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Category: Sport

Finally, Girl Power being used for the right reason

In the early 1990s, prominent feminists argued there was a media-driven backlash against the women’s movement, and it risked losing some of the momentum gained in the 1970s.

Then along came the Spice Girls to make “Girl Power” fun, and palatable, again.

“If you want my future, forget my past,” sang Posh, Baby, Scary, Ginger and Sporty.

It turns out it wasn’t just their predominantly teen-girl fan base who thought the way forward was through exclaiming “You go girl!”, it was marketers looking for a fresh take on how to sell the same old stuff, with a new pro-female spin.

So addicted have advertisers become to using the rhetoric of empowerment that it is now used to sell everything from cleaning products (“Get the power — the power to clean anything”) super-elastic, stomach-sucking knickers (“Spanx — Power Panties”, insert pictures of svelte women posing with arms on hips), cosmetics (Bobbie Brown’s “Pretty Powerful” range) and even workshops for teen girls that claim to want to empower teens via fashion makeovers.

Because nothing says equality quite like learning what colours best suit your skin-tone, or how to dress to maximise those socially acceptable curves, and to minimise the male gaze’s exposure to others.

Yet when marketers tackle sexism convincingly, their campaigns become viral sensations.

The Dove “Real Beauty” campaign has been running for more than a decade and is considered the industry leader in this genre; their 2013 “Real Beauty Sketches” commercial remains the most watched video ad of all time.

Feminine hygiene company Always’ “Like a Girl” campaign exposed the destructive impact messages we give to tweens about what being a young woman means can have on self-esteem; it has had more than 63 million views on YouTube.

Although many find it hard to believe Dove’s parent company Unilever is genuine in their commitment to fostering positive body image (they also sell slimming products, skin whitening creams, and run the notoriously sexist Lynx advertisement campaigns for boys), and some question how Always pushing panty liners is compatible with moving beyond limiting stereotypes about girls, for many of us it seems it is at least easy to get behind messages that build women up, rather than tearing them down.

The new “I’d like to see that” advertisement for the AFL women’s competition harks back to the popular 1994 AFL men’s campaign of the same name, but the female creatives behind this version have ensured it kicks a goal not just for one of the fastest growing sports (the recent television broadcast of an women’s AFL exhibition match reached more than one million viewers), but for team feminism.

The ad features female AFL players in action alongside prominent Australian sporting figures such as Turia Pitt and Cathy Freeman. They tell us they would like to see “girls who never give up” and “more women making Australian sporting history”.

It is incredibly inspiring (only the most hardened misogynist could fail to be moved by the shot of Melbourne captain Nathan Jones holding his giggling little girl in his arms and declaring: “Our daughters wearing our numbers one day? I’d like to see that”).

But what makes it unique is that it isn’t selling pop music, lotions or sanitary pads. It’s selling female participation in sport and their right to be taken seriously.

In the week since the ad was launched it has racked up more than 300,000 views online. Last weekend the millions who participated globally in the women’s marches proved the push towards equality has well and truly regained momentum.

Feminism is alive, hitting the streets and demanding more. What more would I like to see the women’s movement do? For a kick off, I’d like to see us move beyond messages of faux empowerment.

This post was first published in The Daily Telegraph newspaper 27/1/17 and online at RendezView.

I don’t believe self-defence training is “victim blaming”. And I’m a feminist.

I’m a proud feminist. And I’m the CEO of Australia’s largest provider of in-school workshops for teen girls that help develop self-worth and resilience. And I promote self-defence classes to young women.

Here’s how, and here’s why.

The uncomfortable truth? Teen girls are likely to experience violence in their lifetime; this can occur in a wide range of contexts ranging from schoolyard bullying and peer based aggression, through to street based harassment and stranger intimidation, through to physical assault and sexual violence.

And while we all agree this is a situation that needs to be urgently addressed, where feminists disagree is on the kind of advice, if any, which should be given to girls given this reality.

Some argue passionately that any attempt to modify young women’s behaviours is in effect victim blaming, and that the onus on change must always be placed squarely and solely at the feet of those who would harm.

I agree that often the dialogue on what women should do to stay safe, particularly after high profile media reporting on the death of a woman, can become (sometimes unintentionally) focused on what women wear, where they choose to go, whether they chose to drink alcohol. It focuses on limiting women’s freedoms.

This is never helpful. This is never OK. And it tends to assume that men who would harm are strangers lurking in dark alleys, waiting for their next vulnerable victim. As the statistics on domestic violence here in Australia clearly show, this is not always the case.

However, if self-defence is framed within a context of unpacking victim blaming and emphasising why violence is always the fault and responsibility of the perpetrator, and never the fault or responsibility of the victim or survivor, it can do much to shift this type of thinking. In fact, at the end of our sessions, many girls have approached us to explain how for the first time they felt understood; “I’ve always felt like maybe I must have somehow been to blame for my boyfriend hurting me like that. I now know that it had nothing to do with me …”

Importantly too, there must be an emphasis on the fact that we must also never blame a victim who doesn’t (for whatever reason) act assertively or fight back when in a threatening situation. Any of us, even trained professionals in the army or police force, can freeze in the face of danger. By explaining the body’s instinctive fight, flight or freeze survival mechanism, again much can be done to alleviate victim blaming and shaming.

In this age of body-image angst, self-defence classes also challenge the myth that women’s bodies are merely ornamental. Girls can be fast, strong and powerful; they can set physical boundaries. They can take up more space.

And girls can learn how and when to set verbal boundaries: “Stop! I don’t like it!”. Self-defence classes encourage girls to find their voices which is in contrast to the passivity-push that would have us believe girls should be sugar, spice and all things nice; seen and not heard.

In addition, girls are encouraged to shout-out not just for themselves but for others too; we also teach ethical bystander behaviour. There is great strength in connecting girls to each other and in fostering a sense of sisterhood.

And let me tell you, girls love all of this. Our self-defence workshop would be one of the ones girls rave about the most in their evaluations of our work. There is always laughter, giggling and a real delight in feeling powerful rather than powerless.

Finally, there is plenty of evidence to show self-defence classes can be useful in certain contexts. After news of an English women who had been trained in martial arts beating her sex-attacker unconscious broke recently, journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cossett argued that it was her own knowledge of self-defence that had saved her in an attack too; “After fighting off my attacker … (I kicked, scratched, punched, wrestled him to the ground, and told him he was a motherf****r) … I am baffled as to why self-defence has become so apparently outmoded, because it helped me when I needed it most. I grew up with a mother who used to run workshops for women who were victims of domestic violence in South London. It was she who taught me to face my attacker kicking and screaming, and in doing so she saved my life.

“That’s not to say that I might not have frozen … you cannot predict how any human will react, and I speak only for myself — but I am baffled that it is not taught more in schools. Why not have kickboxing and martial arts in PE lessons? Ultimately, extra-curricular karate lessons proved more useful to me than netball ever did.”

And what do the schools we have worked with say?

I have had emails from three different school principals in the years since we have been running these courses thanking us for giving their students the information they needed when they were in a potentially dangerous situation. On all three occasions their girls had been harassed on trains and knew to follow their instincts, move away quickly and to let other adults around them know they were feeling unsafe. Importantly, they also knew it was not their fault that they had been targeted: “They felt angry rather than ashamed which is just as it should be.”

And I have had many, many messages from teen girls that have told me that they suspect knowing that it is OK to set boundaries (and how to do this assertively) has kept them safe in a myriad of different situations. Everything from being bullied in the playground by other students, to being cornered at a party by a guy they trusted who tried to coerce them into sex.

Doctors Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey, women’s self-defence advocates and founders of site “See Jane Fight Back!” also argue: “Self-defence challenges the belief that rape is thwarted only by the perpetrator “coming to his senses”, through bystander interference, or divine intervention. “Yep. In a perfect world? It would not be necessary to focus on how women and girls can learn assertiveness and self-defence skills. But we do not yet live in that world.

And while the vital work to help curb violence continues, so too should the programs for girls and women that provide options and strategies for keeping safe.

Knowledge is power. And I choose to pass power on.

This post originally appeared in News Corp’s popular online opinion site RendezView. 

 

Role models, friendships, sport and fashion – a radio discussion well worth a listen

This week I was invited to join regular panelist, Principal of Southport High School Steven Mcluckie and three times Olympic champion Hockey Player Nikki Hudson on ABC Radio Gold Coast’s parenting panel hosted by Nicole Dyer. I think the discussion is well worth a listen.  My perspective on a few issues was quite different to the other panellists- particularly in relation to girls and clothing choices (an issue also explored at my blog here).  Your thoughts?

LISTEN: Role Models for girls and more – ABC Radio Gold Coast audio.
 

Comments about tennis star Marion Bertoli and a Roxy surfing ad featuring Stephanie Gilmore judge female athletes by their looks

This week I am pleased to share an excellent guest post by the wonderful Dr Karen Brooks; this was originally published by the Courier MailDr Karen Brooks is an author and associate professor at the UQ Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies.

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Ogling and forensically examining the bodies of athletic women is being turned into a sport.

Two champions have recently emerged in this growing field.

First is BBC commentator John Inverdale, who made disparaging remarks about Wimbledon women’s champion Marion Bartoli, claiming she “was never going to be a looker”.

Second is surf brand Roxy, which released a contentious promotional ad for the 2013 Women’s World Surfing Championships.

Featuring an elite female surfer’s body – now known to be five-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore – her face and ability in the water are totally erased as the camera lingers, often in extreme close-up, on a bed, her knickers, toned back, legs, decolletage and long blonde hair. After slowly waxing her board, only then does she enter the water, camera following her pert derriere.

Indignation followed Inverdale’s “casual sexism” and the provocative Roxy ad.

In many ways, Inverdale’s remark, his “if I caused any offence” apology and the raunchy advertisement expose the contradictory nature of women’s sport, as well as being symptoms of a society where the shape, appeal and value of female bodies are constantly scrutinised and debate about them made legitimate.

What’s being reinforced in women’s sport is the idea that success and possibly public acceptance are contingent on the female star being the next super (sport’s) model as well.

In many ways, women are damned if they do participate in a culture that insists sex sells sport and damned as “not being lookers” and forever chasing sponsorship and recognition if they don’t.

Ever since champion Australian golfer Jan Stephenson raised eyebrows and temperatures in the 1980s by embracing a sex-sells approach as a personal marketing strategy, posing naked in a bathtub filled with golf balls, there’s been a tension between appearance and ability, as if they’re either mutually exclusive or the breakfast, lunch and dinner of champions.

In professional sport, the more a person wins, the more media coverage they receive and the more money they make. Women have the added burden of having to look good while they do this.

If they don’t rate (appearance-wise) on the field, then they need to get attention off the field.

From magazine spreads to nude calendars, the female athletic body must be a sexy one as well. If it’s not deemed worthy, then it’s criticised and shamed.

Inverdale attempted this with Bartoli. The same occurred at the London Olympics when Leisel Jones’ body size and shape dominated front pages.

It wasn’t just Jones who was mocked either. The Brazilian women’s soccer team and British women’s beach volleyballers came under negative scrutiny – and not only for their skimpy outfits.

Too rarely is critical discussion surrounding sportswomen about their technique, training or ability.

Professional sportswomen cannot afford to think too deeply about this unhealthy and irrelevant focus, nor comment publicly about how they really feel when their bodies are held up for judgment, as it could affect the way their “brand” and sport, are perceived.

Condemning this kind of reductive focus could also damage their ability to draw crowds, earn sponsorship and viably remain in their chosen field. It’s much easier to be complicit in the marketing of their bodies as sexy, beautiful and capable – and reap the rewards.

The result of this complicity – the female athlete’s and ours, the sport-watching or ogling public – is evident in the Roxy campaign.

This ad for a world championship doesn’t even need to name or reveal the sporting identity who features to work. Why? Because her abilities are redundant next to her beauty and sex appeal.

This is why those such as Inverdale also get away with comments about sportswomen because, even when you win Wimbledon, if you’re not conventionally beautiful, your achievement not only doesn’t count, it isn’t respected either.

What makes a female athlete of interest for audiences, the media and sponsors – talent or sexiness? Obviously, the combination is nothing short of gold, but since when is it all sport promoters seek and audiences care about?

Are we really so shallow?

If we want to invest in women’s sport and the athletes, looks shouldn’t be part of the contract, conversation or game.

 

You may also be interested in the following Butterfly Effect posts, also by guest writers, as these deal with similar themes:

Babes, Bitches, and Blooming Awful Journalism! 

Women In Sport Hit The Grass Ceiling

 

Babes, Bitches . . . and Blooming Awful Journalism!

This week, a blog post about the media’s sexist stereotyping of women in sport has got me all fired up, so I am sharing it with you here. There is plenty of research to show that when girls are involved in sports, it is a real boost for their self-esteem and body image, so it’s an important issue.
rachel hansenThis post is by our talented program manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand, Rachel Hansen. Rachel is an experienced health and wellbeing educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Her research has focused on youth development, youth offending and women’s health.

Reading the Sunday newspaper over a coffee is an indulgence I absolutely love. Not being an avid sports fan, I usually give the sports section a miss. But last Sunday I picked up the Sunday Star Times sports section, because one of the issues I discuss with girls through my work with Enlighten Education is how the media portray women in sport. I had read research on the media’s treatment of women’s sport but I was optimistic that surely the situation couldn’t be quite that bad.

So I opened the 16-page sports section and started flicking through. Men’s rugby, men’s soccer, men’s rugby, men’s car racing, men’s rugby, boys’ soccer, men’s rugby. “Where are the women?!” I spluttered loudly, spilling my coffee in indignation. Finally . . . on page 14, women got a full page devoted to them. Yes, a full-page feature article on the US Open Women’s Tennis.

But don’t start celebrating. The headline?

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Babes, Bitches and Bickering
And beneath the atrocious headline? Photos of five of the top women in the US Open, with a one-word description — go on, I invite you read this out loud using your best Grammy Awards presenter voice:
  • Contestant: Ana Ivanovic
  • Bitchiness: Elena Baltacha
  • Entertainer: Jelena Jankovic
  • Nicest: Caroline Wozniacki
  • Soviet Tank: Svetlana Kuznetsova.

After throwing the rest of my coffee across the room (OK, that’s dramatic licence), I started to read the article, which proceeded to illuminate for me why these sportswomen were awarded their titles above.

I soon realised that Ivanovic was not awarded the Contestant title for her tennis prowess – oh no:
“’Who’s the prettiest?’ she says,  buttering a roll, her slim wrist holding up a Rolex watch the size of a child’s fist. ‘Who’s the most popular, the most fashionable, who’s getting the most coverage?’ She smiles sorrowfully to acknowledge that, when it comes to these contests, she tends to do quite well.”
Ivanovic wins the Contestant award because she is winning the beauty and popularity contests.

The Bitchiness award seems to have stemmed from Elena Baltacha‘s comment:
“I wouldn’t go out of my way to start a fight, but if I feel someone has done or said something on purpose, then I will react. I wouldn’t just take it, I would defend myself.”
One comment seems justification enough to make a derogatory generalisation about a whole personality trait.

After being described as a “truculent teen”, Jelena Jankovic is awarded  the Entertainer trophy after stating:
“We are entertainers, as well, on court, in our own sporty way . . . We entertain the fans, they pay money to watch us play.  It’s nice to see girls who are feminine, who dress nice.  Maybe in the past there were only a couple of players like that, but now players pay more attention to it. I was one of those painting my nails different colours and matching them to my dress. If you are in a nice dress you can play better, feel better. More comfortable and confident.”
This statement sounds as though it comes straight off a Sporty Bratz doll’s packaging.

Despite being the number one seed for this event, Caroline Wozniacki, winner of the Nicest title, gets only the briefest of mentions:
“Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki . . . is one of the nicest in the top 10.”
Because really, what interest would there be in a “nice” tennis player when there are beauties and bitches to discuss? None whatsoever, it seems.

And Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova obviously doesn’t live up to the sexiness factor necessary for women to play in the US Open, taking out the Soviet Tank award.

To further my dismay, this derogatory and juvenile article was written by a woman. Numerous quotes are scattered throughout this Sunday Star Times article that portray the women as simpering bimbo fashionista bitches. Strangely enough, despite not once mentioning anything about any talent any of the tennis players have, the journalist at times seems to be trying to take a feminist perspective regarding the discrimination that abounds in the women’s tennis circuit — although she clarifies that the issue is definitely “not the most pressing in feminism today”. It is often women who are propagating the sexualisation and objectification of women.

The journalist’s claim that most of the world’s top female tennis players consider their on-court fashion their primary source of “empowerment” is a ridiculous statement. What research is she basing this on? Whether it’s “brilliant exploitation of a sexist media” or “a complete sellout”, this journalist is part of it.

The article portrays the world’s top tennis players as if they were Bratz dolls, characters in an imaginary world of bling and beauty, the tennis a mere hobby on the side. In fact, I checked in on the Bratz website this morning and realised that the Sunday Star Times article was just a grown-up version of Bratz Chatz. (Note to the uninitiated: Bratz dolls are marketed at girls age 2–11.  There are five scantily clad, heavily made-up Bratz dolls, each with their own “personality” and “passion for fashion”.) Let me share with you this morning’s inspiring Bratz Chatz that occurred between the doll characters this morning:

Sasha: Dancing is sooo much easier for me than sports. I love watching Cloe play [tennis] but it is so hard for me in gym. I have to sing to get through it!
Jade: Yeah, I would much rather watch sports than play them but I get plenty of exercise walking around the mall every weekend, lol!
Yasmin: Cloe convinced me to play tennis with her and I totally fell in front of Cloe’s very cute coach. I don’t know how she focuses on the game!…

So our young girls play make-believe with sexy fashionista bimbos and the media continues the conversation for our real-life tennis heroes.

Thank you, Sunday Star Times, you made my search for discriminatory reporting of sport far too easy and time efficient. I am horrified that it is 2010 and demeaning and offensive drivel like this is the only mention of sportswomen in New Zealand’s biggest newspaper of the week. I am heartened only by the fact that it was not a New Zealand journalist. Yet why the need to import this from the UK?

I hope you will join me in emailing your dismay to the Sunday Star Times editor: david.kemeys@star-times.co.nz.

(Note: I was unable to link to a free version of this article online, but it appears to be an edited version of an article that appeared in the Guardian UK on 19/06/10.)

Media stereotyping of women in sport is universal, affecting not just NZ and the UK but Australia, too. I’d love to hear what you all think about this issue. To see some other perspectives, there is the guest post Women in Sport Hit the Grass Ceiling by Australia’s federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, and I wrote about this previously here: Sport: The Real Winners and Losers — Danni.

Women in sport hit the grass ceiling

Ms Broderick and I.
Ms Broderick and I.

The following was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 21st 2010. It is shared  here as a guest blog post with the permission of the author Elizabeth Broderick, the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner. It is an edited version of a speech she gave at the 5th IWG World Conference on Women and Sport.

Despite what many politicians might think, the talk in town isn’t the new resources tax or the coming federal election – it’s actually next week’s State of Origin and who will win the men’s FIFA World Cup in June.

We are ”sports mad”, ”a sporting nation”, ”a nation of sportsmen”. As the Observer’s chief sport writer, Kevin Mitchell, recently remarked about Australia, ”In a country generally blessed with sunshine, sport dominates nearly everything: news bulletins, pub discussions, the timing of weddings and holidays, the standing of politicians.”

The accomplishments of our male and female athletes are extraordinary. At the Beijing Olympics, women made up 45 per cent of Australia’s team and won more than half of our gold medals.

But unfortunately, the achievements of sports women are often invisible. On the data available, the coverage of women’s sport accounts for just 2 per cent of total sports broadcasting on television, 1.4 per cent on radio and 10.7 per cent of total sports reporting in newspapers.

The participation of women in sport at all levels is marked by division and discrimination that is reinforced by negative gender stereotypes. Strict gender segregation marks all levels of sport and elite, professional sport remains the unquestioned domain of men.

When the Associated Press named its top 10 female athletes of 2009, two were racehorses.

And disturbingly, professional sport in Australia has been plagued by allegations of sexual violence and harassment of women by high-profile sportsmen.

While outrage about these allegations may be immediate, it appears to be transitory – it seems the value of these players to the game quickly outweighs their ”transgressions” or ”misconduct”.

Gender stereotypes pervade all levels of sport and these are created and reinforced through the different ways that men and women are able – or even permitted – to participate in sport. This difference creates a profound power imbalance that lies at the heart of all forms of discrimination against women, including violence.

It is for this reason that identifying and addressing these negative stereotypes is crucial. These stereotypes foster a belief that women’s role in sport is an inferior and subordinate one – that women are merely fans, the support team or perhaps most visible when looking ”sexy” and ”alluring” at the awards dinner.

Of course, as we all know, this doesn’t mean that women are not participating in sport, as players, administrators, officials and spectators. A quick survey of the crowd at Homebush or the MCG or any suburban sporting field will show you that.

Women’s participation in sport reflects the issues women face more broadly in society. When we talk about women in sport, we often raise the same issues as when we talk about women in the workplace: pay equity; women in leadership positions; discrimination on the grounds of sex; the celebration of a male ideal and the marginalisation of women as the physically weaker and the caring sex.

Engaging women of all ages in sport is an end in itself. The United Nations has said that, combined with the emotional, psychological and medical benefits that are associated with participation in sport, participation also enables girls and women to increase their self-confidence and self-esteem, enjoy freedom of expression and acquire valuable skills in negotiation, management and decision-making.

But, as sportswomen and men and human rights advocates, we should not lose sight of the power of sport to act as a catalyst for challenging gender stereotypes and violence against women, and as an important vehicle to achieve gender equality.

Nowhere is this more true than in a country such as ours. The wide Australian sports arena provides a significant opportunity to reach out to young boys and men on attitudes about women. The participation of boys and men in sport – from their roles as athletes to fans to organisational leaders and the positioning of sport within the national imagination – means sport has the potential to be a powerful forum for dialogue and change.

There are increasing examples of sporting clubs creating a range of programs to do just that – from the under 5s to the professional teams – and I am hopeful these will contribute to the more positive and balanced participation of young women and men at all levels in the future.

Many commentators have also drawn the link between violence against women by sportsmen and the lack of women in visible positions of sports leadership and governance.

Indeed, it is my view that increasing the representation of women in leadership and decision-making positions is critical to raising the status of women and gender equality.

Recently, I have been looking at these structures in corporate Australia, but it is just as clear that we seem to have the same problem when it comes to women’s leadership in sport.

A research study conducted by Johanna Adriaanse, an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney, shows that only 21 per cent of board directors of national sport organisations in Australia are women. Just over 20 per cent of national sport organisations have no women directors at all. Those with no women directors include Australian Rugby League, Australian Rugby Union and Cricket Australia – some of our most iconic sports. As one woman put it to me, we have our own grass ceiling.

The International Working Group on Women and Sport, which is meeting in Sydney today, has suggested that it should be a condition of funding grants to national sporting bodies in Australia that they increase the representation of women on their boards. It is truly time that we took such decisive and effective action.

After all, everyone deserves the opportunity to participate in sport and to be recognised for their achievements. Just this week, at the Twenty20 World Cup cricket finals in Barbados, the loss by the Australian men’s team generated far more media coverage than the women’s thrilling victory over New Zealand. I rest my case.

A National Strategy on Body Image

The issue of negative body image has officially crossed over into the mainstream public debate. We now have a proposed National Strategy on Body Image, put together by an advisory group appointed by the federal government.

Kate Ellis, the Minister for Youth, put together the group, which was chaired by Mia Freedman, former editor of Cosmopolitan, and  featured big names in the fashion industry and  media such as TV presenter and model Sarah Murdoch, children’s health and psychology experts including Professor David Forbes of the University of Western Australia, and leaders of youth organisations such as the YWCA. They considered submissions from the public–mostly young people, teachers, youth workers, social workers and psychologists–then came up with recommendations for government action to deal with the widespread problem of poor body image.

What excites me, and my colleagues at Enlighten, is that the Strategy gives public recognition to the important role school programs can and should play in helping girls develop positive body image.  The Strategy calls for increased funding for “reputable and expert organisations to deliver seminars and discussions on body image within schools” and for workshops that increase girls’ media literacy so that they can stand up to negative media messages.

Many schools access independent organisations to deliver one-off body image workshops or to facilitate body image discussions among students. A number of these types of interventions have been demonstrated as effectively reducing the body dissatisfaction of students. The Advisory Group encourages government to increase the opportunities schools have to access these activities.

Proposed National Strategy on Body Image

As a first step, I call on the federal government to immediately introduce the Body Image Friendly Schools Checklist in the Strategy (on page 42). It has some great practical ideas that I would love to see implemented in schools across Australia. The best of the recommendations:

  • Bring positive body image messages into the curriculum. It is easy to see how body image can be incorporated into health and physical education lesson plans, but teachers need not stop there. In English, students could be asked to write a critical thinking essay on how the media affects our idea of what a woman should look like. A media studies class might focus on the way that programs such as Photoshop are used by magazines to create an unattainable ideal of beauty.
  • Consult with students to develop a sports uniform everyone feels comfortable wearing. Being involved in sport has been shown to boost girls’ self-esteem and body image–yet it has also been shown that figure-hugging uniforms are one of the greatest barriers to girls participating in sport.
  • Provide Mental Health First Aid training for teachers that can help them identify body image and eating disorders in students and then know what steps to take next.
  • Give training for teachers in how to use body-friendly language with students–that is, no “fat talk”, either about themselves or their students.
  • Include positive body image in the school’s policy, even writing positive body image and the celebration of diversity into the school’s mission statement.
  • Do away with weighing and measuring students. It seems kind of crazy that in this day and age that has to even be spelt out, but it is still done in PE and even some maths classes. And for many students, the humiliation they experience leaves lasting scars.

Beyond the school system, there are some other good (and long overdue) suggestions in the Strategy that I hope the government implements. A standard system of clothing sizes to avoid the distress many feel when they find they can’t fit into a certain size. Stores stocked with a broad range of sizes, reflecting the diversity of our body types. Mannequins that look more like the many different women we see every day in the street.

But as with most such working papers put together by committee, within parameters set by a federal government, the Strategy of course has its limitations. For instance, it can simply suggest that funding should be increased in schools to ensure all girls receive the media literacy and self-esteem workshops they need; it can’t provide an assurance that this will actually happen.

The limitations of the Strategy become clearer when it deals with other avenues for promoting positive body image. The right principle is there: to encourage clothing designers, magazines and TV, the diet industry, advertisers and marketers to finally shoulder responsibility for the shame, disgust and body anxiety they routinely encourage young women to experience. But the Strategy recommends first trying the softly, softly approach: asking companies to follow a voluntary code of conduct and rewarding them for good behaviour by listing them in a roll of honour and awarding them the right to display a logo. Think of the Heart Foundation’s tick of approval, but in this case for creating positive body image rather than lowering cholesterol. Only once this approach had failed to produce results would penalties be considered.

I would be overjoyed if companies voluntarily started treating girls and women with more respect. And I think some would, so long as it was good for their bottom line. Think, for instance, of Dove, which uses the body image issue to sell a truckload of soap–while their parent company’s other key brands include Lynx (Boom Chicka Waa Waa, anyone?), Slim Fast and Ponds Skin Whitening cream marketed in Asian countries. A lot of fashion designers would  simply pull one of those frosty catwalk model faces in response to a suggestion they promote positive body image. I mean, can you really see Gucci saying “Hey, they’re right, we should stop promoting this unhealthy stick-thin image and adopt that voluntary code of conduct”?

I do wish that the proposed national strategy had more to say on the sexualisation and objectification of women and especially of girls. While body size and shape and the lack of diversity in the media are prime sources of despair, the pressure to be sexy–and only within a narrow ideal of sexiness–is increasingly causing serious problems.

Research shows that over time women can come to see themselves as objects and subject their bodies to constant surveillance, feeling disgusted and ashamed about themselves. So even if the code helps industry to get serious about presenting more realistically sized women, the expectation to be ‘‘hot’’ and ‘‘sexy’’ will remain. And industry will have the right product and the latest look we need to achieve this false ideal.

Misty de Vries, COO, Women’s Forum Australia, in The Age

The way I look at it, the National Strategy on Body Image is a great place to start. But its recommendations are only worth something if the politicians, the fashion and beauty product industries, and the media and advertisers follow through on them. It is thanks to all of us voicing our opinions that the government commissioned a Strategy in the first place. Now we have to keep up the pressure!

Grants for girls

This week I want to share some really interesting websites that offer grants for young women. Are there young women in your life who might be able to access these?

The Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation was created to “inspire girls and women across Australia to dream and achieve”. What a fabulous slogan! Beachley was inspired to start this foundation for young women as she had struggled to fund her early surfing career (imagine a male pro surfer having to go without sponsorship for 8 years and being forced to work four jobs as well as training and competing!). The list of girls she has chosen to support so far is impressive and looks beyond those just interested in sport. Young women passionate about pursuits such as ballet, opera and African studies have all been assisted.

Beachley tells us that “the foundation is an investment into the future of Australian women. A little bit of finance or just the knowledge someone believes in their personal ambition may be all it takes for a female to achieve greatness and ultimately happiness.”

Who else is encouraging our girls ?

The Vicsport website is one which is fabulous for sporting girls, and it also hosts great articles about women in sport and in leadership roles in general.

Youth NSW also has some excellent links to lots of opportunities that would appeal to young women, such as the Future Leaders Awards, which recognise and reward young Australians who have shown strong leadership and potential, and Write in Your Face, which is a funding program supporting emerging forms of writing practice by young writers or organisations working with young writers. I love that the latter invites proposals from people who are using language in innovative ways, including writing for zines, e-zines, comics, multimedia, multi-artforms or cross-media works, websites, live performances and spoken word.

Federally, there is a whole website dedicated to grants and a search for “women” and “youth” brought up a few interesting options, such as the Local Champions Program for young sportsmen and women, and the Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

If it is arts you are after, then the Australia Council for the Arts is the place to go!  Search under “Grants”. You will find everything from music to dance to literature.

Other private foundations worth considering include:

The Amanda Young Foundation. This was created in memory of a young woman who tragically died as a result of meningococcol disease. The organisation exists not only to raise awareness of the disease but also to encourage young leaders in Western Australia. They have a Leaders Award and a fellowship coming soon.

The Future Leaders Awards recognise and reward young Australians who have shown strong leadership and potential. The awards also aim to inspire others to engage in environmental and community issues and make a difference. Here I found awards in areas ranging from jazz to writing to climate action.

The Audrey Fagan Enrichment Grant program is offering girls in the ACT grants of up to $2,000 to pursue study in a field of interest.

Finally, should you decide to pursue any of these opportunities, the following site has a few good basic tips for writing successful grant applications: Tips for Writing Grants. If the writing process really intimidates you, the excellent site Our Community has a list of experienced writers who can be paid to complete grant applications on your behalf.

Do you know of any other funding opportunities young women can access? If so, please share these!

Making a stand

The latest NRL scandal has brought some ugly, ignorant and misogynistic views to the surface in the media and among the general public. Many people have sprung to Matthew Johns’ defence since Four Corners’ revelations about an incident in New Zealand in 2002 in which Johns and numerous teammates had sex with Clare, a 19-year-old girl who subsequently went to the police, feeling degraded and violated: http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2009/20090511_footy/interviews.htm.

I am particularly alarmed that a number of women are pointing the finger at the victim, branding her as immoral. On Facebook, for instance, by today’s count there are 20 “Leave Matty Johns alone” pages, including this one created by a young woman: “Leave Matty Johns alone . . . she’s guilty – guilty of being a slut!!!”

In answer to those who blame the victim, in this post I offer alternative viewpoints that may hopefully dispel some of the myths about sexual assault.

Myth No. 1: The girl was “asking for it” by going back to a hotel with footballers.

This blame-the-victim mentality is one of the main reasons many women do not report sexual assault: they feel their morality may later be called into question. In NSW alone, an estimated 35,000 rapes each year go unreported. My colleague Leanne Cunningham, a clinical psychologist, tells me that she sees dozens of young women traumatised by incidents similar to the latest NRL scandal:

It is an absolute myth that women make up stories of abuse as they are liars and somehow just regretful after a sexual encounter they had enjoyed at the time. I can assure you the reporting process is so traumatic and requires such bravery that women would not put themselves through this if they did not feel they had been genuinely assaulted.”

In recent days, many people have implied that the then-19-year-old woman involved was not a true victim of sexual assault, because the police could find no evidence that physical force was used against her. Though the players involved were not charged with rape or any other crime, I believe that the words of Dr Patricia Weiser Easteal, of the Australian Institute of Criminology, in Rape Prevention: Combatting the Myths are relevant:

Studies have shown that in the majority of rapes, the perpetrator does not use force which results in physical injuries (Green 1987; Weekley 1986). The threat of force and death and the intimidation inherent . . . are sufficient. In reality, many forms of covert coercion and force may be used in rape. It is the victim’s fear of the assault and its outcome that render her passive. Almost three-quarters of the victims in a Victorian sexual assault phone-in reported that ‘they felt an overwhelming sense of powerlessness’ (Corbett 1993, p. 136)”  

Another myth that flows on from this is that unless the victim physically resists, her allegation of rape is not credible. ‘The reality is far different,’ Dr Easteal writes. In fact, ‘women have often been advised not to resist in order to minimise the likelihood of severe injury or death.’

Andrew Bolt, in an opinion piece in the Herald Sun, argued that the issue of Clare’s consent is in fact ultimately immaterial, because: ‘consent does not trump morality’.

The problem is that trusting to consent means – for a start – trusting that people are smart enough and strong enough to work out all by their uncertain selves what’s good for them. In the Johns case, it’s now clear that the 19-year-old woman was neither that smart nor that strong. Five days after the sex, she went to New Zealand police to complain of assault, bitterly regretting what had happened. I don’t doubt that she did feel powerless, or at least intimidated and on show, and if she was indeed smart enough to work out at the time that the sex was wrong, she was not strong enough to insist…Yet even though she consented to the sex – or didn’t object – the woman was still left feeling so “useless”, so “worthless” and so “really small” that her life collapsed.”

And it’s not just that consent may be due to bad judgment. The other reason these men should have based their actions on morality, rather than the woman’s consent alone, is that: “Consent also means it’s every man for himself. That you can do whatever you can force some silly or intimidated woman to agree to, however much it will hurt them.”

Final word on this point goes to the Four Corners reporter Sarah Ferguson: “A woman involved in degrading group sex can still be traumatised whether she consents or not.”

Myth No. 2: It happened so long ago, it shouldn’t matter now.

There is no statute of limitations on the harm we cause or experience. Certainly, time has not healed Clare’s wounds. Women who have lived through similar experiences report that they feel the pain long after the event. The woman at the centre of a sex scandal involving three Broncos players in a nightclub toilet last year told The Courier-Mail:

I’m still functioning and my life is not over by any means, but I will never ever forget this. Whenever I think (about it), I just want to spit, it’s just disgusting, absolute(ly) disgusting . . . (I have) trouble looking in the mirror because (I) feel dirty.”

And if we let this incident and others like it slide because of the amount of time that has passed, we will fail to acknowledge the appalling pattern of sexual assaults across the football codes. Some of these are:

2004 Bulldogs players accused of gang rape
2008 Broncos players accused of rape
2009 Sam Newman’s disgraceful treatment of Caroline Wilson on the footy show
2009 NRL’s Greg Bird’s glassing of his girlfriend’s face during an argument
2009 Reports a soccer player committed a sexual act with a 13-year-old girl
2009 A stripper being used to “stir up” an AFL Amateur Football team


Myth No. 3: There’s no point in speaking out in support of the victim.

Mia Freedman tackled this issue eloquently in her blog post last week. When a journalist asked her to comment on the scandal, her reflex was to go the “no comment” route, because once before, when she had criticised the misogynistic culture of the NRL on the Today Show, she had met with aggressive abuse from football fans.

But then, I thought about it. And I thought about the brave women who came forward on Four Corners to tell their stories. I thought about female sports journalists like Rebecca Wilson and Carolyn Wilson who have repeatedly written passionately and courageously about the issue. And I thought about Tracey Grimshaw who, on ACA the night before her interview with Matty Johns, spoke out stridently condemning him and the culture that could allow such a thing to take place, as well as the off-hand way it was handled by her colleagues at The Footy Show during Matty Johns’ public apology last week.

And I thought to myself, THIS [her fear of speaking out] is why nothing ever changes. THIS is why no NRL player has ever been convicted. THIS is why this disgusting behaviour has been allowed to continue behind closed doors for so many years . . . And I thought about how much I admire all those women for standing up and making their voices heard. And I was ashamed that I was thinking of staying silent.”

I encourage every one of us to also pick our words carefully when discussing this topic. The semantics really do matter. Jill Singer, in her Sun Herald opinion piece Disgraceful League of Their Own, writes:

Group sex. Despite the fallout from the NRL sex scandal, this expression is still invariably being used to describe the behaviour of the disgraced Matthew Johns and accomplices. How could any reasonable person use such a relatively benign term regarding the degradation and trauma caused to a teenage girl by a conga line of hulking, rutting men? The calculatedly mild language being used in discussion about the behaviour of these sportsmen helps explain a culture that allows the sexual assault of women to thrive.”

Myth No. 4: Misogyny is simply a part of male sports, there’s nothing we can do about it.

Dr Easteal acknowledges that there is indeed a culture of misogyny inherent in many Australian male dominated sports:

Misogyny is …derived from the emphasis upon aggression in the enculturation of males which is manifested in the type of sports which are popular. Males are more comfortable with males, they tend to socialise and communicate at a non-intimate level with other men, and they are apt to have a low regard for females. The latter is evidenced by both the type of verbal comments directed at women and the high frequency of physical violence toward female partners that has been well-documented (Mugford 1989).”

The NRL admits too there are massive problems within the code and have invested over a million dollars in an attempt to re-educate players. Many would argue that this is too little too late and that a firmer hand needs to be taken with players who behave in a manner that is clearly unbecoming of the sport. Brisbane chief executive Bruno Cullen publicly acknowledged that it is time to get serious: “I don’t want him (Matthew Johns) to be victimised or ostracised – I don’t want to cost him his job – but from a rugby league perspective, and a result of the stories that have come out, Matthew Johns is the wrong person to be any sort of face of rugby league whether that be on the Footy Show, Channel Nine or the NRL, whoever.”  

There are plenty of things we can all do too to help bring about change.

For starters, NSW Government Primary schools have put the NRL on notice: they will no longer host visits for players until the league takes decisive action to curb the problems that are plaguing the sport. Dr Dan White, The Executive Director of Catholic Education, Sydney Diocese, has taken a particularly firm, and admirable, stand: “People responsible for rugby league have to realise that organisations like ourselves are concerned that if this sort of behaviour goes on in the future we have to review our association with the code or club concerned…Any sport not in keeping with the ethos and values of our school system over the long term runs the risk of being discontinued as the preferred sport in our schools.”

It is vital to emphasise that the onus of preventing assault should not lie with young women. It is never the victim’s fault. That being said, there are some useful personal safety guidelines worth sharing with young women:

• Be assertive. A friend of mine who was once a cheerleader for a first-grade rugby league team described the types of girls the more predatory players were often attracted to:The group of dancers I worked with were all really confident, bright young women . . . They stayed well away from us. It seems to me that the type of girls they go for are always the starry-eyed young, quieter and often naive fans.”
• Learn self defence, so that you are better able to detect danger, fight back and be assertive.
• Know your sexual rights, as an individual and as a partner.
• Understand that rape does not have to involve physical force. If a man insists on having sex with you without your free and willing consent, he is committing a criminal act.

I’d also like to see football’s decent players step up and do more to set the tone within their clubs. What about making a public statement by wearing armbands that proclaim something like “Real men don’t harm women”? A male friend of mine made the following poignant comment: “While I believe the female voice is important in the issue of misogynistic attitudes in these types of sportsmen, the MALE voice is the linchpin. What we need are more blokes willing to have the guts to tell other blokes what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Here, here.

PS You may find the Four Corners backgrounder on the NRL sex scandals helpful. It includes an archive of news reports and resources such as hotlines and support groups relating to rape: http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2009/s2567051.htm

P.S.S Four Corners posted an Update on the story Code of Silence on the 19/5- it is vital reading: http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2009/s2575275.htm

 

Let us strive to create “Raging Angels”.

In the lead up end of year dance concerts, and the annual shopping frenzy that surrounds Christmas, this guest post by Sonia Lyne, Program Director for Victoria, and her newest team member, Amanda Hull, is timely.

Amanda begins:


I recently attended my 5-year old cousin’s dance recital. It was the most unsettling experience. I witnessed a group of 40 or more pre-kinders dressed in hot pants and mid-riff halters wearing fake eyelashes, layers of foundation, bright blue eyeshadow, and candy apple lipstick doing club dances and “dropping it like it’s hot”. I have to tell you, it was anything but hot. The only thing that was hot were my blushing cheeks and swelling sense of injustice. These precious little innocents were being exposed to (and exposing the viewer to) some of the raunchiest dance moves I’ve seen this side of a “gentlemen’s club”. Strangely enough, I appeared to be the only embarrassed person in the crowd. All the other parental faces were beaming with pride.

I spend many of my days dancing with pre-kinders to Wiggles songs and various other nursery rhymes. I am quite familiar with a way a child naturally dances. They are full of giggly excitement, with bouncing feet and clapping hands. Children who dance, when not performing choreographed moves and wearing costumes designed by adults, look nothing like the “Sportz Bratz Dance” wannabees I saw in action. 

When I asked my cousin’s parents what they thought of the girls’ dance costumes they replied that they looked “adorable” and that the girls were simply wearing what the dance teacher mandated for the performance.

I want to start a one woman revolution! I want to start my own dance company in my backyard with bumblebee, butterfly, ladybug, etc, costumes and age-appropriate dance moves!

There are other (less extreme) ways around this conformism too, and it must start at home. Upon reflection, I can now see that many of the mothers at this dance recital were like 5-year old girls themselves, dressing up their daughters and playing with them just as a child would a Bratz doll. I felt the pain of mothers who were influenced themselves by the myths of the media, doing their best to stay ever-youthful, thin, painted, and “sexy” for their mates.

How sad.  

I treasure the real beauty of women: their ability to reproduce, to run a household, to kiss an injury and magically make it better, to demand justice for their children, and insist on preserving their innocence. Unfortunately, these are not the traits that our society upholds as “beautiful”. I felt for these mothers and wanted to present a few Enlighten Education workshops to them, in the hopes that the positive, self-affirming messages would also trickle down to the daughters.

Sonia continues:

Yes, we can all be change-makers. And yes, it does start at home and with the decisions we make about what is, and is not, ok for our daughters.

Amanda and I had the honour of attending a forum recently hosted by St Michael’s Grammar School. “The Early Sexualisation of Children and Young Teens” forum was presented by popular actress Noni Hazelhurst and Julie Gale, founder of Kids Free 2B Kids and comedy writer/performer. Both speakers were informative and captivating.

There were numerous occasions where I found myself nodding pleasantly in agreement and other times where I found myself consumed with either anger or optimism, stirred by their statements. One of those poignant moments was when Noni Hazelhurst announced she wanted to create a room of “Raging Angels”. YES YES YES… 

Don’t we all have a strong desire to be active guides in our girls’ lives – and active against the toxic messages they are presented with? 

As a parent, I do my best to be a “Raging Angel”. I do filter and ”switch off” but I am also aware that at times I am no match for the endless avenues of sexualised imagery that appears on billboards, mobiles, at cinemas, shopping malls and supermarkets. I recently visited a toy store and upon entering the girls section I felt overwhelmed by the raunchy nature of the branded dolls section. Obviously the Bratz dolls were leagues ahead of the rest but it was sad to see that many of the other branded dolls now look very similar. Even Barbie has succumbed and taken a turn for the worst. I thought to myself, “This is not good enough for our little girls, how far will these companies go?”… alas, further than I anticipated. The following clip clearly illustrates the irresponsible nature of the minds behind these dolls. Somehow I don’t think the Bratz team were sitting around their meeting table discussing the value they can add to little girl’s lives when they came up with this “ingenious” idea.

 

So wrong on so many levels!!!

As Christmas is fast approaching I wanted to find alternatives to these ridiculous dolls. It is easy to criticise, but I do not just want to just deconstruct – I also want to offer alternatives!

I was able to find the following dolls for younger girls that clearly allow for creativity, exploration and yet still maintain childhood innocence.

The Only Hearts Club™, is a content-based brand of dolls for real girls that is drawing raves for combining beautiful, real-looking dolls, with content that delivers a much-needed, positive message to girls. Only Hearts Club™ dolls look and dress like real girls, and they deal with the same experiences and issues as well. You can click on the following link to find out more: http://www.onlyheartsclub.com. How interesting it is to compare the Only Hearts Sports doll (above) with the Bratz Sportz doll Amanda included in her opening! 

The all-new Australian Girl Doll is another fabulous alternative. I love the story behind this launch. Australian Grandmother Helen Schofield was so angered by the hyper sexualised dolls that were being pitched to her granddaughters that she decied to invest her retirement fund into creating dolls that are a more enlightened alternative!

 

www.australiangirldoll.com.au

You may recall last year Danni also wrote a post that suggested some wonderful gift ideas for girls – this is worth revisiting too: Christmas Gifts For Girls

My Christmas wish? We allow our daughters to dance to their own beat.

We set boundaries and seek out creative alternatives.  

We heal our girls – and their mothers.

And we bring the Rage in 2009!

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