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Category: Bullying

Must-see Films For March

“The best films of any kind, narrative or documentary,
provoke questions.”
Edward Norton

This week I want to preempt the release of two extraordinary films with the hope that schools will then have the time to organise viewings.

Bully – to be released on DVD March 6th (will be available at all good retailers). 

When I first watched this film at the cinemas, I sobbed. I ranted at the failings of the educators on screen to step up and take meaningful action. I drove my friends and family mad by insisting they all see it too: and I pledged to do more to speak up for those who feel they have no voice. Here is one of the film’s trailers and promotional blurbs:

This year, over 5 million American kids will be bullied at school, online, on the bus, at home, through their cell phones and on the streets of their towns, making it the most common form of violence young people in this country experience. The Bully Project is the first feature documentary film to show how we’ve all been affected by bullying, whether we’ve been victims, perpetrators or stood silent witness. The world we inhabit as adults begins on the playground. The Bully Project opens on the first day of school. For the more than 5 million kids who’ll be bullied this year in the United States, it’s a day filled with more anxiety and foreboding than excitement. As the sun rises and school busses across the country overflow with backpacks, brass instruments and the rambunctious sounds of raging hormones, this is a ride into the unknown.

 

Previous blog posts which also offer perspectives on combating bullying include:

Bullying – it’s time to focus on solutions

Beyond Cyber Hysteria – cyber bully busting

Posts that deal with the sensitive issue of teen suicide include:

Helping Teen Girls In Crisis

Rage and Despair – Positive, helpful ways to support girls in crisis.

Girl Rising – in cinemas March 7th

The second film argues that when you educate a girl, you change the world:

From Academy Award-nominated director Richard E. Robbins, award-winning Documentary Group, Vulcan Productions and Intel Corporation comes Girl Rising – an innovative new feature film about the power of education to change a girl — and the world. The film spotlights unforgettable girls like Sokha, an orphan who rises from the dumps of Cambodia to become a star student and an accomplished dancer; Suma, who composes music to help her endure forced servitude in Nepal and today crusades to free others; and Ruksana, an Indian “pavement-dweller” whose father sacrifices his own basic needs for his daughter’s dreams. Each girl is paired with a renowned writer from her native country. Edwidge Danticat, Sooni Taraporevala Aminatta Forna and others tell the girls’ stories, each in it’s style, and all with profound resonance.

These girls are each unique, but the obstacles they faced are ubiquitous. Like the 66 million girls around the world who dream of going to school, what Sokha, Suma, Ruksana and the rest want most is to be students: to learn. And now, And now, by sharing their personal journeys, they have become teachers. Watch Girl Rising, and you will see: One girl with courage is a revolution.

Previous blog posts which deal with girls in the developing world include:

International Women’s Day – keeping Feminism Relevant.

Wanted – More Girl Champions

 

To win a copy of the DVD Bully, simply help me spread the word about these amazing films by sharing this post on Facebook and / or Twitter. Email us with your postal address to let us know you’ve done this and we shall select a winner randomly. Winner drawn February 20th.

Emails to: enquiries@enlighteneducation.com

 

27/2/13 – The lucky winner is Marcia Coventry from South Australia. Marcia, it is in the post!

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!

 

Unpacking the diet industry’s false promises

This week’s guest post is by Lydia Jade Turner. Ms Turner is a psychotherapist and the Managing Director of BodyMatters Australasia. In this research article she explores the connections between body image, weight, the media, and food-related industries. The Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia (AGSA) invited Ms Turner to write this piece and it appears in the current edition of their journal, In Alliance. Full references were provided and may be obtained by contacting Ms Turner and / or referring to her original submission for AGSA.

Australia is currently facing a public health crisis. On one hand, approximately one-quarter of school-aged children are reported to be ‘overweight’ or ‘obese.’ On the other, the National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC) reports eating disorders have increased two-fold over the past five years. Working out how to foster resiliency against both extremes may feel daunting for many. While some are taught to put their children on diets, others are watching their daughter refuse to eat. Despite all the anti-obesity rhetoric and warnings about eating disorders, many are getting sicker. This paper argues for a paradigm shift away from a weight based approach to health, and makes the case for tighter regulation of the industries contributing to eating and dieting disorders in young people.

The effects of dieting and weight loss

Popular shows like The Biggest Loser suggest shaming and stigmatising ‘obese’ individuals inspires health-giving behaviours. It is troubling that many adolescents and children are exposed to such programmes, as ‘weight-based stigma’ was recently identified as a shared risk factor for both ‘obesity’ and eating disorders, in a research summary prepared by the NEDC. While such shows encourage dieting for weight loss, a landmark study by Dr Dianne Neumark-Sztainer demonstrated that adolescent girls who engage in weight-control behaviours are significantly more likely to gain weight and be heavier than their non-dieting peers five years later.

A consistent finding was demonstrated in a study published in the 2003 Journal of Paediatrics, which explored the relationship between dieting and weight change amongst ‘tweens’ and adolescents. Tracking 15,000 participants, the research found those put on diets were significantly more likely to gain weight than those who were not. Paradoxically, dieting for weight loss appears to increase the likelihood of becoming ‘obese.’ It is theorized this is due to our bodies adapting to famine periods over hundreds of thousands of years. It has only been a relatively short period of time that we have existed in a cultural mixing pot with the convenience of high calorific, nutritionally devoid foods and often sedentary lifestyles.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found the appetite stimulating hormone ghrelin actually increased by approximately twenty percent even one year after participants were put on a weight-loss diet. Leptin, which helps to suppress hunger and raise metabolic rate, was found at lower levels than expected. The appetite suppressing hormone peptide YY was also found at unusually low levels. It is not yet known how long these changes remain. The Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) which controls the amount of energy expended for the body’s basic survival functions also reduces. In essence, for many, the body works against the efforts to lose weight.

Those who engage in repeated cycles of dieting are significantly more likely to suffer from binge eating, as binge eating is the body’s survival response to deprivation. It overrides a person’s desire to restrict their intake to an uncomfortable level. Anorexia however presents an exception to this response, with emerging research showing it may be a brain disorder exacerbated by starvation, rather than a matter of unshakable willpower. For reasons not fully understood, the patient’s physiology does not ‘kick in’ to protect them from their desire to starve.

Perhaps this explains why nearly fifty years of research have demonstrated that weight loss approaches fail approximately 95% of the population over the long term. While many can lose weight in the short term, research has yet to show a dieting approach that works for most over two to five years. In fact one in five obese Australians is now reported to have eating disorder symptoms, despite appearing to have ample fat stores.

The US National Weight Control Registry provides some interesting insights into the lives of those who have maintained weight loss over the long term. The registry has enrolled over 6000 participants who have maintained an average weight loss of 15 kilograms for at least one year, and is often heralded as ‘evidence’ that weight loss maintenance is achievable for most. Yet a critique of the registry by Ikeda and her team of researchers as far back as 2005 found participants had to restructure their entire lives around food and weight, with many resorting to extreme measures to maintain their lost weight.

It’s clear dieting for weight loss carries many unintended consequences. Some would argue that the solutions prescribed to combat ‘obesity’ are the same behaviours eating disorders clinicians are diagnosing in their patients. The focus needs to shift onto disordered eating which damages the health of people at any size.

The unintended consequences of dieting include: food and body preoccupation, weight cycling, distraction from other health goals, reduced self-esteem, eating disorders, weight stigmatisation and discrimination. Dieting has also been identified as the biggest predictor of an eating disorder, while weight cycling has been shown to be more harmful to health than maintaining a higher but steady weight. For these reasons and more, focusing on weight loss as a goal is not recommended.

Weight stigmatisation

Weight-based stigma occurs when size is the primary focus instead of health. It is linked to a reluctance to engage in physical activity, which perhaps is not so surprising when one considers that exercise typically takes place in a public space. Weight stigmatisation is particularly harmful for young people, for example one study found obese children to be 63% more likely to be bullied, regardless of socioeconomic factors, race, gender, or what type of school they attended. Bullies often engage in bullying behaviour not because their target is fat or has big ears, but because it makes them feel comparatively powerful.

Instead of putting a child on a diet, the following factors are protective against an unhealthy lifestyle and eating disorders: fostering a positive body image, helping students find physical activities that they enjoy, modelling healthy behaviours, having students eat breakfast everyday, participating in regular and family meals, as well as fostering high self-esteem.

Anti-obesity messages

Anti-obesity messages are especially harmful to children. Public health messages must honour the principle of ‘first, do no harm.’ In a key research document by Professor Jennifer O’Dea, it was identified that “health education for child obesity prevention may result in the iatrogenesis of inappropriate weight control techniques whereby the health education program generates unplanned, undesirable and health damaging effects such as starvation, vomiting, laxative abuse, diuretic and slimming pill usage, and cigarette smoking to suppress appetite and as a substitute for eating”. Children and adolescents are also more susceptible to distorting anti-obesity messages, for example, by thinking that if low-fat milk is a good option, then no-fat milk must be even better.

Given the high failure rate and unintended consequences that accompany weight loss goals, a global shift away from a weight-based approach to health is currently being explored. The health-centred paradigm, also known as Health At Every Size®, acknowledges that health-giving behaviours have been shown to mitigate many of the diseases typically associated with obesity. Its key principles include finding pleasurable physical activity, engaging in intuitive eating, and viewing health as a multi-dimensional, ongoing process including physical, intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, and occupational aspects. We can feel good about ourselves for engaging in health-giving behaviours, instead of focussing on a certain number on the scales.

Negative media and industry practices

It is sometimes argued that parents are ultimately responsible for their child’s development of a healthy body image. While parents have some responsibility and can increase risk or resiliency, it is also the case that exposure to media images overwhelmingly contributes to increased risk of body dissatisfaction, which in turn is linked to eating and dieting disorders. A meta-analysis of seventy-seven carefully selected studies involving 15,000 participants showed that media images have more impact today on young people than they did in the nineties. Despite all the body image initiatives, ultimately media has greater impact.

In an attempt to regulate the industries contributing to poor body image, Australia’s 2009 government initiatives saw the National Advisory Board for Body Image introduce a voluntary code of conduct. Unfortunately this led to minimal change. It’s clear our current approaches to reducing harmful messages in our community are failing.

In contrast to Australia other countries have explored the possibility of legislative changes. For example in Spain there have been attempts to ban ‘cult of the body’ advertisements, which target dieting and plastic surgery products, before 10pm each night. France’s lower house of Parliament adopted a law in 2008, making it illegal for anyone, including magazines and advertisers, to incite ‘extreme thinness’. Just a few months ago, the Israeli government passed a law banning the use of underweight models in advertising and on the catwalk. It’s time Australia adopts a less compromising stance towards media images and the beauty industries.

It’s not only the beauty industries that need to face tighter regulation. The food industry should also adopt more ethical marketing practices. Specific industry practices need to change, such as supplying toys with Happy Meals, advertising ‘fun’ foods during children’s television timeslots, and encouraging eating past fullness. Ultimately a shift in health paradigms and a fresh approach towards the relevant industries will be necessary if we want to see a healthier future for Australian girls.

 

High School, High Anxiety: How to support teens with anxiety disorders

Last week’s inspiring post by Jane Caro on overcoming an anxiety disorder struck a chord with many readers who have been through the same thing. Many of our girls are facing this issue, too. In fact, 15% of people aged 16-24 are affected by an anxiety disorder. So this week, we’re taking a look at the causes and symptoms of anxiety — and most importantly, what we can do to support girls who are dealing with it.

What is anxiety disorder?

We have all experienced anxiety. For you, the pounding heartbeat, flushed face, dry mouth, sweatiness and feeling of dread might hit before you have to give a speech. Or perhaps it’s going to a job interview or sitting for an exam that makes you feel shaky, short of breath and queasy.

This is a normal reaction to stress. It’s your body’s fight or flight response, and humans have been experiencing it since we lived in caves: in the face of a threat, adrenaline is released, ramping up your body to either defend yourself or run. Since then the threats have changed from sabre-toothed tigers to things like impending deadlines and public speaking engagements, but our body’s reaction is the same. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. According to Youth BeyondBlue, “a certain amount of anxiety is good for us, as it gets us hyped up to perform at our best.”

It becomes a problem, though, when that feeling remains long after the stressful situation has passed. For a girl with anxiety disorder, it pervades her whole life and continues for weeks, months or longer. The anxious feelings tend to be a more intense and overwhelming. The anxiety may interfere with her daily life, as she avoids situations that are likely to trigger her anxiety. Vanessa, who had an anxiety disorder for several years during high school and overcame it at age 17, describes her experience this way:

I would be standing on the bus coming home from school, and boom, my heart would start racing so fast that I was convinced I was about to have a heart attack and die. Obviously that didn’t happen — but instead of being relieved, I thought that this must be how insanity starts. I was worried I would just slip away and lose all grip on reality. Some days it was too hard to go to school, because I thought everyone could tell I was going crazy. It was a vicious cycle, because those thoughts only fed the anxiety.

Anxiety can take several forms:

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder — continual worrying about aspects of everyday life such as school, work, relationships and health
  • Social Anxiety — crippling fear of being judged by others in social situations
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder — obsessive fears leading the continual repetition of an action or ritual — e.g., a fear of germs leading to the frequent washing of hands
  • Panic Disorder — periods of intense fear and anxiety lasting from a few minutes up to half an hour
  • Phobia — fear and avoidance of a particular thing or situation — e.g., heights, enclosed spaces, dogs, etc.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — periods of anxiety, flashbacks or bad dreams related to a traumatic experience

What causes anxiety?

Stressful situations such as parents breaking up, family conflicts, being bullied or abused, or going through a relationship breakup can  trigger an anxiety disorder. And genes can play a role, so girls may be more prone if other people in the family have gone through it.

Perfectionism also seems to be a common thread for many people with an anxiety disorder. Adelaide psychologist Dr Michele Murphy said in July’s edition of Madison, “Of course perfection is impossible, so anxiety may result from a sense of failure and the exhaustion of attempting to attain unrealistic standards.” Hmm…attempting to attain unrealistic standards, now doesn’t that sound familiar? Given the constant barrage of media, pop culture and social messages telling girls that they aren’t thin enough, or hot or pretty or popular enough, or they aren’t achieving enough, it’s  little wonder that so many of them feel overwhelmed and anxious. (And their mothers, too!)

Bella, who is 20 and had anxiety throughout her teens, always performed well academically, and this became a major focus of her anxiety:

In the subjects I got my best marks in, I was a wreck for weeks before exams. I couldn’t sleep and I had this dread of what would happen if I didn’t get the mark everyone was expecting me to. It was like my life was going to come to an end. Now I know that fear was out of all proportion — but at the time, I couldn’t think about anything else.

Signs of an anxiety disorder

It’s normal for everyone to experience a certain amount of anxiety surrounding stressful events, but if a girl shows these signs and they are impacting her everyday life and activities, she may have an anxiety disorder:

  • fast heartbeat
  • pain or a tight feeling in the chest
  • shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • tingling sensation or pins and needles
  • feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • trembling, shaking or being easily startled
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • insomnia and tiredness
  • constant worrying, about big or small concerns
  • fear or avoidance of certain places, situations or things
  • compulsive actions such as hand washing

What you can do to help

If you believe that your child may have anxiety, the first step is to speak to her about her feelings. Yes, you might meet resistance or even anger. Embarrassed by the thoughts that are going through her head, a girl may try to suffer in silence. Or she may have trouble finding the words to describe the feeling of dread that’s hanging over her. Here are some pointers to get the conversation started and keep it going (adapted from Youth Beyondblue‘s advice for parents and caregivers):

  • Try to stay calm and  relaxed.
  • Set aside a good time to chat quietly without distractions, and give her all of your attention.
  • Ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.
  • Resist the urge to jump in with advice straightaway. Instead, focus on acknowledging her feelings.
  • Avoid making judgments or saying things like “Snap out of it” or “That’s silly”, as this only shames and doesn’t help solve the problem.
  • Try not to take it personally if she can’t fully open up to you about her anxious feelings, as some girls find it easier to talk with a neutral professional.
Treatments
These suggestions made by psychologists for curbing anxiety may sound almost ridiculously simple, but they really can be effective:
  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet.
  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Try relaxing activities such as yoga, tai chi or meditation.

Also seek advice from a professional, because if it is left untreated, anxiety may escalate rather than subside. Your family doctor is a good starting point, and he or she may suggest a specialist or a counsellor. There are a range of treatments, including medication, relaxation techniques and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which equips girls to challenge unrealistic, negative thoughts and fears and replace them with a more realistic and positive outlook.

In Vanessa’s case, a rapid heart rate and shortness of breath meant she saw multiple doctors and was even admitted to the cardiac ward of a hospital before a switched-on doctor set aside her medical chart and instead asked her about her thoughts and feelings, and diagnosed an anxiety disorder:

It was the hugest relief that someone had put a name to what I was feeling and to know I wasn’t going crazy. He got me in to see a psychiatrist, who taught me breathing and relaxation techniques and CBT. As an adult, in times of stress I have the skills to manage anxiety so that it doesn’t take hold. Having an anxiety disorder was awful — but I don’t regret it, because I think that learning to take charge of it has made me a stronger person today.
Resources
  • Youth BeyondBlue has fact sheets; advice for parents, caregivers and kids; and a comprehensive checklist of anxiety symptoms. Their helpline in Australia is 1300 22 4636.
  • Reachout provides great articles and resources on anxiety in young people.
  • Lifeline Australia’s number is 13 11 14. Lifeline New Zealand is 0800 543 354.
  • Kids Help Line Australia is 1800 55 1800.

Rage and despair: Positive, helpful ways to support girls in crisis

Trigger warning: This blog post contains references to suicide. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or behaviour, seek help immediately. These help lines are open 24 hours a day:
Australia
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
New Zealand
Lifeline: 0800 543 354

All of us at Enlighten have been heartbroken to see a number of media reports recently of teens taking their own lives. Cath Manning, one of Enlighten’s Victoria workshop presenters, is concerned about the high rates of depression and suicide in her area. Interviewed along with Steve Biddulph this week by her local media, Cath made this great point:

I think we sometimes forget that teen girls are going through the same things we went through when we were growing up, however, today there is even more pressure on them due to the relentless media images and messages they are bombarded with, and the added complications with social media. Of course, social media is here to stay, and there really are great benefits that come with that, but young girls just need to be given the tools to engage with the medium in a positive, helpful way.

Positive — that’s the key. There are positive things we can all do to help our kids cope. We can listen and look for the signs that all may not be well in their world, and we can offer our support. Due to the recent media coverage of teen suicides, a lot of parents and teachers have been asking my advice, so this seems a good time to share an excerpt from my book for parents, The Butterfly Effect, on how to identify and help teen girls in crisis. For the teen girls in your life, I have also written a version of the book specifically for them, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo. Both are available for purchase here.

Rage and Despair: Suicide

What many people who try to take their lives share is a sense of being trapped in a stressful or painful situation, a situation that they are powerless to change. Having depression or a mental illness raises a person’s risk of suicide. Stressful life events or ongoing stressful situations may fuel feelings of desperation or depression that can lead to suicide attempts. Examples of these stresses include the death of a loved one, divorce or a relationship breakup, a child custody dispute, settling in to a blended family, financial trouble, or a serious illness or accident. Any kind of abuse – physical, verbal or sexual – increases the risk. Substance abuse by any member of a family affects the other members of the family and can lead to suicidal feelings either directly or indirectly, through the loss of income and social networks or trouble with the law.

Bullying needs to be taken seriously as it has been known to make teens try to take their own life. Also, teens are right in the middle of forming their own individual identities and a major component of that is their sexuality. For a teenager who is questioning their sexual preference or gender, the pressure to be like everyone else, the taunting they receive because they clearly are not, or their own guilt and confusion can become unbearable. A relationship breakup can be a trigger for suicide in some teens. As adults, we have the ability to look at the bigger picture and know that in years to come, a teenage breakup will not seem anywhere near as important as it does at the time. A teenage girl, on the other hand, may not yet have the maturity to see beyond the immediate pain. If she seems unduly distressed about a breakup, pay attention. Another trigger for teen suicide is the recent suicide of someone close to them, or the anniversary of a suicide or death of someone close to them, so these are times when girls may need extra support.

Suicide is hard to talk about. It is almost taboo, simply too painful to touch on. But silence can be deadly. Often the parents of a teen girl at risk of suicide do not ask her the tough question of whether she is planning to take her own life. In part they may be in a state of denial, which is only human – after all, no parent wants to imagine that their daughter feels suicidal. They may also have a fear that seems to be ingrained in our culture: that if they mention suicide to their depressed or distressed daughter, they will be putting the idea in her head. But experts in adolescent mental health agree that it is more than okay to speak directly to your daughter about suicide. ‘Parents are often worried that by asking they may make matters worse. Well, I have never known a child to suicide because someone asked whether they were thinking about it,’ says child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Brent Waters.

Another unhelpful myth about suicide is that a teen who talks about suicide is simply seeking attention and won’t actually take her life. In fact, four out of five young people who commit suicide tell someone of their intentions beforehand. Besides, I have never understood the point of making a distinction between attention seeking, a cry for help or a genuine intention to commit suicide. Even if a teen is not actually going to go through with a plan to take her life, if she is distressed enough to cry out for help, her voice needs to be heard and she needs our support.

What you can do

Number one: if anyone – child, adolescent or adult – says something like ‘I want to kill myself’ or ‘I’m going to kill myself’, seek help straightaway. Remove anything they might be tempted to use to kill themselves with and stay with them. Dial 000 in Australia or 111 in New Zealand or a crisis line. The following phone counselling services are available 24 hours a day:

Australia

  • Lifeline: 13 11 14
  • Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
  • Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22

New Zealand

  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Another valuable thing you can do to help someone you fear is having suicidal thoughts is to listen. These pointers are adapted from the Victorian Government’s excellent ‘Youth suicide prevention – the warning signs’ on www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au:

  • Listen and encourage her to talk
  • Tell her you care
  • Acknowledge her feelings
  • Reassure her
  • Gently point out the consequences of her suicide, for her and the people she leaves behind
  • Stay calm; try not to panic or get angry
  • Try not to interrupt her
  • Try not to judge her
  • Don’t overwhelm her with too much advice or stories about your own experiences

Suicide warning signs

  • Loss of interest in activities she used to enjoy
  • Giving away her prized possessions
  • Thoroughly cleaning her room and throwing out important things
  • Violent or rebellious behaviour
  • Running away from home
  • Substance abuse
  • Taking no interest in her clothes or appearance
  • A sudden, marked personality change
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and her usual activities
  • A seeming increase in her accident proneness, or signs of self-harm
  • A change in eating and sleeping patterns
  • A drop in school performance, due to decreased concentration and feelings of boredom
  •  Frequent complaints about stomach aches, headaches, tiredness and other symptoms that may be linked to emotional upsets
  • Rejection of praise or rewards
  • Verbal hints such as ‘I won’t be a problem for you much longer’ or ‘Nothing matters anyway’
  • Suddenly becoming cheerful after a period of being down, which may indicate she has made a resolution to take her life

 
(Heart image by Seyed Mostafa Zamani, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

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.

Towards safer schools: How teachers and families can work together

In light of figures showing that there were almost 70 serious incidents in state schools in the NSW Hunter Central Coast region in the last half of 2011 – some of them violent, such as students fighting and fashioning their own weapons – a lot of parents are asking what schools can do to create safer environments. The Newcastle Herald asked me to submit an Opinion piece on this topic; I thought I’d share my thoughts with you here too.

I visit hundreds of schools every year, and I have seen some highly successful strategies. Strong peer-support programs, where older children buddy up with younger ones and look out for them, are effective. Schools can celebrate difference by hosting multicultural days, gender-awareness programs and anti-homophobia initiatives. Police youth liaison officers are happy to come to schools to discuss bullying and violence, and this can be empowering and healing.

There is a disturbing trend of children just watching, or videoing, serious incidents in the school ground – yet when bystanders speak out, bullies often back down. So schools need to do everything they can to support bystanders and encourage them to say enough is enough.

Most important of all, children need a whole-school culture that makes it clear that violence, discrimination and bullying will not be tolerated. Ever. A student is more likely to hurt someone at school if he or she feels that racists and bullies are not disciplined, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

The buck does not stop at the principal’s desk, though. The same research also showed that families are just as important as teachers in preventing violence at school. Children who are in the midst of family troubles or aren’t getting enough supervision at home may be more prone to violence. The type of supervision is also crucial, for children whose parents discipline them with harsh punishments are more likely to attack someone at school.

Children cannot be what they cannot see. This means that if we want our kids to resolve conflict without physical intimidation and threats, we need to do the same. All of us, parents and teachers, cannot merely point the finger at violent students: we need to own the environments that foster aggression.

For young people, conflict tends to erupt into violence if they haven’t learned positive ways to solve problems with others. Yet conflict resolution is something parents seldom explicitly teach kids. Of course, it is the standard we set – the choices we make when dealing with conflict in our own lives – that will always be the primary way our children learn. But we can also be proactive.

I’m not suggesting that parents lecture kids on the right and wrong ways to deal with conflict. But I am suggesting that we have an ongoing, open conversation with our kids about the feelings that arise when we are in conflict, and the strategies we can use to move forward without violence or intimidation.

Try sharing these 10 Steps to Conflict Resolution with the young people in your life. They are very effective for the girls I work with and apply equally to boys (and adults!).

The 10 Steps to Conflict Resolution

1. Plan ahead. Think about what you want to say to the person who’s upset you, so you don’t say something you’ll regret.

2. Don’t put on a show. An audience will only escalate things. A one-on-one conversation is preferable.

3. Home in on how you feel. Use ‘I’ language – e.g. ‘I felt hurt that you talked about me’ – rather than ‘you’ language – e.g. ‘You can’t be trusted.’

4. Admit your mistakes and apologise. If you’re even partly at fault, defuse the situation with a simple ‘I was wrong, I’m sorry.’

5. Be specific. Clearly articulate only what upset you on this occasion. Do not dig up old wounds.

6. Offer time. Offer the other person time to think, so that they don’t speak or act impulsively.

7. Be calm. Learn some simple breathing and visualisation activities to help you stay chilled.

8. Assert yourself. Speak firmly and clearly, and be assertive rather than aggressive.

9. Expect to be heard. You deserve the other person’s attention, but if you’ve picked a bad time to talk, offer another time.

10. End on a positive. If your relationship ends over this conflict, it doesn’t mean you must automatically treat the other person as your enemy. You might not be friends, but you can still be friendly.

You can find a more detailed version of these steps in my books, The Butterfly Effect (for parents) and The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo (for teen girls). (With thanks to Courtney Macavint and Andrea Vander Plimyn’s respect rules.)

 

Life After Kyle

Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which is also commemorated by the White Ribbon Campaign.

White Ribbon recognises that men and boys need to to work towards eradicating the fact that one in three Australian women over the age of 15 have experienced physical or sexual violence at some time in their lives. Disability Discrimination Commissioner Innes summed up why this day is more than merely symbolic: “…it is a time to draw attention to this grave issue in our society. It is a time to ask men to ensure their actions make it clear they are against it, by speaking out about it and passing the important message – that there is no place for violence against women – onto their family and friends, particularly to other males.” The White Ribbon Campaign encourages us to highlight the importance of respect for women and strive for attitudinal change; all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

How fitting then that both mainstream and social media are abuzz with discussion over Kyle Sandiland’s recent outburst against a female journalist. Sandilands named the journalist and said she was a “troll…a bullshit artist”. He then commented on her appearance, mocking her hairdo and ranting:  “You haven’t got that much titty to be wearing that low cut a blouse. Watch your mouth girl, or I will hunt you down.”

Using the hash tag #vilekyle, Tweets called for Austereo to sack him. An on-line petition urging sponsors to “ditch” Kyle attracted thousands of signatures. David Penberthy declared he finds him “…about as funny as the hole he has in his head where other people keep their brains” and branded him a “dictionary definition misogynist”. Miranda Devine attempted to highlight how this “living, sagging embodiment of misogyny” was a sad indictment on a culture that has become increasingly toxic for boys and men:  “We now have a generation of men brought up with rap music that celebrates violence to women while their own innocent maleness has been treated as a dirty little crime since boyhood.” Whilst, in my discussion with Kerri-Anne, I argued that it is those around him, his co-host Jackie O, Austereo, and indeed the listening audience who must also be held responsible for allowing this man the elevated platform from which he can belittle, threaten and abuse:

 

It is my belief Kyle will go. He has proven himself to be not just a shock-jock but a liability. You may recall Charlie Sheen was forgiven for his atrocious behaviour towards women (in 2006, Sheen’s then wife, Denise Richards, filed a restraining order against him, saying that Sheen had thrown chairs at her, pushed her, and threatened to kill her. In 2009, he made similar threats against his new wife, Brooke Mueller, while holding a knife to her throat.  And in 2010 Sheen went on a violent rampage at the Plaza Hotel, allegedly verbally and physically abusing a prostitute he had hired for the night). It was only after Sheen turned on his producers that he was sacked.

But how can we ensure another Kyle, or another Sheen, does not emerge to replace those that have, fuelled by their own self-importance and fury, self-combusted?

And how do we deal with the many other men who are not so public in their abuse of women, and are not currently being held accountable?

The conversations need to be kept alive long after Sandilands has been silenced.

Twattish prudes and Playboy bunnies: Just another day at the Diva Facebook page

Jewellery retailer Diva’s Facebook fan page continues to be a hotbed of (barely moderated) comments about their new Playboy line that I talked about last week. Unfortunately, what could have been a forum for debate quickly became a cyberbully’s paradise. A handful of fans of the retailer – and many more trolls who seemed to be on the page simply to insult people – filled the page with taunts.

I posted the following comment on the page and also emailed it to Diva’s head office:

Diva your FB page has becoming increasingly filled with personal attacks and obscene language (not to mention it appears to now be haunted by young men who wish to insult women). This is a direct result of you introducing a porn-inspired range. It now means this page is no longer suitable for young girls. How do you feel about this? And, as this is your public profile, do you intend to monitor this page and moderate comments? Finally, based on the comments here it seems very obvious that the vast majority of CONSUMERS (ie: not young boys or 1-2 young women who are very brand loyal) now say they have lost respect for YOUR brand and feel alienated by this marketing decision. How do you intend to win back consumer confidence? Looking forward to listening to your responses.

My comment got 50 ‘likes’ yet I am still waiting for a response from Diva. So are scores of other people who went on the Facebook page and politely and rationally explained their concerns about Diva marketing a porn-branded product to tweens and teens.

I received a lot of positive comments but also the now almost-obligatory obscene comments (which came from a young guy who admitted he just likes stirring up strangers on the net).

The company was painfully slow to do anything about the hurtful, bullying insults all over their Facebook page. I don’t want to repeat any of the actual posts here – I don’t want to give the trolls any more oxygen – but the blog Corporate Failings summed it all up like this:

Insults relating to concerned customer’s gender, intelligence, sexual orientation, race, disabilities & weight have spewed forth unrelentingly.

One ‘fan’ even went as far as taunting a concerned customer suggesting they’d do well to take their own life because of their appearance. Diva was no-where to be found . . .

Diva finally began removing most of the worst bullying and adding their own comment:

Hi we like hearing your views but we are not ok with personal attacks on each other, so we will be deleting any posts that are considered bullying. Feel free to post a cleaner version as we are happy for you to have your say. x

The thing is, there are still some very hurtful comments on the page – the usual stuff about weight, age, appearance, oh, and calling us “twattish prudes”. Meanwhile, we are all still waiting for an actual response by Diva to our concerns. After waiting four days, this is all we got, and some pictures of flowery brooches and headpieces:

Hey, sorry we haven’t been able to respond sooner, we didn’t expect to be so busy over the last few days. As you’ve probably seen by now we’ve had heaps of FB comments, tweets and news stuff and on top of that we had a long wet weekend here in Sydney.

So now we are catching up on all of the things that we are cramming in to 4 days! One things for sure, we love our fashion, it always comes with lots of emotions, always changes and moves so fast.

So we know you are all looking for the next trend. We are loving that it’s spring carnival and we’re totes excited about seeing all your fashion on the field this year.

Here are some great pieces perfect for the races!

I love Caitlin Roper’s response:

So just to clarify, Diva’s official response was: Look, pretty flowers!

It is deeply concerning to me that the internet, which holds so much promise as a way to connect and share ideas and beliefs, can so easily become a venue for hateful speech designed to intimidate and silence. And all too often, it is women who are on the receiving end, something I have written about before, in Sticks and Stones. Facebook itself has sat on its hands while people set up fan pages celebrating rape and other types of violence against women.

I went of Kerri-anne recently to talk about my own experiences as the subject of an online hate campaign on Facebook against me after I made a comment about girls kickboxing. A prominent member of the kickboxing community said he wanted to punch me in the face and encouraged thousands of Facebook users to join in on the abuse. I ended up personally ringing a number of these people and confronting them about it, which was very interesting because a number of them turned around and apologised profusely, not quite realising the extent of their actions. Some ended up issuing public apologies.

Even when bullying is happening in cyberworld, we can – and should – stand up to the bullies.

Someone who is doing just that is 14-year-old Sydney girl Julia Weber, who has released a book, ILY (I Love You) – One Teen Girl’s Guide to a Bully-Proof Adolescence. Julia has been subject to bullying, including cyberbullying by a group of boys at a school dormitory. What upset her most was that only a few boys were doing the actual cyberbullying but the rest, about three-quarters of the boys, just stood by and did nothing to stop the bullies. “It’s those people – the bystanders – who we have to change,” says Julia.

I couldn’t agree more.

For tips on combating bullies, and some helpful links, see Bullying: It’s time to focus on solutions.

Dieting and children – weighing up the arguments

I was recently invited to join a panel discussing body image on channel 9’s Kerri-Anne. The panel also included social commentator Angela Mollard, psychologist Ian Wallace, and Sally Symonds who is a weight loss consultant. The conversation got rather heated at points with quite different opinions expressed over dieting and the oft-reported obesity epidemic in particular. I’d love you to take 12 minutes to watch the vision below as I think these are conversations we should all be having, particularly at this time of the year (pre-Summer / beach time) when the diet industry really ramps up its push to have us all believe that we could transform our lives if we simply said “No” to food and transformed our bodies.

I asked expert Lydia Jade Turner to offer her insights and further unpack the above exchange. Lydia is a psychotherapist and the Managing Director of BodyMatters Australasia. BodyMatters Australasia is a specialist clinic that was established to not only treat disordered eating, but to diminish the complex factors that contribute to our global epidemic of eating problems. Lydia’s expertise has been featured at my blog before, both here (“Look good by doing very little’) and here (“Fat talk “).

 

Should children be weighed at school?

Children inevitably play the ‘compare and despair’ game, and for many, a comparatively higher weight will result in a deep sense of shame. Contrary to popular opinion, research shows that shame does not lead to sustainable health-giving behaviours, but instead increases risk of unhealthy weight loss behaviours and clinical eating disorders.

Weighing children in front of their peers also sends the message that weight is the most important determinant of their health, and that their health is everybody’s business. In fact weight tells us very little about a person’s health except at statistical extremes.

Although it is commonly assumed that being ‘overweight’ is automatically unhealthy, in North America research shows that the overweight category (BMI = 25 to 29) is now outliving every other weight category.

Given we share much of the same cultural DNA, it would not be surprising if that were the case in Australia. We also know that being a bit ‘overweight’ can actually be protective against certain diseases including certain types of cancer, and especially protective for the elderly population.

 

Should fat children be removed from their home?

In the Kerri-Anne clip, Psychologist Ian Wallace immediately paired the idea of fat children with trips to McDonalds and fast food outlets. Yet we cannot make assumptions about a child’s lifestyle choices simply by looking at them. It is a myth that all fat children are fat because they eat too much and don’t exercise enough.It is also dangerous to assume that all fat children are fat as a result of abuse and / or neglect.

At BodyMatters we see children at a range of sizes, many of whom are very much loved and supported by their families. While not all fat children binge or overeat, children who do overeat or binge, do so for a variety of reasons: it can be a way of coping with stress, parental divorce, grief and loss issues, a physiological response to dieting.

For some, this will lead to significant weight gain, but for others, they may still be thin. Regardless of size, they deserve help. But threatening to remove them from their families and pressuring those who are fat to lose weight will only exacerbate the situation.

Imagine the message internalized by a fat child who has just been told they may be taken away from their family: lose weight, or your family will be ripped apart. It will be all your fault because you’re too fat. This kind of messaging is likely to put a child at risk of developing disordered eating behaviours, reduced self-esteem, and significant distress.

 

Should fat children be encouraged to lose weight to avoid bullying?

Children will always find something to bully another child about – red hair, poverty, handicap. It does not make sense to pressure a child to change something about themselves in an effort to escape bullying, as this is a form of victim-blaming. Parents and teachers should work to change school culture so that children learn to respect difference and accept that bullying is never justified, and that there are consequences for engaging in that type of behaviour.

 

Is citing genetics just an excuse to be fat?

Earlier this year The Biggest Loser trainer Michelle Bridges wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald, claiming that people can outsmart their genetics. Unfortunately we now have evidence that many of The Biggest Loser contestants are weight cycling or have returned to their pre-diet weight.

Research tells us that weight is not as malleable as we think. How we each respond to a lifestyle is different, for example, two people can eat the same amounts of food, and while one person gains weight, another person’s metabolism will kick in and prevent weight gain.

Genetics account for about 70% of a person’s weight, and there are a host of other factors that contribute – socioeconomic disadvantage, ethnic background, Indigenous background, low income households, family history of obesity, regional and remote location.

This may explain why weight loss attempts fail 95% of the population after 2-5 years. Anyone can lose weight in the short term but we simply don’t have solutions that work long term. The good news is when people adopt a healthy lifestyle, they will experience health benefits, regardless of whether or not their weight changes.

We need to be cautious about making assumptions about people’s lifestyle choices based on size. Just as one person emailed the Kerri Anne show expressing frustration at being called Anorexic (even by her teachers) because she was skinny, the same frustration exists for people who are fat who are told they must not exercise enough and make poor food choices. We need to recognize that issues of health and weight are complex.

 

According to weight loss consultant Sally, there are far more people who are overweight/obese than those with Anorexia Nervosa. Should we therefore prioritise obesity issues above concerns about eating disorders?

This argument that “the odd anorexic is a small price to pay” is an unethical one. Nobody chooses to have an eating disorder, in fact we know that dieting is the biggest pathway into an eating disorder. Sufferers typically engage in weight loss attempts with good faith, believing that they are improving their health. Unfortunately this tips some over into a clinical eating disorder.

It’s time we recognized that the solutions typically prescribed to combat obesity are the same behaviours we are diagnosing in those with eating disorders – for example counting every calorie, weighing every gram of food, counting each step in pursuit of thinness. There’s something very wrong with this picture and Sally’s suggestion that we should encourage schools to integrate calorie counting with maths homework is incredibly dangerous and ill-informed.

We cannot continue to pit “The Obese” against eating disorder sufferers. There’s this idea out there that if people are not ‘obese’ or do not meet the strict criteria for an eating disorder, they must be healthy. Yet we know this is simply not true – there are many who exist in between these extremes, but who compromise their health due to body shame and internalization of misguided health messages.

Many put their bodies under enormous strain going on diet after diet, taking diet pills, smoking to control their weight, engaging in bizarre bariatric interventions (for example stomach balloon insertion), so it’s not as simple as sixty percent overweight/obese versus five percent eating disorders.

We would be better off focusing on promoting healthy behaviours, and letting people’s weight fall where it will. Kerri Anne’s statement implying that a poor lifestyle is “okay” when you’re young but will catch up with you when you’re fifty misses the point – if people want to be healthy, then they should be engaging in a healthy lifestyle whatever their age, whatever their size.

 

Sally has managed to keep the weight off since 2002- that’s nearly ten years! Should people aspire to be in the 5% who do manage to keep the weight off?

Sally’s long term weight loss is atypical. While it is wonderful to know she has made some healthy lifestyle changes, the reality is that the outcome of sustained weight loss is not likely to be the case for most. In fact, while I respect that she has a right to tell her story, every time she does, she perpetuates the fantasy that if others just tried damn hard enough, they could lose the weight and keep it off too.

Encouraging people to aspire to be in that five percent that keeps the weight off ignores research that shows inherent risks that accompany weight loss attempts – including weight cycling, disordered eating, reduced mood, eating disorders, food and body preoccupation.

Telling people to lose weight is essentially setting many up to fail – and when weight loss is the main focus, most quit when they find the weight is no longer reducing or has begun to increase. If people want to be healthy, then fitness and healthy dietary choices are important regardless of their size.

 

 

 

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