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Generation Cleanskin: Part 2

In part 2 of Susan Johnson’s excellent investigative piece on teens and body image that I introduced here last week, she looks at the effects of the unprecedented pressure on girls to wax and to see dieting as an essential part of being a woman. I am pleased to have contributed my voice to those of the experts quoted in this part of her must-read feature!

 

If anxiety over body size has long been recognised as part of the territory for teenage girls, now a new pressure has been added: being free of body hair, as if perpetually pre-pubescent. Once common only to Middle Eastern cultures, bodybuilding, gay culture and pornography, body hair removal has permeated mainstream culture, making its greatest impact on young women. Fashionista Victoria Beckham’s wish (“I love Brazilians – they ought to be compulsory at 15, don’t you think?”) looks as if it may be granted.

Since the late 1990s – when television show Sex and the City popularised the “Brazilian”, a hair removal practice that originated with the G-string bikinis of Rio – waxing or shaving the pubic area has become increasingly common. One American study estimated that 20 per cent of American and Australian women now remove their pubic hair, the largest group being women under 25.

Exact statistics do not exist in Australia to quantify the proportion of teenagers denuding themselves of body hair, but the anecdotal evidence is telling: at a Brisbane high school Year 12 formal last year, talk among those who attended revealed there was only one girl in the Year 12 class who went to the dance with body hair. The rest came sans leg hair, underarm hair and pubic hair.

The recent proliferation of waxing clinics throughout Queensland, together with the increase in waxing injuries seen in doctors’ surgeries and hospitals, suggests body hair removal is undergoing a popularity boom. An inner-city doctor told Qweekend she had seen a marked increase in her practice of burns and infections as a result of hot wax accidents. In Victoria, the Monash University Accident Research Centre’s Victorian Injury Surveillance Unit estimated about 90 people a year were admitted to hospital with waxing injuries.

One of Queensland’s biggest chains of waxing salons, Brazilian Beauty, is owned by Francesca Webster, 39, and her partner Andrew Bryant, 41. They opened a store in inner Brisbane’s New Farm in 2004 and now have 14 salons throughout Queensland and interstate, many of them franchised, with an annual turnover of $10 million. Although it is company policy not to treat anyone under 18 for Brazilian waxes, Webster says they sometimes see mothers bringing in daughters for bikini-line waxing before swimming carnivals.

Dannielle Miller, a Sydney author and CEO of Enlighten Education, which specialises in girls and body image, is not surprised that young women are now facing yet another pressure regarding body image. In her work lecturing in schools, she sees some 20,000 young women annually and says she is “staggered” by the overwhelming number of teenage girls unhappy with their own bodies. “Almost 99 per cent of young girls will say they are overweight, or not beautiful enough, or that they need to be changed in some way,” Miller says. “In our desperation to combat obesity, which may or may not be valid, there is now such a fear of fat in our culture that one of the results is girls doubting their bodies and thinking that their value is measured in the numbers on the scales.”

Miller says an overwhelming number of young girls have mothers who are on a perpetual diet. “Girls see dieting as a rite of passage and part of what it means to be a young woman in our culture: to be a female is to be on a diet. Girls learn very early that they need to take up less space … the ultimate glass ceiling for girls seems to be the bathroom mirror.”

According to Miller’s data, seven out of ten 15-year-old girls are on a diet, with 8 per cent “severely dieting”. She says that 94 per cent of teenage girls “wish that they were more beautiful” and 25 per cent say they would like to change “everything physical” about themselves.

Boys appear to be catching up with girls in potentially dangerous dieting practices, including starvation, purging or vomiting: 16 per cent of girls have engaged in such practices and 7 per cent of boys. “Pressures on young males are definitely on the increase,” says Miller.

A mother of a 10-year-old son, plus two daughters aged 17 and 13, Miller says that “parents are deeply concerned about this stuff”. She argues that magazines with airbrushed and photographed images, combined with television reality programs such as The Biggest Loser, have created a culture of hysteria about fat. “I’m not by any means pro-fat; of course not, I’m pro-health, and if you’ve got a child who isn’t healthy, then absolutely focus on health as a priority. But I think it’s an urban myth that Australia is a country with an obesity problem. When you speak to health professionals it’s clear that a definition of obesity depends on the criteria used to define obesity. The BMI [Body Mass Index] is actually a very antiquated and one-dimensional measurement … sometimes it’s the definition itself that causes the problem.”

Miller argues that the definition of health should be broader. The narrow focus on body weight and dieting among adult Australians is negatively affecting our young people. “Statistics show that 95 per cent of people on a formal diet will have regained and added some extra weight within the next five years. Formal diets don’t work … it’s a bad example for our children and we are setting them up for a long-term dysfunctional relationship with food.”

 

This is an excerpt from Susan Johnson’s article “Generation Cleanskin”, which appeared in the Courier-Mail’s QWeekend. Check in next week for the final instalment, when teen girls and boys talk candidly about their attitudes to — and angst about — body image.

Generation Cleanskin: Part 1

I am excited to be able to share with you an outstanding article on teens and body image, for which Australian journalist Susan Johnson extensively interviewed leading experts and kids themselves. With thanks to the Courier-Mail’s QWeekend, which originally published it, I will be presenting this engaging and important piece in three instalments over the coming weeks. In Part 1 this week, Johnson investigates why girls and boys are both feeling unprecedented pressure to fit a narrow body image ideal . . .

 

Skinny and denuded of body hair if you are a teenage girl and “built” and “muscled up” if you are a teenage boy: welcome to a world in which children as young as eight feel anxiety about body image. If Western society is supposed to be more “equal” than ever before, then idealised notions of what a teenage girl should look like and what a teenage boy should look like tell a different story. In this tale, all the girls look like anorexic 12-year-old lingerie models and all the boys resemble the Incredible Hulk.

Once the province of starving teenage girls, “body dysmorphia” is the term used when anorexics look in the mirror and see a fat girl looking back. Now the term “muscle dysmorphia” – sometimes also colloquially known as “bigorexia” – is increasingly used in relation to the body image issues of teenage boys. Today, both sexes are feeling the pressure.

Dr Lina Ricciardelli, associate professor in psychology at Melbourne’s Deakin University, has researched and written a number of papers on children and body image. In a 2009 study of children aged between eight and 11, she and her team found that 25 per cent of girls compared their weight to their peers, while 26 per cent of boys compared their muscles. By the time these children are teenagers, body image pressure can seem overwhelming.

Ricciardelli found that worries about body image can develop at an early age. “Children regularly compare their height, weight and muscles with their peers and this is natural, but on the flip side it can have serious implications when children are still developing their self-perceptions and identities,” she says.

The study threw up some interesting differences between boys and girls: “Girls were more likely to focus on their peers who they felt had a better body, particularly on those features they wish they had or could change, whereas boys tended to focus on their strengths and used social comparisons to feel good about themselves, helping to build their self-esteem. While comparisons seem to help boys to feel more positive and confident, girls tend to show signs of lower self-esteem and feel more discontent with their figures.”

However, the most recent comprehensive national survey into young Australians and body image conducted in 2008 by Mission Australia found that body image was an issue of concern for a staggering 22.2 per cent of Australian boys and young men aged 11–24 years old. And, according to 2011 statistics by the Victorian Government’s Better Health Channel website (produced in association with Eating Disorders Victoria), about 3 per cent of Australian teenage boys now use muscle-enhancing drugs such as steroids.

In an article in InPysch, the journal of the Australian Psychological Society (APS), the largest professional association for psychologists in Australia, Steven Gregor noted that while women and adolescent girls have had to deal with pressures regarding body image for years, what is new is “that men and adolescent boys are now under the exact same pressures”.

He quotes Elaine Hosie, a registered psychologist and a director of counselling working with adolescent males, about the influence and role of the media: “The media promotes a certain idealised image of what it means to be a male. In regard to the body image debate, the media plays a large role in the idealised notion of what it is to grow from a child, to an adolescent, to an adult male.”

Hosie and Ricciardelli agree on the pernicious influence of the media as a major contributing factor to teenage body image anxiety. Ricciardelli says that “without question the media is completely saturated with images of thin, ‘ideal’ bodies, much more than ever before. Plus there are mass media of more kinds than ever before; the internet has thrown up such things as [social media website] Facebook and online videos and on and on and on. There are increasingly sophisticated technologies and marketing strategies now.”

It is not only the multiplication of media but its increased sophistication that has transformed the media into such a powerful tool of influence: where once a photograph was a recorder of images and the camera did not lie, now a photograph can cheat and distort and a photograph will never again be simply a photograph.

“The media is manipulating bodies much more,” says Ricciardelli. Between dangerously skinny models, boys with six-packs and Photoshop, the gap between ordinary flesh-and-blood girls and boys and idealised images of girls and boys has grown wider and wider.

There are no statistics on the numbers of young men and boys using private gyms in Queensland but anecdotal evidence indicates that the worship of the “built” male body, previously only seen in gay and bodybuilding cultures, has made its way into mainstream culture too, and particularly into teenage male culture. When popular young amateur Sydney bodybuilder Aziz Shavershian (known as “Zyzz”) died last year of a heart attack, probably brought on by his steroid use, he had 120,000 followers on Facebook, many of them teenage boys: now his page (maintained by fans) has 283,266 “likes”.

Dr Peter West, formerly of the University of Sydney’s Research Group on Men and Families and author of a landmark paper on boys, men and body image in 2000, says that in the 12 years since his study, body dysmorphia has only increased. “When I was growing up in the ’50s bodybuilders were regarded as weird; no-one went to the gym, unless you were doing boxing or something. Everyone just went to the beach or played cricket or football. It’s not like that today,” he says.

Of course, for as long as there have been human bodies, there have been inventive ways to fashion them: from African and Amazonian peoples inserting clay plates into their bottom lips, to Indian women putting jewels into their nostrils. Fashions come and go, too: in ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures men regularly removed all body hair, possibly because the pre-pubescent and newly pubescent hair-free, androgynous male body (rather than the female body) was believed to be the embodiment of beauty.

Dr Ricciardelli of Deakin University’s other area of expertise is male beauty and body image throughout history. She argues that the male body has been evaluated and scrutinised as an aesthetic ideal since ancient times. What has changed, however, is that today many boys are internalising messages promoted by a powerful media. “[There is a] perceived pressure that women are expecting men to shape up to the media images,” she says. Her studies have found that leanness and youthfulness as well as a sculpted appearance have become important standards of male beauty. In pursuit of this ideal, Ricciardelli’s studies suggest that up to 60 per cent of young adult men in the US and Australia have removed body hair (below the neck) at least once.

Ricciardelli is one of an increasing number of academics and psychologists advocating preventative work with teenage boys. In the APS InPysch article, Elaine Hosie argues that more psychologists, medical practitioners and teachers need to work together to ensure better outcomes for teenage boys: “I would say it [body image dissatisfaction] is not something that’s in their [adolescent boys’] awareness. The reason for coming to a counsellor would be about more concrete issues such as: ‘I’m doing really badly at school’, or ‘my girlfriend has dropped me’, or ‘I can’t get a girlfriend’, or ‘I don’t like my teacher’ – they externalise things; they blame the world. [But] these are the presenting issues, which often mask more serious health concerns such as body image dissatisfaction.”

Ricciardelli believes treatment needs to take into account “cognitive adjustment of distorted views about themselves” – just like teenage girls with anorexia.

 

I am pleased to have contributed my voice to those of the experts quoted in Part 2 of this feature, which I’ll bring you next week. In it, Johnson delves into issues such as the pressure on girls to diet and remove all their body hair. 

Susan Johnson, a full-time journalist at Qweekend magazine, is the author of seven novels; a book of essays, On Beauty (part of the Melbourne University Press series Little Books on Big Themes); and a memoir about her experiences of motherhood, A Better Woman.

Body image and self-esteem programs: What really works?

Doing what I love: Presenting to girls

All school children should take part in compulsory body image and self-esteem lessons.

This is the finding of a three-month inquiry by the British government into young people, body image and self-esteem.

Yes! Governments are now at least trying to catch up with parents and educators who have been concerned for years that girls and boys are hurting because of the unrelenting pressure to fit narrow, impossible-to-achieve physical ideals.

I am heartened by the fact that British MPs from across the political spectrum declared that body image and self-esteem lessons should be compulsory for all children. The Australian government didn’t go quite that far when it established policies based on the work of its National Advisory Group on Body Image. The Australian policies are a start, but as I’ve discussed here before, I think they need strengthening before they will bring about the impact that is needed.

Just as they do in Britain,  kids in Australia and New Zealand need more body image and self-esteem programs in schools – and just as crucially, they need the right type of programs. So, when it comes to body image and self-esteem programs, what really works?

The British inquiry confirmed that media images of unrealistic bodies are largely to blame for young people’s body image angst and self-esteem battles. This is why we think it is so important to equip girls with media literacy skills. Policing and patronising simply won’t work, as anyone who’s ever tried banning TV, taking away internet privileges or chucking out magazines will tell you. The end result is usually a resentful girl and an atmosphere of distrust at home. Besides, no matter how hard you try to stem the tide of harmful images, they are everywhere – on billboards, the sides of buses, you name it. The best gift we can give girls is to help them develop lifelong skills to look at advertising and media critically, deconstruct them and make up their own minds. Only then will those photoshopped images representing the ideal woman lose their seductive and damaging power.

At Enlighten, what we want to see are girls with healthy all-round self-esteem based not on appearance alone but on all that a girl has to offer the world. Her brains, compassion, humour, business smarts, sporting ability, musical talents – whatever her own unique attributes happen to be. A big part of creating healthy self-esteem is building up resilience, the ability to bounce back after facing adversity. It is important for kids to have a solid sense of their own self worth so that they don’t crumble when things don’t work out as they hoped – when their marks aren’t as good as they expected on a test, their boyfriend drops them, they don’t get a role in the school musical. The stakes only get higher as kids grow up and face adversity as adults, which makes it vital to develop coping skills from a young age.

So we love what Geelong Grammar is doing. Teachers there are following the principles of “positive education”, which was developed by US psychologist and educator Martin Seligman, who is probably best known for his book Authentic Happiness. In positive education, students are taught not only traditional school subjects but also the skills to be happy and resilient.

This is not about kids walking around with a smile on their face, ignoring critical human emotion. It’s about a flourishing person who is in control of their emotion, who can deal with adversity, knows that adversity is going to hit them and there will be sad times and bad times, but they can bounce back from that. Geelong Grammar Vice-Principal Charlie Scudamore

Some public schools in Victoria have adopted a similar approach and are seeing great results, and South Australia is doing a pilot study with Seligman to see whether they should introduce positive education in all schools in the state system.

Feeling the love: Me with a beautiful girl who brought her well-worn copy of my book for teen girls along when I presented at her school

Positivity is crucial when working with girls, because only by embracing the positive and connecting with girls’ hearts can we truly effect change. Often girls shuffle into our presentations expecting the usual lecture – do this, don’t do that – but leave on a high because we create a positive, loving vibe and an atmosphere of fun in order to get very serious messages across. We see the results in the faces of the girls as they light up, and we know that the impact lasts long after the girls have left school for the day. We hear it from parents:

I had two daughters come home this afternoon absolutely passionate about their experience with Enlighten Ed today, it seems to have been able 2reignite all the girl power I’ve been sending their way since they were toddlers, except in a fun, fascinating, non-dorky-mother atmosphere. Thanks for trying so hard to equip our little girls for the harsh and hideously sexualised world that lies ahead 🙂 – Olivia Brasington

And we hear it from educators and the girls themselves. One of the schools we work with in Tasmania drafted a reflective survey for their girls one year after we presented there. When asked if the presentation made a long-lasting change to the way they behave towards other people, responses included:

Yes, I believe it did. I have a better perspective of my life, and how I see myself and other people.

Yes, I have come to respect who people are and what they believe in.

Yes! I have stopped basing everything on looks and started looking at the inside of people. I’ve realised I can have amazing friends that don’t need to be popular or pretty. I’ve started being more happy with myself.

We are always trying to find new ways to get serious messages across in playful ways that engage girls. Recently we produced these stickers designed to go on mirrors and provoke thought and discussion. The stickers are on sale at our site, where we also offer free resources to engage girls, such as our beautiful-looking iPhone app and wallpapers with inspiring and empowering messages.

A school where we regularly present has ordered a sticker for every school bathroom mirror . . . including those in the boys’ toilets. The school told us:

It’s exactly the type of message we want our students to understand and it is delivered in a way which will engage them and get them thinking and talking.

And this is the most important part of all, the key to any program or intervention with young people: get them thinking, get them talking. Create a supportive environment for ideas to take root and flourish. Win their hearts, so that their minds will follow. And always, always keep the lines of communication open.

 

The real barriers to women in leadership

I was honoured and thrilled to receive an Australian Leadership Award at the ADC Future Summit. But, oh irony of ironies, one of the lasting impressions I took home from my trip to Melbourne for the summit was just how much work we still need to do to give our girls the opportunity to shine in leadership.

Picture me sitting there with more than 50 business leaders. I looked around, and I realised that I was one of only 5 women in the room. We made up less than 10%. Do women contribute less than 10% to the world’s wealth and wisdom? If that were the case, then I guess a less-than-10% representation in leadership could be expected. But it’s not the case, is it? If any proof were needed, according to APEC, women are vastly underrepresented in leadership positions compared to their contribution to the economy and business, and their level of education.

Some of the barriers to women becoming leaders are tangible, such as inadequate childcare and lost chances for promotion for many women when they take maternity leave. But most of the barriers are culturally embedded, which makes them far more slippery and hard to pin down. Research has shown that in our culture there is a deeply ingrained belief that the qualities of a leader are assertiveness and competitiveness, and that these are male traits, while women are meant to be nice and compassionate. (Why our culture sees being nice and compassionate as at odds with leadership is an interesting question in itself.)

The workplace that today’s girls will inherit is undoubtedly a fairer one compared with previous generations, as there is now legislation to protect them against discrimination and harassment, and to enshrine their right to maternity leave. But you can’t legislate against cultural constructs. In fact, legal and accountancy firms and banks have found a way to get around the legislation so they can keep clinging to a deeply rooted cultural construct: that one of women’s roles in the workplace is to provide “some eye candy for the boys”, as Nina Funnell wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. (Karen Brooks also wrote a great piece about this, in the Courier-Mail.) The law prevents senior management from telling female employees how they should look, so increasingly, companies are bringing in independent style consultants to tell female employees how they should look. (The men get to stay at their desks and keep working. I guess their wives and girlfriends should sort out their clothing choices for them, right? *Sarcasm alert!*)

In these “training” sessions, what do the stylists suggest women do to be taken seriously in their careers? Keep up with fashion. Wear high heels. Wear conservative makeup — and that means lipstick only, no lip gloss.

Okay, ladies, what are you waiting for? Now you’ve been let in on the secret, get out there and boost those statistics for women in leadership!

Danni vs the fashion police -- I do love a nice kaftan

I felt like a rebel at the ADC Summit and updated my Facebook status to: “Channelling Nina and Karen today in the fight against the corporate fashion police. Am one of only 5 women in a room of 50+ business leaders. Every one is in black or grey. I’m wearing my uber bright kaftan and have daringly glossed my lips.” How crazy is it that the act of wearing colours and lip gloss can feel like a radical statement for a woman?

All of this got me thinking about the messages we send girls when we criticise their fashion choices or shame them for turning up to school wearing lip gloss. Are we inadvertently reinforcing the sense that it’s okay to judge girls by what they wear rather than what they do?

Corporations bringing in style consultants might be a new phenomenon, but underpinning it is a very old idea: that no matter how accomplished and talented a woman or girl is, she must still fit within a narrow ideal of femininity. For teens, that ideal is expressed in music videos and ads and movies in which being a woman is all about one thing: how hot you are. In the grown-up workplace version, high heels and lipstick maketh the career woman. Hillary Clinton gets picked apart for failing to wear makeup when giving a speech. Julia Gillard’s bottom is a topic of public debate. This policing of appearance is undoubtedly a major barrier to more women taking leadership roles. As one of my Facebook friends commented, “Why would you want to leave yourself open to that?”

The revelations from my time at the summit went beyond fashion. David Moffatt, Chairman of Asurion Australia, gave the opening address, in which he discussed something very laudable: that companies should create flexible, family-friendly workplaces. He talked about his moment of truth, when his son called him at work and said, “Dad, you have been travelling for work half my life. I want you to come home.” His son was then 10 and David had indeed spent the equivalent of 5 years travelling for work. David left the office, went home, played with his son and vowed to back off on the travel. The audience were tremendously supportive and literally sighed at what a great guy he was to have rushed home and slowed down.

And I applaud him for doing it . . . but I also couldn’t help wondering whether a woman would have dared to share a similar story, for fear of being judged a bad mother. Rather than supportive sighs, I imagine she might be met with shocked silence as the audience thought to themselves: “What? She missed half her child’s life?” I turned to the woman next to me, who was looking fondly at David, and asked her what she honestly would have thought if a woman had shared the same story. “Truly? I would have thought, ‘Suck it up, princess, you made your choices!'” she said. She and I both reflected on what a long way we still have to go.

Another moment that got me thinking at the summit came when a social entrepreneur was introduced and at a particular line in his bio — “He also enjoys jumping on the trampoline with his son” — there were very warm smiles from the audience, giggles and looks of admiration. Would a woman leader have dared include this in her bio, for fear of looking frivolous and lightweight? Would the response have been the same? She might have had a tough job convincing the audience that she had a serious message to get across. There is a persistent and infuriating double standard at work: child-rearing isn’t meaningful work — unless it’s done by a man, in which case it’s not only meaningful, it’s beautiful and heroic.

I deeply respect both men for stepping up at home and for sharing their parenting stories in public. I think that if more men did both of those things, we would all benefit — men, women and children. But I question the current mind set in which male business leaders who take an active role in parenting are seen as almost noble, whilst women who try to combine motherhood and business are seen as either unprofessional at work or bad mothers at home.

In the plane on the way back to Sydney, I read in the papers about the virtues of attachment parenting (read: “attachment mothering”) and that studies have shown that children are sad because their parents work too much (given how strongly men have been encouraged to be career focused for generations, read: “mothers work too much”). Yet the surveyed children were simultaneously unwilling to help around the house to maximize the time they had with their parents at home.

Indeed, housework is a domestic battleground at my place. I don’t think my family are by any means unusually uncooperative: I am far from the only woman who walks in exhausted from a business trip to be greeted by mountains of laundry, a messy house and kids with a list of domestic grievances. The reality — and one of the most firmly established barriers to women attaining leadership — is that no matter how much women work outside the home, they are still expected to do the lion’s share of the work at home as well.

How do we get rid of this barrier for women, and for the women our girls will soon become? We chip away it, bit by bit. We try to teach our children, boys and girls, from an early age that there is no such thing as “women’s work” or “men’s work”. We play music and dance to try to make housework fun. We write long, impassioned letters to our kids about the unfairness of expecting their mother, by virtue of being a woman, to do everything around the house. (Okay, maybe it’s just me who does that!) At school, we think twice before saying, “Take this note home to Mum”, and when we notice that the girls are doing all the “housekeeping” type of tasks in a mixed-gender group project, we step in and make the boys responsible, too.

The Rise of Baldness . . . in Teenage Girls

Vaginal aesthetics are in the news again this week. I’ve discussed on this blog before the increasing pressure on girls and women to have genitals that conform to a false ideal — by making them hairless, surgically trimming the labia to match photoshopped images from porn, and oh, let’s not forget vajazzling!

Now the Australian government, in an attempt to tighten the health-care budget, is reviewing the eligibility for the Medicare safety net of vulvoplasty and labiaplasty surgeries performed outside hospitals. The surgery is eligible for the safety net when it’s done not for cosmetic reasons but for treating “painful or embarrassing” conditions, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. This leads me to wonder if society’s definition of “embarrassing” has changed in the past decade, given that, as the Herald notes, “the number of these procedures done outside hospital attracting payments under the Medicare safety net has nearly doubled in recent years to 191 in 2010, at a cost of $427,551.” It’s hard to believe that serious conditions affecting women’s genitals have doubled. Instead, it seems that for increasing numbers of people, having labia at all seems to have become a cause for embarrassment.

So too with another completely natural part of being female: pubic hair. I was fascinated to read a recent account by Enlighten Education’s sexuality education expert, Rachel Hansen, on the pressure in the schools she visits for girls to conform to a porn ideal of hairless genitals. Rachel wrote in her blog post “The Rise of Baldness”:

Vulvas. There are billions of them out there, and they are a pretty diverse collection. I am no geneticist, but I would say there was as much diversity in vulvas as there is in fingerprints. And as long as women have had vulvas, in most cultures they have been covered in pubic hair. Until recently…

A few weeks ago I was visiting a Catholic all-girls’ high school. I had never been there before and I was meeting with the school counsellor and the Deputy Principal for the first time. They had come straight from the staff room, where it sounded like a very lively discussion had been taking place. After we greeted each other, the Deputy Principal said that before we started the meeting they would love my opinion on the topic the staff had been musing over during morning tea. Of course I said yes – very curious by this point!

“We are all trying to work out WHY none of our senior girls have pubic hair.”

(Apparently the topic had come up in a health class discussion.)

And we are not talking about delayed puberty here. We’re talking about teen girls, and why it is the norm to have a vulva stripped of hair.

These days, many girls tell me about the immense pressure to look a particular way now extends to their vulva. It’s not enough to have perfect legs, a flat stomach and blemish-free skin – their vulva must also be bald.

Why indeed is a generation of teen girls finding themselves under immense pressure to wax or shave all their pubic hair? Because it certainly wasn’t like this 15 years ago when I was at high school. We’d shave our bikini line when necessary – just enough to ensure no stray hairs were visible when swimming. But if anyone had suggested getting rid of it all, I am sure we would have been appalled. In fact, I remember girls in my first year of high school proudly displaying their pubic hair growth – for us it was a sign of maturity, of leaving girlhood behind. Now it seems that as soon as pubic hair appears, girls are feeling the pressure to get rid of it so their vulvas resemble a prepubescent child.

I want to talk a little about pornography. . . .

This generation of youth are being exposed to explicit pornography in a way that generations before just were not. According to Big Porn Inc. “Pornography has become a global sex education handbook for many boys, with an estimated 70 per cent of boys in Australia having seen pornography by the age of 12 and 100 per cent by the age of 15.” In one recent Canadian study of boys aged 13-14, more than a third viewed porn movies and DVDs “too many times to count”.

The impact of this early viewing of explicit porn on girls’ vulvas?

If boys are getting their primary sex education from pornography, their expectation is that vulvas come in one model – hair-free. And if this is what the boys expect, many girls will comply.

I would add that it is not only boys who see these porn images. For most girls, the only opportunity to compare their genitals to those of others is through pornographic images. And those images simply do not reflect reality, for they are altered — with waxing, Photoshopping and I’m sure in some cases by plastic surgery. As I wrote in my book The Butterfly Effect, teenage girls “see the look modelled by the women on porn sites and believe exposing their genitals in this way will make them hotter”. And while boys may be the ones primarily watching the porn, the pressure may be coming just as much from girls, as Rachel points out:

One teen girl commented that it wasn’t pressure from boys to wax – it was the pressure from her girlfriends. Teens are desperate to fit in – I know that should I have been a teen in this era, there would be no way I would have wanted to be the only girl in the changing rooms with pubic hair. Hair-free vulvas are now entirely the norm. . . .

The thing that really concerns me is that no part of a girl’s body now seems immune to the beauty pressure. The pressure starts so young and this is a ‘trend’ that is driven by a misogynistic porn culture seeping in to our everyday lives. It makes me sad to think of girls being so ashamed of their vulvas in their natural state.

I haven’t got a simple solution. Other than to talk talk talk with our children. They need to know that the pornography that they are likely to see (inadvertently or not) is not real. That is not what women look like; that is not how people experience loving relationships. Give girls the message that they are beautiful as they are, and teach both boys and girls the beauty in diversity.

Rachel Hansen is the progam manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand and is an experienced educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Rachel is the founder of Good Talks, an organisation that offers sexuality education to schools and parents.

Celebrating the Awesomeness of Teenage Girls

This is a very exciting week for me, with my book written especially for teen girls, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, now on sale! At the launch party I was honoured and touched to be surrounded by inspiring men and women, including the writers Nina Funnell and Emily Maguire, who gave passionate, articulate and thought-provoking speeches. I wish that all of you Enlightened Amazons could have been there to hear what these incredible women had to say. For now, I’m sharing Emily’s speech here, as today’s guest post.

Emily Maguire is the author of three novels and two non-fiction books. Her articles and essays have been published widely including in The Monthly, The Australian and The Age and in 2007 she received an Edna Ryan Award (Media Category) for her writing on women’s issues. Emily was named as a 2010 Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year and is the recipient of the 2011 NSW Writers’ Fellowship. Her latest book is “Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice.”

Nina Funnell, Emily Maguire and Dannielle Miller celebrate the launch of "The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo"

About five years ago, I found myself increasingly annoyed by the overwhelmingly negative, often completely, stupidly wrong media coverage of young people, particularly young women. As I’m sure many of you have noticed, almost everything written or screened on TV about teenage girls presents them as either sex-mad airheads or sweet, delicate flowers. Either out-of-control tarts ruining society or innocent angels being ruined by society.

As a writer, I felt I was in a good position to address some of this crap. I wrote about my own experience as a teenager and about the lives of teenage girls and young women I knew. I undertook research in order to understand and write about the teenage girls and women I didn’t know, and along with some analysis of the representation of young women in pop culture and the mass media, this became my first non-fiction book, Princesses & Pornstars.

I – and my publisher – decided that a revised edition, especially for teens, was worth doing. So I did a second round of researching and writing, and the result was Your Skirt’s Too Short.

Thanks to these two books, I’ve spent the past four years speaking to and about young women across Australia. And among the many things I have learnt, two related facts stand out: 1) the majority of teenage girls are thoughtful, hard-working, creative, perceptive and resilient; and 2) many adults have absolutely no idea that this is true.

Consider these headlines from mainstream newspapers in the past year:

‘Lies, scams and deceit – just your average teenage girl’ (The Age, April 2011)

‘Our Teens Undress to Impress’ (Daily Telegraph, June 2011)

‘Do you know what your daughter’s doing tonight?’  (the (sydney) magazine, June 2011)

No wonder so many girls feel misunderstood. The version of their lives presented as news is a salacious cartoon; the characters meant to represent them are sexually loose magnets for trouble, not necessarily because they’re bad, but because they’re morally retarded and culturally illiterate.

The sad thing is that, often, parents buy into it, thinking that they’re learning essential information that will help them raise their daughters safely, when all it will really help them do is either infect their daughters with their own fear and panic or utterly alienate them.

To illustrate, here’s a short excerpt from an email I received from a 16-year-old Adelaide girl:

Seriously, I am so sick of my mum acting all suspicious every time I check my phone, just because she read another stupid story about teenagers sending crotch shots to each other. I’m too embarrassed to wear a bikini to the beach and she thinks I’m going to send people pictures of myself naked?

I was reminded of something a 17-year-old email buddy wrote:

It’s like ‘teen girl’ is this newly discovered species. Nothing we do has ever been done by humans. Nothing we feel has ever been felt. We are ‘teen girls’ doing things for our mysterious ‘teen girl’ reasons.

She’s right: so much of the media coverage takes this weird anthropological distance. The reporter stands back and pokes at the edges of this bizarre tribe, notes one aspect of their interactions, writes down the two most adult-shocking sentences and then declares some terrifying truth about the entire species.

We need a reality check: despite the often hostile world we adults have created for them, the majority of girls are not dopey, fragile creatures lurching from life-threatening crisis to life-ruining mistake. They work part-time, play sport, have supportive friendships and thrilling romances. They’re passionate about books, music and sport. They have exciting plans for when they finish school, and most have a good chance of fulfilling them.

Of course, the general awesomeness of teenage girls shouldn’t be taken as evidence that all is rosy in their world. There is, for example, the barrage of media messages about their apparent physical unacceptability. According to the 2010 Mission Australia Youth survey, body image is the number one personal concern of young people in Australia. Sexual assault also remains a major problem, with 38% of female secondary students reporting an experience of unwanted sex.

And of course dangerous abuse of alcohol and other drugs happens, though nowhere near as universally as media reports would lead you to believe. Nevertheless, it’s an issue and one that disproportionately affects those girls who are already vulnerable and at-risk for various other reasons.

So what to do? How do we protect girls without turning them into frightened rabbits or making them feel attacked and ashamed? How do we empower young people to tackle the tough parts of life without over-directing or under-preparing them?

The short answer is: Dannielle Miller.

With her first book, The Butterfly Effect, Danni helped parents understand what was going on in teen-girl world in general and – more importantly – how to reach out to their daughters and find out what was going on with them in particular. That is key: anyone can collate research reports and make observations about what girls are buying and wearing and doing. Very few bother to actually speak to the girls themselves, to ask them why they do what they do, how they feel about it, what they wish was different. Even fewer manage to establish the kind of trust and respect that allow girls to open up about their lives and their inner selves.

Danni writes so accurately, so insightfully about girls because she speaks to them, and they sense that she is on their side and so they speak to her. It sounds simple, but it isn’t – and, as I’m sure anyone who has read The Butterfly Effect alongside other parenting manuals or guides to teen girls will attest, it makes all the difference.

And now, with this, her second book, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, Danni brings her hard-earned insight directly to the girls themselves. The book’s approach to the big issues – body image, drugs and alcohol, sex and love, friendship, school and work – is personal but grounded in evidence. The practical advice is sensible but never prescriptive, and certainly never delivered from the high horse of moral authority. And the affirmations that close each chapter are to-the-point and have the potential to be genuinely empowering. Danni’s voice throughout is that of a trusted, trusting, wise-but-never-superior older sister. You know she won’t put up with your crap, but you also know she’s got your back. She expects a lot from you, but only because she thinks so very, very much of you.

In a world where girls hear countless conflicting messages about how they should live and who they should be, Danni Miller is a guiding light. Educator, activist, writer, mother, friend, mentor, feminist – every aspect of Danni’s life and being is directed towards helping girls navigate their teen years not only safely but with actual joy. Rather than encourage girls to attempt to avoid pain through making themselves meek and ultra-cautious, Danni encourages them to confront the hard stuff and stomp all over it. She doesn’t just want girls to be okay – she wants them to be magnificent and to know it.

Thank you, Danni, for this marvellous book. May its wisdom enter every teenage heart.

Danni with her family at the launch.

You may also wish to listen to a radio interview I did with Adelaide’s Amanda Blair on my new book at this link: http://www.fiveaa.com.au/audio_the-girl-with-the-butterfly-tattoo_104563 It was a very lively discussion and is well worth a listen.

The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: A girl’s guide to claiming her power

The countdown has begun!

Ever since my book on raising teen girls — The Butterfly Effect — came out, mothers and daughters have been telling me they wish there was a version for teens. So I am thrilled to say that The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: A girl’s guide to claiming her power is to be released on 1 March!

I loved every minute of writing this book. Teen girls were my inspiration from the very start, and I am bursting with excitement to share this book with them. My aim is to encourage girls to question the limiting messages advertisers, the media and our culture keep pushing: that a girl’s greatest worth is her looks, and beauty comes in only one size and shape. My hope is that The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo empowers girls to find their strength and be true to their own hearts and minds.

Before the book went off to the printer, I sent it out to several girls for review, and I’m happy to say it received an overwhelmingly positive response. And I am honoured that two feminist thinkers I deeply respect have also put their support behind the book’s messages . . .

Finally a book for teenage girls that does not patronise or attempt to police them! The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo empowers teen girls to make their own choices. — Nina Funnell, writer, women’s rights advocate and recipient of Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award, 2010

Danni Miller is the big sister every teenage girl needs, offering the perfect mix of resolve-stiffening encouragement, soul-touching inspiration and real-world practical advice. — Emily Maguire, author of Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, power, choice

To be certain that your girls are among the first to get their hands on this book, you can pre-order (for $19.95 plus $5 postage and handling to anywhere in Australia). Each pre-ordered copy will be signed by me and will come with a beautiful bookmark and Enlighten Education wristband as free gifts. Click here to order now.

For a sneak peak at what The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo has to offer, check out Chapter 1, “The Battle Within”, for free, by clicking here. I hope that you enjoy it, and share it today with all the wonderful teen girls in your life!

Behold the power of shampoo!

There is a whole world of nonsense out there in the marketing of haircare products to women. There are wild claims, like “unlocks the power of nature to give you 10X stronger hair”. There is all the jargon that means heaven knows what, like “our patented Bio-Ceramide Complex” or “natural protein fortifies hair for touchable softness” (well, if the softness is touchable, I better get a bottle now!). There are all those ingredients that must do something amazing, because you’ve never heard of them before, à la “argan oil from Morocco”.

Hollywood stars who have an army of stylists to get them looking just right rabbit on about products you are fairly sure they’ve never tossed into a shopping trolley. And of course, there are those pictures of models with tresses so long, shiny and digitally enhanced that it looks more like magical pony hair.

I think this haircare-ad spoof The Chaser team did, back when they were doing the show CNNN, is just gold. A woman’s dull, lifeless hair is “letting her family down” but after using “Esteem” shampoo her hair becomes “full of adjectives”:

A lot of teens spend a lot of hours angsting over their hair, as teens always have. How to wear it, how to cut it, how to make it straight or curly or thicker or thinner, how to get parents to agree to a hairstyle — you might remember going through all this yourself. And then there is the eternal greasy hair dilemma. The same hormone change in puberty that is responsible for the extra sebum (oil) production that leads to pimples is responsible for the oily scalp and hair that many girls feel self-conscious or even ashamed about.

With all these ads promising astonishing transformations, it’s no wonder that many girls (and women) go through a tonne of hair product and a mountain of disappointment looking for the magic bottle that will give them the “hair” they see on ads. I say “hair” because no one has hair like that, even the people in the ads. They have gone through hours of styling, are lit by state-of-the-art studio lighting and are then digitally enhanced. Ken Paves, who styles celebrities such as Eva Longoria and Jessica Simpson for hair ads, was quoted as saying, “It takes four hours of prep for one hair shot.”

To cut through all this trickery, I went looking to find out, realistically, how often it’s a good idea to wash hair and what to look for in products. And you know, for all the people in lab coats with molecular diagrams swirling around in the background of haircare ads, it turns out that there really aren’t many established scientific facts about hair washing. According to How Stuff Works, there is disagreement among medical experts who specialise in hair, skin and scalp about how often to wash hair — or even whether it’s a good idea to wash it at all!

One thing that seems clear, though, is that you probably don’t need to spend a lot of money on shampoo. They give a great explanation of what shampoo actually is: it’s about half water, with a mild detergent such as sodium laureth sulfate, plus coconut oil byproducts that don’t do anything for your hair but give the shampoo a desirable texture. Check out how quickly and easily a chemist can knock up a batch:

They recommend using a cheap, basic shampoo and saving your money to spend on conditioner.

I was surprised to find out how new the idea of regular shampooing is.

Back in the 1950s, it was common for women to have their hair washed and styled once a week at the hairdresser . . . Around the turn of the 20th century, women tended to go for about a month between salon visits. — How Stuff Works

After ABC radio presenter Richard Glover interviewed Times journalist Matthew Parris, who said he hadn’t washed his hair for 10 years, he challenged his readers to do the same for 6 weeks. Five hundred people took up the challenge, and 86 per cent of them said their hair was either better or the same.

I can’t see many teen girls wanting to try that out — me neither! So this is the advice I gleaned from Paula Begoun, “The Cosmetics Cop”, who devotes her time to debunking the outlandish promises made by the cosmetics industry: “Even washing hair on a regular basis . . . causes irreversible damage. There are ways to mitigate the damage: wash hair less frequently, condition the hair, and use protective styling products and conditioners . . . don’t over-strip hair by overdoing hair dyes . . . and use blow dryers and flat irons intermittently and carefully.” She recommends that you spend more time washing and massaging the scalp, to increase circulation, than the ends.

Some girls are embarrassed because they break out in acne around their hairline, and Begoun says that can be because some of the ingredients in shampoos and conditioners “are designed to stick to hair, which means they can also ‘stick’ to skin, too, and potentially clog pores”. She suggests rinsing well, using a gentle body and face cleanser, using only just enough conditioner, and going light on styling products.

And all those products that are designed to combat limp hair? Well, products themselves might be causing the limp hair in the first place. She says it’s best to use a shampoo with few or no conditioning agents and apply conditioner only where you need it, “not necessarily all over or near the roots and scalp”.

A happy, peaceful, girl-power Christmas!

At Enlighten we believe it’s vital to not only help girls develop the tools to deconstruct toxic media and marketing messages, but also to offer them positive alternatives, so this year we’ve made an extra-special effort to provide girls with products that are inspiring and empowering. As we head into Christmas, I thought I’d profile these, and some other great gift alternatives created by amazing women. If you’re like me and you think girls deserve better than what many retailers are offering — Playboy-branded bling, T-shirts with sexy slogans — then here are some other gift ideas for the girls in your life.

Girls of all ages (and their mums, too) are just loving the Enlighten posters we had custom designed, featuring gorgeous imagery and uplifting messages. Some girls like to cover their bedroom walls with all eight of the posters, which are only $5 each — you can check them out at Enlighten’s website. I know a lot of people have had it with the commercialism of Christmas, and I agree that it shouldn’t really be all about spending. So another way to treat girls is to download the posters for free as wallpaper for their mobiles; for that matter, treat yourself, too.

On our site you’ll also find our free iPhone app, which each day features different inspiring quotes, self-affirming messages and web links to info that all girls should know — plus, it looks stunning! (We hope that one day in the future we will be able to roll it out for Android phones too.) For parents and people who work with teen girls, my book The Butterfly Effect: A positive new approach to raising happy, confident teen girls can make a great gift. (P.S. the girls’ edition, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, will be out in March next year, just in time for International Women’s Day!)

 For Real GiRLS!, a fantastic new Australian magazine for ages 7 to 12, has just hit newsagents and Coles stores. It is the brainchild of designers Sonia Pereira
and Liz Purdue. Liz came to one of my parent seminars after her eldest daughter, Rachel, did an Enlighten workshop at Pymble Ladies College. The themes of my presentation struck home with Liz, who at the time was working on several girls’ magazines, including Bratz and Barbie. Now the mother of three is working with a team of designers who are all mothers, producing a magazine that is a true alternative to the other magazines on offer for girls. There is no beauty, fashion, celebrity gossip or ads — oh, sweet relief. Her experience working on girls’ magazines and reading the fan mail that came in convinced her that “girls don’t really want to read a mag about celebrities and popstars (if they do they can access far more recent info for free on the net) and they are certainly not interested in makeup . . . they are far more focused on friendship than fashion!” This magazine will make girls and their parents equally happy. 

Another magazine concept, for girls aged 8 and up, is New Moon Girls, which combines a magazine and social networking site where all of the content is created by girls themselves — artwork, fiction, poetry, videos and more. There are no ads, and a year’s subscription gives girls 6 issues of the printed magazine and access to the social networking site, which is fully moderated and designed to be educational and build self-esteem and positive body image. Nancy Gruver founded New Moon almost 20 years ago, inspired by her twin 11-year-old daughters. It is based in the US, but the magazine can be shipped to Australia, so an annual subscription can make a great present. If you want to check out the social networking site, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial.

If you’ve been trawling through the shops in the lead-up to Christmas, you might have been infuriated by some of the hyper-sexy clothes targeted at young girls. So check out Pigtail Pals, which is run by Melissa Atkins Wardy, a mum and entrepreneur who was fed up with the stereotypes found in children’s clothing and wanted role models for her daughter that exemplified courage, intelligence and imagination. “Our motto is to ‘Redefine Girly’ and raise girls with the message they are smart, daring, and adventurous,” according to Melissa. “Our designs show girls as doctors, astronauts, pilots, pirates, exploring the ocean, and playing with dinosaurs.” They also have stationery, hats, tote bags and backpacks with positive messages for girls.

If you’ve been in the toy aisles lately, chances are it was just as infuriating. Perth woman Helen Schofield was looking for dolls for her granddaughters to play with and found herself asking, “Why do so many young girls seem to be enslaved by the need to be sexy at such an early age?” Rather than wring her hands in anguish at the poor choices on offer for girls, she decided to create a range of dolls herself. She and her husband risked their retirement funds and created Australian Girl, a range of five dolls that represent the lives of real Australian girls; the brand encourages self-acceptance and care for, and awareness of, others. Being a big reader ever since I was a child, I love the fact that the Australian Girl website encourages girls to make up stories about their dolls. The company even launched an adventure fiction book in which the dolls’ characters travel back in time and discover things they never knew about Australian history and significant Australian women.

Do you know of any other positive, empowering gifts for girls? I’d love to hear about them.

Wishing you all a happy, peaceful — and girl-power! — Christmas.

The Big Chill

My words of advice were offered to teen girls in the September issue of Girlfriend Magazine. I have had such a strong response from teens telling me this article helped them navigate a friendship that had turned toxic that I thought it worth republishing here (with Girlfriend’s permission). Feel free to pass this on to the young women in your life who may be feeling the big chill…

Image by The Notebook Doodles. Her beautiful art work is featured in our FREE mobile phone wallpapers which may be downloaded at our shop: www.enlighteneducation.com/shop

HOW TO DEAL WITH FRIENDS WHO FREEZE YOU OUT

Just yesterday you were happily splitting bestie charms and planning holiday fun, but today the reception’s so icy that you need thermals to approach. The worst thing is, you have no idea why. The friendship freeze-out is pretty common, and if it happens to you there’s not a lot you can do to prevent it. But you can learn how to get through it. We show you how.

IT’S GETTIN’ COLD IN HERE

The first thing to know is you’re not alone. “Teenage girls tend to isolate and ostracise their friends more than boys do,” says Dannielle Miller, CEO of Enlighten Education (enlighteneducation.com.au). And sadly, there’s usually no reasoning behind it. You probably haven’t done anything wrong, and there’s nothing you could have done to avoid it. Yes, it’s hurtful, but you can get through it. We know you can.

DEALING WITH THE FROST

Now is the time to tap into your inner strength. “Having a strong sense of self is extremely important,” says Dannielle. “It’ll help you be more resilient if others aren’t validating you the way you’d like to be validated.” Knowing yourself, and being happy with the person you are, will help you gain perspective on the sitch, and you won’t need to be defined by the people who are around you.

CAST A WIDER FRIEND NET

Creating a friendship network beyond school is super-important as it means you have someone to fall back on. Whether that be through sport, drama, or other friends you’ve met at parties, if your friendship group is broader, you won’t rely so heavily on the ones at school.

IN THE NOW

For the short term, rather than mope about the situation, use the extra time to your advantage. Do your homework, research that essay, or have lunch with a different group. It’ll feel empowering to not rely on one gang to have a good time. The other immediate action you can take is to chat directly to the group leader. “Have a one-on-one conversation, which is less threatening,” says Dannielle. Focus on how you feel and always use “I” words instead of “You do this”. It’s also important to try and end on a positive note, so Dannielle suggests something like, “I feel at the moment you girls don’t want me to sit with you. I’m hurt but I respect that’s your choice and hopefully we’ll catch up later”. Taking the high ground will have them thinking they’ve messed up.

THIS TOO SHALL PASS

We know that when this happens to you it feels as though your life will never be the same again, but eventually it will. “In my experience, this stuff usually blows over in a couple of days,” says Dannielle. However, if it does go on for longer, it could become serious bullying, and this is when you need to tell someone – because that is never OK. And remember, if this is how your “friends” treat you, perhaps you should think about what you really want in a friend – coz this sure ain’t it.

Article written by Sarah Tarca, Girlfriend, September 2011.

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