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Category: Sexual harassment and discrimination

Sugar, Spice and Stronger Stuff

Teenage girls have been getting a lot of media lately, much of it alarmist, with headlines such as ”Do you know what your daughter’s doing tonight?” and ”Lies, scams and deceit — just your average teenage girl”. In on online feature recently, Australian fashion editors had a go at girls for dressing like ”streetwalkers”.

Girls see this media coverage, too, so I guess it’s no wonder they often say to me after an Enlighten workshop that they thought it would be “just another boring lecture about the things we do wrong”.

While we must be realistic about the very real issues that girls are facing, I believe it is just as important to recognise the positives and engage with girls, not alienate them. We need to move beyond finger wagging. I know that Martin Luther King Jr wouldn’t have inspired anyone by declaring “I have a nightmare!”

Writer Emily Maguire’s piece in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this month, “Sugar, Spice and Stronger Stuff”, touches on this issue and talks about how best to help our girls navigate the sometimes dangerous world in which they live. I am grateful to Emily for allowing me to share an excerpt with you here.

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.”

 

 

We need a reality check. . . . A minority of teenage girls routinely abuse alcohol or illegal drugs. A minority put themselves at risk of social stigma or criminal prosecution by sexting carelessly. A minority of those who are sexually active don’t practice safer sex. But most understand the potential dangers of drugs, alcohol and sex and make choices which minimise those dangers. Those who continue to put themselves at risk need specific, possibly professional, intervention. Impersonal, generalising panic over behaviour is unlikely to change it.

But of course, not all harm can be avoided by even the most sensible girl. There is, for example, the barrage of media messages about their apparent physical unacceptability. According to a 2010 Mission Australia survey, body image is the top personal concern for young people. Sexual assault also remains a major problem with the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society reporting that 38 per cent of female secondary students have had ”unwanted sex”.

It’s scary stuff. Little wonder that some parents are tempted to lock their daughters in a room free of TV, internet and phone. But one day those girls are going to have to step outside and then what?

Although we wish the world was a safer place and should work to make it so, we need to prepare girls to live in it as it is. This seems obvious when talking about boys: of course they need to learn resilience and determination and rebelliousness against those who would hold them back or harm them. But we’re still so damn precious about girls. We pretend that passivity and fragility are innate, even as we expend a great deal of energy on instilling and enforcing them.

. . .

In her book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, Rachel Simmons details the ways in which adults ”discourage the emergence of physical and direct aggression in girls” and ”either encourage or shrug off” the ”skirmishes” of boys. In one study, adults told girls in their care ”to be quiet, speak softly or use a ‘nicer’ voice about three times more often than boys”.

Teenage girls are often criticised for being sullen and underhanded, for resorting to passive-aggressive silences and unexplained bursts of tears, yet we’ve spent a decade or so training them to suppress. What do you do with the natural teenage rushes of emotion and hormones and excitement and rage when you’ve been repeatedly told not to draw attention to yourself, not to argue back, not to speak unless you have something nice to say?

We know girls face a sometimes hostile world and yet we train them to be meek in the face of it.

. . .

If girls are human then they should be allowed to explore the full range of human experience. They should be allowed to look to rock stars as well as pop princesses, pirates as well as sailors, vigilantes as well as stoic victims. They should be allowed to find inspiration in rebels with or without causes.

Fictional role models are a start, but there are plenty of real-life teenagers who demonstrate courage and resilience. Jessica Watson is already a role model for many teenagers, but how about Ellyse Perry who, at 16, played for Australia in both cricket and football? How about Angela Barker who spent her teen years in a nursing home after suffering a severe brain injury and now campaigns for the rights of young people with disabilities? Or Kalinda Griffiths who began her career as an indigenous health researcher at 17? How about the 170,000 young people who are primary carers for parents or siblings?

Poster available at www.enlighteneducation.com.

These kinds of real-life examples don’t just serve as inspiration to teenagers; they serve as a reminder to adults that teenagers of both sexes are capable of much more than our society gives them credit for.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Many teenagers possess powerful self-awareness (the flip side of teenage self-obsession) and a great capacity for constant questioning and insightful cultural critique. What they tend to lack is self-control, the ability to envisage the consequences of their actions and, obviously, life experience. That’s why we adults need to have their backs. We can encourage toughness while offering advice on how to minimise damage to the self and to others.

If a girl knows you’re on her side — that you won’t treat her as stupid or fragile or dishonest or assume she can’t handle anything more challenging than buying top-up credit for her phone — then there’s a better-than-even chance she’ll listen to your advice about when to bite her tongue and when to scream like a banshee. And when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, it’s more likely she’ll tell you about it if she knows you won’t panic about her lost innocence and vow to guard her with a shotgun until she’s 21.

. . .

There’s the example of the 14-year-old who was at the movies with her friends when a man in his 20s put his arm around her shoulder and asked her to come sit with him. She said no and he went away but she was shaken. Talking it through with her friends, there were suggestions that her outfit was ”kind of sexy” and so maybe she shouldn’t dress like that any more. Others in the group thought that was unfair: her outfit was amazing and she felt great in it. She just needed to be ready for men who thought she was older or looking for a boyfriend or whatever. Together, the girls came up with a strategy: the next time she (or any of them) had an adult man crack on to her she should say — very loudly — ”I’m 14!” and if he persisted, she would — louder still — tell him he should be ashamed of himself for trying to pick up a child.

There’s no doubt the ideas behind this solution came from a thousand conversations with adults and peers and from various forms of media. When it came to the crunch, the girls were able to talk it through, support each other and come up with a strategy that acknowledged unfortunate realities while refusing to cower in the face of them. Talk about empowering.

Unfortunately, when the girl told her parents about the incident, she was banned from going to the movies with her friends. Again, an understandable impulse but the girl feels punished for fighting her own battle and will either stop doing so or — more likely — will be sure to keep future battles a secret.

It can be dangerous out there. We can teach girls to be frightened and meek, to aim to be mere silent witnesses rather than victims. Or we can teach them to fight, not just for themselves but for others who can’t. We can teach them that the world can be terrifying, and that sometimes, they should be terrifying right back at it.


The Blame and Shame Game

This week I have noticed an alarming trend on Facebook. Many of my teen girl “Friends” have been liking sites that make jokes about “sluts”. I don’t want to give these sites anymore oxygen here but there does seem to be a fresh wave of pages dedicated to this. I became so concerned I immediately sent out a message via our Enlighten Education FB page:

Amazons – here is the deal. I am friends with loads of teens and I notice many are “liking” sites that refer to girls as sluts or make jokes about sluts. Man – this makes me sad! There is NO excuse ever to call another woman a slut or make assumptions about her sexuality. By joking like this, and labelling, we give others permission to do the same…Love, Light and Laughter , Danni xxxx

I was reassured when within the space of 20 minutes, at least 45 girls had agreed with me and a number said they were sharing this as their status too.

EMsigningI thought it timely too to publish a guest post by one of my favourite young Australian feminist writers, Emily Maguire which further explores the dangers in defining women, and teen girls, by their outfits.

Emily 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.” I am thrilled to share an extract from “Your Skirt’s Too Short” and hope it will illicit debate and discussion. I’d also like to add another argument here in defence of teen girls; whilst we are often quick to judge, we forget it is the culture that surrounds them (which is largely adult created) which tells them at every turn that their currency is their looks, and their capacity to be sexy. How can we condemn girls wearing short skirts when we have brought them Bratz dolls dressed in exactly the same attire since they were toddlers? Why wouldn’t a young woman want to dress like the role models popular culture presents her with? And if we are so quick to judge, why are we not surprised when they judge each other so harshly too?

Let’s not allow ourselves to get caught up in the blame and shame game, nor turn a blind eye when we see teens engaging in versions of it that are masked as being merely for LOL’s.

The meaning of a miniskirt

A good friend of mine was told by a senior co-worker that she should ‘rethink her clothing’. She asked for clarification. ‘You tend to dress like a slut,’ she was told. Note the accusation was not that she was a slut, but that she dressed like one.

If we agree that the term slut means to have more sexual partners than the user of the term finds acceptable, what does it mean to dress like one? Amongst the women I know there is absolutely no way you could guess who has slept with the most men simply by looking. Hell, look at me in my baggy jeans and overcoat and try and guess my sexual history.

Anyway, back to my friend who was told she dressed like a slut at work. I started to describe what she was wearing when this comment was made, but I went back and deleted it. Because, however much I want to defend her by explaining why her outfit wasn’t ‘slutty’, doing so would imply that, had it been skimpier/shorter/tighter/different, then she would have deserved the label.

I know a woman who had the phrase ‘Muslim bitch’ thrown at her as she passed a group of young men outside a convenience store. Her reaction, and that of all of us who heard about the verbal attack, was to label those young men ignorant, bigoted pigs. The idea that she somehow brought this on herself because of her clothing is frankly offensive.

Yet my ‘slutty’ friend looked immediately to herself to discover why she had been insulted, and almost everyone she told about the incident asked her to describe what she was wearing at the time, as though the answer would somehow excuse or explain the insult. Why do women, who would not dream of blaming the victim of racial or religious vilification, automatically move to check what they might have done to ‘incite’ sexist insults?

The comparison with my hijab-wearing friend is apt and I want to explore it a little further. Some people would argue that she did indeed incite the thugs by dressing in a way that advertises her faith. As this well-rehearsed argument goes, women who wear the hijab know that they stand out in the community and so can’t complain when they are abused or discriminated against because they are choosing to draw attention to themselves.

There are plenty of problems with this line of argument, but two in particular are relevant to our discussion about my allegedly slutty-clothed friend. First is the assumption that women’s clothing is a costume meant to signify to our audience what role we are playing, and that we should not complain when our audience responds accordingly.

Of course clothing is a social signal. Many people dress to signal their rejection of mainstream aesthetics or their identification with a sub-culture, for example. Adherents of certain religious groups do the same thing. Even those of us who don’t dress to express membership of a specific group, do adjust our attire depending on the location. We do this because we understand that jeans and sneakers ‘say’ something different than a suit or a bikini or a cocktail dress.

But recognising that clothing is a social signifier is not the same as saying that it invites a specific response. You see a woman in a dress that reveals a lot of skin: maybe her choice of clothing signifies a desire for attention. Maybe it signifies that she is part of mainstream fashion culture. Maybe she loves the colour or fabric. Maybe she wants to keep cool while out dancing. It’s not the right of others to pass judgment on what a woman is ‘saying’ or ‘asking for’ by dressing in a particular way.

The other problem with assuming that women in hijab or short skirts or whatever are inviting a particular kind of attention is that it’s impossible to anticipate how a random person will react. You might think your mid-calf skirt and long-sleeve blouse is modest but that Taliban wannabe at the bus-stop could become inflamed by your naked ankles. And the woman who was abused for wearing a hijab may leave it off next time and be insulted instead for her form-fitting skirt.

Certain ways of dressing may attract more attention than others, but some men will continue to insult women on the street no matter what the women are wearing. The office creep who stares at his colleague’s breasts or legs will do so regardless of how she is dressed, and there has probably never been a rapist who has let a potential victim walk on by because her dress was ankle length.

The subject of slutty clothing becomes particularly fraught when it is concentrated on teenagers. Most have heard their mum or dad utter the timeless classics: ‘Your skirt’s too short!’ or ‘You’re not leaving the house dressed like that!’ I don’t know how many times I’ve heard men—nice, progressive, liberal men—make comments along the lines of ‘I wouldn’t let my daughter dress like [Paris Hilton/catwalk model/random girl standing at a bus stop] because I know how teenage boys think.’ It’s not sexist to suggest teenage girls cover up, they argue, because it’s a biological fact that teenage boys are obsessed with sex and will think about, if not try to initiate, intimate acts with said innocent but skimpily dressed young girls.

Let’s get real: teenage girls do sometimes wear skimpy clothes. You can sort of see how some older people might make a comparison between the tiny skirts and skin–tight tops of teenagers and those of street-walking sex workers. But I bet that if those same critics opened up their teenage photo albums they’d find the same so-called hooker-wear proudly on display. I’ve seen photos of my mum and her sisters as teenagers and they’re wearing skirts so short that I can’t believe someone didn’t write an editorial about the improper influence of Twiggy. Chances are your parents have similar pics stashed in a drawer somewhere.

See, the clothing of ‘young people today’ is exactly the same as the clothing of young people yesterday (every yesterday) in that it is designed to: a) differentiate their generation from the one previous—whether Mum is a right-on feminist or a traditional homemaker, dressing like a burlesque dancer will work nicely to show the world you are not your mother; b) identify with a culture or sub-culture; and c) display sexual awareness and interest.

Obviously it’s the last one that agitates parents and excites the commentariat into a scarcely concealed sexual hypocrisy. The Australian current affairs magazine The Monthly illustrated an article about ‘sex and power in the age of pornography’ with a full page photo of teenage girls in very short skirts. The Sun-Herald’s feature titled ‘Sass to sleaze: the new girl power’, worried that raunch culture has ‘gone too far’ and then went rather far itself using three close-up photos of starlets’ breasts, another pic of a singer’s bare thighs and one of a pole dancer. The presentation of these two articles is representative of the mainstream media’s approach to the subject: young women are perved on, photographed, used to sell papers and then told to stop being so damn sexual.

But teenagers, whatever they wear, are sexual. We seem to have no trouble accepting this about boys: think of modern pop culture classics like American Pie or Superbad in which the quest for sex is an integral part of male bonding and coming of age. The fact that male sexuality is not feared and restricted like female sexuality is evident in the way our culture looks at teenagers. Adults may roll their eyes at boys with their pants half fallen down but there’s no panic about boys showing their bums in order to attract sexual partners.

Yes, clothes for teen girls do tend to reveal more flesh than those for boys, but that’s a reflection of a culture in which women are always provided with less fabric than men (think tux compared to evening gown; men’s business shirt compared to women’s), rather than a signal that they’re up for an orgy. They may well be up for that or anything else, of course, but their outfits aren’t going to tell you that. Clothes do communicate messages, but you have to understand the language to read them properly and, when it comes to teen culture, most adults don’t have a clue.

Teenage boys, on the other hand, do. Many of them are also, it is fair to say, preoccupied with sex, but that fact has no connection to what the girls around them are wearing (just like teenage girls think about sex no matter what the boys around them are wearing). A heterosexual teenage boy is capable of being turned on by anything even resembling a woman’s body. If a girl goes to school in a shapeless sack, teenage boys will spend all day imagining what is under it. Does anyone think boys in the 1950s didn’t have fantasies about what the girls hid underneath their pleated skirts?

Taking the Blues out of Puberty, Part 3: For Schools

In the last of our three-part series on supporting girls through puberty, Enlighten Education’s sexuality education expert Rachel Hansen this week looks at what schools can do to help. But first, I have some exciting news about a new sexuality education initiative from Enlighten Education.

good talks title2Schools frequently request sexuality education programs from us, and we have listened to you! We are delighted to announce that from 2012 our talented presenters will also be offering the Good Talks sexuality education programs developed by our New Zealand program manager, Rachel Hansen.

Good Talks provides holistic sexuality education programs for girls and boys that focus on empowering them to cherish their individuality and build positive relationships based on respect, equality and healthy choices. Programs are tailored to each individual school’s needs, with an emphasis on ensuring that the material is age appropriate. Topics covered can include puberty, anatomy, conception, pregnancy, contraception and an examination of the way sexuality is represented in the media and popular culture. For more information or to book a half-day Good Talks seminar at your school, email us at enquiries@enlighteneducation.com.

And now, over to Rachel . . .

 

Last week I offered some tips to support parents in talking to their girls about puberty and getting their first period, because now more than ever, parents need to have the knowledge and confidence to be able to discuss sexuality with their children. The work of parents also needs to be backed up by quality holistic sexuality education within all our schools.

If, like many parents, you assume that your child is already getting basic sexuality education at school, think again. Despite the fact that more than half of Australian teenagers are sexually active by the time they are 16, there is no mandatory, comprehensive Australia-wide sex-education policy. In New Zealand, sexuality education is a key area of learning in the National Curriculum, which means that it must be taught at primary- and secondary-school levels. Yet a 2007 enquiry by the New Zealand Education Review Office concluded: “The majority of school sexuality education programmes are not meeting students’ learning needs.” In both countries, there are some schools that offer fantastic programs, but there is no guarantee that your child will be one of the lucky ones.

Many parents say to me, “Oh, but my child has no interest/no idea/no awareness about anything to do with sexuality.” This may be true, but their classmates do, and their classmates are talking. If a child isn’t getting information from her family or her school, she will turn to her friends or the internet. I don’t have to persuade you that googling “vagina” is probably not going to throw up much useful advice for a 10-year-old. So I urge schools across Australia and New Zealand to do everything they can to meet the physical and emotional needs of students as they reach puberty.

Make it age appropriate.
As I discussed in an earlier post, puberty is starting earlier for girls, and it is important that they understand what is happening to them before they get their first period. This means that schools need to rethink the age at which they teach students about puberty. In New Zealand for at least the past 40 years, students have been taught about puberty usually in years 7 and 8. As it is not uncommon for girls to start menstruating at age 9 or 10 now, I encourage schools to teach it in years 5 and 6.

Don’t exclude the boys!
Ensure that the boys in your school are equally well informed about female puberty as the girls, and vice versa. The boys need to be in on the period talks, and the girls need to understand erections and breaking voices. If girls and boys understand what the other is experiencing and why the changes happen, bullying is likely to be greatly reduced.

When we had the puberty talk at school, the boys and the girls were separated. I never knew what the boys learnt, but afterwards they were fascinated with our ‘pad packs’ that we’d been given, and they stole them and teased us, demanding to know what we had been told. We were all really embarrassed and didn’t know what to say to the boys. I thought that it would be really naughty if we told them – because obviously our teacher didn’t want them knowing. Because they weren’t taught about it, it made it seem like periods were taboo and secret from boys. — Kelly

School was tough. The boys used to grope us to see if we were wearing a pad, then announce to the entire corridor that we had our periods. Or they’d go into your locker looking for pads to steal and stick all over the corridor. — Sophie

Stock your library with books and pamphlets on puberty.
Age-appropriate books and take-away pamphlets are fantastic for students to access in their own time and when they need answers. Primary schools can be reluctant to put sexuality and puberty books in the library for fear that parents of younger students will complain. One solution that I have seen in some schools is to have a special part of the library dedicated to the older students. These students like it because it’s their special place, and it’s somewhere they can go for answers if they don’t feel comfortable asking their teachers or parents.

Make sure girls know where to go for help and advice.
Girls need to know who to go to for support at school if they have concerns or questions about puberty or sexuality. Make sure that girls also know where a supply of pads are kept in case they are caught out. Many schools have these at the administration office, which is always staffed during the day. It is worth having a brief discussion with staff at the start of the year about what to do when a girl gets her period and needs support, as some staff will be unaware of the stress that periods cause some girls.

I got my period for the first time in my first week of high school. I was mortified because I didn’t have a pad. My friend went and asked the lady at the front desk and she gave me one – thank goodness! I am not sure what I would have done otherwise. — Laura

There was always the fear of getting caught at the far end of school from my locker, needing to change pads and having, in the time a teacher thought was acceptable for a loo stop, to run from one end of the school to another to get supplies. — Sophie

Also be sure that girls can dispose of used pads and tampons appropriately. As the average age at which girls get their first period decreases, primary schools now need to make sure there are sanitary bins in the girls’ toilets.

Rachel Hansen headshotRachel 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.

International Women’s Day – Keeping Feminism Relevant

Last night on ABC’s Q&A Janet Albrechtsen made the following statement on the state of feminism amongst our young women:

A few days ago at a Sydney girls’ high school, the girls were asked whether they were feminists. Of 90 girls, 30 girls put their hands up. Now, I think that’s quite unfortunate. These are girls who are obviously in favour of female suffrage. They’re in favour of equal pay and yet there is something going on here that a lot of young girls are not finding feminism attractive. The debates around quotas and discrimination are all part of a wider debate about feminism and we have to ask what it is that’s turning young girls away…

I’m not sure that I agree with Ms Albrechtsen’s assumption that this generation of girls are fleeing from feminism. Rather, I think they have a healthy interest in women’s issues, even if they do not necessarily relate to the terminology. Monica Dux, author of The Great Feminist Denial, argued in an article I was also interviewed for (“Putting Girls Issues Back On The Radar”) that a feminist consciousness is there but that we have just got to start claiming back the label.

And make no mistake, it is vital that we connect this generation of young women to the feminist agenda as the work is far from done.

Despite making up 45% of our workforce, the number of women on corporate boards is just 8.3% (an issue the Q & A panellists also discussed at length). Violence against women is a huge issue: one in three women has experienced physical violence since the age of 15; nearly one in five women has experienced sexual assault since the age of 15; and almost every week, one woman is killed by her current or former partner. One need only look at popular culture to see that misogyny and sexism are not only alive but indeed well paid (think footballers who choose to behave badly and Charlie Sheen). Meanwhile, for our sisters overseas, every day is an ongoing battle. The following extract from REFUGEES magazine, produced by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is deeply shocking:

There are approximately 50 million uprooted people around the world – refugees who have sought safety in another country and people displaced within their own country. Between 75-80 per cent of them are women and children.

The majority of people flee their homes because of war and the proportion of war victims who are civilians leaped in recent decades from five per cent to over 90 per cent of casualties. Eighty per cent of casualties by small arms are women and children, who far outnumber military casualties.

Females are subjected to widespread sexual abuse. In Bosnia and Rwanda rape became a deliberate aim of war. More than 20,000 Muslim women were raped in Bosnia in a single year, 1992, and a great majority of the female survivors of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide were assaulted.

More than 300,000 youngsters, many of them female refugees, are currently serving as child soldiers around the world. The girls are often forced into different forms of sexual slavery.

More than 16.4 million women today have HIV/AIDS and in the last few years the percentage of women infected has risen from 41 to 47 per cent of the affected population. In sub-Saharan Africa, teenage girls are five times more likely to be infected than boys.

The majority of trafficked people are women, especially those bound for the world’s sex industries. Females are particularly vulnerable to trafficking because many have little individual security, economic opportunity or property or land ownership. Many victims are kidnapped or sold into slavery by their own families.

An estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide, 70 per cent of them women, live in absolute poverty on less than $1 a day.

Me and my PHD student friend and colleague Sarah Casey - rockin' Feminism.
Me and my PhD student friend and colleague Sarah Casey - rockin' Feminism.

The team here at Enlighten Education also investigated some of the reasons why young women are distancing themselves from the “F” word when designing our newest workshop aimed at inspiring girls to be proud Feminists – Real Girl Power. Some girls thought the work was done: “We have a female Prime Minister and a female Governor General.” Others thought that only those with “hairy legs” and those who hated men could join the club. Kate Ellis, our Minister for Employment Participation, Child Care and Status of Women, hinted at the latter misconception too when she revealed on Q & A that when she first entered politics she was advised to cut her hair and wear glasses (despite having perfect vision). Can we be taken seriously as female leaders, and indeed as feminists, if we have long hair, stilettos and wear lippy?

Yes.

We do not owe it to feminism to dress down. Nor, of course, should we feel pressured to dress up. Feminism surely must be about informed choice.

Sarah Casey, a friend and colleague, is currently completing her PhD at Griffith University. Her focus is on the relevance of feminism to the world today. Sarah argues that feminism will be revived for mainstream audiences through action rather than continual academic dialogue, which is often inaccessible to the majority of youth. “I believe that human rights violations against women throughout the world need to be addressed with urgency and focussed feminist organisation that takes into account and critiques youth culture. For example, we must tap into and explore new technologies, celebrity consumer culture and philanthropic capitalism,” writes Sarah.

In our work, we have discovered  that  when we inform girls about some of the struggles women are enduring in the third world, they soon realise that the feminist battles have not all been fought. A Western woman’s experience is vastly different to that of a woman in the developing world.  We remind girls that not only are they privileged to have choices, but that they also have powerful voices they may chose to use to effect global change. Sites like The Girl Effect and Plan International’s Because I Am A Girl are both great starting points and offer not only education but also practical ways in which we can all contribute to making a difference.

We also encourage girls to act on issues that do affect them directly. We distribute “Girl Caught” stickers (you may download a PDF with these stickers here: GirlCaught Stickers(2009)) inspired by the US Mind on The Media campaign that encourages girls to talk back to advertisers who portray women in a negative light. To say girls love these would be an understatement – every time we hand these out at school girls try to sneak extra copies from us!

GirlCaught_Sticker

We are now also distributing The Equality Rights Alliance’s postcards calling on The Hon Peter Garrett (Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth) to put the Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct for Body Image into force. An electronic version of this card may be sent from here.

I’d love to hear how you are connecting the young women at your school to feminism too.

Postscript: Thank you to Rachel Hanson for bringing this excellent TED Talk to my attention. Here young feminist Courtney Martin ( author of the insightful Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters) gives a personal account of how she reinvented feminism and connected with the movement.

Gender Equity – all the cool boys are championing it.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner Responsible for Age Discrimination, Elizabeth Broderick, listed a number of things she believes will contribute to gender diversity in leadership within Australia. I was particularly interested to see her note the vital importance of engaging men in the agenda:

I firmly believe that we will only see significant gains when men start working with men to solve this problem. After all it is men who dominate nearly every institution in this country, particularly in corporate Australia. If there is to be change, male CEOs and business leaders have to champion it…As the beneficiary of a number of male sponsors across my career I am a great believer in it.

Similarly, if we are serious about improving outcomes for young women, we need to engage young men and have them champion the cause. The potential that the “boy effect” has to initiate and support the “girl effect” was beautifully demonstrated by the students at  Sydney Boys High School. As part of their Community Action Project, they chose to “spread the word and change people’s thinking” and have been sharing their message with other high school students. I am hoping this video will inspire all schools who work with young men:

Want more ideas for inspiring young men? I have posted this moving video featuring Jonathon Walton before but I believe it is well worth revisiting. If a formal presentation does not appeal to the boys at your school, what about slam poetry or rap focused on championing the women in their lives? I’d love to feature more positive initiatives aimed at engaging boys and men – if you know of any, please share them here.

Real-World Tech Influencers

Last week an infographic went viral that posed the question “Which Female Tech Influencer Are You?” By answering inane questions such as “Jimmy Choos or running shoes?” and “White wine spritzer or tequila with worm?” you are supposed to find out which successful female tech influencer you most resemble.

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Please. I know this is just meant to be fun but really — isn’t it incredibly patronising to suggest the biggest decision made by dynamos such as Google vice president Marissa Mayer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is which handbag they might like to take to work? Writer and real-world tech influencer Alexia Tsotsis nailed it on the site Tech Crunch:

The women who have been highlighted here are smart, driven, and have worked hard for their success. They deserve so much more than being reduced to an infographic bobble-head on a cartoon body.

When you think of all the legends in the development of information and communications technologies (ICTs), you rarely hear the names of women. The usual names that spring to mind are Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Stallman and, recently, Mark Zuckerberg , for being the genius behind the popular social networking website Facebook. Can you imagine anyone asking these men how they prefer to style their hair?

How can we move beyond limiting stereotypes and sexist sniggering?

By telling HERstory!

HERstory is an initiative of Take Back The Tech, a grassroots campaign that encourages everyone, particularly girls and women, to take control of technology and use it as a tool to do something incredibly vital: put an end to violence against women. The campaign lends itself to some excellent and much-needed school-based work on cyber safety and activism. Their website includes sensible online safety tips, campaign banners and posters, videos, blog posts and an “Idea Kitchen” filled with inspiration.  One of those ideas is to tell HERstory by spotlighting “the innovative girls and women around you who are doing creative, inventive and groundbreaking things with technology”.  I had never heard of the following women who shaped the cyber frontier until I visited the website for Take Back The Tech:

  • Ada Lovelace — the first computer programmer in history, who wrote the first algorithm specifically for the computer
  • Grace Hopper — the inventor of the first computer language composed of words
  • Betty Holberton, Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Jean Jennings and Fran Bilas — the six women who were the original programmers of the first general-purpose computer, ENIAC.

Why does telling HERstory matter? Because when only men get attention for their roles in ICT:

This contributes to the idea that ICTs is the domain of men and boys as creators and innovators, and that women and girls are mainly just users and consumers. This in turn affects the choices that parents make in encouraging their children to study science and technology based on their gender, and the masculine culture that permeates the industry, making it hard for women and girls to enter as equal participants and decision-makers. What happens is a perpetuation of this cycle of gender stereotypes and myths that cast women as passive background actors in the development of ICTs and men as active groundbreakers – the stuff of legends.

— Take Back The Tech

I am always inspired by the women I know who are using technology to make changes. The team over at Collective Shout have initiated a number of successful campaigns lobbying corporations to end their objectification and sexualisation of women. Their recent petition to ban the release of Kanye West’s Monster video now has almost 7,000 signatories.

And I am really excited about the new site launched by the Equality Rights Alliance, Sharing Young Women’s Stories. This site has been set up to celebrate 100 Years of International Women’s Day. It features a number of guest bloggers (including yours truly) and encourages people to upload and share stories of women who inspire. There is also a postcard that can be downloaded and sent to  Minister Garrett, asking him to do more to promote healthy body image. Enlighten Education is going to pay to have 10,000 of these cards printed to distribute to our client schools during our upcoming in-school events. We find girls willingly embrace activism!

So, perhaps a revised infographic suggesting the decisions women really make when using technology to shape their careers, and indeed their culture, might actually pose questions like: “You see an injustice. Do you blog on it or set up an on-line petition?” and ” You like to share the love and encourage the women around you who are making changes. Do you Tweet about their work or set up a Facebook Fan Page?”

No . . . even that would be far too limiting. The smart cyber-amazons I know don’t just chose one path. They do it all.

Postscript:

Other Butterfly Effect posts on girls and technology that may inform and inspire you (particularly when planning International Women’s Day events at your home or school) include:

And my 3-part series on cyber world:

Part 1 — What is working?

Part 2  — Cyber bully busting

Part 3 — Dealing with more difficult truths

Wanted — more girl champions

Women hold up half the sky. — Chinese Proverb.

Don’t you just love it when you read a book that changes the way you view the world? Last year for my 40th birthday Melinda Tankard Reist bought me a copy of  the Pulitzer-prize-winning Half The Sky. This brilliant work has been described by the publishers as a “call to arms against our era’s most pervasive human rights violation: the oppression of women and girls in the developing world”. I became so passionate about bringing an awareness to the plight of girls in the developing world and to how simple some of the solutions are that I immediately incorporated some of the messages into our Enlighten Education workshop on feminism as it applies to this generation of girls: Real Girl Power (for more on this workshop, you may be interested in this news article: Putting Girls Issues Back on the Radar).

One of the key resources that informed this workshop was Plan International’s brilliant “Because I am a Girl” campaign. Yesterday I was fortunate enough to have been invited by the forward-thinking team at Mercer (a global leader in financial services) to attend the launch of Plan’s new paper: “Because I am a Girl, The State of The World’s Girls 2010. Digital and Urban Frontiers: Girls in a Changing Landscape”. Plan is producing one girl report each year in the run-up to 2015, the target year for the Millennium Development Goals. Each report provides tangible proof of the inequalities that still exist between boys and girls. Mercer is supporting Plan in its life-saving work and has also been using me to present to executives who are involved in their truly vibrant Women in Leadership Network. Isn’t it exciting to see corporations involved in partnerships that make a real difference to the lives of not only their staff but to those who have fewer opportunities?

The launch started with a reminder about why unleashing women’s potential is not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do in order to combat poverty:

This year’s report was particularly of interest to me as it examined the impact of both urbanisation and technology on young women — issues we are also struggling with at a domestic level. A full copy of the Executive Summary may be downloaded here: Because I am a Girl – The State of the World’s Girls 2010.

What are some of the key findings?

Bright lights and big hopes — adolescent girls in the city:

For the first time in history, there are more people living in cities than in rural areas. This has the potential to lead to increased education opportunities and access to better health care services, and it is delaying the age at which girls marry. However, girls in cities are at particular risk of exploitation, poverty, overcrowding and physical and sexual violence.

I was particularly moved by the manifesto street girls and former street girls put together when they met at the 2010 Street Child World Cup in Durban, South Africa:

We, the girls living and [who] have lived on the streets and those of us in shelters from seven countries, the UK, Tanzania, South Africa, the Philippines, Ukraine, Brazil, and Nicaragua, have the following rights and we want them respected:

The Right to live in a shelter and home, The Right to have a family, The Right to be safe, The Right to be protected from sexual abuse, The Right to go to school and get free education, The Right to good health and access to free health services, The Right to be heard, The Right to belong, The Right to be treated with respect and decency, The Right to be treated as equal to boys,  The Right to be allowed to grow normally.

Adolescent girls and communication technologies — opportunity or exploitation?

The report identified several reasons why technology is important to girls. These included using technology as a tool to connect, educate, gain employability skills and increase knowledge about health issues such as HIV and AIDS.

Just as we are finding here, however, there is also a dark side: 79% of girls said they did not feel safe online, almost half the girls surveyed said their parents did not know what they accessed online, only a third of girls said they knew how to report danger or something that made them feel bad online, and almost 50% said they would go to meet someone they met online (this is particularly troubling in the developing world, where many young women are tricked into the sex trade by the offer of jobs overseas). Cyber-bullying was also a growing problem.

Moving forward

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Two young women who have been assisted by Plan International in Ghana — Gifty and Aisha — were at yesterday’s launch. They both spoke to me about the positive impact intervention has had on their lives. Education works. Investing in girls works.

Plan’s report concludes with a powerful call to action:

We can all contribute. We need to listen to adolescent girls’ views and ensure that their voices are heard by decision-makers. We need to learn from what they have to say. We need to include them in research, in planning and in policies. We need to invest in girls’ skills and ensure that they have access to information, the skills to use it and the power to protect themselves. And finally, we have shown that what many of them have achieved in the face of adversity is truly remarkable. We need to celebrate these achievements and ensure that all girls, wherever they live in the world, have the same chances in life as their brothers.

Girl Effect, an organisation that also does incredible work with young women in the developing world, tells it how it is on their website. The  launch page is emblazoned with the following:

The World could do with a good kick in the pants. Agree?

Yep.

So, what am I going to do to make a difference? I am going to continue, and in fact enhance, the workshops we run that inform girls about these important equity issues. I am also going to strengthen the work I do here in Australia with our Indigenous girls — many of these young women are living lives not dissimilar to those girls in the developing world are living, which I find deeply shameful. I am currently coordinating diaries with the amazing Cathy Freeman and hope to work with her on Palm Island with Indigenous girls. Cathy is a true champion of girls and if you are not yet aware of the work her foundation is doing in this area, do investigate.

I would like to also encourage you to act now too. Plan are calling for the United Nations to declare today, September 22nd, to be International Day of the Girl. A simple first step? Sign their petition. And then find out more about the numerous organisations that work to turn oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. Donate. Share this post with colleagues. Educate your girls about the plight of their global sisters.  The following video from Girl Effect is also well worth showing and using as a stimulus for discussion – perhaps girls might be asked to produce their own manifesto of rights they think all girls should have respected?

I have found that girls here do care — deeply. In fact, I believe they yearn for something that matters more than just the right jeans, the hottest boyfriend and the latest celebrity that has gone into rehab.

By not discussing the real issues, we do all girls a huge disservice.

Beyond Cyber Hysteria – Part 3: Dealing with more difficult truths

Please note: the blogging platform I use, Edublogs, filters out words like p*rn, hence the need to use asterisks. If you wish to comment, please use symbols to avoid your text being automatically deleted.

In a previous blog post, “Teens and P*rn, dealing with difficult truths”, I posed the following question: ” What messages will this generation receive about desirability if their emerging sexuality is largely shaped by p*rn?” P*rn is nothing new, but it has never been more accessible than it is today, thanks to the internet. In the excellent 2009 UK television series The Sex Education Show, three out of ten high school students interviewed said they learned about sex predominantly through viewing p*rn*graphy on the internet and mobile phones, or in magazines. However, recent Australian research conducted by the Family Planning Association provides some hope. This survey found:

  • Friends – Friends were the most commonly used source of information for young people, with 43% of respondents calling on their mates for information.
  • Sexual activities – 50% of young people turned to their friends for information, while only 20% sought advice from schools and parents.
  • Contraception – 48% of adolescents went to doctors for information; 38% went to friends first.
  • The Internet – 30% of young people combined the internet with traditional sources for information about sex.
  • Schools & Parents – 25% of the respondents turned to these sources for information.

Dr Deborah Bateson, Medical Director for Family Planning NSW said “The results show that young people seem to have an appropriate level of scepticism when it comes to using the internet for sexual health information.” The survey found that although young people are turning to the internet as a source of information, only 21% trusted the information they found and only 16% of adolescents trusted what they saw or read in the media.

It is pleasing to see young people may be cautious about believing all they see online. However, even if they don’t view internet p*rn as a source of information about sex, surely viewing it still shapes their impression of what a sexual relationship may look, sound and feel like? And I have to say, I am worried. I have come out in the media before expressing the need for caution and remain concerned that adolescents are having their sexuality shaped by internet p*rn, which is more often than not  focused solely on male pleasure, often degrading to the female participant and, indeed, often violent.

Even very small children may inadvertently stumble upon the most graphic of sexual images. When my daughter Teyah was 8 years old she searched Google images for a picture of a nun for a school project and was faced with p*rn images of women being abused in nun outfits. A few years later she accidentally typed in “hotmale” instead of “hotmail”. If you are looking for the Aussie website aimed at teens that claims to be “empowering girls worldwide”, girl.com.au, and forget to add the “.au”, you will hit the awful  girl.com, which features explicit images of pre-pubescent-looking girls posing naked.

The reality is that the proliferation of porn on the internet is not going away anytime soon, as it is such big business. Steve Jobs, the genius founder of Apple, caused a controversy when he was cited as saying he dreams of an internet devoid of porn. He is reported as declaring to a critic: “You may care more about p*rn once you have kids.” Apple does not allow applications that depict overtly sexual content but of course are powerless to stop what appears on the world wide web.

The Australian government’s report Adolescence, P*rn*graphy and Harm addresses some very real challenges parents and educators face in its conclusion:

Though restricting exposure will remain a priority, an over-reliance on this approach to protect against the perceived harms of p*rn*graphy is problematic as it fails to recognise the realities of ready availability and the high acceptance of pornography among young people. Moreover, it fails to examine the holistic way in which adolescents’ sexual expectations, attitudes and behaviours are shaped in our society and the complexity of factors that give rise to the cited harms. Protecting young people necessarily requires equipping them, and their caregivers, with adequate knowledge, skills and resources (e.g. media literacy; sex education; education about pornography and rights and responsibilities of sexual relationships; safe engagement with technologies) to enable successful navigation toward a sexually healthy adulthood, as well as tackling factors predisposing to sexual violence.

n229345874979_7801The internet can also be host to sites that are “temples to human cruelty”, a term Melinda Tankard Reist used to describe Facebook pages she alerted us to that depicted girls others viewed as “sluts”. Other pages I have seen that sickened me included one where people posted pictures of animals they had abused, and a page named “It’s not rape if you yell surprise.”  The image to the left is one taken from a Facebook page where members could discuss how they had used physical violence to “shut their bitch up”. A relative newcomer on the social networking scene is Formspring. Many parents are already telling me this site, which allows participants to ask others anonymous questions and post anonymous comments, is particularly frightening. It is very attractive to many teens as it is by its very nature confessional — “Ask me anything . . .”  Young people are often drawn to the notion of sharing secrets. However, most of the questions I have seen asked are really just designed to shock and hurt: “Are you really a slut, because everyone at school thinks you are.”

At my company, Enlighten Education, where we discuss a wide range of topics with young women in schools, including cyber safety and responsible use of technology, we have deliberately chosen not to run workshops on sexuality because families have their own values they wish to instil, and girls need to hear messages about sexuality at different ages, depending on their cognitive, emotional and physical development. We do believe, however, that by helping girls develop a strong sense of self, we are equipping them to be better able to make their own choices and to view themselves holistically – not just as a body but a heart, soul and mind, too.

In my book, The Butterfly Effect, I offer parents the following as part of an “Action Plan” to help raise healthy, whole young women:

Talk to your daughter honestly and non-judgementally about sex and her own sexuality. Her school will provide information on personal development and sexuality, but she needs you to be involved in this dialogue, too. This is part of your core business in raising your daughter to become a happy, healthy woman. When is the right time to start? I had a very wise grandmother who used to say ‘If a child is old enough to think of a sensible question, then they are old enough to hear a sensible answer.’ Keep in mind, though, that the onset of puberty is a stage of development that will unfold over many years. There is no need to discuss everything all at once. Be guided by her physical and mental maturity level, and her interest.

Be prepared for a few awkward moments; I have found that older teen girls often try to shock by asking questions they don’t think we will have answers for. (‘So what is a 69’er?’) If you respond calmly and in a matter-of-fact way, they are usually so impressed by your inability to be fazed that they go on to ask very thoughtful questions that really do matter to them. If you don’t have an answer, be honest and admit that you don’t know. In can be a powerful exercise to attempt to find answers together.

Be willing to attempt to resolve differences of opinion or at least be prepared to hear your daughter out, which will give her practice articulating her values. However, don’t back away from ultimately being the adult who sets limits about sex; and expect her to respect these. Encourage discussion by asking open-ended questions and actively listening to her.

It is vital to discuss the emotional component of sex, but think twice before making black-and-white statements such as ‘Sex is only for people who really love each other.’ Ideally, that might be true, but the reality may be quite different. Sex may be an expression of love, but it may also be an expression of boredom, curiosity, lust or even dark emotions such as anger or hate – for girls as well as boys. I have seen girls who engage in sexual acts only to later feel embarrassed by them. By helping your daughter to develop her emotional vocabulary, you will be helping her understand that sex not only has obvious physical consequences – pregnancy, STDs – but also an emotional impact. The glossy ads and catchy song lyrics rarely discuss complex human emotions. You should.

Get an effective internet filter. None of the filters on the market are completely fail-safe but they do offer some protection from porn on your home computers. Limiting and banning access to certain sites is only one strategy, though. It is far more effective in the long term to discuss why these sites are not suitable and what your daughter should do if she stumbles across one.

I’d be very interested in hearing your suggestions on how you are dealing with the ugly elements of cyber world.


A Conversation with Germaine Greer*

IMG_1118[1]Enlighten Education sponsored the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasian Biennial Conference, which was held last weekend on site at Ascham School, one of our long-term clients. I always enjoy these events as so many of our client schools are members of the Alliance and it is a delight reconnecting with all the educators we have developed such strong relationships with. This year’s conference was particularly inspiring as there was a stellar line-up of speakers including Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce, Cheryl Kernot, Dale Spender, Andrew Martin and Germaine Greer.

Television host Andrew Denton once described Greer as  “not so much a human being as a force”. I had expected her to be formidable and challenging, and she delivered. With a view to keeping the conversation alive, I want to share some of the points she made and pose some questions her sessions raised, which I believe are well worth wider discussion. Please, join in, either by commenting here or by taking these questions back to your staff rooms to discuss as a faculty. I have aimed my questions at educators, but they could be easily adapted and discussed amongst parent groups.

The Glass Ceiling

There is a current trend towards affirmative action policies that Greer does not believe will work. She fears that rather than truly addressing imbalances in power, they will only set up inexperienced women — who may not understand how the boys’ club that is “the corporation” works — as “cannon fodder”. She argues that this is what happened in England when the 1997 general election saw more women elected to the House of Commons than ever, yet many of the new female MPs grew disillusioned with the lifestyle of an MP. Nine of the so-called “Blair Babes” either chose not to stand or lost their seats in the 2001 general election. She also questioned why so many women seem to be opting out of leadership “just as they are most likely to be catapulted to the top due to affirmative action”.

Instead of playing a “numbers game”, Greer suggested we need to redesign democracy and build models of power that are more horizontal and truly inclusive.
What changes do you believe are necessary in order to encourage increased female participation at the leadership level?   

Greer expressed concern that girls, particularly in girls’ schools, are primed to take on leadership roles but then when they leave school, they are faced with systematic boys’ club rules that limit them. She fears there is a risk girls will feel guilty and internalise their inability to break through the glass ceiling.
Do you agree?  

Educating  Girls

Greer believes young women  judge each other more than men do. “Boys are more emotionally committed to each other,” she said.
Is this your experience in working with young women? If so, how can this be challenged?  

Greer believes girls are far more anxious as students and fear making mistakes: “I say to my students, ‘I don’t mind if I don’t agree with what you say, I just want you to have something to say!'” She talked about there being a “defect” in their self-confidence. Greer made the point that “as an economic driver, women’s insecurities are a billion-dollar business” and cited the cosmetic and diet industries as examples of this. She believes schools should “liberate the voice” of girls. 
Does the fear of failure paralyse girls? If so, how can we create classrooms that encourage risk-taking?  

Greer lamented the trend towards raunch culture and overt sexuality as a type of liberation. She referred to the sexualisation of children as “generalised paedophilia”.  She believes grown women are not visible enough in our culture: “We rarely see grown-up women who take up space.”
If girls cannot be what they cannot see, is it more important than ever to seek out healthy alternative role models? How have you managed to achieve this at your school?

*Apologies to Ms Greer if I have inadvertently taken anything she said out of context. Do I sound anxious about making a mistake? Yes, when it comes to Germaine Greer, I am! She left clutching a copy of my book, The Butterfly Effect. I lay awake the next night fearing that it might arrive back in the mail covered in red pen corrections — but Ms Greer, at least I have dared to find my voice!

Sticks and stones

Last week, I did a post sharing media I have been doing aimed at encouraging schools to be more proactive in dealing with sexual harassment. I received a comment from one of my blog readers that at first shocked me . . . and then got me thinking about another issue that affects all women and girls: the tendency in our culture to demean women for their looks rather than to engage with what they have to say. The comment was short, and cutting:

We’ve seen your talks at schools. If you’re so keen to set a good example then don’t turn up to school looking like mutton dressed as lamb. — Kim

I wondered exactly what it was about me that came across that way to her. When I do my self-esteem and skills-building workshops with girls, I wear an Enlighten Education uniform of sorts. We are often up and jumping around with the girls, so skirts and high heels are definitely out. It’s jeans or tights in winter, or mid-length shorts in summer, and then a black T-shirt embroidered with our butterfly logo. 
danni
Then I realised that the comment had drawn my attention away from the real issue: too often, when women raise their voices, they are criticised not for what they say but how they look.

Even now, in 2010, is that the currency of a woman or a girl  her looks? Is a female’s Achilles heel still her appearance? If you strike her there, do you take away her only power?

It isn’t the first time I’ve spoken out about sexual harassment or a women’s issue and been criticised not for my arguments but for the way I look. I have been helpfully informed that I seemed to have put on weight. I was sent an e-mail telling me that I couldn’t be a feminist because I have blonde hair. During the 2009 scandal involving Matthew Johns and teammates having sex with a 19-year-old girl, I wrote an article in defence of the young woman, who was being blamed and insulted in the media and on the internet. A reader commented that I was just jealous because I was wasn’t desirable enough to get a football player of my own.

I’m in good company. The woman whose writing had the most profound effect on me when I was young, Naomi Wolf, received a torrent of criticism for being too pretty to be a real feminist. On the other side of the coin, Germaine Greer has long been attacked for all sorts of supposed flaws in her appearance and femininity. Earlier this year, Louis Nowra described her in The Monthly as “a befuddled and exhausted old woman” who reminded him of his “demented grandmother”. It should be noted that Greer herself is no stranger to flinging looks-based insults, famously describing a fellow writer as having “hair bird’s-nested all over the place, ****-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage”.

Comments that target a woman for how she looks, rather than her ideas, are designed to do one thing and one thing only: to shut her up.

Yet it only spurs me on. The same can be said for other Australian writers and commentators I spoke to who also regularly receive such criticism. When I discussed this phenomenon with Emily Maguire, author of Princesses & Porn Stars and a regular writer on gender and culture, she told me:

There’s no way you can present yourself that won’t attract criticism from the kind of people who think that criticism of a woman’s looks will hurt more than criticism of her ideas . . . It only makes me more sure that this stuff is worth speaking out about. — Emily Maguire

Melinda Tankard Reist is an author and commentator who often appears in the media to speak out against the sexualisation of girls and women. She publicly commented on the decision of former Hi-5 performer Kellie Crawford to pose for a lingerie shoot in Ralph in order to “find the woman in me” after so many years as a children’s entertainer. Melinda asked people to question why the Wiggles didn’t need to “prove their manhood by stripping down to their jocks”. Much of the criticism she received afterwards didn’t address that question but told her that she was “a bitter ugly woman”, “sad, old and dog-ugly” and that she had “saggy breasts and a droopy arse”.

Old, saggy, mutton dressed as lamb — age is a common theme to this type of criticism. Rather than seeming to gain wisdom, experience and authority — as is virtually expected of men — women are often deemed of decreasing value with each year they move beyond their 30s. We see it throughout our culture. How many good roles are there for actresses over 40? How many women newsreaders have career longevity without resorting to Botox? It is as if once women have passed a certain age, it is time for them to step off the stage. It’s no wonder that many women are angsting and trying to achieve the body of a 20-year-old — an impossible and time-wasting task. Zoe Krupka put it perfectly in a post on the website New Matilda:

How are we meant to do our work in the world and develop wisdom if we are still focused on the size of our butts? — Zoe Krupka

One would hope that the situation was improving, but in fact, it seems to be getting worse. And it is often women who use the strategy of attacking a woman’s looks. Dr Karen Brooks, social commentator and author of Consuming Innocence: Popular Culture and Our Children, told me:

I have had my appearance criticised ALL the time . . . This has been happening to me for 13 years and it’s getting worse . . . I should add that most of the negative comments are from women. — Karen Brooks

Perhaps there is an element of fear of change that drives women to this type of criticism. Perhaps this technique just comes all too naturally to women who have spent their whole lives learning how to play the “compare and despair” game. Perhaps the ultimate sin for women is to show confidence and to love themselves, so critics feel that outspoken women need to brought down a peg or two.

Whatever it is that drives looks-based criticism, the thing that hurt me the most about the comment I received on my blog was that this woman claimed she had seen me present to girls. At every school Enlighten Education has worked in, the girls line up afterwards to ask for a hug, a kiss and to tell us they love us. They tell us that it changed their lives. So it made me sad to think that in the presence of all the joy and positivity and love that bursts out of these girls, for at least one woman the lasting impression was my looks, something that the girls never notice or comment on.

Imagine the change we all women and men could make in the world if we took personal attacks out of public debate. Imagine if we all engaged in the debate, made respectful counterarguments, added our own ideas into the mix. Imagine if we all pledged to stop trying to silence one another. I have the greatest respect for the women thinkers and activists I have mentioned here. Do I agree with them on every single issue? Of course not. But I pledge to always argue my case while according them the respect they deserve. It will always be their ideas that I engage with, because ideas — not physical appearances — live on forever.

A comment I received from another woman sums it all up:

Common sense, dignity, rights, respect, responsibility — these basic human values should be blind to looks, age, gender. — Paola Yevenes

Danni with students

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