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Category: Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders and Primary School Children

Last week the Herald Sun reported that children as young as seven are being hospitalised with eating disorders. Equally as alarming, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead’s eating disorders clinic, which specialises in working with people aged seven to 17, has experienced a 270 per cent increase in admissions since 2000.

The crew at Kerri-anne asked me to come on and discuss this worrying trend with viewers yesterday. I asked for Melinda Hutchings — an eating disorders survivor, ambassador for The Butterfly Foundation and author of the incredible Why Can’t I Look The Way I Want?: Overcoming Eating Issues to accompany me to offer her personal insights.


As is always the case with live breakfast television, there wasn’t enough time to offer all the insights we would like, so I have asked Melinda to be my guest blogger this week.

image001 A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2009 found that between July 2002 and June 2005, 101 children aged from five to 13 years old were newly diagnosed with an eating disorder. About two-thirds were affected by anorexia nervosa; the rest were experiencing “food avoidant emotional disorder”, a condition unique to children, which involves extreme weight loss driven by high anxiety levels, rather than wanting to be thin.

And according to a 2003 study of 135 South Australian children conducted by Professor Marika Tiggemann, of the School of Psychology, Flinders University, two-thirds of girls in year 1 believed that being thin would make them more popular. Even more believed weight gain would attract teasing.

Children spend much of their early lives at school, an environment that can be competitive, with hierarchies often based on physical appearances. A negative fixation on weight and size potentially lends itself to self-destructive thoughts and behaviours, which can be triggered by situations, comments or events that bring up feelings of anxiety and worthlessness. These include family arguments related to eating (e.g. “You’re not leaving the table until you’ve eaten everything on your plate”), feelings of being misunderstood, rejection by peers (e.g. “Go away, we don’t want to play with you”) or feeling like a misfit.

Negative emotions can lead to unhealthy thought processes and feelings of insecurity around body image. If left undetected, these feelings can lead to the onset of an eating disorder.

In my book Why Can’t I Look the Way I Want?: Overcoming Eating Issues, there is a chapter dedicated to the early warning signs. These signs are often subtle and can be passed off as “normal” behaviour – unless you know what to look for. Common warning signs include avoiding eating in front of others, making excuses to avoid family meal times, obsession with food preparation and a change in attitude towards food, e.g. becoming vegan or cutting out entire food groups under the guise of wanting to be “healthy”. In addition, ritualistic behaviour when eating, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, insisting that meals are eaten at a particular time each day or obsessive use of the same crockery and cutlery is cause for concern.

There are also warning signs before the warning signs. If a child is constantly complaining of headaches and tiredness, or appears to have trouble coping at school, this could indicate there is something deeper going on. Emotional issues, including feelings of inadequacy, often manifest as physical ailments, so stay aware of any symptoms that persist or behaviour that indicates difficulty coping, such as falling behind in class.

Becoming vigilant about the early warning signs means there is a very real chance of catching the behaviour before it spirals from an eating issue into an eating disorder.

Here are five tips for parents and carers:

1. Eat with your child as often as you can so that you become familiar with their eating habits.

2. Watch for changes in those habits, especially anything that appears unusually strict and lasts for several weeks.

3. Listen to the language your child uses around food. If they start talking about diets or calorie contents, or complain that they are fat (when they’re not) this is a red flag.

4. Watch for a change in disposition. If your child displays hostility around meal times, they could be experiencing internal conflict towards food.

5. If your child eats large amounts of food constantly but doesn’t realise how much they are eating and/or aren’t enjoying it, especially during times of stress, this could indicate obsessive eating.

In the event your child begins to display an aversion towards food and changes in their eating patterns, seek medical advice as soon as possible so that they get the right treatment without delay. Early intervention is critical in reframing the mindset before it becomes entrenched.
Melinda Hutchings

Fat Talk — the experts weigh in

I had a rather heated discussion with Kerri-Anne Kennerley earlier this week on whether mothers should tell their overweight daughters they are fat.

So I thought it timely to call in the experts to shed some light on this whole “obesity crisis”. This week I am pleased to offer a guest post by Lydia Jade Turner, a psychotherapist specialising in eating disorder prevention and managing director of BodyMatters Australasia. Lydia’s partner at BodyMatters, Sarah McMahon, has also written an excellent piece on the problematic nature of the TV program The Biggest Loser, which ignores the many factors that contribute to obesity and implies that fat is a moral weakness: The Biggest Problem.

28545_392990322001_506257001_3957433_3718193_nA Weight Off Your Mind

The Dieticians Association of Australia (DAA) claim that 61 per cent of Australian adults and 25 per cent of Australian children are either overweight or obese. Surely this is alarming and a call for action? So why are a growing number of health professionals questioning these statistics? 

It is not well enough known that 95 per cent of obesity research is funded by private industry including Big Pharma. Corporations not only fund research, but entire university departments, charities, and educational programs as well. Seeing corporations jumping into bed with public health initiatives should raise suspicion. It is essentially putting the wolf in charge of the sheep.

Just last year the Centre for Obesity Research and Education (CORE) – a department of Monash University – published a study that found lap-banding procedures were appropriate interventions for obese teenagers as young as 14. What they didn’t reveal, however, was that the study was funded by Allergan, Australia’s largest manufacturer of lap-banding products. In mid-2010, Allergan sought approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to market lap bands to US teens after sponsoring clinical trials, essentially opening up the global teenage market for profit.

Then there was the 2010 Inaugural Obesity Summit (IOS) in Sydney, where professor after professor declared ‘conflicts of interest’ prior to presenting their research. As if somehow these confessions should exonerate them from the fact that their research was funded by Obesity Fat Cats International. One declared he was a board director for Reductil, “Australia’s most popular weight loss drug”. It was not surprising that his research found lap banding, followed by a lifetime’s prescription of diet pills, the appropriate solution to the ‘obesity epidemic’.

Reductil has since been banned due to over 200 adverse effects, including the death of an otherwise healthy 19-year-old girl. Diet pills have a long history of causing cardiac problems, yet it seems the same corporations that are forced to cancel their brands, continue to roll out new ones.

Obesity is a multi-billion dollar industry, with some health practitioners now referring to it as “Obesity Inc”. The situation is only getting worse. Most are not aware that it is now internationally accepted among those working within the field that not a single weight loss approach has ever been shown to be effective after two to five years, for 98 per cent of the population. This was acknowledged at The Australian New Zealand Obesity Society Conference (ANZOS) in 2009, and again at the IOS in 2010.

What is odd then, is why there seems to be a dialectic approach to obesity. On the one hand, the obesity “experts” don’t have solutions that work long-term for the majority of the population, yet at the same time continue to prescribe their shonky solutions. If Viagra had a 98 per cent failure rate, doctors would not be allowed to prescribe it. Yet most of the time, individuals who cannot “lose the weight and keep it off” are treated like failures, as though they are “not trying damned hard enough” and shamed in hostile programs like The Biggest Loser.

The reality is that obesity research is riddled with conflicts of interest. It’s best to check who funded the research prior to reading it. Obesity research typically does not account for a person’s history of weight cycling, life fitness, stress, socioeconomic status, history of weight loss drugs, and nutrient intake. Is it the case that the solution might be worse than the disease?

Some might argue that one should at least give weight loss a shot, even if it is accompanied by an extraordinary failure rate. The problem with this line of argument is that attempting to lose weight does not come without harmful consequences. Dieting for weight loss puts people at increased risk of disordered eating, including binge eating, emotional eating, and weight cycling, just to name a few. This has less to do with “willpower” and “laziness” and more to do with the hardwiring of our physiological responses to deprivation.

Obesity “experts” like to make many claims. These include the benefits of weight loss in those afflicted with diabetes. Yet independent studies show that these benefits usually drop off after six to 18 months. But when was the last time you heard that? The DAA’s Healthy Weight Week recommendations advise us to swap soft drink for diet versions. Do they seriously believe that putting aspartame – a chemical previously listed by The Pentagon as a biochemical warfare agent – into one’s body is healthier than real sugar? Although approved by the FDA, it is useful to bear in mind that a 2006 study found that at least 1 in 3 FDA panel members hold financial conflicts of interest.

Eating disorders charities are reporting that rates of disordered eating and unhealthy weight loss approaches are becoming normative in young people. Eight per cent of teenage girls currently smoke to control their weight. Schools are reporting that school children are refusing to participate in sport because they feel ashamed of what they look like in their gym clothes. And a recent study published in the International Journal of Paediatrics found that obese children are 63 per cent more likely to be bullied, irrespective of sex, socioeconomic status, race, and type of school they attend. No protective factors could be identified.

Research shows that stigma and discrimination are two of the highest predictors of poor mental and physical health. This discrimination is not limited to the schoolyard. Dr Lyn Roberts announced at the ANZOS Conference in 2009 that 84 per cent of health professionals discriminate against those who are obese or overweight. This has significant real-life consequences, with many obese people reporting they are reluctant to see their doctors, as they are certain to be lectured to lose weight while all of their ailments are blamed on the fact that they are fat. In some cases, cancers have gone unchecked – leading to deaths – due to the assumption that the person’s symptoms must be due to their fatness. The difficulty in accessing appropriate health care also confounds obesity research.

It’s time for this hysteria towards obesity to end. Independent studies are showing that it is actually fitness that is a better predictor of health, irrespective of what size a person is at (except at statistical extremes). We don’t actually know what is a “healthy weight” for any individual. Even if Body Mass Index (BMI) was not tainted by corporate funding, it would still only exist as a population measure.

In recent years, a global grassroots movement has taken off, known as the Size Acceptance movement. Health At Every Size (HAES) prides itself on exposing conflicts of interest in research, prioritising health over profit. It rejects the weight-based model to health, replacing it with a health-centred approach.

HAES acknowledges that our bodies are continually communicating with us. Whether you are constipated, hungry, or satiated, it helps to stop and listen. Intuitive eating teaches us to reconnect with our internal signals. If you eat highly-processed foods regularly, chances are you aren’t going to feel very well. Listening to our bodies is a skill.

HAES also encourages people to engage in physical movement that is pleasurable to them, instead of obsessively counting their steps with a pedometer or seeing exercise as punishment. Respecting body diversity and seeing health as an ongoing multi-faceted process will help to end the war against our bodies. Every day we can feel good about the fact that we have respected our bodies through health-giving activities, instead of hating ourselves for not reaching that number on the scales. After all, how can you truly nourish something you hate?

Should we be asking young women to “get your tits out for the girls”?

This week I’m bringing you another great guest post by Enlighten Education’s program manager for New Zealand, Rachel Hansen. For some time now I’ve been growing tired of what Rachel calls the “prettifying” and “sexifying” of breast cancer in fundraising and awareness campaigns, and this week I was as outraged as Rachel by a campaign in NZ that is encouraging girls and young women to post pictures of their breasts on the internet. Rachel’s blog post clearly struck a chord with a lot of people, because she received 1,000 hits in 24 hours! It has been picked up by numerous bloggers and by MSN news.

There was widespread discussion about the “I like . . .” Facebook craze last month. While I felt that this campaign sexualised breast cancer in a weird kinda way, NZGirl’s latest campaign has left me (nearly) speechless. Viewers are invited to “get your tits out for the girls . . . and don’t forget to check out the other lovely pairs, beautiful boobs and pretty titties already uploaded.”

For every 50 pairs of “titties” uploaded by viewers, NZGirl will donate $1000 to breast cancer awareness. This campaign began yesterday [30 November] and already there is a gallery of over 49 pairs of breasts to peruse, rank and comment on.

Hmm, a gallery of “titties” ranked according to popularity and the ability for me to leave comments about them. How exactly is this different to a crude pornography site?

NZGirl is exploiting women and girls in order to drive traffic to their website. It is making light of a horrific disease in order to gain popularity. It is belittling the experience of breast cancer sufferers, many of whom are left scarred or have had to have their breasts removed. But in marketing terms, this campaign has been a resounding success — over 25,000 people visited the site this morning, crashing it.

Boganette has written a great post on why NZGirl’s campaign is oh-so-wrong:

Celebrate breasts, of course. But don’t do it in the name of breast cancer. Breast cancer isn’t about breasts. It’s not something you should have a laugh about on Twitter. It’s not something you should joke about on Facebook. It shouldn’t be a reason for posting photos of your breasts or flashing them or “getting them out” . . . Breast cancer is a horrible, miserable, horrifying disease — that’s it. It’s cancer — it’s not motivation for you to be happy with your body.

I hate the prettifying of breast cancer. The sexifying of breast cancer. Breast cancer is not sexy images of pert wee breasts. If you want to see the realities of breast cancer, check out The Scar Project. It’s raw and it’s real. There is nothing funny about it.

According to Stuff:

NZgirl editor and general manager Tee Twyford said the campaign wasn’t about driving traffic to their site, but about raising awareness. “The reason for it was twofold. There was a desire to have readers feel really good about their breasts and we wanted to align it with a breast cancer cause to get greater awareness and funding,” Twyford said.

So, according to Tee Twyford, women need to share photos of their breasts with the world in order to feel good about themselves. We all need to seek external validation to make sure that our breasts are up to scratch, that they’re OK. Dear Tee, please explain how being in the lower half of the rankings is going to help 50% of those women feel good about their breasts? Because Tee, in a rankings system, there is always a loser. And are the “winners” in the top half of the rankings supposed to feel great about themselves because a whole bunch of strangers have critiqued their breasts and given them a thumbs-up?

Tee Twyford, I am not going to send your website a photo of my breasts. They are beautiful and I love them. But I don’t need NZGirl to rank them and I don’t need strangers to give me their comments about them. Because those strangers don’t know that my breasts and I have been through lots together. Those strangers don’t know or care that my breasts fed my baby and that I love them in all their uneven, stretch-marky, increasingly-less-pert glory. Or that it took me quite some time to learn to love them.

Disturbingly, but not surprisingly, many of the breast photos that have been uploaded seem to be of teenagers. Through Enlighten Education I work with teen girls throughout New Zealand. I often have tears of sadness when talking with them about the immense pressures they face with regards to their bodies. New Zealand’s rates of eating disorders and depression amongst teenagers are skyrocketing. Just yesterday I spent a morning with 150 gorgeous year 10 girls who all told me that they felt that they were not beautiful enough, not skinny enough and not perfect enough. It is campaigns such as this one that add to the overwhelming pressure and sense for girls that they are just not enough. As soon as I have posted this I am going to email Tee Twyford to invite her to sit in on one of these sessions. Perhaps then she would realise the effects that such media campaigns have on our girls.

Once photos are uploaded onto the internet, the owners cease to have any control over how they are used. To assume that these photos will not be used for pornographic purposes is naive. We teach girls to never upload sexual photos of themselves — why is a (previously) respected organisation encouraging them to do exactly this?

Women, why are we doing this to each other? Are men rushing to upload photos of their penises to raise money for “cancer awareness”?

NZGirl, if your motivation really is to raise money for breast cancer research I can think of a million more positive ways to do this. Even simpler: if you really want to donate to a good cause, just get out your credit card and donate. Simple.

Updates: Since I wrote this blog post on Wednesday, many of the photos of breasts are now on porn sites such as xtube and others that you can see listed here. If NZgirl had a tick box on the website that said “If you upload this photo then we will donate $5 to ‘breast cancer awareness’ and your photo will probably appear on an unlimited number of porn sites, forever” how many women would have gone ahead and uploaded photos?

NZgirl has claimed that they are rotating the “favourites”. However, I have checked the site a number of times in the past 24 hours and the same breasts have been rated number one all day today: a perky youthful pair that are the result of a breast enlargement operation. The age of the person in the photo is indicated by her final comment: “As my Mum put it, ‘they were meant to be yours.’”

There is no way for the site to screen out girls under 18 from posting images of their breasts. NZGirl states in its terms and conditions: “If you are under 18 and you decide to post or send personal information to us or to other areas on the Internet, make sure you ask your parents if it’s okay.” Regardless of parental consent, sexual photos of children are never legal. Is NZGirl potentially breaking New Zealand law in terms of child pornography?

And a final word from Dannielle Miller: Awesome blog post, Rachel. I was so fired up about this ludicrous “campaign” that I went on Radio National New Zealand to say my piece on Afternoons with Jim Mora.  Things got rather interesting when a spokeswoman from NZGirl called in to offer her defence of the site’s actions. The arguments she offered were, unsurprisingly, pretty weak, but the heated debate certainly made for great radio: NZ radio This MP3 Audio file has been uploaded with Radio National NZ’s permission.

rachel hansenRachel Hansen is an experienced health and wellbeing educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Her research has focused on youth development, youth offending and women’s health.

Like mother, like daughter.

A recent UK survey found teenage girls are more than twice as likely to engage in dieting if their mother has a disjointed relationship with food. This came as no surprise to me for one of the premises explored in my book, The Butterfly Effect, is that whilst in many ways it would be seductive to think the hard work of feminism has been done (we have a female Prime Minister, a female Governor General…)  we have not yet managed to make much more than a crack in our own bathroom mirrors, our self-imposed glass ceilings. I am left wondering how we can expect the next generation of women – our girls – to step up and change the world when we too are preoccupied with wanting to change ourselves, and obsessed with achieving air-brushed perfection. Business woman I have met have said things to me like: “Why is it that I can run a highly successful company and complete an MBA, yet I still can’t manage to not feel guilty every time I eat a Tim-Tam?”. Mothers say things to me like: ” Why is it that my daughter doesn’t realise how gorgeous she is? I mean if I looked as beautiful and thin as she does I would be happy!”

Many of us tell our daughters 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? Girls cannot be what they cannot see.

The Australian Women’s Weekly Online recently asked me to offer readers advice on how they could help their daughters develop a positive body image. This is urgent and important work given that yet again Mission Australia’s annual Youth Survey shows that for this generation of young people, body image remains the number one concern.

My advice to mothers can be read in full here. The number one message I wanted women to receive? Be a good role model. What we have to do for our daughters is to show them that we love ourselves. This is important business. It’s not just about healing us; it’s about healing our daughters.

When it comes to body image angst and being seduced by the diet industry’s seductive promise of a better life through a new-and-improved body, it seems that in many significant ways we are far more like our daughters than we are different. How desperately sad. But this recognition of sameness is also full of possibility. If we accept that the issues we need to work on affect all girls and women, then we have the opportunity to sort this mess out alongside our daughters. We no longer need to maintain the ‘Mother knows best’ facade and try to ‘fix’ everything for them. Or worse still, rage at their unhealthy behaviours, which really only parallel our own – how teen girls hate hypocrisy! We can join our daughters and work together on something greater; we can together find new connections and deeper mutual understandings.

I discussed this very issue on Mornings With Kerri-Anne today. I’d love to hear how you are showing the young women in your life that loving ourselves is not the ultimate crime (remember those schoolyards taunts? “She so loves herself!”, “She thinks she is all that!”) and that women do not need to take up less and less space.

Have Girls Really “Gone Bad”?

rachel hansenThis week I would like to welcome a talented new program manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand, Rachel Hansen. Rachel is an experienced health and wellbeing educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Her research has focused on youth development, youth offending and women’s health. Today I am featuring as a guest blog a condensed version of her paper “Have Girls Really Gone Bad?”, which deconstructs the media’s portrayal of violence committed by girls and asks us to focus on the real issue: that girls and young women urgently need our support.

Periodically the media will seize upon an isolated incident or two and make sweeping generalised statements. In recent months, we have seen a lot of the tried and tested “girls gone bad” story, focusing on girls’ violence and bullying via internet and text messaging.

No one will deny that the “girls gone bad” headline is a great attention-grabber. Girls engaging in violence challenge society’s fundamental beliefs about females as nurturers, protectors and as victims of violence.

Yet in emphasising cases of girls’ violence more than boys’ violence, the media perpetuates the notion of the “bad girl” epidemic. This in turn legitimises violence as an option — “Other girls are doing it, why can’t I?”

Social anthropologist Dr Donna Swift believes that:

the media . . . is creating the image of a new feminine epidemic of mean girls. Similarly, kickass girls, as I call them, are being promoted by the entertainment industry as the new role model for girls. This is a role model that promotes sexualised aggressive behaviour and rarely is our society countering this by teaching girls that assertive behaviour is an alternative option. Sadly, many young males find girl fighting titillating and some girls turn to this behaviour as a way of attracting male attention.

Professor Kerry Carrington, from Queensland University of Technology’s School of Justice, said a simple internet search yielded 73 million hits for girls’ fighting, compared with 31 million for boys. There were 24 million girl-fight videos on YouTube – eight times more than those featuring boys. I propose that girls aren’t engaging in more fights than boys but that because female fighting breaks traditional norms, society is fascinated by it and gives it much more attention than male violence.  

An example of this fascination is the beer advertisement from the USA in which two women with plunging necklines have a minor disagreement. They begin to wrestle and as they do so, they discard their clothes, revealing sexy bodies in skimpy lingerie. They end up writhing and moaning together in wet concrete. At the end, two men imply that such a fight scene is every man’s fantasy: “Who wouldn’t want to watch that?”

Focusing on the real issues

What the “girls gone bad” sensationalist headlines don’t mention are the triggers and history behind girls’ violent offending. Focusing on hyped-up incidents sells newspapers because it shocks readers. It also makes it easier to ignore the real problems young women are facing. Dr Donna Swift is leading a research project in New Zealand that looks at violent and anti-social behaviour by teenage girls. Initial findings from the project indicate that of girls engaging in violence towards others, approximately 70% were not attending school, 60% were self-harming, 50% had experienced text bullying, 50% had run away from home, 40% had witnessed domestic violence, 30% had been raped and 30% had taken a drug overdose. Such findings are backed up by numerous international studies.

At what age does society stop blaming the situation or the parent, and start demonising the child? As other commentators have noted, we need to remember that the violent girls we demonise in the media today are the abused and neglected children we read about with such compassion yesterday. More often than not, the demonic “girl gone bad” is a child who is actually desperately in need of love and support.

Sensationalist media stories that focus on the negative exaggerate the problem of girls’ violence in the public’s eye and in doing so create a monster out of the teenage girl. This further demonises young women and creates a disconnect between them and the community – a community full of people who could potentially act as friends, mentors and advocates for the very girls that they are demonising.

Increasingly, girls are engaging in other types of violence that very rarely hit the headlines:  

Many young women are growing up with the societal expectation that they can do anything and must do everything. According to females portrayed in the media, girls should be brave, independent, strong, smart, savvy, athletic, and able to kick ass as well as being beautiful and sexy, be wanting and waiting for a relationship with Mr Right, able to produce adorable children, keep a perfect house and be ready to climb the next step on her career ladder. Girls who can’t compete for this reality take out their anxieties about personal inferiority or anger of rejection on themselves. – Dr Donna Swift

Tragically, for many girls, acts of violence towards themselves, such as cutting and bulimia, are an everyday reality.

Focusing on the positive

We need to look beneath sweeping media generalisations about girls and violence. We need to celebrate the fact that the vast majority of our girls will never choose to engage in violent acts. We need to understand that the girls who do usually have long histories of victimisation and need the full support of the community. We need to focus on giving our girls the tools and the confidence to face up to the challenges of teenage life today. We need our communities to be overflowing with support for our girls. Only then will we be able to start turning the tide against self-harm, depression, bullying and violence.

Look good by doing very little

lydia2The following is a guest blog post used with permission by the author Lydia Jade Turner. 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.

Last week Youth and Sport Minister Kate Ellis revealed a new code of conduct for the fashion and advertising industries, backed by the Federal government, in what is claimed to be a world first attempt to regulate the industries contributing to increased rates of body shame and eating disorders.

The voluntary code, outlining a list of proposed changes that reward magazines, fashion labels, and modelling agencies who comply with its criteria with a ‘tick of approval’, has met with mixed response. Responses have ranged from the dismissal of the need for any regulation, to claims that the promotion of anything other than a thin ideal will inflate obesity rates. Others who acknowledged the need for industry regulation expressed scepticism that the code would work, given its voluntary nature.

Helen Razer wrote a scathing critique of the code arguing that eating disorders have been around for centuries and therefore it is misguided to blame mass media and regulate industry. Those who argue that media images are harmless, or in some cases, that resiliency programmes are all that is needed to combat body shame and eating disorders, do the field of public health a great disservice. Evidence extending over hundreds of international studies confirms that the promotion of a thin-ideal increases body shame, which itself increases risk of developing clinical eating disorders, unhealthy weight loss practices, self-harm, and depression.

The fact is that eating disorders have never been as prevalent as they are now. Arguing that they can’t be triggered by the bombardment of a thin-ideal because they have been reported to exist prior to media images is essentially like arguing that lung cancer can’t be triggered by smoking because it was around prior to the invention of cigarettes. Razer’s point that the Roman elite used to throw up after meals in a “practice we’d now call bulimia” is based on a myth that misinforms about the true function of the Roman ‘vomitorium’.

Contrary to popular belief, vomitoriums were not used by the Roman elite to get rid of their stomach contents. The vomitorium is an architectural structure within the Roman amphitheatre, designed to alleviate crowds by allowing the audience to “spew out” after the show.”

While there have been some historical reports of Romans deliberately vomiting, this was certainly not part of a regular binge-purge cycle and there is no evidence that it was accompanied by a sense of loss of control, cognitive distortions, body shame, or feelings of low self-worth, as seen in those suffering from bulimia.

Having had a previous patient justify her bulimia citing this very myth about ancient Roman practices, it is important to exercise caution when discussing eating disorders in this context. Eating disorder sufferers already experience great difficulty grasping the seriousness of their condition, and any argument that risks framing their illness as some sort of lifestyle choice or culture clash is potentially harmful.

Another reason used against regulation lies in the misguided belief that the promotion of anything other than thin-ideal will inflate obesity rates. What the weight loss industry has cleverly hidden is that the drive to be thin actually plays a role in contributing to long term weight gain. Engaging in a healthy lifestyle doesn’t necessarily bring on thinness, although it will bring about health benefits. Dieting, on the other hand, may bring about thinness (initially), but is actually the biggest predictor of binge-eating due to our hardwired response to the sense of deprivation. Dieting is also a significant predictor of weight cycling and long term weight gain.

It’s important to recognise that losing weight and being thin do not necessarily equate to health. Currently the Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria reports that eight percent of teenage girls smoke in an effort to control their weight. The fear of being anything but thin is so strong in France, that the anti-tobacco campaigns now address women’s refusal to quit smoking for fear of weight gain. A whole variety of disordered eating behaviours are used to achieve or maintain a slim body, but at what cost? It’s time we stopped swapping health for thinness. What has been lost amidst Obesity Hysteria is the idea of health, and the idea that bodies do not have to exist in a ‘thin versus fat’ dichotomy.

Industries involved in promoting body shame and disordered eating must be held accountable for their actions. In this light, it is good to see our government acknowledge body image as a serious problem. But steps to regulate industry are not a “world’s first.” If anything, Australia is lagging behind. Both France and Spain, for example, began taking steps to regulate their industries several years ago, with The Guardian reporting in January that Spain’s lower chamber approved the banning of advertisements for plastic surgery, slimming products, and some beauty ads being shown before 10pm.

Some argue that legislation is not necessary to regulate industries. I disagree. Every governing structure has its limitations. Within a capitalist structure, the goal is to maximise profit. Corporations are accountable to their shareholders. As retail expert Brian Walker said, “Unless there’s a direct benefit to their sales margin for implementing the code, then retailers aren’t going to take this up. If the only benefit perceived is societal, I think there will be a mixed response, with many choosing not to take it up.” Indeed The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Friday that Myer has already backed out, while other retailers like Portmans did not even bother to return calls.

Perhaps the real problem lies in the fact that a number of women who sit on the National Advisory Board have conflicting interests. Sarah Murdoch’s actions have proven nothing but hypocritical. How can anyone take her seriously as a body image advocate when her brand, BONDS, continues to make no effort to promote anything other than a thin ideal and sells padded bras to eight year old girls? She is also the executive producer and judge on reality show Australia’s Next Top Model, which last year labelled the winner of the show Tahnee Atkinson ‘plus size.’ Atkinson is a size 10. This year the show is reported to be limited to size 8 and smaller contestants. Ads for the show have already compared the contestants to greyhounds, as they are shown racing from stalls in a degrading manner as they chase the lure – in this case, a modelling contract.

Kate Ellis, who commissioned the advisory board, recently posed in a tight-fitting leather dress with Gucci heels for Grazia magazine’s “body image special” in a bid to raise awareness about body image issues. Yet when asked whether or not the images of her were airbrushed, she refused to answer the question. Disclosing when images have been digitally enhanced is one of the board’s key recommendations. How can board members expect corporations to ‘fall in line’ when they themselves refuse to adhere to their own code?

It seems much has been invested in creating the appearance of doing something – but so long as we continue with this voluntary code, any changes made are unlikely to be sustained.

The Government’s New Body Image Policy

bodyimagecodeLate last year in this blog, I gave my assessment of the National Strategy on Body Image proposed by an advisory group that was appointed by the federal government. Kate Ellis, the Minister for Youth, has just released the government’s body image policy in response to the proposal. So, how has the policy shaped up?

I had praised the advisory group’s recommendations for a Body Image Friendly Schools Checklist, so I am happy to see that the government will be distributing posters based on the checklist to every primary and secondary school in the country.

Regarding the rest of the policy, I think the intentions are good and many of the principles are undeniably sensible. Stores stocking a broad range of clothing for all shapes and sizes? Of course I believe in this recommendation, and many similar recommendations. However, I also believe that girls and young women deserve stronger action than what this policy takes.

The government has introduced an industry code of conduct designed to encourage the media, fashion and advertising industries to promote more positive body image messages. I agree with most of the guidelines in the code, such as calling on companies to: promote positive body image messages; include images of a range of body shapes, sizes and ethnicities; not undermine positive body image editorial messages with negative advertising; use models who are of a healthy weight and appropriate age; and cater to diverse women. One aspect of the code I am suspect of is that it asks companies to not digitally alter images to an unrealistic or unattainable degree, and to tell consumers when they have altered images. Frankly, this recommendation seems inadequate. Doesn’t any Photoshopping send the message that women are not good enough the way they are? That aside, in large part, I think it will be a healthier world for our girls to grow up in if companies follow the code of conduct. But—and this is a big but—the code is only voluntary.

This seems profoundly naive to me. What media, fashion or advertising company is going to invest time and money in following a voluntary code—unless it’s good for their bottom line?

This brings me to my next reservation about the new policy . . .

A national body image friendly awards scheme is to be launched. Organisations, initiatives and products that receive awards will earn the right to display a body image friendly symbol. It’s like the body image equivalent of the Heart Foundation’s tick of approval. But surely companies will only vie to win an award if it helps their bottom line. Are we seeing the start of the commodification of positive body image? That’s a possibility that truly makes me shudder.

Already we have seen companies such as Unilever using the body image issue to sell products, through their Dove “real” beauty campaigns. Given that Uniliver employs incredibly negative body image messages to sell some of its other brands, such as Lynx, Slim Fast and Ponds Skin whitening cream in Asia, I think it’s fair to conclude that at least in that company, profit is more important than positive body image. (There has also been some questioning of just how real the images in those Dove campaigns are. If you want to find out more, there are articles in New York magazine and Jezebel about a hypocritical casting call for “beautiful” and “flawless” women for their next real beauty campaign. Dove has since put out a statement that they didn’t approve the casting call—though I notice that they haven’t denied an association with the casting company that issued it.)

My main concern is that a body image friendly symbol could become just another marketing tool to drive profit—and one that may well be fairly meaningless to the consumer if it doesn’t reflect the whole reality of a company’s body image messages.

Last year, I noted that the proposed national strategy had nothing to say on the sexualisation and objectification of women and girls. The government’s policy also fails to address these crucial issues, even though the pressure to be too sexy too soon is a major part of many girls’ body image dissatisfaction. Experts in child and adolescent development, parents and social commentators have identified the damaging rise in sexualisation and objectification as something we as a society need to act on now.  The Australian Psychological Society has issued guidelines and has lobbied extensively in Canberra. So, why the deafening silence in the government policy?

Melinda Tankard Reist has written a couple of thought-provoking blog posts on this gap in the policy. Among other things, she discussed the absurdity of the media touting the size 14 model Laura Wells as the ultimate in positive body image simply because she is not thin and is happy to pose almost nude, squeezing her breasts together for the camera. I agree wholeheartedly with what Melinda wrote in a follow-up post:

You can have a range of body shapes, sizes and ethnicities represented, but they can still be posed and styled in sexually objectifying ways. Objectification in a size 14 is still objectification.

Associate Professor Karen Brooks, of Southern Cross University, in her column in The Courier-Mail, like me agreed in principle with the aims of the policy but had reservations. She believes, as do I, that it is unfortunate that the advisory group did not seek opinions from a greater number of outside bodies and individuals with expertise in these issues. Karen also notes that the government’s allocation of funding has opened the way for beauty industry involvement in the teaching of positive body image in schools. I think such involvement is a whole world of wrong, akin to a fast food chain going into schools to promote healthy eating. That’s why Enlighten Education will always remain proudly independent, never accepting sponsorships or partnerships with corporations of any kind, especially beauty and fashion companies.

I also share Karen’s view that it is key for any in-school body image initiatives to be targeted at large groups of girls, over a sustained period. This is something that Enlighten believes in very strongly, because evidence shows that large-group interventions—say, with an entire grade—are far more effective than small-group ones of only a dozen or so girls. It is critical to spread the message to as large a number of girls at once as possible. That way, a girl’s whole peer group is speaking the same language, so the message isn’t undermined.

Over the next few months, the criteria for earning the government’s body image friendly symbol will be fine-tuned. I join with Karen Brooks in urging the advisory group to use this time to consult more widely with experts and with young people. I applaud the government for its good intentions and for acknowledging that negative body image among young people is a real issue that we all need to be concerned about. However, given the policy’s limitations, I again urge parents, teachers and community leaders to keep up the good work of combatting negative body image messages. In the end, it is our responsibility to be body image role models for girls and to send positive body image messages in what we say and what we do.

Girls in Trouble in a Post-Feminist World

Parents, teachers and all of us at Enlighten Education know in our hearts that girls and young women are in trouble and need our support. And the evidence is mounting to prove that we are right to be concerned.

A 19-year-long Scottish study published recently in the journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology showed that teenage girls are now the most depressed section of the population. The study, by Helen Sweeting, showed that girls were reporting mental disorders at a rate of 44%. More than a third felt “constantly under strain”. More than a quarter “felt they could not overcome their difficulties”. Between 1987 and 2006, the number of girls who “thought of themselves as worthless” trebled to 16%. Those who were so distressed they might need to be hospitalised rose threefold, to 18%.

And recent UK government research into 42,073 children between the ages of 10 and 15 concluded that:

The choices being made by teenage girls regarding diet, lifestyle and other health-related issues were so consistently damaging that they had become ‘a standalone group of the population’ requiring immediate intervention.

Amelia Hill, of London newspaper The Observer, reported on the research in her superb article After feminism: what are girls supposed to do? which I urge everyone to read.

Helen Sweeting, the author of the Scottish research, found it significant that her disturbing results came at a time of major upheavals in society — in Hill’s words, “the period in which girls began to outperform boys academically, and the obsession with celebrity culture and the pressure on younger and younger girls to become sexualised”.

Girls’ problems are caused by a combination of very modern problems, including the breakdown of the family, and the pressures of rampant consumerism and of educational expectations – the need, in short, to have things, look good and succeed all at the same time. Add to that the spread across society of increasingly cynical, individualistic values and beliefs, and you have a pretty toxic mix. — Helen Sweeting

For explanations, Hill turned to a number of experts, including Natasha Walter, author of the new book Living Dolls, The Return of Sexism:

Feminism’s own language of empowerment has been turned against it. The language of empowerment has been harnessed to confuse sexual liberation with sexual objectification. — Natasha Walter

I agree with Hill that girls are “growing up in an atmosphere of unapologetic crudity”. Stripping, she noted, “is widely cited as a method of empowerment”.

Girls feel pressured now in a way they never have been before to be thin, hyper-sexy, smart, glamorous, rich. And these expectations have created a “narcissism epidemic”. Respected American psychologist Jean Twenge studied almost 60 years’ worth of data on 37,000 American teenagers and found a staggering rise in the number of teens who score high on the narcissism personality index. And it is females who suffer the most from the depression and anxiety linked to narcissism, Hill noted.

The narcissist has huge expectations of themselves and their lives. Typically, they make predictions about what they can achieve that are unrealistic, for example in terms of academic grades and employment. They seek fame and status, and the achievement of the latter leads to materialism – money enables the brand labels and lavish lifestyle that are status symbols. — Jean Twenge

Other UK findings uncovered by Hill that make it impossible to deny that girls are in trouble include:

  • Hospital admissions for anorexia nervosa among teen girls have risen 80% in the last decade.
  • In the past year alone there has been a 50% rise in violent crime committed by young women.
  • One in three girls, and one in two boys, believe there are times when it is okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex.

It is clear that the pressure girls feel to be more and to have more has grown to the point that they are struggling to cope. They need our support and understanding right now. 

Thank you to Sarah Casey for bringing Amelia Hill’s article to my attention.

Seeking positive alternatives for girls  

Enlighten Education is proud to be working with schools and communities who are seeking answers for girls. I have recently returned from working with a number of schools in Christchurch, NZ, and spoke about this positive initiative on New Zealand’s Breakfast program:

To watch this interview, click on this image. You will be directed to the URL.
To watch this interview, click on the link above. You will be directed to the URL.

Wilderness College Adelaide is to be applauded for launching their “Raising Amazing Girls” program:

As part of the growing momentum around Australia to address the problems caused by unrealistic media and marketing images of women and the pressure for girls to grow up early, an extensive program will be launched today by Wilderness School to equip girls, and their parents, with the tools to help them navigate the ‘tweenie’ years.

This will include a series of practical seminars, open to all parents, as well as an intensive program working directly with the students at the school on issues such as the sexualisation of girls, digital citizenship and cyber-bullying. I am thrilled to be leading this for Wilderness and will be presenting to all the girls in the school, and to their parent community, later this month.

In Sydney, I will be offering parents practical strategies on raising happy, confident teen girls at a workshop on 16 March at Castle Hill Library. Tickets can be purchased online.  

I’d love to hear how you are providing the girls you care for with the urgent help they need. Let’s share our ideas and turn things around for girls in Australia and New Zealand . . . and set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

Model Obsession — Part 1: Body image

Huge numbers of girls dream of becoming a model. It really is almost an obsession. But a girl’s choice to pursue that dream can bring a mixture of pride, uncertainty and downright anxiety to her parents. I wanted to know more about why modelling is so very appealing to teen girls, and how the reality compares to the dream. So for insight, I turned to Enlighten Education presenter Nikki Davis, who spent a number of years dancing and modelling professionally after completing her BA Communications degree, and continues to do some modelling work. She writes my guest blog this week, looking at what makes modelling attractive to so many girls, and the self-esteem and body image issues that arise in the modelling world. At Enlighten we strive to help girls and their parents make informed decisions about the future, so in following weeks Nikki will talk about the positive aspects of being a model, along with the practicalities and the challenges. 

When girls I’m presenting to for Enlighten find out I have done modelling, there is this sense of awe. “What kind of modelling have you done?” “Are you on any television commercials?” “What magazines have you been in?” “What clothes, what designers?” They want to know everything!

Professional shots Nikki uses to promote herself with prospective clients.
Professional shots I use to promote myself to prospective clients.

When I was 14, I started at a new dance school that also had a modelling agency, and I began getting my first serious offers of work. The fact that people were approaching me to do modelling was very exciting to me. If someone said to Mum, “Can we do photos of your daughter?” my little ears pricked up. The thing that frustrated me about my mum as a child — but that I’m thankful for now — is that she didn’t really allow me to do any professional work until I was about 16. That was when I did a Channel 7 ad, and I was absolutely blown away by the glamour of it all.

The main reason that I was drawn to modelling, and why I think girls are now, was the simple pleasure of having confirmation that I was special. It validates that you have the “right” look. You think breaking into modelling will cancel out any of your self-esteem issues and doubts because it means that you are what society thinks is beautiful and special.

But of course the reality is far more complicated than that.

Me to Vin Diesel's right - complete with fake tatoo!
Me to Vin Diesel's right (complete with fake tattoo)

In some ways modelling does make you feel special, and in some ways the glamour does come through. I remember once I was in the newspaper after being hired to walk the red carpet with Vin Diesel. I’d had a totally glamorous makeover, and I thought I looked pretty amazing — I loved it! The next day, I had all these people I went to school with — funnily enough some of whom had teased me at school — texting and emailing me. And that kind of thing is fun.

Then sometimes it all comes crashing down.

You’ve been feeling pretty special sitting in the hair and makeup chair for 3 hours before a shoot or a catwalk show, and you go over to the rack of clothes . . . and you don’t fit the pair of jeans they’ve given you. All of a sudden you land with a thud back on Earth. So at each job, you would walk in feeling nervous. It was a panicky feeling; your heart would beat quickly. If you didn’t fit something, you’d have to put your hand up in the crowded fitting room and say, “I don’t fit this, and a dresser needs to go and get me the next size up,” and someone would shout across, “Aw, Nikki doesn’t fit the size 10; you have to get her a 12.” On one occasion, I had a photographer who was used to working with very thin high-fashion models say out loud, “I can’t position her in a way that doesn’t make her legs look fat!”

When these things were happening to me, I was around 19 to 21, and like most women that age, my body was changing a lot. I tried a low-carb diet and lost a bit of weight, and the other models and the dressers started praising me, saying, “Oh! Oh, you’ve lost weight. Oh, you need a smaller size in this!” Many unhealthy relationships with food and exercise have been started this way. I was given so much positive feedback that I became quite obsessed with not putting the weight back on — which is of course exactly what I did, because I became so concerned with weighing my food and denying myself that when no one was looking I’d eat four blocks of chocolate.

It was also around this time that fashion swung from the Cindy Crawford look to Kate Moss, and clients wanted the quite skinny girls. It blew my mind that my figure was out of fashion. I thought if I lost weight and I was smaller, everything would be good because I’d be making more money and I’d have a better career. The pressure that your income relies on how much food you put in your mouth is really overwhelming.

At that stage of my life I had just finished uni and wasn’t focusing on much else than modelling and dancing, and that was a big part of the problem. I think that’s when modelling gets a bit dangerous: when it’s all you’ve got going on. All you’re thinking about is your body all the time, and your looks all the time, with nothing else to distract you.

My advice to young models is to always have something else going on in your life as well. To be studying, to be learning another language, to be writing or producing art, to be training as an actor or TV presenter — something else that’s not pure modelling. It is important not to get so hung up on looks that you lose perspective. I have met models who won’t go out with their friends because they have to stay home and put four coats of fake tan on. You can get so caught up in looks that you forget to live.

Finally, I relaxed into the idea: “This is who I am. Book me or don’t book me. Don’t book me and then torture me when I get there because I don’t fit something.” It’s so hard for young girls, because they don’t have that maturity. I didn’t have that attitude until I was 27. I’d had time by then to develop the other parts of me. I’d been writing for a dance magazine, and I’d been working in production and events, so I knew I had a lot more to offer than just my looks. That self-confidence takes time to develop, which is why if you skip uni and go straight into modelling when you’re 17 and you do put on weight or your look goes out of fashion, it can seriously affect you.

I am grateful that my parents always made me feel as though my appearance and success at modelling weren’t the most important achievements in my life. How well I did at school and how I treated other people were more valued. I don’t want to give the impression that modelling is only full of negatives for girls, because there is good stuff to be had from modelling — but it is crucial that we put a girl’s looks into perspective, stressing that the kind of validation modelling brings is not the be-all and end-all, and prettiness is not the most important value a girl has to offer.

The good stuff to be had from modelling? Increased confidence, interpersonal skills, resilience — these are a few of the qualities it can help girls develop. Next week, I’ll get into those positives, along with some hard practical realities of making a living out of modelling. Until then, we would love to hear about your experiences with girls and modelling.

Nikki Davis,  BA (Communications), is an Enlighten Education presenter based in Sydney. She has worked as a model, dancer, dance teacher, scriptwriter, magazine editor, and video and special events producer. Training to be a volunteer telephone counsellor with Lifeline gave Nikki the opportunity to explore her interest in counselling and psychotherapy, which she continues to study. She has a special interest in social issues related to girls and women. (Nikki also just happens to have been one of my favourite and most talented students when I was a high school English teacher. I adored her so much, I just had to keep her! — Danni)

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

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