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Category: Plastic Surgery

Thoughts on beauty


Physical beauty is a mathematical equation. Symmetry. Proportion. Scale. When we look at a traditionally beautiful person and admire his or her face, we are really admiring a perfection equation; what is known as the Golden Ratio.

We tend to value that which is rare. And as this ratio is rare, we have highly valued those that conform to it. But thanks to the normalisation of cosmetic surgery and cosmetic procedures such as injectibles, today many are able to conform to this.

It is no longer rare…

Will we now begin to value the quirky? The imperfect? Those who refuse to equate?

Your thoughts?

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Reshaping all things female

When I was a toddler I was burnt; I have a very noticeable third degree burn scar on my right arm.

Although as a self–conscious teen I would have given anything to rid myself of this, now as a woman I realise our differences, our quirks and our physical scars are what make us unique. I have embraced my burn as part of my story and wear the tight, twisted flesh with a sense of pride. It is a visible reminder of my strength and endurance.

Yet increasingly I have noticed that the media and popular culture do not embrace diversity; our differences are presented as problems that can be best solved through medical intervention.

Many celebrities seem to now have the one generic, geometrically perfect face; they feature the same bee-stung lips, chiselled cheekbones, wide eyes and wrinkle-free brow. Plastic surgery and other cosmetic procedures are now also no longer solely the domain of celebrities or accident victims; they are very much mainstream. And why wouldn’t they be? Buzz words that sell cosmetic surgery make it sound like a choice no more serious than choosing a location to holiday in; they include terms which declare the procedure will leave one ‘refreshed’ and ‘rejuvenated’. In fact, you can even go on holidays to have your surgery. There is a huge growth in what is known as “surgery tourism”, this allows patients to enjoy cut-price procedures in exotic overseas destinations.

But the reason why we are finding it easier to spot someone who has had “work” is not simply by virtue of the increase in those who may make this decision. Facial Cosmetic Surgeon Dr William Mooney explained that the biggest change he has noticed in his practice over recent years is the expectation from clients that they want their surgery to be identifiable, “There is an increased idealisation of the surgery itself and requests to look ‘done’ rather than for me to create a more natural look. Colleagues tell me that the move away from wanting a naturally achievable look is particularly the case in breast enhancements. In Australia there has been an increase of between 10-15% in the size of the implants being used over the course of the past 5 years.”

And it seems that it is no longer enough to have a facelift or a boob job, or to have some collagen injected in the lips. Vaginal ‘rejuvenation’ procedures are now popular too. Everything female needs to be reshaped.

According to figures from Medicare, there has been an increase in the number of women undergoing vulvoplasty or labiaplasty in Australia of 140 per cent. However, Dr Meredith Jones, a media and cultural studies scholar, believes the actual increase may be as high as 400 per cent due to the fact that many procedures are not necessarily claimed on Medicare, nor carried out locally: “There have been no fewer than four major international conferences for doctors and surgeons who want to learn how to perform these procedures in the past few years; it is seen as a growing and lucrative industry.”

Why the desire for a designer vagina? Researcher Karen Roberts McNamara notes that ‘in years past, women rarely had the opportunity to see other women’s vaginas and thus had no sense of how a typical vagina might look. Yet with the mainstreaming of the adult entertainment industry, the situation has changed dramatically. Now, a beauty standard has emerged, one established primarily through porn actresses, nude models and strippers.’

She argues that women are going under the scalpel to have their vaginal openings tightened and their labias made smaller because they have been convinced this will ‘normalise’ them and give them confidence. The plastic surgery industry’s ‘sanitized ideal of the clean, delicate, discreet vaginal slit’ casts the bodies of women who have not undergone these procedures ‘as necessarily dirty and unsightly’.

Sadly, it’s not just grown women who are being told they should doubt their own genitals. Gynaecologists report girls as young as 12 are requesting cosmetic genital surgery. Meanwhile, beauticians have noted a huge increase in the number of young women wanting ‘intimate’ grooming treatments. Girls as young as 14 are asking for Brazilian waxes.

With all the pressure to wax and ‘rejuvenate’, we seem to have lost sight of what ‘normal’ might look like. In an episode of the UK Sex Education Show, when teens of both sexes were shown images of women with pubic hair, they gasped in what seemed to be shock or disgust. The producers had set out to show that in reality ‘we all come in all different shapes and sizes. From penises to pubes, bums to boobs whatever you’ve got it’s all perfectly normal.’

Whilst I respect the individual’s right to make decisions about their own bodies, I also can’t help but think we need to work to end this body-hating madness. We are more than just our faces, breasts, and vaginas– just as I am so much more than my arm.

When we see ourselves and other girls and women as just bodies, we forget that we are all actually somebodies.

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.

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!

Be aware of your dreams . . . they just might come true!

A couple of weeks ago I talked about research that proves that gender stereotypes are alive and well in Hollywood. Now a friend has sent me the perfect antidote: “Plastic”, a beautiful, clever short film written and directed by an award-winning young Australian woman, Sandy Widyanata.

As the film begins, we see Anna nervously preparing for a first date with Henry, a man she has secretly loved for years. She has nothing to wear, there’s a huge pimple on her nose and she feels fat. If only she could change a few things and look a bit more like those girls in beauty magazines . . .

Anna discovers that she can do the impossible and can sculpt her body to look just the way she wants. Would you do the same if you could? And how far is too far?

I don’t want to give too much away — it really is worth spending the 6 or so minutes to see how the story unfolds. The film is a great discussion starter for teen girls. It raises interesting questions about what real beauty is, what we really need in order to be happy and what it means to be true to yourself. And best of all, it is also simply a great film, so girls are just entranced. Enjoy the film, and then take a look at the suggested lesson plan activities below.

Plastic – Short Film from Plastic the Film on Vimeo.

Classroom Activities
A big thank you to Kellie Mackerath, who told me about this film. Kellie used to be a teacher and an Enlighten presenter, and now works full-time at NIDA and directs theatre. She has these great suggestions for classroom activities after screening “Plastic”:

— The film opens with an image of a moth. Like a butterfly, a moth can symbolise transformation. As you watch the film again, plot the journey of the moth. How does its journey relate to Anna’s story?

— What are the images that Anna surrounds herself with in her flat? These images assist Anna to make some important decisions in the film. Which images encourage her to make positive decisions? Do an audit of your environment (including your bedroom, the places you study and your virtual spaces). What images/messages are you surrounding yourself with? In the classroom, create a wall of images and messages that inspire you.

— The magazine in Anna’s bathroom is called Real Beauty. In your own words, define what you believe “real beauty” is. As a group, create your own “Real Beauty” magazine.

Thanks also to Sharon Witt, author of the Teen Talk books,
for these valuable discussion starters:

— If you had the power to mould your body into the ideal you believe in, what parts would you change and why?

— Do you think changing these parts of your body would make you any happier?

— Towards the end of the film, when the moth lands on the side table next to the photograph of Anna, did you feel she was more beautiful in the photograph? Why?

Are we raising a generation of narcissists?

There are more narcissistic young people in this generation than ever before. That’s the finding of a long-running study by US psychology professor Jean Twenge, who was in Australia recently. She gave 16,000 university students across the United States psychological testing and found that 30 per cent were narcissistic. This is a doubling in the number of narcissists in just three decades.

Naturally her findings created a bit of a stir in the media, and I went on Mornings with Kerri-anne for an in-depth discussion about it:

The research potentially has major implications for this generation’s future, because narcissism isn’t just spending too much time in front of the mirror or being a bit “up yourself”, which is the way we often use the term in everyday language. A person is classified as narcissistic if they:

  • have an inflated sense of self
  • are arrogant
  • think they’re unique and special
  • believe they are entitled to be treated better than others
  • take the credit for others’ achievements
  • lack warmth and empathy
  • can’t form lasting relationships
  • are highly materialistic
  • continually seek attention and are very vain about their appearance
  • get angry or even violent when things don’t go their way.

Often, things initially do go the narcissist’s way, because they show great confidence and charm. But because their sense of self is built on a shaky foundation, the honeymoon—whether it’s in a new job, a relationship or a friendship—may end quickly and dramatically.

So then, what does Twenge’s research mean for our kids? How alarmed do we need to be?

First, let me say that while giving workshops in schools all over the country, I see far more under-confidence in girls than overconfidence, especially about their looks. I see less vanity and more anxiety. Rather than lack of empathy, I am usually overwhelmed by girls hugging me and saying “I love you” at the end of my session. In my experience, girls are often very keen to get involved in their community and help other people by doing volunteer work.  And even if girls are more focused on having the newest and best of everything than earlier generations were, let’s not forget that they are also the most marketed-to generation: they see between 400 and 600 ads per day.

Twenge’s research in fact backs up my observation that the majority of girls aren’t all that much more narcissistic than earlier generations. She points out on her website that “the average person is only moderately more narcissistic now than 15 years ago.” It’s at the far end of the scale, where a person could be diagnosed with clinical Narcissistic Personality Disorder, that there is an alarming jump: “There are three times as many young people vs. older people with the disorder. That means there are many more highly narcissistic people now than just a decade or two ago.”

There are things we can do to stop the trend. It comes down to modelling the behaviour we’d like our children to show; as I always say, girls cannot be what they cannot see. If the culture around them is all about having the newest and best of everything, getting plastic surgery and being famous for doing nothing, can we blame kids for being focused on those things, too?

Young people are bombarded with images of celebrities who make narcissism look like a desirable lifestyle choice. (I’m sorry to say that Charlie Sheen’s approval rating has gone through the roof with young men recently, according to a poll in The Australian.) They are bombarded with advertising and marketing for products that will make them look richer, thinner, hotter (and more like a celebrity!). You will never be able to stem that tide—but you can talk to them about the media they consume and support them in forming their own judgments and values.

Protecting the next generation from rising narcissism also means making sure that when we praise our kids it really means something. There has been a trend over recent decades to repeat to children that they are special and unique. Increasingly, medals are awarded just for turning up. Of course, this has been done with love and the best of intentions to boost children’s self-esteem. But to create self-esteem that has a solid foundation, we need to:

  • acknowledge real achievement
  • encourage children to be involved in their community
  • encourage them to explore which skills they are good at and identify those they need to work on
  • help them understand that while they see instant successes on reality TV, for most people achievement is the result of hard work and discipline; a good way to do this is to encourage teens to take a starter job.

Finally, here is a great piece of advice from Jean Twenge, who is herself the mother of two young children. When she was asked on Melbourne radio what parents should do instead of telling their kids that they’re special, she answered:

What most parents mean when they say that to their children is “I love you”, so say that instead. That’s a much better message.

It occurred to me that perhaps if the research had been done on Australian or New Zealand young people the result may have been different. What do you think? I would love to hear your perspectives, and your stories about the girls in your life and how they’re developing their own sense of self.

Hands off our vaginas

I lament the use of terms such as “liberation” and “empowerment” to sell women more and more product. In this post I want to particularly question the use of terms implying female empowerment in the growing trend to convince women to change what is surely something quintessentially female — our vaginas.

Case in point?  The latest series of advertisements for Schick Quattro’s TrimStyle all-in-one razor and bikini trimmer. The ads invite you to “celebrate your inner confidence” and, using the language of liberation, “free your skin”.  According to the company’s PR blurb,  five everyday Australian women were photographed and filmed for the campaign wearing nothing but lingerie, in and around some very public locations in Sydney’s CBD.  Men are shown gawking at them, whilst other women look on admiringly. The women do have inspiring stories — there is a single mother and a cancer survivor — yet surely as the advertisement is for a bikini razor and they are seen posed in lingerie, we can only assume that their confidence actually comes from having well-groomed vaginas.

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Speaking of well-groomed vaginas reminds me of one of the most flabbergasting moments in talk-show history. In January last year Jennifer Love Hewitt famously discussed on American TV that she had devoted an entire chapter of her new book on relationships to decorating her hairless vagina with jewelled decals — a practice known as “vajazzling” that is gaining in popularity here, too. Hewitt told her host “Women should vajazzle their vajayjays . . . It really helped me.” She went on to say, “After a breakup, a friend of mine Swarovski-crystalled my precious lady . . . and it shined like a disco ball.”  It really “empowered” her, she insisted  (although apparently she was not quite empowered enough to use adult terms for her anatomy).

Forget the war on terrorism — if the amount of ads for decorating, shaving, waxing and electrolysis are anything to go by, it is the age of the war on women’s vaginas.

Actually, it is not just grown women who are being told they should doubt their own genitals. During the formal season last year, beauticians noted a huge increase in the number of young women wanting “intimate” grooming treatments. Girls as young as 14 were asking for Brazilian waxes. Enlighten Education’s Program Manager for New Zealand, Rachel Hansen, who is also a women’s health and sexuality educator, tells me of a school in NZ for Year 1 to 13 students that ran a beauty salon’s ad for Brazilian waxing in the school diary. Imagine pulling out your five-year-old daughter’s homework diary and an ad for Brazilian waxing jumping out at you.

It seems teens no longer even know what “normal” is. In episode one of the UK’s 2009 Sex Education Show, when teens of both sexes were shown images of women with pubic hair, they gasped in what seemed to be shock or disgust. The producers had set out to show that in reality “we all come in all different shapes and sizes. From penises to pubes, bums to boobs whatever you’ve got it’s all perfectly normal.”

Cosmetic surgeons would have us believe otherwise. As if waxing, plucking, electrolysis and decorating is not enough, far more serious procedures are being widely promoted by surgeons as  important for restoring women’s “confidence”. Researcher Karen Roberts McNamara argues that women are going under the scalpel to have their vaginal openings tightened and their labias made smaller because they have been convinced this will “normalise” them and thus give them confidence:

The sanitized ideal of the clean, delicate, discreet vaginal slit, so widely used in the plastic surgery industry discourse, functions in such a way as to cast the bodies who have not undergone these procedures as necessarily dirty and unsightly . . . Scholars have noted that in years  past, women rarely had the opportunity to see other women’s vaginas and thus had no sense of how a typical vagina might look. Yet with the mainstreaming of the adult entertainment industry, the situation has changed dramatically. Now, a beauty standard has emerged, one established primarily through porn actresses, nude models and strippers . . . The irony of this situation is that in pornographic films and photographs, everything from eye colour or stretch marks, to genitalia, can be modified digitally.

Amanda Hess, in her excellent piece “The Problem With Defending The Sacred Choice To Vajazzle”, concludes with a call-to-arms of sorts that I am taking up, and that I urge all girls and women to take up.

For now, the more extreme performances of femininity, like breast implantation, vaginal ‘rejuvenation,’ and Vajazzling aren’t considered the norm for women. I’m not going to be met with shock when I remove my pants and reveal to my sex partner that I haven’t converted my pubic mound into a shiny disco ball. But these days, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for him to be shocked that I’m not perfectly waxed. The body hair ship may have sailed, but vaginal modification is at a point right now where we are still in a position to fend off the tide. And my greatest fear is that someday, we will wake to find that our girls are being routinely Vajazzled upon puberty, and realize that we never stood up to say, ‘This…is . . . ridiculous.’

Our teen girls, our teen selves

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The diary I had when I was 14, branded "Sweet Dreams" for the teen-girl book series I loved so much.

I often say that one of the best ways to connect to teen girls is to reconnect with our own teen selves and remember how intense life was at that age.

Wow did I learn that lesson myself recently. I was packing to move house and found the diary I kept when I was 14 and in Year 8 at school. Reconnecting with 14-year-old Danni was by turns funny and shocking. Most of all, it was a reminder of why girls respond so passionately to the work Enlighten Education does — and why they need it so urgently.

My 14-year-old self was a mass of contradictions: studious and ambitious and desperate to grow up, yet childlike. Super-confident but self-critical. Sound familiar?

Here are some highlights . . .

JANUARY

When I was a kid, I collected novelty erasers. I always thought I was about 7 when I did this but now I’ve realised I was 14. Dear God. (I still have them and get very anxious if my children want to touch them. They are kept on a high shelf in my wardrobe and shall be my legacy to the world.)

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My rubber collection. As soon as I took this photo I rushed and put it back onto the high shelf of my cupboard, where it is safe.

6th — Drove up to my Aunty’s. Tops as I got some rubbers on the way!

10th — Mum bought me a $2 Instant Lotto and I won $2! I bought 4 rubbers! Then we visited my Grandpa. God I love him. (Some things never change — my Grandpa will remain the great love of my life.)

18th — Bought some very cheap but very good rubbers.

You get the picture.

I was almost as enthusiastic in my interest in the opposite sex. Always from a distance, though.

22nd — Saw a boy at the pools. He was a spunk but he swore a lot. 🙁

There were special sections at the end of each month:

January’s Daydream: To be a psychiatrist and make everyone happy!

Goal for Next Month: To loose weight!

It saddens me to read that last entry, as I was a tiny teen. I hadn’t recalled ever worrying about my weight but I obviously did, just like most teens do now. When we ask for feedback after our workshops, girls often say things like the feedback I received from a teen girl just last week: “I stress a lot thinking I’m fat. I learnt today that I’m fine how I look, I shouldn’t care what others think and I’m not actually fat, I’m a size 10 – wow. Thanks!!” (Helen, Year 8 student)

FEBRUARY

Friendship drama ahoy!

9th — A day full of fights! Everyone reckons I said Melissa W was a poser when we played hide-and-seek. Lousie had the shits with me after debating too.

10th — We made up but Melissa and Margaret C had a punch-up.

I was trying to be friends with the cooler popular girls at school, who had just “discovered” me.

Big Girl (kinda)

21st — Mum bought me my first bra! I love it!

Yet just days after the getting a bra, I say this about hanging out with my friend:

26th — We played dolls all day. Fun!

In the “Secret Valentine” section of the diary I wrote:

Although I never hang around the boys — it is Steven. God I love that guy. (I loved him? I don’t think we had spoken at this point.)

It makes me sad to read this. We did end up having one awkward pash, which was my first ever kiss. But by the time he was only in his late teens, this boy had killed himself. I believe he had struggled with some type of mental illness. I recall him as being very shy and quiet. Tragically, adolescence is a time that may mark the onset of serious depression for some young people; this reminded me to be mindful to watch for the early warning signs. Clinical Professor David Bennet’s book ” I Just Want You To Be Happy” is an outstanding resource on preventing and tackling teenage depression.

MARCH

Danni as the boss

13th — We decide to have a Club! It will be called The Aussie 4! We spent all day doing up the cubbie ready for it. I will be the Captain.

The rest of March seems to be almost a catalogue of fast food I loved (“We had Kentucky! Topso! I got the breast piece!” “We had McDonalds! Yummo!”), teachers I loved (“Miss Banting is tops! I love drama!”) and my marks (“A great school day ! I came first in every subject! Hoorah!”)

My goal for next month:  To be popular.

APRIL

Talent quest!

My best friend, a neighbour and my sister and I would have periodic talent quests. Although the competition could hardly be described as fierce, I was elated at my win! I danced to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and assembled all my cuddly toy animals as props. I performed this next to the fountain we had in our courtyard, for added jungle-realism. I set a very high standard for performance that day, I can assure you.

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Me (right) pre-perm at 14 with "Bubby", my sister.

Dramatic much?

3rd — No one seems to care that I am dying of asthma! Had to go to my Aunty’s to eat Easter eggs.

6th — I think my drama teacher hates my acting lately. 🙁 (I was a star in the school play: I was Mole in Wind In the Willows. Yep, a mole. And yep, the boys did tease me but I didn’t care as I LOVED this role. Mr Mole is hilarity.)

13th — I crammed in the library for a test. I had to. I must do well or I will die.

15th — Worst day of my entire life. Louise etc all wrote me a letter said they hate me plus they are now playing with my other friends so I have NO ONE! I don’t even know why this is happening to me!

18th — I am really disappointed with my English mark . . . 92/100.  (Disappointed??!!)

MAY

Shopping weirdness

6th — Went shopping and nearly got busted for shop-lifting. We stole breath freshener. I feel really bad now. (Breath Freshener??)

7th — Bought really large knitting needles! Will knit things! Topso!

8th — Bought Mum a spoon for Mother’s Day. Chantielle (my sister) bought her honey. (Lucky. Her!)

Favourite Daydream: To have a spunky boyfriend.

JUNE

Danni as mean girl

14th — I was so slack to Janelle as I said Simon Townsend’s Wonder World is going to film my rubber collection and interview me and I will be on TV. This is a lie. She was really hurt but she forgave me luckily.

Impending doom

26th — Went to visit Grandpa. He is very vague and sick.

JULY

Yes, this was the ’80s

1st — The rich kids all went off to the ski-weekend. I talked to the boys out the front of the school with my friends today. But I don’t really talk. I just stand there like a dag.

8th — I am getting a perm. I am very worried. I HOPE it is good. Darryl Somers also wrote to me. Exciting!

9th — My perm is tops! I’m in love with it it is so nice. Everyone at school loves it.

10th — I got my mole costume today! Love it! I’m helping Janelle sell Avon. I hope we make a lot of money. A girl called Cathy in our grade had sex with her boyfriend Andrew. Yuck! I got the top mark for maths.

19th — We had a mufti-day at school and I wore really nice pink leg warmers.

23rd — We went to a disco and I met a boy named Foxy. I kissed him. I think I am in love!

24th — I think I hate that boy now. (Fickle much?)

My goal for next month: To meet some boys and to be more popular. I love, love, love boys! But none like me! And I am scared of them! Problem!

Autographed pic I received from Daryl Somers. Was I excited much?
Autographed pic I received from Daryl Somers. Quite. The. Moment.

AUGUST

A date with Foxy!

There are many entries in the lead up to this date about Foxy and what I will wear, do, say, etc. Then:

14th — Well it was BORING! We saw Porky’s 2 which was just rude. We went to Mcdonalds which was the best bit. I would have had more fun if I just went with my girls! I spent $8 on boringness! I am never dating again.

18th — I dropped Foxy (yahoo!).

And then, amongst all the expected teen girl stuff comes a disturbing entry about an incident with my father, a sometimes-violent alcoholic.

28th — Mum took me to the markets and bought me cute koala earrings. Dad got drunk and punched me for nothing! It hurt. I hate him.

SEPTEMBER

A trip to Surfers Paradise with the family. Much discussion about rides and food.

Then much despair at the fact that my teachers all think I am not focusing and am “trying to be someone I am not” with my new friends (they were right!). Friends are having sex, smoking . . .

OCTOBER

Trouble looms

No mention of rubbers or school marks this month. I would soon be in Year 9, which used to be considered a notoriously problematic time when many teens went off the rails. Unfortunately, many schools tell me these problems now start in Year 8, because girls are attempting to cope with greater pressures at a younger and younger age.

15th — Pashed Scott twice but I don’t love him or really care if we don’t get together again. Louise F nearly died as she got so drunk the cops called an ambulance. (This all happened at the “alcohol-free” Blue Light Disco the police ran for youth.)

17th — The teachers reckon Margaret is pushing drugs which is just bull!

NOVEMBER

5th — Tops party! We all got so drunk. We all went for a bush walk and I fell and hit my head which was so funny! I cried as Julie went to the toilet 16 times which scared me.

12th — Janelle got a hickey!

18th — I wagged school with my friends and they got drunk. I didn’t. It was actually boring. I feel really bad about this (wagging)(This was the first and last time I ever truanted school.)

21st — Saw a plastic surgeon to see if now that I’ve fully grown they can fix my arm. They can’t. ;(

I was very self-conscious about scarring on my arm and neck from severe burns I received as a child. It wasn’t until I was much older, teaching in high school, that I was okay about it.

30th — School disco is dress up. I might go as a Playboy bunny. (OH. MY. LORD!!)

What can I say except that if even I was considering dressing up as a Playboy bunny, we shouldn’t let ourselves get too carried away with despair about the culture our girls are exposed to: there is hope for everyone!

DECEMBER

A lucky escape?

15th — I am practically dying and they might even put me in hospital.

I was truly very ill all month with glandular fever. This seems to me now a stroke of luck, as it meant I stayed out of trouble.

My New Year’s Resolution?

To try VERY hard at school again and not get used by boys.

Reading back over the diary of my 14th year has truly affirmed for me the work I do now. I would have loved Enlighten. I needed Enlighten!

Think back to what life was like for you as a teen too. If you have old diaries, revisit them. What does this reflection teach you about the inner-world of teen girls? What messages do you think girls need to hear – now.

Friends

Not the model I’m after

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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