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Month: October 2012

Reclaim The Night – 16 year old Lily speaks out about the on-line harassment of young women.

This week I am proud to have been given permission to publish an extract from one of the speeches given at yesterday’s Reclaim The Night rally in Sydney; this was given by 16 year old high school student Lily. The event was part of what is now a world-wide protest movement by women against sexual violence.

I am awed by Lily’s strength in speaking out in this way, and encouraged by the incredible grass-roots feminist group she has helped establish at her school.

May she inspire us all to work even harder for, and with, our girls. And may we all seek to create even more opportunities for young women to be given a platform from which they can share their experiences too.

 

Good evening! Thank you so much for having me. I’m Lily, I’m 16 years old and currently starting Year 12. I’ve spent a good amount of time with technology in my life and tonight I’m going to be speaking about the treatment of women on the internet today, as I see it and know it, and the experiences that other women have had online.

Collective Voice – High School students fighting sexism.

I’d like to start by giving a shout out to the feminist group at my school, Collective Voice, who are here today (there’s the banner)! In 2010 Collective Voice was started by our teacher Ms Fajou, in response to a lack of discussion with our peers about the sexism teens receive from the media, and each other. We discuss what feminism means to us – how we feel about body image, violence against women, homophobia, politics. We run campaigns at school encouraging girls to reject “beauty standards”, making posters and signing petitions.

We also have a very active Facebook page that we use to share videos, articles and current events connected with feminism. Here we share discuss issues that matter to us as young women. It’s awesome. We are building skills of productive dialogue and knowledge and opinion, which is powerful. One thing that we’re working against with Collective Voice is the widespread level of online sexism; a lot of online spaces have been claimed by a boys’ club of obscenity, anonymity and oppression.

I believe it is important, vitally important, to acknowledge that what happens online is still valid despite not being ‘in real life’. The attitudes and beliefs you encounter, the harassment you face, and the sexism which manifests is just as real online as offline. Just like in workplaces, boardrooms or any other social environments, online spaces can be made to feel unsafe and threatening. And when women perceive a space to be unsafe or threatening they are less likely to be able to participate equally in that space. If we stepped into a public space or workplace that was adorned with unavoidably graphic pornographic posters, where the people who you approached yelled hate speech at you or harassed you, where you were belittled or denied equal treatment due to your sex, gender, orientation or opinion – it would not be acceptable.

About a month ago, I attended my year 11 social. I had a good time and goofed around a bit, as you do. A few days later I found a particular photo of myself from the social on Facebook; it had been commented on extensively. Over 10 boys and men who are still complete strangers to me commented freely on my appearance, they debated whether they would masturbate to it, they told me that my photo would haunt me for years to come, they openly, and unapologetically discussed what they imagined my genitalia would look like. They were supported by over 40 others, who had ‘liked’ their comments.

This isn’t the first we’ve seen of Facebook acting as a medium for sexism and abuse, however. Notable additions have been “Punch a slut in the face day” (a group set up in a NSW school by boys who then went on to physically assault girls they perceived as promiscuous), “Define statutory: pro-rape, anti-consent” (from the lovely lads at St Pauls college from Sydney University); “it’s not rape if you yell surprise” and a swathe of pages titled with ‘women in the kitchen jokes’ in 2010. We saw the recent case of ‘Root Rate’, a page for young men to publically rate their sexual experiences with women, encouraging a lot of sexism and derogatory comments. Many of the contributors and the girls spoken about were underage.

Just two weeks ago, the world witnessed the case of Amanda Todd, a 15 year old girl who committed suicide after receiving extreme abuse online and in real time. Todd showed her breasts to a man online about 3 years earlier, and for this she was condemned by her peers and others. Before she committed suicide she posted a video online describing her story in detail.

Jarrah Hodge, who writes and educates on gender representations in media, politics and pop-culture, said, “(In the media commentary surrounding her case) there was no discussion of the pressure girls like Amanda experience to measure their worth through their sexual desirability. From her story it sounds like this man had the hallmarks of a predator—he tried to use her photos to blackmail her and yet she’s the one who got blamed. This comes from the idea that it’s up to girls and women to protect their purity at the same time as all their role models in the media say that you need to ‘get a man’ to be a complete person, that you need to be sexually attractive to be liked, appreciated, and valued. She said the guy she showed off to was telling her how beautiful she was. Given our culture that can be really tempting for a girl.”

What is surprising is that sexist, oppressive behaviour online has become very mainstream, especially considering that women make up the larger proportion of users of social media!

Currently 64% of Facebook users are female as are 58% of Twitter users. In theory, online space is a woman’s domain! And yet, online you receive 25 times as much abuse if you state that you are a woman or if your username is feminine…

…This is not a joke. This cannot be trivialised. What happens on the internet directly influences the way people behave in reality, and regardless how we interact with each other online is still a human interaction.

Of course, I am not the only person to speak out against the way women are objectified and men encouraged to degrade women online. There are numerous activists and online petitions targeting Reddit, Facebook and other forums.

It is how these efforts are responded to that perhaps gives us the most frightening insight of all.

Anita Sarkeesian has been running an online video series called Feminist Frequency since 2009, exploring and deconstructing pop culture in an accessible way. Sarkeesian makes video blogs (a form of blogging for which the medium is video, considered a form of internet television) analysing movies, TV shows, music videos – the things that influence us, and especially young people.

Her most recent project has been ‘Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games’, a 12 video project exploring the way women are represented in video games. During the making of it she has encountered unprecedented harassment. She writes:

“… a harassment campaign is being waged against me and has included attempts to get my accounts banned, a torrent of hate on YouTube, plus countless threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape. As part of that intimidation effort the Wikipedia page about me was vandalized with misogynist language, pornography and racial slurs.This was not done by just one or two trolls but was a coordinated cyber mob style effort involving a whole gang working together.”

So this is what it all comes down to. Sarkeesian, now backed by over 7000 donors, is breaking the rules of the male dominated gaming community with this project. Not only is she attacking the way women are treated in the games, but the way women are treated in the gaming community – there is no space for women to exist at the same level as men in a community which constantly sees them as objects…

…Now, don’t get me wrong, the internet can be a lovely place. And the reason we all use it so much is because it has infinitely widened our ability to learn, communicate and create. The problem lies in dealing with issues of prejudice and offense – we just don’t know how to effectively serve justice online.

All too often, the cry goes up that the internet is the problem.The problem never lies with the internet itself, the blame lies with wrongful attitudes and social acceptance of them.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for solving inequality on the internet, just as there isn’t one for ‘reality’. But we, as women, do need to be strongly active. We need to take the knowledge and perspective we have and make it heard. The internet is a highly modern space filled with primitive ideals, and frankly, we’re better than that.

So tonight we are here to reclaim the spaces we exist in and make them safe for all women! Let’s include in that, the online space. And let’s reclaim the right for all women to live free from violence, harassment, misogyny and abuse!

 

Real Girls

I am always incredibly honoured when I receive correspondence from women who want to meet with me to discuss more about my work, and their vision for girls.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to meet everyone who requests a catch-up; not if I actually want to get on with driving my own vision for girls and supporting my own amazing Enlighten Team. But, every now and then, an email screams out at me as being written by someone truly special.

Samantha Power originally emailed me as she has just finished teaching Drama at the Australian International School In Singapore, a school Enlighten had a particularly powerful experience working in last year (this event will always remain one of the highlights of what has been a very blessed career; I am thrilled we will be returning in 2013):

…As a young, fresh teacher I am extremely passionate about what it is you’re doing with Enlighten Education…I have received many emails from some of my ex students telling me what an amazing and powerful experience your workshop was. Thank You from the bottom of my heart for empowering them and giving them the confidence they need to believe in themselves in a more positive and affirming way.

Since hearing from them I have read your book The Butterfly Effect and in doing so have also been propelled to make a difference. My love for teaching came about from a love of teenagers and a strong need to ‘help’ them. Help not in the sense of saving them but, like you, in allowing them to look at their lives in a different way and to realise that they are so much more than what they themselves may even realise. I aim to use my platform as a teacher to try and make them realise their potential, encourage them to be compassionate and caring towards others and to always strive for their dreams…

Samantha went on to explain she had moved to Texas but would be back in Australia in a few months time to visit her family. If she paid for an airfare to Sydney to meet me, could I find the time to meet with her she asked?

Sam and I at Enlighten HQ.

How could I say no to this level of enthusiasm for our girls? Suffice to say that after we met, I was so taken with Samantha that I offered her the role as our Program Manager for the USA and, after staying with me and travelling all over Australia as part of her Enlighten training, she has been establishing our programs there ever since (trust me, if you ever meet Sam, you’ll want to adopt her too. I only hope she never uses her powers for evil, or we are all in trouble).

But, bringing our brand of girl-power to the USA is not all that she has been up to. Completely unprompted by me, Sam decided to set up her own Facebook Page and blog aimed at teen girls – Real Girls. These sites are inspiring, empowering and much-needed on-line platforms for real girls to share their personal stories and learn from each other.

So, this week, I am handing over to 16 year old “Real Girl” contributor Zoe. Zoe is a 16 year old girl living in Melbourne, Australia. Here she candidly and bravely talks about her body issues and her goals for the future.

You may read more “Real Girl” stories at Sam’s site . Do check it out and share it with the girls in your life.

Trigger warning: Please do not read on if you are prone to be triggered around eating and health or body-related themes.

 

I’m a 16 year-old girl from Melbourne who has been lucky enough to live overseas and see various parts of the world. My life, however, over the last couple of years has been filled with ups and downs. I am thankful in a way though as it has made me a much stronger person and taught me to appreciate and make the most of every opportunity. I’m a naturally energetic, hyperactive person who is a strong believer in the law of attraction – what you put out into the universe is what you get back! Therefore, I try to put out as much positive energy as I can. I don’t do things by halves, its 200% or nothing.

Zoe, 16.

For me, hindsight is an interesting thing. I don’t live with regrets but if I could, I would prevent my 12-year-old self from feeling the need to starve herself to get to a weight that was way below the healthy weight range. For anyone out there who has had or currently has an eating disorder and faces the challenge of being in the “Zone” then you will know what I am talking about – Experiencing that voice inside your head that takes over any reason, obsessing over calories, weight, how many bones are showing, how many calories to burn and how to eat the least amount at the next meal.

Four years of yoyo dieting, excessive exercising and mentally stressful events caught up with me this year and although I had maintained a relatively healthy weight for the last two years my outlook towards my body has been constantly up and down. I would only feel confident or like my body when I was exercising a lot. If I wasn’t I would feel the need to not eat. I also would over analyze every part of my body, and focus on everything I hated about it and where I wanted to be thinner, constantly comparing myself to other girls around me.

My exercise regime had been given a massive boost towards the end of last year and the beginning of this year due to cross country season. I began exercising for 11+ hours week and pushing myself more than I needed to. I found I began to tie my confidence and self-esteem with how much I exercised – the more I did the better I felt about myself. I justified this in my mind and thought it wasn’t the same as my eating disorder – I was happy, getting good marks at school, at a healthy weight and my family life was stable. I used all these excuses to make what I was doing ok – even though I still had the voice in my head telling me I needed to do the extra exercise class, run an extra hour, burn another 100 calories.

I knew that my body could only handle so much but still I ignored the warning signs of over training and pushed through. In May this year however, the “crash of exhaustion” finally came. I experienced a whole month of heart palpitations, constant elevated heart rate, unable to think clearly, insomnia, Increased PMS symptoms, periods of exhaustion and days where I was unable to get out of bed.

Blood tests showed that I had sub clinical hypothyroidism*. One of the most noticeable symptoms associated with hypothyroidism is unexplained weight gain. I was suddenly faced with weight gain of 7 kilograms in one week.

I was told by my doctors to come back in six weeks to get another blood test to see if my levels returned to normal. I felt extremely trapped and hated not being able to do anything to help myself. I had done some research and had found there was a lot of information linking hypothyroidism and Adrenal Fatigue*, which I discovered is surprisingly common and even more risky than chronic fatigue.

I had gained weight and had lost most of the fitness I gained over the last few months. I felt very lost as I associated my whole personality and lifestyle around exercising. I suddenly had two choices: I could continue the way I was going or I could learn from this experience. In a sense there and then I had to confront my eating disorder face on and promised myself I would work at being the healthiest version of myself.

This required a lot of self-control, and there were slip-ups. There were days where I would just go back to my normal routine but I was at the point where if I stressed my body out too much, I would find myself bedridden the next day. This really taught me that there is a consequence for everything you do. In those months I came to realise that my weight was just a number – nothing more! It didn’t change who I was as a person. I still had amazing friends and family, and a supportive school, and they all were there to help and make sure I didn’t too much.

What have I learnt from all of this? I have learnt how important it is to have a balanced lifestyle. Our body’s sole purpose in life is to function. It cannot withstand large amounts of stress, bad eating habits and being surrounded by negative environments. We need to respect our body and treat it in a way that allows us to live to our full potential

It’s taken me six months to get back to normal energy levels and only in the last two weeks have I finally felt back to my normal self. I’ve learnt to appreciate every single opportunity that is thrown at me and realise now how lucky I am: I go to an amazing school with unlimited opportunities, have a great group of friends both in school and out, have a positive family life and an inspiring mentor and coach.

My goal from now on is not let excessive exercising control my life and to see food as fuel, and something my body needs. My goal for the future is to help as many people as possible to live a balanced lifestyle by exercising in a functional way and eating in a way that makes them feel good and excited about life. I have recently completed my Certificate III in Fitness and aspire to have a career in the fitness industry as an Exercise Physiologist/Personal Trainer.

I hope to use my personal story to help others make better choices for themselves and to know that their body and their outer appearance does not define them as a person. It is more important that you are healthy and that you can live in a way that allows you to be the best version of yourself you can be!

Hypothyroidism*: Hypothyroidism (under active thyroid) is a condition in which your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of certain important hormones. Source: MayoClinic.com

Adrenal Fatigue*: Adrenal fatigue is a collection of signs and symptoms known as a syndrome and occurs when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level. It is most commonly associated with intense or prolonged stress, but can also arise during or after acute or chronic infections, especially respiratory infections such as influenza, bronchitis or pneumonia. 

“But what about the boys?”

Frequently when I speak at conferences I am asked what our company, Enlighten Education, is doing to support young men. My response? Whilst we recognise boys also need positive, proactive programs to help them make sense of the changing world around them, we have decided to specialise in working with young women. That is not to say, of course, that many of the resources we offer (especially via this blog) would not help inform raising amazing boys. In fact, as I mentioned in my previous post, I have been asked to deliver my workshop on supporting teens to nurture respectful relationships with their peers, and navigate cyber world safely and responsibly, to the young men at Cranbrook School next week.

But it may surprise many of my readers to learn that aside from the issues we traditionally associate with young males (e.g: violence, substance abuse, reckless driving, and poor school performance) boys are also struggling with issues we tend to more readily associate with young women too. Especially body image.

In fact, a recent Australian Institute of Family Studies Growing Up in Australia survey, based on an assessment of 4164 children, indicated that boys are more likely than girls to diet and exercise to lose weight.

And boys also suffer from more extreme forms of body image dissatisfaction. The Centre of Excellence in Eating Disorders reports that one in ten young adults and approximately 25% of children diagnosed with anorexia nervosa are male. In this clip, Psychologist and muscle dysmorphia expert Dr Stuart Murray discusses the features of muscle dysmorphia; a newly identified psychological condition which is more common in males than females:

Jane Higgins, Enlighten’s Program Manager for South Australia, independently established her own in-school program for young men; The Odyssey Program. Odyssey’s workshops cover a variety of topics from masculinity to mate-ship, drugs and alcohol, girls and relationships, anger management and, yes, body image.

Jane offered me this insight into why her proactive work on body image with boys has become increasingly important:

“Just as the media rarely offers diverse images of what beauty in a young woman may look like,  it also presents a very narrow and one dimensional view of what a man should look, feel and be like and boys are responding to this pressure in unhealthy ways. The push for boys to appear muscular and buff is particularly problematic.  “Ripped, Shredded, Cut, Buff, Chiseled, Muscle up, Bulk Up, 6 pack Abs, Brutal, Clean!!” The way they are marketed to would almost have one think you were discussing a machine!

If a boy wishes to conform to this ideal, then he only has to turn to the “Health” food shops where he can buy “Bulking Up” drinks and powders. They contain ingredients that include electrolytes, amino acids, arginine, glutamine, caffeine and some contain nitric oxide and 1,3-Dimethylamylamine, or DMAA. It is like a glass of stimulants. Even more concerning is the research that shows that 3-12% of teen boys will use even more extreme muscle enhancing drugs including steroids.”

For more discussion on body image dissatisfaction in young men you may wish to read the following excellent articles:

Boys aren’t immune to body image pressures and never have been

The man behind the mask – male  body image dissatisfaction

Body image boosters for guys 

Regardless of gender, all young people deserve to be recognised as somebodies, not just bodies.

All Women Hate Each Other

Me (far right) at The Sydney Opera House with Tara Moss, Geramine Greer and Eva Cox. #FODI 2012.

I was absolutely thrilled to have been asked to join the panel discussing the topic, “All Women Hate Each Other” at The Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The panel also featured Eva Cox, Germaine Greer and Tara Moss. What a line-up!

With Tara Moss at #FODI.

A video of the session will be ready to view by the end of the month and I shall share it with you as soon as it becomes available. In the interim, I’d like to tease out a few of the more interesting “dangerous ideas” the session raised.

Tara’s arguments are best summed up by a great opinion piece she wrote, published in the Sydney Morning Herald just before the event: Mean boys the worst culprits. Tara writes;

 

“All women hate each other”, or so the saying goes. It is also a view of women many instinctively agree with. From the sports field to the boardroom, male ambition and competitiveness is praised, yet the term ”ambitious”, when it describes a female, is often used with ambivalence. There is a nasty side to female competition and aggression, we are told. The perils of female-on-female cruelty continue to be widely discussed by academics and journalists, and frequently portrayed in popular entertainment, from the breakout 2004 comedy Mean Girls, to reality shows like Real Housewives. It’s widely understood that women are ”their own worst enemies”…

Yet this focus on female cruelty seems curious, when you consider that ”mean boys” are far more likely to cause physical injury and death…

The fact remains unarguable – dangerous social behaviours and acts of aggression and harm are overwhelmingly perpetrated by males.”

Germaine and Eva both provided thought provoking ideas, including a few that I found myself needing to challenge.

Germaine described watching a group of male businessmen at lunch. She said it was almost a scene reminiscent of the film Gorillas in the Mist; the most powerful “Silverback” assuming his position within the group and the others (with their clearly defined roles, the joker, the sidekick etc) positioning themselves around him. “Why don’t women network in this way?” she asked, proposing that females are not as good at building networks of support.

As someone who has been in education for over 20 years, working with teen girls on a weekly basis, I had to counter by declaring that anyone watching adolescent girls at lunch time (particularly in single-sex schools) would observe a very similar power dynamic. Girls know where to sit in the playground (their location saying much about their standing within the social network of their school) and also often sit surrounding the most socially dominant female. In fact, girls are very good at reading social environments and vying for power within these.

Perhaps the real issue may be whether in fact our young women lose this capacity to build empires once they enter the workplace, and if they do, why is this so? Could it be that our workplaces do not allow for opportunities for women to connect in this way; many working women claim they struggle to maintain a balance between home and the workplace and may, therefore, be less likely to invest precious time in socialising and networking (activities which are often perceived as almost “optional extras” rather than core responsibilities).

At the recent Australian Leadership Awards I attended in Melbourne, I had the opportunity to hear from a number of women leaders and when asked about how we might  help improve outcomes for women in the workplace, many spoke about the real barriers to women in leadership  being culturally embedded, which makes them slippery and hard to pin down. These include the belief that he/she who works the longest hours is the most conmmitted. One woman summed up her frustrations thus: “At my workplace there are diversity policies in place which have  allowed me to work part-time and re-enter the workplace twelve months after having my daughter. But the issue for me is that all the important conversations seem to happen after 5pm when I’ve left! The guys at my office tend to stay back and brainstorm and plan. When I get back in at 9am the next day, I feel out of the loop.”

In fact, very few women I spoke to said they ever had time to go to lunch with their colleagues; in order to leave punctually to get home to do their “second shift” with their  family, they often ate at their desks. I believe women will better utilise their networking skills when there is more equality around domestic work in our homes; women will then have the time and energy they need to once again engage in the power “dance” they practiced regularly, and skilfully, as young girls.

Similarly, I challenged Germaine when she said girls and women are not very good at “chilling out”. Ask any parent; teen girls are often gifted at engaging in down time! Again, perhaps due to the fact that women are doing the lioness’ share of the work at home, young women may be at risk of losing the ability to unwind and fall into the trap (one I know I often fall into) of believing we must do everything, all at once, all on our own, by the time they reach adulthood.

Finally, I would like to make a plea for kindness. For I fear we are killing it.

In a previous post on the issue of women in the workplace, I discussed the research that shows that in our culture, there is a deeply ingrained belief that the most important qualities of a leader are assertiveness and competitiveness, and that these are perceived as male traits, while women are meant to be nice and compassionate. Why our culture sees being nice and compassionate as at odds with leadership is an interesting question in itself. But for now, I’d like to focus on the fact that both Eva and Germaine challenged the assumption that women should be expected to be “nice” and seemed to be implying that women could be as unpleasant as they wanted to be (insert cheering from the crowd).

Whilst I agree that women shouldn’t have any particular obligation to be pleasant or agreeable simply by virtue of their gender (we are not “God’s Police”), I would contend that in environments like workplaces (and schools), which force people together who may not have a natural affiliation with each other, life is far more bearable if everyone, regardless of sex, is considerate and cooperative. Or, as we state in our workshop on developing positive relationships, not necessarily friends, but friendly.

Of course I am at risk of either sounding naive or idealistic here. But research clearly shows that those who do engage with others in a positive way tend to be happier and more resilient. Many schools, in fact, are now following positive education principles which include teaching kindness, and fairness.

Why is it that being “nice”  is considered somewhat old fashioned and a sign of weakness? We almost celebrate the rude, aggressive, and impolite (we certainly pay them well. Think Allan Jones and Kyle Sandilands). We fall into the trap of perceiving those who act negatively as more powerful, and excuse our own poorer behaviors with phrases such as “I don’t owe it to anyone…”, “I never asked for it”, “Why should I be nice? He/she’s not”…

My company, Enlighten Education, specialises in working with young women, but the content we deliver in our program on building respectful relationships could just as easily be delivered to young men and, in fact, Cranbrook school has asked me to to deliver it to the young boys in their Junior School later this month.

In one of the other Festival Of Dangerous Ideas sessions titled “Abolish Private Schools”,  the excellent Jane Caro argued, as a part of a broader discussion on how we rank schools based on the limited criteria established by tests like NAPLAN, that one of the things that makes us most successful are our social skills and our ability to get along with others in particular. I wholeheartedly agree. I also know that getting along with others requires having the time and energy to do so (which, as I’ve argued, are challenges we need to work away at for many women in the workplace), and will involve us all learning to be a little nicer to each other- regardless of gender.

Let’s not be mislead into believing “haters” rule.

P.S The full FODI panel session may now be viewed here: http://play.sydneyoperahouse.com/index.php/media/1654-All-Women-Hate-Each-Other.html

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