Skip to content

Category: Body Image

An uncommon dialogue

Some months ago I first read a true story by Australian writer Debra Drake, An Uncommon Dialogue. It struck me as both incredibly brave and insightful; in it she chronicles her fight for sanity after a long bout with mental illness which was a direct result of her experiencing quite horrific neglect and sexual abuse as a child.

The story is written as a dialogue betwen Debra and her ever patient and consistent Psychiatrist Phil. As an avid reader and ex-English teacher I have read many books that have moved me, yet this had a profound effect on me – so much so that I contacted the author to offer her my encouragement and congratulate her on her brave decision to recount the important, life saving dialogue between herself and her therapist.

In my email I mentioned that I have chosen to work with young girls and hope that I too can offer an important, alternative conversation around gender and identity. I told Debra that for young girls experiencing the type of extreme circumstances she was in, perhaps my words of celebration and challenge may not have had much of an impact, but that I sincerely hoped and believed that for many girls enlighten is indeed a powerful voice.

Debra responded and advised me to never underestimate our work and the power of even fleeting conversations that offer “news of difference” :

“My psychiatrist and I often wondered what kept me as sane as I was given the circumstances, I believe it was the moments of kindness from strangers and the few odd words I heard that hinted that things could be different for me…I clung to these. What you are doing is enormously important.”    

Can the words we hear, even if we only hear them very briefly, really change and heal us? Long term?

 843676_stone_-_love.jpg

Certainly the girls we work with tell us they can:
“I thought it would be a boring lecture where the whole time all you are thinking about is ‘When will this finally end?’ BUT Danni really connected with everyone, and out of all the things people in my life have ever said to me, and out of all the lectures I’ve been given, I really listened to you and to everything you said and I TOOK EVERYTHING IN.” Courtney, Year 9.  

“I am in shock as I didn’t think it would be so interesting – I think you  ladies should continue talking to other schools of young people. You can teach  girls so much as everyone listens to you and is really interested in what  you have to say.” Anon. Yr 8

Apart from this type of very positive immediate feedback, we also get BEAUTIFUL letters and emails from girls  (many of these make me quite teary) and I do think they are worth a read as they offer a powerful insight into the adolescent mind. letters.pdf

Certainly my own life experiences have show me that words can be powerful agents of change.

I recall some of the words that scarred me, and rejoice in the words that later healed me with the girls I work with through enlighten.

However, I also vividly recall  another “light bulb” moment.  I was in Yr 9, Maths, with Mr Scott. He was joking with the class and I boldly told him he “loved himself” ( in girl world, loving yourself, or thinking you are “good” is the ultimate crime –  isn’t that a sad indictment on teen girls self esteem!). Mr Scott looked at me and said, “Danni, yes I do love myself. I am great. I hope you love yourself too. I hope all you girls love yourselves. You’re really lovable girls.”   

Wow. I am sure that I had been told how important it was to love and accept myself before, but that day I really heard it. For me, it started a quest to find out more – was it actually OK to like myself the way I was?  It started a new type of self talk…” I am alright, I am lovable…” rather than “I am not pretty enough, I am not as popular as…not as skinny as…” There were so many NOTS in my adolescent mind!

How can we ensure that more really important messages are heard?
831982_hope.jpg 

enlighten realises it is important to balance the head (knowledge, facts, reason, experiences), the hand (allow some DOING, application of the learning) and the heart (encourage passion and an emotional connection). Research indicates that teenagers are particularly interested in hand and heart connections!

Andrew Fuller’s excellent “Don’t Waste Your Breath, an Introduction to the Mysterious World of the Adolescent Brain”  offers three particularly sage pieces of advice to all of us who wish to have meaningful conversations with teens : “Grab them by the emotions,” “Bombard them with positives” and:

Never underestimate your power. Adolescents need someone around them – an adult who has more options that they do. Someone who they may battle with, but someone who ultimately they imitate and emulate and believe it or not, that someone is you.”

Steve Biddulph, in his outstanding article in the Sydney Morning Herald Teenage Girls Under Attack (a must read!) goes so far as to argue that :

A successful and happy adolescence entails hundreds of conversations about what matters, who you are and what you stand for. Yet many teenage girls are basically abandoned by distracted parents and the impersonal melee of large secondary schools. The rise of themed peer groups like emos and goths, the hazards of queen bee-style bullying and exclusion are a consequence of this adult abandonment. Kids band together for comfort that the adult world is not providing. “

Is it perhaps not the fact that teenagers don’t want to listen that is the real issue, but rather that we are all too busy and distracted to make time for conversations?  Are we just too busy to have dialogue that has meaning?  

It may surprise parents to know that when I ask girls what is the one thing they think would really help and support them in making sense of their world they overwhelmingly respond it would be just spending more time with their Mums. More talk. More cuddles. 

What are you waiting for – go have a chat. It may fall on deaf ears, but then again – it may also prove to be an uncommon dialogue.

 P.S Love to hear what words have helped shaped your identity and allowed you to make sense of your world…add a comment.

“Youth and sex sell baby,” designer Charlie Brown.

This week’s Sunday Life (an insert with the Sun Herald) was a dedicated fashion issue. I was particularly keen to read the “Rewind, 1999” article on designer Charlie Brown’s decision to use plus size model Sophie Dahl (a size 14) for her 1999 fashion show – had it been motivated by a desire to offer women real alternatives? How much has changed now in the industry – would such a move still be considered shocking?

The answers were simply sad.

Ms Brown’s only motivation was to get exposure for her brand, “I knew she would interest the public and the press….(it) brought me lots of attention.” Was she concerned that the media had been so rude to Dahl; one journalist had the hide to ask her “…what was it like to be a freak in the fashion industry?” Only in as far as it may have impacted on her own show -“I wasn’t very happy either because they asked (Sophie) this five minutes before the show started.” 

What did the gorgeous Dahl make of this event? Ms Brown tells us Sophie spent the trip ” …fighting her own shit about her weight…she pushed a lot of lettuce leaves around.”  

Why I am shocked at the insensitivity and overt and unabashed exploitation of a young and obviously vulnerable woman? This same designer produced a range of t-shirts last season that boasted “Trophy Wife” and made the much criticised decision when she hooked up with partner Danny to set up another home across the road so her own 11 year old daughter could live there with a Nanny and not with them. Perhaps there may be more to this parental decision than meets the eye, and I hate getting into the judgement game with other women as no-one wins it, but surely that seems insensitive too? Yet despite knowing this background, I still find the complete lack of empathy and respect shocking.

And so to Charlie Brown’s proclamation that “Youth and sex sell baby.” Can’t argue with that – and Sophie certainly caught on to the latter when she made the infamous advertisement below for Opium perfume. Strike a pose indeed…

Sophi and Opium…strike a pose!

Recent events at a Gold Coast Fashion week highlight that our obsession with youth is also getting dangerously out of hand. The Queensland fashion festival has been accused of child exploitation after choosing a 12-year-old girl as the face of the event.

The selection of Year 8 student Maddison Gabriel, as ambassador of the first Gold Coast Fashion Week has sparked condemnation from within and outside the modelling industry. Maddison’s mother and organisers of the Gold Coast show have defended the move, she said Maddison, who turns 13 this weekend, had wanted to model for years but had been forced to wait until she was considered old enough.

“I’m very proud and excited for her,” she said. “Some 12-year-olds are very young but I think Maddison is a woman in her own right. The judges themselves didn’t know how old she was. They just saw her as a model against other women.”

Models this young should be protected, she may well be mature but this particular “playground” is notoriously nasty and would challenge even the most worldly of girls. It certainly damaged 22 year old Sophie Dahl who, not long after her trip to Australia’s Fashion week, dramatically lost a lot of weight and sparked concerns for her health. However, I also think there are broader implications that are equally as alarming.

The reality is that Maddison will not be the only one at risk here. The fashion parade is an adults event, the audience are adult women and the clothes are aimed at women not small girls. Every women watching the fashion show will inevitably start to compare themselves to Maddison ( “Gee…my thighs don’t look that great actually…maybe I can’t get away with this look… oh I guess if I dieted hard enough I could shave a few centimetres before summer…”). WHY would a prepubescent girl be selected to model clothing designed to sell to women?

Society is becoming obsessed with youth – and this is not just hurting women as they desperately try to turn back the clock, but our children, who are being put forward as the desirable ideal. Rush and La Nauze’s 2006 Report “Corporate Paedophilia, the Sexualisation of Children in Australia” gives a disturbing account of how showing images of young girls dressed as sexual adults feeds men who prey on young girls – it “feeds them”.

Maddison should do herself (and every other women and girl) a favour and strut and pout around home for a while first. Surely there is time later in her career for modelling women’s clothing…

“It’s not just about how you play (the game)…

but about how hot you look when you win!”Sportz Bratz

I kid you not – this is the motto for the Sportz Bratz.

Research clearly shows one of the best things girls can do to promote a healthy body image is become involved in sports. enlighten actively encourages girls to get physical but also deconstructs some of the stereotypes of women in sport that are unhelpful and explores the sexualisation of female sport stars. Some information from the Government’s Australian Sports Commission web site reiterates why this holistic approach is so important:

Stereotypes influence the types of sports in which women are likely to participate. Not only are sports labelled masculine or feminine, those female athletes who participate in sports are also subject to being labelled and stereotyped as either masculine (possibly lesbian) or feminine (conforming to the ideal). Sport can be a liberating experience for women, in that it offers them a chance to be in control of their own bodies. However, when women start to develop attributes that are perceived to be masculine, for example, muscle bulk and competitiveness, they are often subject to a type of harassment that comes of stepping outside the conventional range of the idealised female body type…

Diet and exercise are used by women to alter their body in order to conform to ideal female images. These practices control women and can lead to eating disorders. There is concern regarding the relationship between eating disorders and elite female athletes, especially in sports with an emphasis on aesthetics and body presentation. Research has clearly linked negative body image with the prevalence of eating disorders, and the susceptibility of those women with negative body image to develop poor eating behaviours. The relationship is consistent, almost every person suffering from an eating disorder suffers from a severely distorted body image.

Research in the United States has found that women who participate in sports and physical activity have a more positive body image than those who don’t. Participation in sports elicits approval from peers, family and friends, and helps women feel that their bodies are capable and competent. These positive feelings produce a positive body image. Although body image is profoundly shaped by social, political, racial, age and gender factors, these experiences are not static and are vulnerable to other more modern influences. We have the power to resist and change these stereotypes.

By refusing the stereotype, women will have access to a greater diversity of experiences that shape body image and self-concept.”

You may also find the report entitled Fit to Lead, produced by Womensport West, interesting reading.  

Findings indicate that: ” …a significant number of teenage girls perceive the sporting arena to be male-dominated. Their experience and comprehension of this domination varies, but whatever its manifestation, the interaction is frequently regarded as negative.”

What I most enjoyed reading was the possible solutions girls proposed. These include encouraging female students to design and choose their own sports clothing ( I can relate – my 8 year old daughter Teyah HATES her baggy PE shorts with a passion and has cried over these!) and providing non-traditional sports for girls.  

Teyah has embraced Taekwondo and I delight in the fact that her teacher, Di Carn, is not only fabulous at the sport  (she is a Commonwealth Gold medalist) but a wonderful teacher and female role model – patient, professional, powerful. A real life “kick butt” Princess Fiona!

What else works?   

I also believe that sport models the connection between out thoughts and our results. If we think we will achieve, we are far more likely to. All sports stars are aware of the power of positive thinking and getting in the zone. We use the analogy of the sports star psyching herself up before an event to explain to the girls how important their self talk is. Our words can heal or harm.

I applaud Adidas’s new Womens Philosophy and advertising campaign:

Sport is not an obligation

It`s a game

So play

And have fun

It`s up to you

Throw away expectations

And surprise yourself along the way.

Impossible is Nothing.”

It is up to us. We are in control. Powerful stuff.

P.S – Some interesting comments here, particularly on sportswear! Do read and offer your thoughts…

P.S.S Found excellent YouTube clip on the media’s representation of female athletes – an American one but worth a look:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/luadmO7Cugc" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /] 

National Body Image / Eating Disorder Week

You may be aware that the week commencing 3rd September 2007 was National Body Image / Eating Disorder Awareness week. I thought I would attach the following article for your interest and to assist you in your vital work in this area – it is an article from the Professional School Counseling Journal, February 2007, and is entitled counseling-adolescent-girls-for-body-image-resilience.doc

It is an American journal article but highly relevant to the Australian school context. The model identifies five protective factors that contribute to girls’ abilities to resist sociocultural pressures regarding thinness. Specific prevention and counseling strategies that school counselors (and teachers) can use to promote positive body image in adolescent girls are provided.

I was particularly interested in this finding:

Rather than a pathology-driven model that emphasizes treatment for the concerns of girls in clinical samples, the most promising programs incorporate protective factors that build on girls’ strengths, promote resilience, and buffer them from the development of body dissatisfaction and subsequent disordered eating practices.”

The article goes on to provide a number of practical strategies and presents a large body of research to support its recommendations.

Well worth a cuppa and a read.

The poignent poem below is by Claire Clements. Claire first contacted me after seeing us featured on A Current Affair in May 2006. We were profiled along with Professor Susan Paxton, Australia’s preeminent expert on girls and eating disorders. It is my understanding that Claire has struggled to gain weight and regain her health after a long period of illness.

It is really quite powerful and I thank her for sharing:
CURVES By Claire Clements

I am being reborn

Learning to breathe again

And with this comes awakening

Of the body and the mind

I have never been a woman

Though, once, I believed I was

Looking through a window

To a field I thought more green

But the window now has curtains

Which I keep shut tight

And for a while I lived in shadow

Alone

Void, even, of my soul

But now I am emerging

Not like a butterfly, no

But like a caterpillar

Feasting on fresh new leaves

Preparing for what I, eventually, will be

But now, here I am

Expanding. Growing.

And how wonderful it feels

To run your hands over your body

And feel pure meat and flesh

Not bones

To be feeding off flavours

Not internal organs

To look and see molehills

Not indentations

To breathe without fearing

For the pressure on my heart

To shower and take pleasure

In lathering my stomach

To have eyes appreciate my curves

Looking at them with relief, pride, happiness

Not eyes full of sexual hunger

Not eyes of a man

But with eyes of a friend

A parent, a sibling, a niece

To sit with my cat

Without her falling off my lap

To feel that life may actually be achievable

And not live in a cloud of despair

To have curves

Finally

Like the
Queens and beauties

In paintings from before

Like Cassandra

Like a goddess

Like a bear

Like a caterpillar

Storing up the padding

To last me through my transformation

Until I am that butterfly

To use food for its intended

A celebration of life

Of Nature

To finally be a woman

That you can look upon

Without grimacing in disgust

For I am on my way to curves

And I have never felt more beautiful.

Faking It!

I wanted to share with you, amongst other things, an interesting new resource. You may recall me posting a Sun Herald article by Miranda Divine ( Paradise glossed: magazines driving girl poisoning culture)  that labeled many magazines aimed at teen girls as “Girl Poisoners” – sexualizing them and reinforcing their negative body image.  

Australian Women’s Forum, a group of professional women and academics, have just launched a magazine style alternative entitled “Faking It”; this reflects the body of academic research on  magazines, mass media and the sexual objectification of women.

enlighten was at their Melbourne launch and we are particularly impressed with its combination of academic rigor and appealing visuals; it will certainly appeal to older teenage girls and provide a powerful stimulus for conversation ( please note, I would suggest it would be most appropriate for girls from 16 onwards as much of the content does focus on issues relating to sexuality and some articles are, whilst incredibly important, confronting e.g. “Girls : Too Sexy Too Soon” on the premature sexualisation of girls and the links between this and serious 506792_doll_.jpgmental health problems).

Recent talks I have held with parent groups highlights the fact that this magazine will also feel a real need for parents to have access to information that is presented in a way in which allows an insight into their daughter’s increasingly complex world (flyer: wake-up-sleeping-beauty-program-for-parents.pdf – in case you think this new enlighten initiative may also prove beneficial.)  

I have discussed how parents and schools may access this magazine with AWF Board Member Karen Robinson and she has indicated that individual copies (@ $15 plus postage) may be ordered directly from their web site.  However, multiple copies of 20 or more can be ordered for $10 per copy with postage waved. It may be worth putting a note out to parents to see if there is interest and allowing them to get these through the school.  As an ex-English KLA Coordinator, I think it would also prove highly useful as a resource in the Senior English and / or PDHPE classroom. 

With permission, I have attached a sample article from the latest issue for you Hate Your Body – We Show You How– I am sure you will find it informative and valuable in its own right. I shall be meeting with AWF when I am in Perth next month working with 450 girls from St Brigid’s College WA; I am keen to offer the team a school perspective and would welcome any comments or suggestions you may have as I will forward these to the ladies on your behalf.   

 idealism.jpg

On another note, some general items of interest:  we have recently been nominated as Small Business of the Year, Children’s Services! Finalists are announced in October so fingers crossed for us. Another exciting October event in our calendar:  I have also been asked to give a presentation on gender and supporting teenage girls with body image issues at the Australian Council of Education Leaders (ACEL) annual conference in October – over 1,200 Principals and teachers will be in attendance and perhaps I may even see some of you there. Please say hello! Finally, we have added a new link to our web site – “enlighten and the community.” We thought it was important to publicly promote our corporate values; we believe that by building respect and inspiring love, business can move the world.

Do check it out and note the NSW launch of our mentoring program for young girls who are entrepreneurial will be happening soon.  It is my aim to personally mentor one girl each year and support her in using her creative energy to add value to the wider community… many of you may know I have a strong background in both founding and managing mentoring programs and in developing curriculum aimed at enhancing enterprise skills so I will relish utilizing all these skills again!

So much happening – loving it all. I hope you are all feeling just as inspired by your work…

Subscribe

Follow this blog

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

Skip to toolbar