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Category: Bullying

Not the model I’m after

Australia’s Next Top Model rates well. Really well. In fact, last year the premiere of series 5 entered the record books and became the most watched show on pay TV. Many of the viewers are teen girls and many of the contestants are teen girls. This year, of the 16 contestants, only two are out of their teens and the average age is just 17.

What type of messages will girls be exposed to if they tune in this year? Past offerings give us something to go on…

In 2007, the American version set the tone with one of the most alarming and tasteless episodes I have ever seen. The models were asked to pose as victims of violent crimes for a fashion shoot. They were depicted shot, bashed, pushed down stairs—the images were graphic and deeply disturbing. But apparently, this graphic glorification of violence against women is so hot right now. The judges made remarks like: “What’s great about this is that you can also look beautiful in death” and “Death becomes you, young lady.” Even more disturbingly, the “victims” were all meant to have been killed by other models, so vicious was the contestants’ desire to win that they would kill the others to secure the coveted prize. The scenario of one of the pictures was so over the top that it would have been laughable if it wasn’t so creepy: “Diana poses—organs stolen by a model”. What was the other model meant to have done with the stolen kidneys? Sold them for Prada?

"Diana poses - organs stolen by a model."
"Diana poses—organs stolen by a model."
'Dionne poses- shot by a model."
"Dionne poses—shot by a model."

In 2008, the Australian series was rocked by (read: the show grabbed free publicity and maximised its audience with) awful bullying. Contestant Alamela Rowan, the victim of verbal taunts and physical  attacks, was left quite distraught. So bad did the systematic intimidation become that the show’s judges at the time—Jodhi Meares, Charlotte Dawson and Alex Perry—reprimanded the other contestants, but no further action was taken and the bullies weren’t punished. This sparked a media debate on teen girl bullying, though the show’s culture of “compare and despair” and practice of ranking girls on their looks was not called into question. The main bully, Demelza Reveley, ended up winning the series and going on to receive the lucrative modelling contracts—there, that showed her, didn’t it?

Throughout the seasons, the judges themselves have sometimes been less than ideal role models. Alex Perry has a reputation for doling out harsh criticism, calling contestants things like “wild pig”. Charlotte Dawson sends mixed body image messages. She now says she regrets some of the cosmetic surgery she has had, and that “anyone thinking plastic surgery will make them happier is wrong.” However, though she says she’s given up on invasive surgery, she does still use some cosmetic procedures. And she has a damning, dismissive and totally out-of-touch attitude toward plus-size models.

Last year saw a revolution of sorts, when a “plus-sized” model, Tahnee Atkinson, won. She was a size 10. I say this was a “revolution of sorts” as the average Australian woman is a size 16. It was hardly an earth-shattering move, was it? Yet many commentators asked if she was really top model material:

In an ideal world, yes. The girl is unquestionably gorgeous—she’s got an exceptional figure and a smile that stops traffic. She’s professional, well-behaved and determined. Her ‘normal’ beauty is something that a lot of women would love to see more of in fashion magazines. But in the fickle and unfair world of modelling it probably won’t equal a long-term fashion career. As casting agents politely explained in the show, she just doesn’t have the matchstick-thin figure required by most top designers. — Georgia Waters, Brisbane Times

What about this season then, post Tahnee, post the government’s Body Image Advisory Group? Don’t hold your breath that this season the show will suddenly adopt the new voluntary code of conduct for the fashion industry and begin to promote a diversity of sizes. In the first episode of the new season, airing next week, viewers will see a 16-year-old contestant get excluded from a catwalk parade because she is “too big“. She’s a size 8. She says the experience left her feeling embarrassed and shamed into changing her eating habits. I spoke about this recently with Kerri-Anne Kennerley:

The new season has a ridiculous promo ad featuring models competing like racehorses—or are they greyhounds?—on a race track, trying to outrun one another to snatch the lure, i.e., the modelling contract. Women as thoroughbreds. And there is Sarah Murdoch with the starter’s gun. Sarah, I think your heart was in the right place when you joined the government-appointed body image advisory group. You were no doubt already a busy woman, successful and influential in your own right, so why would you join it other than because you believe action is needed to improve young people’s body image? However, perhaps you failed to realise that it was not a one-off gig but an ongoing commitment to showing how things could be done differently in the fashion industry. Whether it is your intention or not, you are a role model. Sorry, but we expected more. I believe the rest of the advisory group did, too, and I hope they make a statement on the fact that messages in Australia’s Next Top Model contravene many of the group’s recommendations.

If you haven’t guessed by now, Australia’s Next Top Model isn’t my favourite show. But before anyone is tempted to outright ridicule it in front of teen girls who avidly watch it—or try to ban them from watching it—I want to say that I see a danger in demonising something that teen girls are interested in. From working with girls all around the country, I know that huge numbers of them dream of becoming a model, which is why in previous posts I’ve tried to take an objective look at modelling. Coming down too hard on girls for being interested in modelling or wanting to watch Australia’s Next Top Model is probably one of the least effective ways to minimise the potential damage. It makes us look out of touch, and that can put us on the back foot. It makes us look dismissive, and nothing is more frustrating to a teen girl than when adults act as if she doesn’t have a brain. And the best way to get a teen girl to watch something is to say we hate it and she isn’t allowed to watch it.

Goodness knows, as a teen girl I was obsessed with some shows I can look back at now and recognise as being rubbish- Prisoner anyone?  And I remember that my friends and I were not just passive absorbers of those shows. Actually, we’d sit in front of Prisoner, loving every minute of it, but relentlessly poking fun at it, deconstructing the ridiculous things the characters did and said. To me, TV has always been an interactive medium, and I think it should be for all girls! The best thing we can do is encourage girls to deconstruct media messages, and that means getting a conversation going about Australia’s Next Top Model. Avoid the temptation to lecture, but instead ask questions about what the show tells us about the fashion industry and the media.

  • Is it fair that we are all meant to aspire to a narrow beauty ideal?
  • How achievable is that ideal?
  • Does anyone truly win when girls compete against one another based solely on appearance?
  • These are real teen girls on the screen, not made-up characters. Is it okay that they face this type of criticism and judgment for others’ entertainment?

What other questions do you think would be worth raising with girls in order to encourage them to see past the fashionista hype?

Facing Up to Sexual Harassment in Schools

Lately I’ve been concerned about a rise in sexual harassment in schools. Too many girls, and some female teachers, are being expected to turn the other cheek in the face of harassment from boys — whether it be verbal taunts, degrading comments on Facebook, explicit text messages or actual physical assault. Some schools are doing a brilliant job of dealing with this issue, but unfortunately there are many schools who are yet to grasp the seriousness of it.

We are on the brink of a disturbing new reality here. Boys are being exposed to a pornification of our culture — in music, on TV, in films and on the net — so it is perhaps little wonder that increasingly they feel that sex-based harassment is acceptable. It is up to schools and parents to teach them that it’s not. 

Too often the victims are left with the burden of trying to combat harassment. Recently a school told me that boys’ sexual comments and attitudes towards female teachers had become so problematic that they needed to take action. So they asked me if I could suggest ways to help their female staff become more resilient to the boys’ sex-based harassment. I applauded the fact that they wanted to take action on behalf of their female staff — but the onus should not have been on those women. Women and girls should never be taught to put up with sexual harassment. It is the boys who need to be taught that girls and women deserve respect, just as every human being deserves respect.

Another recent incident got me thinking about all this. A Year 9 girl stood up in class to get a textbook, when a boy lifted up her skirt for everyone to see and started taunting her. She began crying but managed to compose herself and sit down — and then another boy reached inside her blouse to try to rip her bra off.

The school’s response was to give the boys detention. Given that the same school gives detention for behaviour such as failing to do homework, this was an offensively weak punishment. For the girl, it was like being humiliated all over again. The boys received no counselling on why what they had done was wrong. And because the adults didn’t take it seriously, the boys didn’t either.

It was only when the girl’s incensed father pointed out to the school that what the boys did was actually an assault — a criminal offence — that the penny dropped. The school suspended the boys and called in their parents. Then the boys grasped the seriousness of what they had done, and they gave the girl a genuine apology. Like all kids, teen boys need adults to set and enforce boundaries.

When asked what the school’s sexual harassment policy was, the principal said, “Well, we don’t condone sexual harassment.” That is a laughable response — but actually, we shouldn’t scoff, because this principal is not alone. Plenty of schools don’t have policies. Perhaps they haven’t got around to it, they don’t think harassment is happening in their schools or they don’t grasp how damaging it is. Since this incident, the school is developing a sexual harassment policy. If something like that happens again, there will be guidelines to follow and everyone will understand that sexual harassment is never okay.

Implement a Sexual Harassment Policy at Your School

Formulating a policy for your school does not have to be a daunting task: the Australian Human Rights Commission has exceptional resources to help educators. Below is a summary of what a good sexual harassment policy contains according to the Commission. For more details and guidance, download the full information kit here. It also includes lesson plans, activity and resource sheets, and there’s a DVD available — all of which are very well written and sure to get meaningful discussions going in your classroom.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, a good school sexual harassment policy includes:

  • A strong statement on the school’s attitude to sexual harassment
  • An outline of the school’s objectives regarding sexual harassment 
  • A plain English definition of sexual harassment 
  • A definition of what sexual harassment is not
  • A statement that sexual harassment is against the law
  • Possible consequences if the sexual harassment policy is breached
  • Options available for dealing with sexual harassment
  • Where to get help or advice.

The Human Rights Commission stresses that a written policy is not enough. Ask yourself:

  • Are people aware of the policy? Do they have a copy of it?
  • Is it provided to new staff and students?
  • Is it periodically reviewed? It is available in appropriate languages?
  • Are there training and awareness-related strategies associated with the policy?

School is of the front lines in the battle against sexual harassment. The home is another important one. So I am heartened that there are not only women but also men who are calling for adults to be good role models and to teach kids the importance of respecting all human beings — girls and boys, women and men. This poetic and inspiring call, by a man, for less objectification and more respect of women and girls moved me so much I cried:

Weight Prejudice – Myths and Facts

Given that Channel 10’s “The Biggest Loser” has just kicked off for the year, I wanted to draw attention to the unhealthy preoccupation with excessive weight loss that we see all too often, and to the injustice of labelling those who are overweight in a negative way. You may recall a piece I wrote on this that was published in The Sydney Morning Herald  in 2009: ‘The burden of treating girls’ bodies as the enemy.”

This year, to again provoke discussion on this topic, I am sharing two excellent videos. The first was produced by Yale University and is introduced as follows:

Overweight and obese youth are frequently teased, tormented, and victimized because of their weight. Weight-based teasing and stigma (also called ‘weight bias’) can have a detrimental impact on both emotional well-being and physical health. The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University has released this new video to increase youth awareness about weight bias, and to highlight strategies to help combat this rapidly growing problem for overweight adolescents. This video shows the story of Bene, a girl who is teased and victimized about her weight at school. In response to the daily teasing she confronts, Bene decides to educate her classmates about weight bias by making her own under-cover video to address the stigma that overweight youth encounter. Presented by Rebecca Puhl, PhD, Marlene Schwartz, PhD and Karen Dorsey, MD.

Well worth showing, and discussing, with the young people you care about. As is this video from the US National Eating Disorders Association, which highlights the absurd and distressing situation of young girls obsessing about their weight.

Stop Press – you may also find this excellent Opinion Piece by Noelle Graham thought provoking reading: Big Girls Do Cry

The Shame Files

This week in Sydney a 14 year old girl was left violated after being used as part of a 2Day FM radio stunt. What follows is a media statement prepared by Melinda Tankard Reist and Kids Free 2B Kids. I am very happy to add my support to this.

Background Reading –

Kevin Rudd criticises Kyle Sandilands, Jackie O “Rape Stunt”

Kyle Sandilands a hawking, spitting primitive.  

Media Statement

Child advocates call for protections for children in the media.

The lie detector radio stunt on 2Day FM involving a 14-year-old girl who revealed she had been raped at age 12, was a gross violation of her human rights.

The girl, Rachel, was strapped to a lie detector test, to be interrogated about school, drugs and her sexual experience by Austereo’s Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O and the girl’s mother.

Rachel was deliberately subjected to fear and distress. Her protests that she was scared and that it wasn’t fair were ignored.

It is the height of irresponsibility to hook any child up to a lie detector test. This is compounded when the intention is to expose a girl to a live outing of her sexual experience.

Regardless of any excuses about lack of advance knowledge that the girl had been raped, there is little doubt the aim was to publicly shame the child.

A young girl’s sexual experience is not relevant or appropriate for the entertainment of anyone.

Dragging a child onto the media stage to be interrogated with a lie detector about her sexuality is a horrific invasion of her rights. There is a well founded legal assumption of vulnerability and a need for protection of children at this age, which the station has ignored.

This form of public outing and humiliation is abhorrent and must be condemned. There needs to be a penalty.

What took place in the radio studio was child abuse and should be acknowledged as such. Increasing desensitisation to the needs of children needs to stop.

This program should be axed.

We call for a national strategy for the prevention of child abuse and exploitation, including in the media.

The Hon Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC, Former Justice of the Family Court and Founding Patron, Children’s Rights International

Tim Costello, CEO, World Vision Australia

Steve Biddulph, psychologist and author

Professor Louise Newman, Director, Monash University Centre for Developmental Psychiatry & Psychology

Maggie Hamilton, teacher, author, What’s happening to our girls?

Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Adolescent psychologist

Barbara Biggins, The Australian Council on Children and the Media

Professor Elizabeth Handsley, Professor of Law, Flinders University

Clive Hamilton, AM, Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics

Noni Hazlehurst, AM, Actress, child advocate

Julie Gale, Director, Kids Free 2B Kids

Dannielle Miller, CEO, Enlighten Education and author The Butterfly Effect

Dr Renate Klein, women and girls health activist

Melinda Tankard Reist, Editor Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (forthcoming)

Carla Meurs, Co-ordinator, Solving the Jigsaw

July 20, 2009

Media Enquires: Julie Gale: 0412922253, Melinda Tankard Reist: 0414305378

I urge all my blog readers to complain directly to the radio station ( there is a contact form on their web site: www.2dayfm.com.au) and to vote with your feet – switch that radio station off!

What price perfection?

This month, alarming research was published showing that eating disorders now plague very young children. The study’s findings included a child only 5 years of age who was hospitalised with Early Onset Eating Disorder (EOED).

It was Dr Sloane Madden from The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, New South Wales, who raised the alarm: “What we are seeing clinically, and what is being reported anecdotally around the world is that kids are presenting in greater numbers at a younger age,” he said in a recent interview. “They certainly will tell you that they believe that they are fat, that they want to be thinner, and they have no insight into the fact that they are malnourished and they are literally starving themselves to death.”

Dr Madden went on to say that the number of EOED cases is expected to rise unless there is a change in the media’s obsession with fat and weight. “I think that there needs to be a move away from this focus on weight and numbers and body fat, and a focus on healthy eating and exercise,” he said in a Sydney Morning Herald interview. “You can see that in current (television) programs like The Biggest Loser, where it is all about numbers and weight, it’s not helpful for those people and it’s certainly not helpful for this group of kids.”

Not helpful either is Australia’s Next Top Model. Early reports about this season’s show indicate it will, once again, feature bullying and an unhealthy preoccupation with weight. In the first episode, to air on April 28, Perry tells his fellow judges – the model agent Priscilla Leighton-Clark and former model Charlotte Dawson – that some contestants look like “Frankenstein”, “a wild pig”, “fat”, “a moose” and that one has “something spaz [spastic] with her teeth”. All this from a show hosted and produced by Sarah Murdoch, a member of the Federal Government’s newly formed advisory group on body image.

Richard Eckersley in his excellent book Well and Good – Morality, Meaning and Happiness voices the concerns of many:

No sensible person would argue that there is a simple, direct relationship between media content and people’s behaviour. But nor should any sensible person accept the proposition, implied by some cultural commentators, that what we see, hear and read in the media has no effect on us. Maybe children today are savvy, sophisticated consumers of media – as we are often told – but this does not mean that we can be complacent about media influences.”

It is more important than ever that we give our young people the skills they need to deconstruct the many media images they are bombarded with every day. With this in mind, the following books and web sites provide ways to begin this essential dialogue with the young people you care for:

Web sites

Enlighten Education – http://enlighteneducation.com: My company’s web site. We deliver in-school workshops for girls on self-esteem, body image, managing friendships, personal safety and career pathways for girls.

The Butterfly Effect – http://enlighteneducation.edublogs.org: My blog, featuring weekly posts targeted to educators and parents of teen girls. Check out “Danielle Miller’s videos”, “My Book Collections” and the “Articles of interest” page for suggestions.

Girlpower Retouch – http://demo.fb.se/e/girlpower/retouch: A site that shows how easy it is to distort the images we see in magazines to change someone’s appearance.

Jean Kilbourne – http://jeankilbourne.com: Writer and documentary maker who explores the way women and girls are portrayed in advertising.

The Beautiful Women Project – http://www.beautifulwomenproject.org: American art project celebrating diversity and real everyday beauty.

Girl Guiding UK – http://www.girlguiding.org.uk: The section “Girls Shout Out” has some particularly interesting reports on teenage mental health, active citizenship and the pressures girls feel growing up.

Kids Free 2B Kids – http://kf2bk.com: Australian site that raises awareness about the damage caused by the sexualisation of children and acts to combat this.

Young Media Australia – http://youngmedia.org.au: Australian organisation with a particular interest in developing media literacy in young people.

American sites that help young people develop media literacy skills to combat unhelpful media messages about beauty and body image:

American sites offering resources and professional development for teachers who want to nurture media literacy in the classroom:

Books and magazines

For girls

New Moon Girls – American magazine aimed at 8- to 12-year-old girls, with accompanying web-based activities: http://www.newmoon.com

Indigo 4 Girls – Australian Magazine aimed at 10- to 14-year-olds that describes itself as a “positive, body friendly, age appropriate magazine for girls”.  http://indigo4girls.com

Girl Stuff: Your full-on guide to the teen years – Book by Kaz Cooke, Penguin Group Australia, 2007

Body Talk: A Power Guide For Girls, Elizabeth Reid Boyd and Abigail Bray, Hodder Headline

The Girlosophy series by Anthea Paul, Allen and Unwin

The Girlforce series by Nikki Goldstein, ABC Books

For Parents and Teachers

Faking It – A special publication that deconstructs the female image in magazines, available through Women’s Forum Australia: www.womensforumaustralia.org

Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel – Book by Jean Kilbourne, Free Press

The Beauty Myth – Book by Naomi Wolf, Vintage

Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body – Book by Courtney E. Martin, Free Press

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture – Book by Ariel Levy, Schwartz Publishing

Well and Good – Book by Richard Eckersley, Text Publishing

It is also more important than ever that we all take stock and ask ourselves whether we too are getting caught up in playing the compare and despair game. Many of us tell our children they do not need to change in order to be beautiful, while we rush for Botox. We tell them inner beauty counts, while we devour magazines that tell us beauty is really only about air-brushed perfection after all. If even the grown-ups are struggling, is it any wonder that our daughters are? Our children cannot be what they cannot see.

It is up to us to show them what the state of “I am me, I am okay” looks like.

Sex, Lies and Photoshop

The clip below is a really interesting opinion piece posted by The New York Times on March 10th. (Click on the image or visit: http://video.nytimes.com/video/2009/03/09/opinion/1194838469575/sex-lies-and-photoshop.html.)

This has particular relevance for us in Australia. Here, too, the camera always lies.

Does it matter? Yes. For some years now groups like ours have been advocating for more realistic and diverse portrayals of young women in the media; the current definition of beauty is so very narrow! Research from Mission Australia shows that for young Australian women in particular, concerns over body image are urgent. Through my work, I have seen firsthand that self-doubt can impact on every dimension of a young girl’s life: when girls are on extreme diets (and many are), or self-medicating depression by binge drinking, or being bullied by peers because they do not fit some ideal, they cannot possibly reach their full academic or personal potential.

I work with hundreds of schools right across Australia and New Zealand, and I can tell you that there is a real need to give girls skills to deconstruct the many unhealthy media messages they are currently bombarded with. The fact that our company, Enlighten Education, is so busy (we have worked with over 25 schools this term alone) is indicative of this. Schools recognise that they are not just responsible for producing strong academic candidates – they are concerned with the whole girl. They want their students to be healthy and happy and know that they are somebodies, not just bodies.

It seems that the Federal Government is also now keen to act. Earlier this month, it commissioned a group of fashion industry leaders to address body dissatisfaction levels among Australia’s youth. The group will be chaired by a former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, Mia Freedman. Girlfriend editor Sarah Cornish, model Sarah Murdoch and a number of representatives from health, media and youth groups will also be involved.

They have been charged with developing a voluntary code of practice for portraying body image in the media. The clear labelling of digitally retouched or modified images, greater diversity of body shapes and sizes, and mandatory model age limits are among the issues under consideration by the group.

This move is a welcome one – and has come not before time. I just hope the working party developing these standards don’t use this opportunity merely as a PR exercise. We need real action, not just a talkfest. We also need consistency: magazines cannot say on the one hand “We care about teen girl self-esteem” while on the other they allow advertisements that sexualise and objectify young women. After all, Girlfriend magazine gave free Playboy T-shirts away to readers not that long ago!

While the talk continues, we will keep working.

And we will keep listening to our client schools who are getting more and more inventive in how they follow up on our work. Teachers from St Mary’s Star of the Sea College, Wollongong, will build on it in their pastoral care program throughout the year. The girls did a reflective task recently in which they set their personal goals for the year ahead and celebrated by writing them on butterflies they decorated – and sent to me 🙂

Girls at Rangi Ruru in New Zealand created their own Hall of Fame and Wall of Shame. (See my previous blog post to get this started at your school.) Guidance Counsellor Jane Dickie sent me some wonderful feedback:

We also had cakes in the shape of butterflies to remind us to celebrate the beauty within us all. Throughout the year we will continue to carry on the themes discussed during the Enlighten programme. Not only has this been helpful for Year 10 as a whole, it has also given us ideas for working with girls higher up in the school. The saying “No girl gets left behind” has been something we have discussed with Years 11 to 13. We have also highlighted to the girls as a whole the influence of the media, and being vigilant about the pressure and ideas they are trying to sell. You are a consumer and therefore have power by not buying magazines, etc., that portray women in a negative light.

Love to hear what is happening at your school to provide girls with an alternative to the more negative messages they are surrounded with.

PS If you are establishing your own Hall of Fame / Wall of Shame, here are some new entrants:

Shame on Smiggle. They have just released a voodoo-doll-inspired pencil case, complete with a spot to insert a photo of the person you hate and pins to stick in this effigy! Julie Gale from Kids Free 2B Kids was quick to point out why this is grossly irresponsible: Kids Free 2B Kids protests against voodoo pencil case.

Shame, too, on Sydney radio station Triple M. They are running a new competition entitled Make Me a Porn Star: “Send us a photo of your best ‘porn star’ look, and you could win $5000 to pimp yourself up! We’ll also send you and a friend to Perth for Porn Week where you will get exclusive behind the scenes VIP access and star as an extra in an Adult Film!” Is a role in a porn film something we should be competing for on mainstream radio?

Embracing cyber world

Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph ran a disturbing story on the rise of cyber related sexual harassment in our schools recently. 

This story serves as a reminder that we need to equip girls to use technology safely and wisely, and educate all young people on just what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour on line and indeed within our society as a whole. There are a number of sites that offer advice on on-line safety: www.cybersmart.org, www.wiredkids.org, www.wiredsafety.org, www.cyberbully.org, www.besafeonline.org.

Whilst we should exercise caution, what we must not do is get so panicked by stories of cyber-evil that we ban our girls from on-line participation. A recent study by the Australian Clearinghouse for Youthstudies showed that one of the main reasons young people who have been harassed on-line do not report their negative experiences is due to a fear of having their access to technology removed. They want to stay connected and worry that adults who do not fully understand the technology will think banning it is the solution.    

Make no mistake, in our rapidly changing world, connection is vital. All young people need to not only be able to read and write in print media, but to be ‘multi-literate’, to be competent in the manipulation of a range of media. There is considerable evidence that whilst girls are more successful at reading and writing than boys, more girls than boys are in trouble in relation to ICT literacy. NSW Department of Education and Training research tells us that:

..girls (In Australia) were more inclined than boys to see IT as boring (36% compared to 16%) or difficult (23% to 11%). These factors result in more boys than girls studying technology related subjects. Analysis of NSW High School Certificate (HSC) 2002 computer programming student population revealed that only 17% of the total entrants were female. The trend is also demonstrated in the TAFE sector with women comprising approximately 40% of all Information Technology enrolments for 2001. This indicates a decrease in enrolment share from 1996 when women accounted for 50% of IT enrolments.” 

This trend is evident right across Australia and in New Zealand. If it continues, young women are at risk of becoming part of the information-poor and of being excluded from the new and emerging jobs of the future. Let’s not let our own fears drive us to further isolating and limiting our girls. Rather, let’s inspire girls to get savvy and to use IT as a tool to meet their own needs.    

Educator Bronwyn T Williams offered a refreshing approach towards connecting girls who may be reluctant users of IT in her 2006 article for the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy:

Rather than trying to find ways to help girls use computers in the same ways boys do, how do we help them build on their strengths to find new, creative, and feminist ways of designing and using computers? For example, if girls have been less interested in learning computer programming and software design, including literacy-connected software, perhaps this can be traced to a perception that such work is not relevant to their interests. But when interests such as the desire to build relationships or engage in more character-driven narratives are foregrounded as the goal, girls may be more intrigued…”

If your girls seem uninterested in learning IT skills, use some of the mediums they do enjoy, such as social networking sites, blogging etc as the hook to connect them to the wider possibilities the on-line world allows.

Finally, let’s not lose perspective. Although there are perils in cyber world, there are also some excellent sites (see my “Links”, column right, for some of my favourites) and invaluable opportunities for on-line collaboration. The good far outweighs the bad.

I hope the sites below will inspire you to encourage your girls to be multi-literate. Thanks to Judy O’Connell from blog Hey Jude for the great resources:

I particularly love the Nerd Girls “About” statement: 

Nerd Girls are everywhere, from Tina Fey to Ugly Betty. The celebrity culture of vapid, shallow girls with little to offer is rapidly losing its allure – and the media, from Newsweek to Vanity Fair, has picked up on the emergence of a new type of female role model. Nearly all the tech companies are now offering gadgets designed specifically for girls. Our mantras “Smart is Sexy” and “Brains are Beautiful” have begun to resonate with women across the world. And, as more women seek higher education in technology and engineering fields, Nerd Girls hopes to encourage and empower them make a difference in our world.”

Go nerd girls!

 

Buying love?

The article below first appeared in the UK Daily Mirror in September of this year. It raises so many issues relating to teen girl friendships, self esteem, body image and parenting that I have decided to copy it in its entirity here.

Below the article are questions worth considering. Teachers: this would make an excellent stimulus for a discussion in class. Should any of my educator readers use this, I would encourage you to submit some of your students’ responses here as comments.

I bought my daughter a EUR21,000 body to beat the bullies; Lesley Bennett’s teenage daughter Becky was desperate to change her looks after years of bullying and Lesley didn’t hesitate to spend her life
savings putting her under the knife. 
Helen O’Brien, The Daily Mirror, September 30th 2008.  

Gazing at her dazzling smile and admiring her new-found confidence, Lesley Bennett has no regrets about spending her life savings on her daughter Becky’s looks.

Despite having an enviable figure and an attractive face Becky’s self-esteem was shattered by years of bullying at school.

But still many parents would have tried counselling before spending EUR21,000 to give their daughter a new body.

“I’ve no doubt I did the right thing. I’d do it again without a second thought because Becky is happy now,” says Lesley, 51.

Only child Becky had always been bright, popular and bubbly. But when she started a new school at 14, Lesley noticed a change. “My enthusiastic daughter was gone. She used to love singing and going with friends to after-school clubs. Now she wouldn’t do anything.”

Every morning when Lesley dropped off Becky at school she watched her daughter trudge alone and miserable through the gates. Teachers assured her it was just a teenage thing.

But things got worse. And excuses to skip school started. “She moaned about a bad stomach ache or a migraine. I knew something was wrong.”

Eventually, Becky came home from school and broke down. “The bullying was relentless,” Becky, now 22, explains. “It didn’t matter where I was, the bullies always found me.

“I spent every break locked in the toilets, hiding from the names – ‘ugly’, ‘disgusting’, and ‘pale skeleton’. I was an easy target because I was the ‘new girl’. I don’t know why they took a dislike to me, I did nothing to provoke them.

“The bullying was never physical but they threatened to cut off my hair. It was really stressful and because I’d started at a new school I had no friends. I felt completely alone and I had a real fear of going to school.”

When she started wearing make-up, hoping that if she looked pretty her tormentors might leave her alone, the bullies called her a slag.

Lesley says: “I felt so guilty. Why didn’t I see something earlier? I felt I’d failed her. I felt angry that these kids were ruining my daughter’s life. Why Becky? She was gorgeous.” After two years of constant name-calling Becky left school with five GCSEs vowing never to return to education.

“If I’d known about the bullying earlier I would’ve considered home tuition. The bullying ruined everything,” Lesley adds.

Eventually, Becky summoned the courage to study graphic design but when some of the school bullies turned up at the college she immediately left.

A shadow of her former self, Becky began to suffer panic attacks and increasingly couldn’t leave the house.

“The bullies had left her terrified and vulnerable,” says Lesley. Just the thought of going out filled her with fear.

“She used to love shopping, now she didn’t leave her room. I didn’t know what to do.”

Lesley tried persuading Becky to see a doctor but she adamantly refused. Lesley adds: “I didn’t want to turn into a bully myself and force her, so I just tried to be supportive.”

For Becky’s 18th birthday she didn’t have a party or go out clubbing like most girls her age. She sat at home with Lesley, dad David and her grandmother, and celebrated with a slice of pink cake.

Lesley says: “We tried to make her birthday as special as possible but there was a sense of sadness that she wasn’t out with friends.”

The next day Becky sat her parents down and told them the extent of her depression.

“I told them how much I hated myself, ” Becky says. “I told them I wanted to change and I knew how. I wanted cosmetic surgery and I begged them to help me financially.”

Becky showed her parents pages of research she’d been doing on cosmetic surgery and told them how desperate she was to change her body.

Lesley says: “She’d clearly spent years collating all this stuff. And then I looked at Becky and I could tell she was close to a breakdown.

“I reassured her that she was beautiful as she was but she was convinced the only way she would ever be happy was with surgery.”

With the teeth, the boob job, the liposuction, the fake nails, hair styling and tanning, Becky’s wish list added up to EUR21,000.

“It was our life savings. But I couldn’t think of a better use. Getting the real Becky back was priceless,” Lesley adds.

As soon as Lesley and David agreed, Becky booked to get her teeth whitened and straightened. A year later, when she was 19, she had her breasts enlarged from a 32A to a 32C. And the following year, when she was 20, she had liposuction on her inner thighs.

“I was terrified when she was wheeled into surgery but I shouldn’t have worried. The results spoke for themselves.

“Afterwards, she looked – and clearly felt – fantastic. It was as if with each operation Becky’s confidence was being restored,” says Lesley. And to finish the look, Becky booked a fake tan, fingernail extensions, haircut and colour.

Lesley watched the cost mount but had no regrets. “As Becky blossomed into a beautiful, happy young woman, I didn’t begrudge the cost for a single moment.”

Becky, of Penge, South London, says: “The bullies dragged me down so much that I began to believe everything they told me. The surgery was for me to feel like my life was mine again.”

Becky’s panic attacks stopped. And soon she began a new life as a model.

Lesley adds: “Today, Becky’s confident, outgoing and happy. In fact, at the age of 22 she’s got a new life. You wouldn’t recognise her from the girl she was before.”

But Becky has another boob job planned for the beginning of next year, although she insists she’s saving up to pay for this one herself. “Surgery made me feel my life was mine again.”

What they spent

Teeth EUR7,500

Boob job EUR7,000

Liposuction EUR5,000

Fake nails EUR500 (a year)

Hair restyling EUR200

Tanning EUR800 (a year)

Total EUR21,000

Possible questions for discussion

Have you ever witnessed bullying at your school? How did it make you feel viewing this?

Why do you think some girls target other girls for bullying?

Is verbal bullying as serious as physical bullying? Explain your response.

What types of things should schools do in an attempt to eliminate bullying?

What can you do to help eliminate bullying?

How can parents best support their daughters when things are not going well for them at school?

What are your thoughts on Lesley’s decision to pay for the cosmetic surgery Becky wanted?

Do you believe Becky’s new body will ensure she has a new life?

Is there too much pressure placed on young women to conform to an idealized image of beauty? Who do you think places these pressures on girls?

 

Girl World

I have noticed a spate of articles in the media of late on “mean girls”; commentators have been quick to highlight, and to almost revel, in tales of adolescent girls who bully others.

I work face to face with hundreds of teenage girls from right across Australia and New Zealand each week. What do I see? Is bullying and bitchiness as rampant in our classrooms as the media would have us believe?

Planet Girl can be a place filled with cliques, secrets, passive aggressive exchanges, and tears. Much has already been written about the ugly side of teen girl friendships. And let’s face it, it is easy to be negative about teen girl world for it can be a political, intense, place. Unlike the boys who often get physical and then forget and forgive their differences, girls do tend to ostracize their enemies and use words as weapons and this can be far more scarring and damaging long term. Many women I speak to in my seminars for parents still vividly recall the pain of being teased by other girls. And still feel guilt over the times they teased other girls.

Girls may also be bullied one minute, and the bully the next as they jostle for position with the social hierarchy. In the years I spent as a teacher and in student welfare roles, I witnessed some truly devastating episodes of girl bullying. I have seen girls’ lives made literally miserable by their peers.

Often the reasons behind this victimization are bewildering. A girl I met in my work with Enlighten sat scribbling furiously on her feedback form for me after the workshop. And as she left the room she held me – for a long time. When she left I read her comments, they included this poignant insight into the devastating effect the other girls at her school had had on her:

“I learnt today that I am beautiful and I’m not ugly because they (the other girls at my school) might say I am, I’m not what people may say I am. I can imagine, I can love, I am beautiful, I also have purpose…”

When I asked her teachers what this girl’s experience of school was like, they told me that ever since High School began she had been tormented – pushed down stairs, spat on, ignored. Why? The other girls all thought her ears stuck out.

This type of mean girl behaviour must be taken seriously by the adults who witness it and action must be taken. The ABC’s Life matters recently broadcast an interesting program which explored ways in which parents and schools could deal with bullying and help girls develop positive relationships – it is well worth a listen. Other useful resources include the video clips “Words Hurt”, “Cyber bullying talent show” and an interview I did earlier this year with Prue McSween. All can be found in my video library – Vodpod.     

Left unchecked, girl hostility can escalate and become a systematic campaign of verbal, and physical, violence. Experts point to a new gang-like mentality among schoolgirls where a popular “queen bee” uses friends to bully or hurt to cement her position of power. The term “Barbie Bitches,” a term to describe gangs of girls who believe they are beautiful, popular and have the right to intimidate those deemed less worthy, has became a frightening new part of our vernacular.

Yet despite all the politics and the potential for drama, I also find that the friendships between teen girls can be breathtakingly beautiful and authentic. And it is this positive, healing side to female friendships (a side that the media so often ignores) that I really want to further explore and celebrate this week.

Many girls deeply love their friends and their peer relationships provide a sense of belonging and acceptance that is sadly sometimes missing for them at home, where family members may seem to be time poor and over-scheduled.

I love the way girls giggle together, the way they play with each other’s hair and cuddle, the way they can be so fiercely loyal and protective of each other. When I ask girls who really knows them, understands them and loves them, the vast majority will tell me it is their friends who make them feel these essential emotions.

Recently, as part of my research for the book I am working on for Random House, I asked hundreds of teenage girls to share with me what they love about their female friends. I thought I’d share just some of their responses with you here now too:

“They understand mostly where I am coming from. They know when I am grumpy or upset how to deal with this. Although when stuff goes wrong it is horrible they are always willing to listen.” Ali 16

“How there is no pressure to ‘act up’ or to impress them. They accept me for who I am, not what I try and be.” Elizabeth 15

“They deal with the same problems as me. In conversations we often have moments when we realise how similar our issues are, and how much of a strong helping force we can be to each other.” Anon 15

“I love the confidence of my friends, the way they always strive for something higher; whether it be in school or socially and the way I know that they actually care about me and would always support me.” Haley 15

“I love the fact that they are all different from each other and from me. They respect who I am and my choices. I trust them with my life and can’t live without them.” Amanda 15

” I love how they don’t see me on the outside, and how they love me because of who I am. I can ask them for advice knowing that their advice will actually help me.” Julia 16

“I love how we can let go of our egos with each other, we can be stupid and silly but at the same know that there are always one or two of us who are mature ‘big sisters’ who have our backs.” Yan 16

“Being able to talk about private stuff I like the most. I have a guy friend who I tell my problems or difficulties to, but my girl friends, they also go through periods, shaving, cramps, bad hair days, etc. and it is nice to have them there to talk to. I also like not having to impress them, with boy friends there is always the ‘urge’ to impress them, with my girl friends it’s just us, and it’s fun.” Katie 17

“Female friends are great as you can never run out of things to talk about. I love being able to share everything about intimacy, body issues, etc and not being judged.” Abigail 17

“What I love about my friends is how they are always there for me no matter what and there to cheer me up if I’m feeling down. They are always fun to be around and make school all the better having them with me. Also they would never judge me on something and will always encourage me.” Montana 13

“I love my female friends because I can talk about anything with them. We can talk about things that I would never bring up with my mum.” Aimee 15

“Something that I love about my female friends is that no matter what you can always talk to them and even when you are smiling they always know when something is wrong. Basically without them there would be no way that I could live.” Carly 16

“Things I love about my friends is the happiness they can bring to you. A strong friendship can make you feel like you’re floating, even in your darkest times.” Laura 14

“I love all my girlfriends with all of my heart. They are easy to talk to and give great advice back. They help me go on the right path and not wrong. They are the soul of my body.” Courtney 14

How heartwarming. Female friendships are so valuable, and are so highly valued by teen girls – and by us older girls too! I’d love to hear just what your girlfriends mean to you, and how your female friendships have brought you love, light and laughter.

Let’s not ignore the problems that do exist, or turn a blind eye to bad behaviour. But let’s also unpack what works, and celebrate the many healthy relationships too.

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