,” says Miller.

A mother of a 10-year-old son, plus two daughters aged 17 and 13, Miller says that “parents are deeply concerned about this stuff”. She argues that magazines with airbrushed and photographed images, combined with television reality programs such as The Biggest Loser, have created a culture of hysteria about fat. “I’m not by any means pro-fat; of course not, I’m pro-health, and if you’ve got a child who isn’t healthy, then absolutely focus on health as a priority. But I think it’s an urban myth that Australia is a country with an obesity problem. When you speak to health professionals it’s clear that a definition of obesity depends on the criteria used to define obesity. The BMI [Body Mass Index] is actually a very antiquated and one-dimensional measurement … sometimes it’s the definition itself that causes the problem.”

Miller argues that the definition of health should be broader. The narrow focus on body weight and dieting among adult Australians is negatively affecting our young people. “Statistics show that 95 per cent of people on a formal diet will have regained and added some extra weight within the next five years. Formal diets don’t work … it’s a bad example for our children and we are setting them up for a long-term dysfunctional relationship with food.”

 

This is an excerpt from Susan Johnson’s article “Generation Cleanskin”, which appeared in the Courier-Mail’s QWeekend. Check in next week for the final instalment, when teen girls and boys talk candidly about their attitudes to — and angst about — body image.

Generation Cleanskin: Part 1

I am excited to be able to share with you an outstanding article on teens and body image, for which Australian journalist Susan Johnson extensively interviewed leading experts and kids themselves. With thanks to the Courier-Mail’s QWeekend, which originally published it, I will be presenting this engaging and important piece in three instalments over the coming weeks. In Part 1 this week, Johnson investigates why girls and boys are both feeling unprecedented pressure to fit a narrow body image ideal . . .

 

Skinny and denuded of body hair if you are a teenage girl and “built” and “muscled up” if you are a teenage boy: welcome to a world in which children as young as eight feel anxiety about body image. If Western society is supposed to be more “equal” than ever before, then idealised notions of what a teenage girl should look like and what a teenage boy should look like tell a different story. In this tale, all the girls look like anorexic 12-year-old lingerie models and all the boys resemble the Incredible Hulk.

Once the province of starving teenage girls, “body dysmorphia” is the term used when anorexics look in the mirror and see a fat girl looking back. Now the term “muscle dysmorphia” – sometimes also colloquially known as “bigorexia” – is increasingly used in relation to the body image issues of teenage boys. Today, both sexes are feeling the pressure.

Dr Lina Ricciardelli, associate professor in psychology at Melbourne’s Deakin University, has researched and written a number of papers on children and body image. In a 2009 study of children aged between eight and 11, she and her team found that 25 per cent of girls compared their weight to their peers, while 26 per cent of boys compared their muscles. By the time these children are teenagers, body image pressure can seem overwhelming.

Ricciardelli found that worries about body image can develop at an early age. “Children regularly compare their height, weight and muscles with their peers and this is natural, but on the flip side it can have serious implications when children are still developing their self-perceptions and identities,” she says.

The study threw up some interesting differences between boys and girls: “Girls were more likely to focus on their peers who they felt had a better body, particularly on those features they wish they had or could change, whereas boys tended to focus on their strengths and used social comparisons to feel good about themselves, helping to build their self-esteem. While comparisons seem to help boys to feel more positive and confident, girls tend to show signs of lower self-esteem and feel more discontent with their figures.”

However, the most recent comprehensive national survey into young Australians and body image conducted in 2008 by Mission Australia found that body image was an issue of concern for a staggering 22.2 per cent of Australian boys and young men aged 11–24 years old. And, according to 2011 statistics by the Victorian Government’s Better Health Channel website (produced in association with Eating Disorders Victoria), about 3 per cent of Australian teenage boys now use muscle-enhancing drugs such as steroids.

In an article in InPysch, the journal of the Australian Psychological Society (APS), the largest professional association for psychologists in Australia, Steven Gregor noted that while women and adolescent girls have had to deal with pressures regarding body image for years, what is new is “that men and adolescent boys are now under the exact same pressures”.

He quotes Elaine Hosie, a registered psychologist and a director of counselling working with adolescent males, about the influence and role of the media: “The media promotes a certain idealised image of what it means to be a male. In regard to the body image debate, the media plays a large role in the idealised notion of what it is to grow from a child, to an adolescent, to an adult male.”

Hosie and Ricciardelli agree on the pernicious influence of the media as a major contributing factor to teenage body image anxiety. Ricciardelli says that “without question the media is completely saturated with images of thin, ‘ideal’ bodies, much more than ever before. Plus there are mass media of more kinds than ever before; the internet has thrown up such things as [social media website] Facebook and online videos and on and on and on. There are increasingly sophisticated technologies and marketing strategies now.”

It is not only the multiplication of media but its increased sophistication that has transformed the media into such a powerful tool of influence: where once a photograph was a recorder of images and the camera did not lie, now a photograph can cheat and distort and a photograph will never again be simply a photograph.

“The media is manipulating bodies much more,” says Ricciardelli. Between dangerously skinny models, boys with six-packs and Photoshop, the gap between ordinary flesh-and-blood girls and boys and idealised images of girls and boys has grown wider and wider.

There are no statistics on the numbers of young men and boys using private gyms in Queensland but anecdotal evidence indicates that the worship of the “built” male body, previously only seen in gay and bodybuilding cultures, has made its way into mainstream culture too, and particularly into teenage male culture. When popular young amateur Sydney bodybuilder Aziz Shavershian (known as “Zyzz”) died last year of a heart attack, probably brought on by his steroid use, he had 120,000 followers on Facebook, many of them teenage boys: now his page (maintained by fans) has 283,266 “likes”.

Dr Peter West, formerly of the University of Sydney’s Research Group on Men and Families and author of a landmark paper on boys, men and body image in 2000, says that in the 12 years since his study, body dysmorphia has only increased. “When I was growing up in the ’50s bodybuilders were regarded as weird; no-one went to the gym, unless you were doing boxing or something. Everyone just went to the beach or played cricket or football. It’s not like that today,” he says.

Of course, for as long as there have been human bodies, there have been inventive ways to fashion them: from African and Amazonian peoples inserting clay plates into their bottom lips, to Indian women putting jewels into their nostrils. Fashions come and go, too: in ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures men regularly removed all body hair, possibly because the pre-pubescent and newly pubescent hair-free, androgynous male body (rather than the female body) was believed to be the embodiment of beauty.

Dr Ricciardelli of Deakin University’s other area of expertise is male beauty and body image throughout history. She argues that the male body has been evaluated and scrutinised as an aesthetic ideal since ancient times. What has changed, however, is that today many boys are internalising messages promoted by a powerful media. “[There is a] perceived pressure that women are expecting men to shape up to the media images,” she says. Her studies have found that leanness and youthfulness as well as a sculpted appearance have become important standards of male beauty. In pursuit of this ideal, Ricciardelli’s studies suggest that up to 60 per cent of young adult men in the US and Australia have removed body hair (below the neck) at least once.

Ricciardelli is one of an increasing number of academics and psychologists advocating preventative work with teenage boys. In the APS InPysch article, Elaine Hosie argues that more psychologists, medical practitioners and teachers need to work together to ensure better outcomes for teenage boys: “I would say it [body image dissatisfaction] is not something that’s in their [adolescent boys’] awareness. The reason for coming to a counsellor would be about more concrete issues such as: ‘I’m doing really badly at school’, or ‘my girlfriend has dropped me’, or ‘I can’t get a girlfriend’, or ‘I don’t like my teacher’ – they externalise things; they blame the world. [But] these are the presenting issues, which often mask more serious health concerns such as body image dissatisfaction.”

Ricciardelli believes treatment needs to take into account “cognitive adjustment of distorted views about themselves” – just like teenage girls with anorexia.

 

I am pleased to have contributed my voice to those of the experts quoted in Part 2 of this feature, which I’ll bring you next week. In it, Johnson delves into issues such as the pressure on girls to diet and remove all their body hair. 

Susan Johnson, a full-time journalist at Qweekend magazine, is the author of seven novels; a book of essays, On Beauty (part of the Melbourne University Press series Little Books on Big Themes); and a memoir about her experiences of motherhood, A Better Woman.

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