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Tag: Angela Mollard

You know what? Girls are actually doing pretty well.

The following guest post is by the wonderful Angela Mollard. Angela is a columnist, parent and author of parenting book The Smallest Things I loved contributing to this post (originally published in Sunday Life, May 25) which is reflective of articles I’ve written on this very theme, including a piece that was published in the feminist anthology Destroying The Joint; Beyond jeering – an unapologetic love letter to teen girls. 

Me with girls from the Australian International School, Singapore.
Me with girls from the Australian International School, Singapore.

Remember when we could barely get through a week without a pity party for Jennifer Aniston?

“Poor thing,” we’d collectively exclaim, as another magazine cover would reveal she was permanently lonely, grievously scarred by Brad, intimidated by Angelina and either pregnant or DEVASTATED by baby loss, often in the same week.

Occasionally she’d find a new boyfriend and the magazines would go on 24-hour bump watch, or she’d get her hair cut and look particularly foxy, and we’d all breathe a sigh of relief and think, phew, thank goodness for that, Jen’s alright.

It’s a thing we do with young women — build them up, obsess about their hair/clothes/boyfriends/character, then when they do something silly, or we get bored, you can feel the global tut of disapprobation.

“What’s that, everyone? An apology for treating me like one big sop story for so many years?”

It happened to Gwyneth Paltrow (Oscars speech 1999) and Anne Hathaway, and right now it’s Jennifer Lawrence — “oh I tripped again, is it still cute?” – who’s about to plummet from acclaim to disdain.

It’s one thing if you’re famous and can mitigate the fallout with a $5 million campaign for Chanel, or a trip to the Bahamas with your 30 favourite besties. But when the scorn and the faux hand wringing leaches down to young girls as a whole, we really need to step away from our assumptions and see them for who they really are.

Because if you believe the hype — and the occasional breathy columnist — girls are in crisis. They hate their bodies, they can’t communicate with boys, they’re obsessed with selfies, they’re the victims of porn-style sex, and they have terrible relationships with their parents.

No one talks about boys like this unless they’re a young footballer running amok, in which case they’re the architect of their own stupidity.

Well I’m calling bullshit, because if every sentence that starts with “girl” then ends with “neurosis”, “body-obsessed”, “eating disorders”, “anxiety” “self-harm” and “social media addict”, we may as well hand-deliver the script at birth and leave them to live it out. Girls can’t be what they can’t see and yet there’s an industry thriving on telling them how badly they’re messed up.

So here’s what I see.

I see girls communicating better than ever. It may not be face to face, but they’re expressing themselves and talking about their lives, whether via Facebook, Instagram, Kik or Snapchat.

Dannielle Miller, author of Loveability: An Empowered Girls Guide to Dating and Relationships, points out that social media has broadened their friendships beyond the school gate.

“Look at Debbie and Sue in Puberty Blues — they either had to meet up or talk on the phone. Today’s kids are powerfully connected and that’s reinforcing their human relationships.”

Yes we hear of girls being “dumped” online or via text, but wasn’t it ever thus? I’ll never forget Mark Munro (sorry mate, but I’ve waited years for this) enlisting his friend. “Angela, it’s Tim here. Mark doesn’t want to go out with you anymore. Bye.” There are still those jerks (of both genders), and long may they be pilloried.

What else? Oh, I see literary heroines aplenty. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Tris from Divergent make Little Women look like, well, little women. But it’s John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars — due out in cinemas on June 5 — that’s become a social media supernova.

Quirky, philosophical and funny, it tells the story of two teens who meet at a cancer support group. Like Love Story, the best-selling book in the US in 1970, it’s bittersweet, but with none of the “love means never having to say you’re sorry” nonsense. The characters, Hazel and Gus, are the furthest thing from clichés, but their love is every teen’s — “As he read,” says Hazel, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

Granted, one of the agonies of modern love is the public way in which it is played out. Status updates and Facebook feeds give a constant reminder, but as Miller points out, that’s not “teen typical”. As she says: “All of us are trying to make sense of relationships in the age of technology.” Seeing the person you love move on brings pain, but it also grows greater resilience.

Porn? Yes, it’s a thing. But increasingly visible are the messages to counter it. In her school workshops, Miller teaches girls how to set their own boundaries and to challenge the idea that “boys do” while “girls get done”.

As for fears that they lack “commitment” — that relationships are now referred to as “having a thing” — it’s just semantics. As a 21-year-old friend told me: “The idea that we don’t have real flesh and blood relationships is just stupid. Me and most of my friends are in relationships and we talk about our feelings, hopes and aspirations.”

Body image concerns and learning how to protect themselves from abuse remain critical issues for girls. But as Jennifer, Gwyneth, Anne and now J-Law have proved you are so much more than the messages peddled about you.

Dieting and children – weighing up the arguments

I was recently invited to join a panel discussing body image on channel 9’s Kerri-Anne. The panel also included social commentator Angela Mollard, psychologist Ian Wallace, and Sally Symonds who is a weight loss consultant. The conversation got rather heated at points with quite different opinions expressed over dieting and the oft-reported obesity epidemic in particular. I’d love you to take 12 minutes to watch the vision below as I think these are conversations we should all be having, particularly at this time of the year (pre-Summer / beach time) when the diet industry really ramps up its push to have us all believe that we could transform our lives if we simply said “No” to food and transformed our bodies.

I asked expert Lydia Jade Turner to offer her insights and further unpack the above exchange. Lydia is a psychotherapist and the Managing Director of BodyMatters Australasia. BodyMatters Australasia is a specialist clinic that was established to not only treat disordered eating, but to diminish the complex factors that contribute to our global epidemic of eating problems. Lydia’s expertise has been featured at my blog before, both here (“Look good by doing very little’) and here (“Fat talk “).

 

Should children be weighed at school?

Children inevitably play the ‘compare and despair’ game, and for many, a comparatively higher weight will result in a deep sense of shame. Contrary to popular opinion, research shows that shame does not lead to sustainable health-giving behaviours, but instead increases risk of unhealthy weight loss behaviours and clinical eating disorders.

Weighing children in front of their peers also sends the message that weight is the most important determinant of their health, and that their health is everybody’s business. In fact weight tells us very little about a person’s health except at statistical extremes.

Although it is commonly assumed that being ‘overweight’ is automatically unhealthy, in North America research shows that the overweight category (BMI = 25 to 29) is now outliving every other weight category.

Given we share much of the same cultural DNA, it would not be surprising if that were the case in Australia. We also know that being a bit ‘overweight’ can actually be protective against certain diseases including certain types of cancer, and especially protective for the elderly population.

 

Should fat children be removed from their home?

In the Kerri-Anne clip, Psychologist Ian Wallace immediately paired the idea of fat children with trips to McDonalds and fast food outlets. Yet we cannot make assumptions about a child’s lifestyle choices simply by looking at them. It is a myth that all fat children are fat because they eat too much and don’t exercise enough.It is also dangerous to assume that all fat children are fat as a result of abuse and / or neglect.

At BodyMatters we see children at a range of sizes, many of whom are very much loved and supported by their families. While not all fat children binge or overeat, children who do overeat or binge, do so for a variety of reasons: it can be a way of coping with stress, parental divorce, grief and loss issues, a physiological response to dieting.

For some, this will lead to significant weight gain, but for others, they may still be thin. Regardless of size, they deserve help. But threatening to remove them from their families and pressuring those who are fat to lose weight will only exacerbate the situation.

Imagine the message internalized by a fat child who has just been told they may be taken away from their family: lose weight, or your family will be ripped apart. It will be all your fault because you’re too fat. This kind of messaging is likely to put a child at risk of developing disordered eating behaviours, reduced self-esteem, and significant distress.

 

Should fat children be encouraged to lose weight to avoid bullying?

Children will always find something to bully another child about – red hair, poverty, handicap. It does not make sense to pressure a child to change something about themselves in an effort to escape bullying, as this is a form of victim-blaming. Parents and teachers should work to change school culture so that children learn to respect difference and accept that bullying is never justified, and that there are consequences for engaging in that type of behaviour.

 

Is citing genetics just an excuse to be fat?

Earlier this year The Biggest Loser trainer Michelle Bridges wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald, claiming that people can outsmart their genetics. Unfortunately we now have evidence that many of The Biggest Loser contestants are weight cycling or have returned to their pre-diet weight.

Research tells us that weight is not as malleable as we think. How we each respond to a lifestyle is different, for example, two people can eat the same amounts of food, and while one person gains weight, another person’s metabolism will kick in and prevent weight gain.

Genetics account for about 70% of a person’s weight, and there are a host of other factors that contribute – socioeconomic disadvantage, ethnic background, Indigenous background, low income households, family history of obesity, regional and remote location.

This may explain why weight loss attempts fail 95% of the population after 2-5 years. Anyone can lose weight in the short term but we simply don’t have solutions that work long term. The good news is when people adopt a healthy lifestyle, they will experience health benefits, regardless of whether or not their weight changes.

We need to be cautious about making assumptions about people’s lifestyle choices based on size. Just as one person emailed the Kerri Anne show expressing frustration at being called Anorexic (even by her teachers) because she was skinny, the same frustration exists for people who are fat who are told they must not exercise enough and make poor food choices. We need to recognize that issues of health and weight are complex.

 

According to weight loss consultant Sally, there are far more people who are overweight/obese than those with Anorexia Nervosa. Should we therefore prioritise obesity issues above concerns about eating disorders?

This argument that “the odd anorexic is a small price to pay” is an unethical one. Nobody chooses to have an eating disorder, in fact we know that dieting is the biggest pathway into an eating disorder. Sufferers typically engage in weight loss attempts with good faith, believing that they are improving their health. Unfortunately this tips some over into a clinical eating disorder.

It’s time we recognized that the solutions typically prescribed to combat obesity are the same behaviours we are diagnosing in those with eating disorders – for example counting every calorie, weighing every gram of food, counting each step in pursuit of thinness. There’s something very wrong with this picture and Sally’s suggestion that we should encourage schools to integrate calorie counting with maths homework is incredibly dangerous and ill-informed.

We cannot continue to pit “The Obese” against eating disorder sufferers. There’s this idea out there that if people are not ‘obese’ or do not meet the strict criteria for an eating disorder, they must be healthy. Yet we know this is simply not true – there are many who exist in between these extremes, but who compromise their health due to body shame and internalization of misguided health messages.

Many put their bodies under enormous strain going on diet after diet, taking diet pills, smoking to control their weight, engaging in bizarre bariatric interventions (for example stomach balloon insertion), so it’s not as simple as sixty percent overweight/obese versus five percent eating disorders.

We would be better off focusing on promoting healthy behaviours, and letting people’s weight fall where it will. Kerri Anne’s statement implying that a poor lifestyle is “okay” when you’re young but will catch up with you when you’re fifty misses the point – if people want to be healthy, then they should be engaging in a healthy lifestyle whatever their age, whatever their size.

 

Sally has managed to keep the weight off since 2002- that’s nearly ten years! Should people aspire to be in the 5% who do manage to keep the weight off?

Sally’s long term weight loss is atypical. While it is wonderful to know she has made some healthy lifestyle changes, the reality is that the outcome of sustained weight loss is not likely to be the case for most. In fact, while I respect that she has a right to tell her story, every time she does, she perpetuates the fantasy that if others just tried damn hard enough, they could lose the weight and keep it off too.

Encouraging people to aspire to be in that five percent that keeps the weight off ignores research that shows inherent risks that accompany weight loss attempts – including weight cycling, disordered eating, reduced mood, eating disorders, food and body preoccupation.

Telling people to lose weight is essentially setting many up to fail – and when weight loss is the main focus, most quit when they find the weight is no longer reducing or has begun to increase. If people want to be healthy, then fitness and healthy dietary choices are important regardless of their size.

 

 

 

Just Speak Up – Getting Real About Post Natal Depression

This week I spoke publicly on what had until now been a very personal experience for me: the post-natal depression I had after the birth of my first child, beautiful Teyah, who is now 12. I was on a Kerri-anne panel that included 60 Minutes’ Peter Overton, a true gentleman who was visibly emotional talking about his wife Jessica Rowe’s far more public battle with PND, and journalist Angela Mollard, who spoke frankly about her raw emotions after the birth of her second child.

Though this discussion doesn’t relate to the raising of girls, the topic is so important that I want to share it, with the aim of supporting grown-up girls, too. I really hope this will spark conversations that heal.

If you feel that you might have symptoms of PND, help is available. You don’t have to suffer alone. A GP can refer you to the right specialist and there are several effective treatments. Beyondblue’s PND website, justspeakup.com.au, is an excellent starting point for help and advice.

Jessica Rowe not only recommended justspeakup as a site to share with you, she has also given her blessing for me to run this moving and honest account she wrote for Vogue. For those who are struggling to understand what it feels like to have PND, and for those who have this illness and feel they are alone, Jessica vividly captures the thoughts and feelings that many women with PND share.

 

I had everything I could possibly wish for—my newborn baby, Allegra, and my decent, darling husband by my side. Minutes after I pushed my little girl into the world, I held her against my chest, peering into her little squashed face. Her eyes were still jammed shut but I couldn’t stop looking at her. I told her, “So, you’re finally here, my darling. I’ve been waiting such a long time to meet you. For so long you were just a thought, a wish upon a star, but finally you’ve joined us.” And with that she opened one of her eyes and fixed me with her first look at the world. Her clear, blue stare drinking in the love and relief that poured out of me. The greatest love affair of my life was just beginning.

That first week in hospital was a blur of unfathomable love, joy, sheer terror and excitement. I felt safe in my room at the end of the corridor. Allegra and I drew the curtains around us, safely tucked away from the world and the reality of what waited for us at home. As the days went by quickly in hospital I started to worry about going home. How would I cope? I didn’t know how to bath my baby. Changing a nappy was a nerve-racking affair. The midwives kept telling me I could lose the fairy-taps and be more confident in handling my precious bundle.

And my breast milk still hadn’t come through. When my little one was five days old, I was sobbing and laughing simultaneously as I lay in hospital with cabbage leaves stuffed in my ugly feeding bra. The nurses told me the cabbage leaves were the best way to stop my boobs from being so sore. I wasn’t making much sense at all as I obsessively wrote down everything in my notebook.

In those early weeks at home I thought I’d be living my long-held dream. Finally, at last, we were a family. Why on earth did my dream feel like it was free-falling into a nightmare? It took me quite some time to get out of my PJs once I got home with my little miracle. Getting out the front door was tough—I wondered if I would ever leave the house again. Assembling the pram, changing nappies and working out how to put Allegra in the baby capsule became my biggest achievements.

Despite the sleep deprivation, I couldn’t sleep. My waking hours were consumed by anxious thoughts. Why couldn’t I breastfeed? Was my baby putting on enough weight? Did using formula mean I was setting my daughter up for a life of obesity and lowering her IQ? I wondered how I could feel so wretched when I finally had my darling girl. After all, wasn’t I meant to be the superwoman who could deal with anything life threw at me?

These were all pretty standard thoughts for a new mum. But something was seriously wrong. Because what weren’t so standard were the scary, obsessive thoughts that started to sneak into my befuddled brain.

The small silver Tiffany’s clock that I used to time breastfeeds became a weapon in my mind. I wondered how easily the clock could crack my baby’s delicate skull. My eyes would be drawn to the sharp carving knife in our second draw in the kitchen. I wondered if such a knife could pierce my little daughter’s soft skin. I knew I would never hurt my baby but these bizarre thoughts, of turning everyday objects into hazards, kept going around in my mind.

I wrapped the knife up in newspaper and threw it away. I did this at night, so the neighbours wouldn’t see me. I hid the silver clock. It didn’t matter that these objects were out of sight, as they were very much still in my mind.

The outside world was none the wiser to how I was feeling. I was determined to keep up appearances. Fashion had always given me such pleasure and in some strange way I believed if I could walk out the front door looking together all was not lost. My uniform became a brightly coloured feeding bra, teamed with either a Zimmerman pink leopard-print frock or a fifties-style chocolate dress that was scattered with a mauve and pale pink diamond pattern. The look was complete with big black Escada sunglasses and gold or silver ballet flats. But as you know, appearances can be deceiving.

I was wearing one such outfit at the first meeting of the mothers group in my area. I arrived late, having struggled to pack the baby bag with the right number of nappies and dummies. Then it took another 20 minutes to work out how to clip the wretched baby capsule into the car. Suitably stressed out, I flapped into the group to be confronted by a group of women who seemed to all be blissfully feeding and snuggling their babies.

The new mum next to me said, “Isn’t this the best thing you’ve ever done?” Another mum told the group that it “just got better and better”.

It had taken so much to get me out my front door. I didn’t have the courage to confess that for me it didn’t feel like it was the best thing I’d ever done. I felt like I was making an enormous mess of things. And no, it wasn’t getting better and better. I was feeling so much worse, it was getting harder, not easier, and I feared the long nights ahead and those scary thoughts dominating the hours before dawn.

I felt like the odd one out. No-one else seemed to be drowning. I had never felt so isolated in my life. I vowed to myself never to go back to that meeting again. I’m sure on the surface I looked like I was coping; and looking back, there would have been some other mums in that group who, like me, were floating adrift, desperate to be thrown a lifeline.

. . .

What surprised me was the stigma I felt when I realised I had post-natal depression. It was ironic, as for many years I’ve campaigned for greater mental health awareness. The message I would tell people again and again, in media interviews, charity functions and education campaigns, was that having a mental illness was nothing to be ashamed of, that it was an illness like any other. But now, here I was feeling that shame.

. . .

After about six weeks of trying to ignore how I was feeling and attempting to hide my inner chaos by putting on my wardrobe armour, I realised I had to talk to my husband. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I felt that I was letting him down, too.

As my daughter slept, I sat next to Peter on the couch and told him I wasn’t coping. He kept asking me if I was going to harm myself or Allegra, and I told him of course not. But I knew that I needed someone to pull me out of the anxious, frightening world my head was slipping into. He held me and told me everything was going to be all right, and then, for the first time in a long time, I believed it.

We came up with a plan, that I would call my obstetrician the next day and take it from there. My doctor was wonderful. I rang her, explained a little over the phone about my black thoughts and she arranged for me to see her that afternoon. I remember pouring my heart out to her, sobbing as I explained how I had been feeling over those past few weeks. She organised for me to see a psychiatrist the following day.

I put on my diamond-patterned dress for the psychiatrist. She could quickly see through my appearance. I realised I didn’t have to pretend anymore and I just had to be honest. And when I sat there talking with her, describing my thoughts, I started to feel a sense of relief. She explained that the thoughts I was having were typical for someone with PND. No longer did I feel like a freak, some crazy woman. I already felt like I was on my way. The most difficult step for me had been asking for help. Now that I was getting the help I needed, I felt like this incredible weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

I was keen to get started on anti-depressants. I was desperate to get the thoughts out of my head. My psychiatrist laughed at my eagerness. Usually she would have to convince her patients of the benefits of a little chemical help. I knew medication had helped my mum, and I was keen to kickstart my recovery. And make up for lost time with my family.

After about three weeks on the medication, I started to feel a little better. I was standing in my front garden and noticed the smell of jasmine in the air. I could feel a slight shift inside of me, a little breeze of optimism. What a lovely change in the wind. And that positive wind blew stronger over the following weeks, taking my dark thoughts away with it. And slowly, I began to feel more and more like me again.

I realised I wasn’t a failure. What I had was an illness. It didn’t mean I was a bad mother, or that I didn’t love my baby. I just needed some help to get over a difficult, dark patch in those early months of my little girl’s life. Now when I put my darling girl to bed and she closes her blue eyes, I don’t dread the night ahead. We both sleep heavily, dreaming of the joy that daybreak will bring.

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