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The High School Formal advice every girl needs

Mid-November marks the beginning of the high school formals; a time that is less a celebration, and more a season of discontent.

Because along with all the spray tans, fancy frocks and stretch limos comes a swag of advice for girls that ranges from well intentioned but misguided, to outright dangerous.

The date

What’s the one question that sends many a single girl into a panic? “Who are you taking to the formal?”

It’s 2018. Surely we’ve moved beyond pressuring young women to find an attractive man-bag to hang off their arms.

When I supervised formals back in my teaching days, I always felt sorry for the poor lads who had been dragged out for these events, and were then all but ignored once they had performed their obligatory photo duties. I felt sorry too for the girls I knew would look back at pictures from the night and cringe when they saw who they went with just because they felt pressured to pair up.

Let’s encourage more solo operators. As sassy singles, our daughters will be able to enjoy the company of their schoolmates and celebrate all their in-jokes together one last time (which is, after all, what an end-of-school formal is supposed to be about).

Teenage girls shouldn’t have to take a date to their formal. Picture: supplied

The dress

In the lead-up to formal, a girl’s list of what she needs for the big night can become the teen equivalent of a bridezilla’s: the right designer dress (actually, two dresses, one for the formal, another for the after-party), jewellery, handbag and shoes, professional hair and make-up, tanning, waxing, and sufficiently glamorous transport to get them there. The total cost is generally well over a thousand dollars.

At one high school, a girl bragged to me that her mother had flown her to Paris to buy her formal dress. I was speechless when, in the next breath, she revealed that there was a down side: as it was a Parisian label, only diehard fashionistas would know the designer, so she would have to explain to the other girls how prestigious her dress was (surely the very definition of a first world problem).

But it’s not just the finances that take a hit. For many girls, the angst over what to wear not only drives them to scrutinise their bodies, but seems to provide an open invitation for others to critique them as well.

I recently heard of a school that had teachers run a seminar for their girls on which colours might best suit them, and on which styles would prove most flattering.

Yet much of the information presented actually focused on how the girls should cover their flaws.

Some teens are spending a fortune on dresses, grooming, professional makeup, accessories and transport for their formals. Picture: Supplied.

One teen girl who swims competitively was told her shoulders would need to be disguised (she hadn’t been aware her strong arms were considered unattractive until this was pointed out in front of her peers).

Another was told that despite being larger, she could still achieve an hourglass figure with the right garment choices.

We mustn’t spend six years telling our girls they should never be defined by their looks, only to encourage them to conform to narrow standards of beauty once they reach the finish line.

The diet

The lead up to formal season is peak dieting time for teen girls with many going to extreme measures to lose weight rapidly, including starving themselves, purging and using laxatives.

Jade, 19, says her battle with anorexia began after she made the decision to drop a dress size for her formal: “But on the night of the event, I’d lost so much weight that my dress just hung off me. I spent the night anxious, scared and hungry. And I stayed that way for years afterwards.”

Let’s not ruin this milestone in our girls lives by offering them anything other than words of affirmation — and the tools they need to critique marketing messages and beauty myths that don’t serve them.

It is a big night; yet only one of the many they’ll have in their diverse, sparkling lives.

 

This post was originally published in the Daily Telegraph 17/11/18 

3 things you need to know about winter weight

Last week I noticed a number of teen girls I am friends with on Facebook were lamenting their “winter bodies.”  I posted this on my Page for them; feel free to share and republish for the young women in your life.

FEELING THE WINTER-WEIGHT-WOES?

1. Don’t obsess over slight weight fluctuations. We are actually genetically programmed to crave foods that will make us heavier in winter as our bodies strive to store fat. A 1-3 kilo gain may feel huge to you, but honestly? No-one else will notice and your health will absolutely not be compromised by this – promise! In fact, a few kilos may increase your resilience to disease and allow you to recover from injury faster. Sadly, however, I cannot promise you that constant weight whinging may not annoy your loved ones to the point of giving you a Chinese burn. And it will absolutely steal your sense of happiness. So yeah…self- loathing? That is hazardous to your health.*

2. Your body is not designed to fit in with fashion trends. We have been conditioned by media images that demand a look that is so thin, very few of us are able to achieve this through healthy means. Further, this media ideal is often made even more unobtainable as it is artificially distorted through photoshop etc. When we are bombarded with messages like these, we may begin to think we will only be loved / successful / accepted if we are also very thin. Reality? Many studies find our peers, and the opposite sex, find us more attractive when we are slightly heavier than we think is ideal. And there is no study (I dare you to find even one!) that shows ideal photoshopped-model-types lead happier, more loving lives. In other words – we are absolutely our own harshest critics. Take your body loathing and divide it by 100. Then subtract this score by another 100. Then go eat something yummy and nutritious.

3. Show YOU the love! If you really think you need to manage your weight as you just aren’t eating well ( and we all know how to get this back on track surely? We have been raised on nutritional advice since before we could read) and you really aren’t moving enough? Fabulous! Good on you for calling time out! But don’t start with self-hate. When the body feels hated it craves comfort, and for most of us, comfort equates with food. Since birth we have been programmed to be comforted by eating hence why babies often suckle simply for security or a sense of serenity rather than out of hunger. Start – and finish – with LOVE. Always! Go for long walks in the winter sunshine, get a massage, paint your toe-nails, buy a cheap pair of larger sized pants so you feel good while learning to reconnect with your body (rather than feeling literally stifled) and tell you body all the time how much you appreciate it and care for it.

Our bodies are, after all, our best, and most, forever friends. Diets? Not so much.

* Obviously I am making light here – there are serious mental and physical health ramifications associated with excessive dieting / food obsession. 

Winter pampering.
Winter pampering.

Diet Crazy Mums

As a follow on from a number of posts I’ve featured on dieting and body image*, I thought I’d share this recent segment I did on channel 9’s Mornings Show; I am one of the program’s resident parenting experts and their body image spokesperson.

Whilst it would be easy to dismiss the new reality television series we discuss here, “Diet Cray Mums”, as merely extremist nonsense, in reality I think it illuminates many beliefs and behaviours that have become mainstream. An irrational fear of fat and the willingness to do anything to “save” one’s child from being larger. The belief that if we fit a narrow ideal of beauty we will be loved, happy and successful. An obsession with monitoring weight, rather than a focus on health…

Take a look and let me know what you think. Are many of us guilty of being “diet crazy” too?

If you continue watching my Youtube channel after the “Diet Crazy Mums” segment finishes, more vision of my Mornings Interviews will play. In fact, it is immediately followed by a related debate with fitness expert Amelia Burton on the suggestion we should be weighing primary school aged children in our schools.

* More posts on dieting and body image that have been featured on this blog include:

Unpacking the diet industry’s false promises

The toxic message in Facebook teen health and fitness sites 

Generation Cleanskin (a three part series that starts here)

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

The weight-loss industry has no place in our schools

Unpacking the diet industry’s false promises

This week’s guest post is by Lydia Jade Turner. Ms Turner is a psychotherapist and the Managing Director of BodyMatters Australasia. In this research article she explores the connections between body image, weight, the media, and food-related industries. The Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia (AGSA) invited Ms Turner to write this piece and it appears in the current edition of their journal, In Alliance. Full references were provided and may be obtained by contacting Ms Turner and / or referring to her original submission for AGSA.

Australia is currently facing a public health crisis. On one hand, approximately one-quarter of school-aged children are reported to be ‘overweight’ or ‘obese.’ On the other, the National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC) reports eating disorders have increased two-fold over the past five years. Working out how to foster resiliency against both extremes may feel daunting for many. While some are taught to put their children on diets, others are watching their daughter refuse to eat. Despite all the anti-obesity rhetoric and warnings about eating disorders, many are getting sicker. This paper argues for a paradigm shift away from a weight based approach to health, and makes the case for tighter regulation of the industries contributing to eating and dieting disorders in young people.

The effects of dieting and weight loss

Popular shows like The Biggest Loser suggest shaming and stigmatising ‘obese’ individuals inspires health-giving behaviours. It is troubling that many adolescents and children are exposed to such programmes, as ‘weight-based stigma’ was recently identified as a shared risk factor for both ‘obesity’ and eating disorders, in a research summary prepared by the NEDC. While such shows encourage dieting for weight loss, a landmark study by Dr Dianne Neumark-Sztainer demonstrated that adolescent girls who engage in weight-control behaviours are significantly more likely to gain weight and be heavier than their non-dieting peers five years later.

A consistent finding was demonstrated in a study published in the 2003 Journal of Paediatrics, which explored the relationship between dieting and weight change amongst ‘tweens’ and adolescents. Tracking 15,000 participants, the research found those put on diets were significantly more likely to gain weight than those who were not. Paradoxically, dieting for weight loss appears to increase the likelihood of becoming ‘obese.’ It is theorized this is due to our bodies adapting to famine periods over hundreds of thousands of years. It has only been a relatively short period of time that we have existed in a cultural mixing pot with the convenience of high calorific, nutritionally devoid foods and often sedentary lifestyles.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found the appetite stimulating hormone ghrelin actually increased by approximately twenty percent even one year after participants were put on a weight-loss diet. Leptin, which helps to suppress hunger and raise metabolic rate, was found at lower levels than expected. The appetite suppressing hormone peptide YY was also found at unusually low levels. It is not yet known how long these changes remain. The Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) which controls the amount of energy expended for the body’s basic survival functions also reduces. In essence, for many, the body works against the efforts to lose weight.

Those who engage in repeated cycles of dieting are significantly more likely to suffer from binge eating, as binge eating is the body’s survival response to deprivation. It overrides a person’s desire to restrict their intake to an uncomfortable level. Anorexia however presents an exception to this response, with emerging research showing it may be a brain disorder exacerbated by starvation, rather than a matter of unshakable willpower. For reasons not fully understood, the patient’s physiology does not ‘kick in’ to protect them from their desire to starve.

Perhaps this explains why nearly fifty years of research have demonstrated that weight loss approaches fail approximately 95% of the population over the long term. While many can lose weight in the short term, research has yet to show a dieting approach that works for most over two to five years. In fact one in five obese Australians is now reported to have eating disorder symptoms, despite appearing to have ample fat stores.

The US National Weight Control Registry provides some interesting insights into the lives of those who have maintained weight loss over the long term. The registry has enrolled over 6000 participants who have maintained an average weight loss of 15 kilograms for at least one year, and is often heralded as ‘evidence’ that weight loss maintenance is achievable for most. Yet a critique of the registry by Ikeda and her team of researchers as far back as 2005 found participants had to restructure their entire lives around food and weight, with many resorting to extreme measures to maintain their lost weight.

It’s clear dieting for weight loss carries many unintended consequences. Some would argue that the solutions prescribed to combat ‘obesity’ are the same behaviours eating disorders clinicians are diagnosing in their patients. The focus needs to shift onto disordered eating which damages the health of people at any size.

The unintended consequences of dieting include: food and body preoccupation, weight cycling, distraction from other health goals, reduced self-esteem, eating disorders, weight stigmatisation and discrimination. Dieting has also been identified as the biggest predictor of an eating disorder, while weight cycling has been shown to be more harmful to health than maintaining a higher but steady weight. For these reasons and more, focusing on weight loss as a goal is not recommended.

Weight stigmatisation

Weight-based stigma occurs when size is the primary focus instead of health. It is linked to a reluctance to engage in physical activity, which perhaps is not so surprising when one considers that exercise typically takes place in a public space. Weight stigmatisation is particularly harmful for young people, for example one study found obese children to be 63% more likely to be bullied, regardless of socioeconomic factors, race, gender, or what type of school they attended. Bullies often engage in bullying behaviour not because their target is fat or has big ears, but because it makes them feel comparatively powerful.

Instead of putting a child on a diet, the following factors are protective against an unhealthy lifestyle and eating disorders: fostering a positive body image, helping students find physical activities that they enjoy, modelling healthy behaviours, having students eat breakfast everyday, participating in regular and family meals, as well as fostering high self-esteem.

Anti-obesity messages

Anti-obesity messages are especially harmful to children. Public health messages must honour the principle of ‘first, do no harm.’ In a key research document by Professor Jennifer O’Dea, it was identified that “health education for child obesity prevention may result in the iatrogenesis of inappropriate weight control techniques whereby the health education program generates unplanned, undesirable and health damaging effects such as starvation, vomiting, laxative abuse, diuretic and slimming pill usage, and cigarette smoking to suppress appetite and as a substitute for eating”. Children and adolescents are also more susceptible to distorting anti-obesity messages, for example, by thinking that if low-fat milk is a good option, then no-fat milk must be even better.

Given the high failure rate and unintended consequences that accompany weight loss goals, a global shift away from a weight-based approach to health is currently being explored. The health-centred paradigm, also known as Health At Every Size®, acknowledges that health-giving behaviours have been shown to mitigate many of the diseases typically associated with obesity. Its key principles include finding pleasurable physical activity, engaging in intuitive eating, and viewing health as a multi-dimensional, ongoing process including physical, intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, and occupational aspects. We can feel good about ourselves for engaging in health-giving behaviours, instead of focussing on a certain number on the scales.

Negative media and industry practices

It is sometimes argued that parents are ultimately responsible for their child’s development of a healthy body image. While parents have some responsibility and can increase risk or resiliency, it is also the case that exposure to media images overwhelmingly contributes to increased risk of body dissatisfaction, which in turn is linked to eating and dieting disorders. A meta-analysis of seventy-seven carefully selected studies involving 15,000 participants showed that media images have more impact today on young people than they did in the nineties. Despite all the body image initiatives, ultimately media has greater impact.

In an attempt to regulate the industries contributing to poor body image, Australia’s 2009 government initiatives saw the National Advisory Board for Body Image introduce a voluntary code of conduct. Unfortunately this led to minimal change. It’s clear our current approaches to reducing harmful messages in our community are failing.

In contrast to Australia other countries have explored the possibility of legislative changes. For example in Spain there have been attempts to ban ‘cult of the body’ advertisements, which target dieting and plastic surgery products, before 10pm each night. France’s lower house of Parliament adopted a law in 2008, making it illegal for anyone, including magazines and advertisers, to incite ‘extreme thinness’. Just a few months ago, the Israeli government passed a law banning the use of underweight models in advertising and on the catwalk. It’s time Australia adopts a less compromising stance towards media images and the beauty industries.

It’s not only the beauty industries that need to face tighter regulation. The food industry should also adopt more ethical marketing practices. Specific industry practices need to change, such as supplying toys with Happy Meals, advertising ‘fun’ foods during children’s television timeslots, and encouraging eating past fullness. Ultimately a shift in health paradigms and a fresh approach towards the relevant industries will be necessary if we want to see a healthier future for Australian girls.

 

Generation Cleanskin: Part 3

In the final instalment of Susan Johnson’s exceptional piece on teens and body image that we have been running here for the past few weeks, teen girls speak frankly about how they respond to the relentless pressure to lose weight and be skinny, while teen boys talk about how they deal with the pressure to work out and “bulk up.” 

Saturday afternoon at Indooroopilly Shoppingtown, in Brisbane’s west, is teenage heaven. The movies, the food court, the clothes shops: teenagers in large groups or in pairs come to meet each other or eye each other off, checking each other out in that overt, challenging way that only teenagers can.

A group of giggling girls is meeting up: the girls come here almost every day after school. It’s free dress at their school, and the first pressure felt by these girls is the pressure to wear the right clothes, the “right” brands. Zoe Robberts (“I’m almost 14”) is in Year 9 and lives at inner-west Bardon: “Yeah, you have to have nice clothes, like the brands, and there’s pressure every day on what you wear. You can’t wear the same thing twice in a week.” Bella Nielsen, 13, also of Bardon, adds that “when you’re in primary school no-one judges anyone but when you’re in high school it’s all about first impressions. If you don’t look pretty, no-one will hang out with you or they’ll ignore you and there’s lots of cyberbullying going on around … on Facebook, [there are instances where] people really bully others.”

“I got called ‘fat’ one time on Facebook,” says Kiara Cavenagh, 13, of Middle Park, and a bigger girl than her friends. Her dad is tall and she comes from a family with “big bones”: “I feel pressure because all my friends are so skinny and I am, like, not skinny.”

Immediately all her girlfriends rush in with a chorus of “But you’re so pretty, Kiara!” and Zoe Morgan, 12, of St Lucia adds: “You’re like a mini Adele [the British singer]”. It turns out that Kiara sings too, and superbly (she led me to some YouTube videos) and has won a couple of local singing competitions. Which all means that possibly because Kiara is happy in other areas, being larger than her girlfriends is less of an issue: “I can’t be bothered to diet, even though I feel pressured [to be skinnier]. I like food too much! It tastes too good …”

Bella, on the other hand, feels the pressure more: “You walk around here and there are girls who are really pretty and their hair’s just perfect and, like, every day you see yourself in the mirror and you’re so used to seeing yourself you start picking out the little flaws and everything. You don’t see how pretty you are, you just see the bad stuff like, my stomach’s too big, my thighs are too big, and all that … ”

Zoe Morgan feels pressured too: “I’m happy with the way I look but you can never be, like, perfect to yourself … sometimes I see a girl who’s, like, really pretty and really skinny and I’m like, ‘I don’t like her! She’s so skinny’ … ”

Zoe Robberts says a lot of the pressure comes from boys: “Everyone’s trying to look pretty for them, to impress them … guys don’t have to worry. Boys don’t have to worry about anything.”

But her friend Bailey Vowles, 13, of western suburban Sherwood, disagrees: “If you’re really short for a boy you get called ‘cute’ and you probably wouldn’t want to be cute in Grade 8, you’d probably want to be hot. Boys want six-packs.” Bailey concedes, however, that much of the pressure girls feel comes from the boys as well as the media: “Personally, I’ve never dated anyone and I just think the pressure you have from boys to impress them is just, like, everywhere.” Friends Ben Stickley, 14, of northside Wooloowin and James Manteit, 15, of westside Chapel Hill, sheepishly admit that boys do indeed notice girls’ figures but appear nonplussed when asked about pressure. James: “Going out with a girl, I’d prefer that she had a good physique but we’re also friends with girls who are not, like, the best-looking people, but they’re just good to talk to.”

Ben: “Yeah, if they were, like, fat and stuff I’d care but I guess as long as the person’s nice, and nice to hang out with … ” Both think there is just as much pressure on boys as girls. James: “Girls definitely like boys who are muscled.” If James had more money he would spend it on clothes but, as it is, he tries to wear tight clothes to reveal his torso. He regularly works out.

Kean Coghill, 16, of Doolandella, met Aaron Eastment, 15, of Oxley, also in the outer west, at the shopping centre last year. The pair of mates now regularly travels there to meet their friends and look over the talent. Kean reckons “girls are mainly interested in looks these days” and both he and Aaron plan on starting bodybuilding soon. Aaron: “Yeah, most guys want to bulk up.”

Kean admits that, like most guys, “I do go for good-looking girls but they have to be nice too. But to be honest, the first thing you go for is good looks.” Of Aboriginal descent, Kean is sporting a new tattoo in honour of his grandfather who recently died. He wears a chain around his neck and a “snapback”, an American baseball-style hat worn backwards. He regularly straightens his hair, too, and wears the “right” brands, but that is about as far as his fashion-consciousness takes him.

Aaron, of mixed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, has been wearing braces for two years (“It hasn’t stopped him getting girls,” says Kean). Aaron’s fashion routine sometimes extends to straightening his hair but within minutes it is curly again so mostly he doesn’t bother.

They can’t talk long, these boys – they’ve got places to go and girls to meet. So they say goodbye and walk out into the mini-city of the shopping mall, the meeting place of thousands of teenage boys and teenage girls, skinny, plump, bosomy or muscled, anxious to look hot.

 

I would like to thank Susan Johnson and the Courier-Mail’s QWeekend for allowing me to share this insightful investigative piece. Susan Johnson is a full-time journalist and the author of seven novels; a book of essays, On Beauty (part of the Melbourne University Press series Little Books on Big Themes); and a memoir about her experiences of motherhood, A Better Woman.

Generation Cleanskin: Part 2

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Alliance Of Girls’ School Conference 2012 – Say No To Diets.

I recently noted that the program for this year’s Alliance of Girls’ Schools Conference, to be held in Melbourne 25th-27th May, was to include Ms Amy Smith, the current CEO of Jenny Craig. As I believe a woman who represents the diet industry has no place at such a prestigious event aimed at educators of young women, I sent an initial email of concern to Jan Butler, the Executive Officer of the Alliance.

On Tuesday I received a reply from Ms Catherine Misson, the Principal of Melbourne Girls Grammar, assuring me that Ms Smith is, amongst other things, “transforming the organisation (Jenny Craig) into a champion of women’s health.”

I am pleased to see the organisers of this conference have considerably extended Ms Smith’s bio in the conference program since receiving my initial email. She sounds like a truly remarkable, accomplished woman. However, I am still deeply uneasy about  her inclusion and felt compelled to explain why. I responded with the letter below. With the aim of eliciting support for my stance, and initiating vital discussion on girls and dieting, I then shared this correspondence via Twitter and Facebook. I was incredibly heartened by the positive response and particularly encouraged to see Kate Ellis, amongst other prominent educators, women’s advocates and health practitioners, circulate it too.

I have not received any response as of yet, other than a call from a Suzy Wilson who told me she was the PR representative for Jenny Craig. Ms Wilson asked me, “What is your problem?” and told me my letter was a “vicious attack” on Amy Smith. I think my letter clearly articulates what my issue is, and it is clearly not a personal attack on anyone.

If I receive any further correspondence, I will of course honour my offer to provide the Alliance with a platform here to argue their case.

*Letter begins*

Dear Catherine,

Thank you for your response to my concerns regarding the selection of Amy Smith as a speaker at the Alliance’s conference this year.

I have the utmost respect for the members of the Alliance Planning Committee and hold them in the highest regard. I am sure that all the members genuinely have girls’ education at heart and selected the conference speakers with care and diligence.

However, with due respect, I do feel that I need to stand by my convictions and state my position. Amy Smith may be a highly talented and accomplished woman, but I feel it sends the wrong message to educators of girls that the Alliance is giving a platform to a speaker whose current success is tied to the dieting industry. This industry contributes to some of the most serious issues affecting the health and wellbeing of girls: poor body image and eating disorders.

Constant dieting can cause “an obsession with weight and an increased likelihood of developing an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia”, according to research presented at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy conference in 2011. In the words of respected Australian eating disorder expert Lydia Jade Turner, the Managing Director of BodyMatters Australia, “Dieting is the biggest pathway into an eating disorder.” Research cited by the Butterfly Foundation notes that adolescent girls who diet at a severe level are “18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder within 6 months” and “over 12 months they have a 1 in 5 chance of developing an eating disorder.”

The rates of eating disorders and poor body image in girls are alarming. Research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that “disordered eating is emerging as a norm in Australian society with 90% of 12–17 year old girls and 68% of 12–17 year old boys having been on a diet of some type” (http://thebutterflyfoundation.org.au). A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2009 found that between July 2002 and June 2005, 101 children aged from five to 13 years old were newly diagnosed with an eating disorder.

According to the 2011 Mission Australia Youth Survey, body image is one of the top three issues of personal concern for young people in Australia. Poor body image has been identified as such an important problem that it was the subject of a parliamentary inquiry.

Looking beyond the research, Enlighten Education works with 20,000 girls each year around Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. I speak to girls, and most importantly listen to them, about body image. On a daily basis, I meet girls who physically, psychologically and emotionally are paying a high price for dieting and for their body anxiety, which is all too often spurred on by advertisers and marketers from, amongst other industries, the dieting industry.

The sad fact is that diet companies continue to play on girls’ and women’s body anxiety to sell a product that doesn’t even work. Ninety percent of people who go on a diet will lose less than 10 per cent of their body weight and be back where they started, or heavier, in five years, according to research presented first at the Australian New Zealand Obesity Society in 2009 and again in 2010 at the International Obesity Summit. “In fact, weight tells us very little about a person’s health except at statistical extremes,” says Lydia Jade Turner. “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.”

I am generally an enthusiastic supporter of the Alliance conference, and I feel that all of the other speakers the committee has selected are brilliant choices. I will attend the conference, as always, and Enlighten Education will have a stand, but it is with regret that I must tell you that Enlighten Education will not be sponsoring the conference this year, as we have in the past.

Enlighten Education was recognised in 2011 as Finalists for a Human Rights Award by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission for our work at furthering the wellbeing of girls. In light of that, and for all the schools and the girls that we work with, I feel that it is important that Enlighten Education acts according to our principles—and that means that we cannot sponsor an event where there is an association with the dieting industry.

On an individual level, as a parent whose daughter attends an Alliance school, I also wish to register my dismay at the choice of Amy Smith as a speaker.

Please know that I write this from genuine concern about the message that having a speaker associated with the dieting industry sends to the educators of girls. It is not a reflection on Amy Smith herself, and certainly not on the committee, whom I hold in great esteem.

As I initially expressed concern about the committee’s selection of Amy Smith in the public forums of Facebook and Twitter, I wholeheartedly extend to you the opportunity to respond in the same forums. If you would like me to publish your response on Facebook or Twitter, please do let me know.

Yours sincerely

Dannielle Miller
CEO, Enlighten Education
21/3/12

*Response received 22/3/12*

The Alliance responded and have made it clear that they are comfortable with their selection of Ms Smith. They have also made it clear they are not happy with my decision to raise these concerns publicly. As an educator, mother to two girls, author of two books aimed at improving body image anxiety, and as a  media commentator on girls’ issues I believe it would have been unprofessional of me not to have done this. I also stand by my response.

The courage to be imperfect

I am buzzing this week because I’ve just discovered the work of an amazing woman, Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston. Years of research has led Brown, who has a PhD in social work, to a powerful theory that validates everything I have always known deep in my heart about why our girls are struggling and hurting, and what we need to do to help them.

Everyone who has been to one of Enlighten’s workshops has felt the electricity in the room. They’ve seen the profound changes the girls undergo as they experience the joy of being their authentic selves, and as they shed the need to be someone else’s idea of “perfect.” The girls are transformed when they learn that we are all imperfect—and beautiful and worthy of love.

I loved how today the true piece of everyone came out . . . because it means a lot to me to know I am not alone. You taught me to be my true self and to be happy and to love.—Kim, Enlighten workshop participant

Brown’s decade of research—interviewing a huge number of people, holding focus groups and poring over people’s innermost feelings in their journals—reveal that coming to these understandings is the very key to feeling connected and loved. And that a feeling of connection and being loved is what we need to live a life of meaning and purpose.

This strikes such a chord with me, because at Enlighten we’ve always instinctively known that making a connection with girls is crucial, and that (even more importantly) we must help them reconnect with each other. That’s why at the beginning of each workshop, we always tell our personal story, revealing our imperfections. We show them what vulnerability looks like and that we are lovable in our imperfect state. They then feel brave enough to follow suit—after all, girls cannot be what they cannot see.

I thought it would be a boring lecture where the whole time all you are thinking about is ‘When will this finally end?’ BUT Danni really connected with everyone.—Courtney, Enlighten workshop participant

I loved hearing how Danni remained strong and wore her scars instead of letting them wear her . . . Being a girl is tough but every one of us is beautiful in our own way.—Caitlin, Enlighten workshop participant

That is why we also introduce the girls to the old-fashioned notion of “The Sisterhood” and show them that they are in fact more alike than they are different; they share the same fears, doubts, hopes…

Every day when I do workshops, I see girls just begin to shine as they allow themselves to trust and be vulnerable, and as they deeply connect with the other girls and with their own selves. So when I watched Brown speak, I was overjoyed, because never before have I so clearly heard an echo of Enlighten’s philosophy. She makes me feel even more revved up to get out and make a difference to the lives of girls. Brené Brown admits that her research has changed her life. I think it will change many people’s lives, so I’m sharing this TEDx talk she gave with everyone important to me. (TEDx is a nonprofit movement devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading”.)

Towards the end, you may feel a deep thud of recognition of the reasons why girls in greater numbers than ever before are numbing themselves by binge drinking and self-harm, taking risks and “perfecting” themselves by dieting to oblivion. They’re doing it for the same reasons many adults are—to numb pain and the fear that they’re just not good enough.

My hope is that  Brown’s presentation gets a conversation going in our schools and homes, so here are a few questions that you might like to think about or put out to your colleagues and family. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • What signs are there that girls are numbing the feeling that they aren’t good enough?
  • Are we doing some of the same things to block out those same feelings?
  • What steps can we start taking today to make the girls in our lives feel confident they are loved and worthy?
  • What do we need to do so that we can be more comfortable with our own imperfections?

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