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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 

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.

 

 

 

Making Sense of Twilight

new_moon_poster_cullensThere has been a kind of hysteria surrounding the Twilight series of late. With the release of the second movie, New Moon, bloggers, commentators (and just about anyone with an internet connection) have rushed to vent their opinions—not on the quality of the movie but on whether the main female character, Bella, is a good role model for girls.

The consensus is that Bella, with her angst-ridden relationship with the vampire Edward, is one of the worst examples our daughters could emulate. Bella is clingy, helpless and self-doubting. She is willing to withdraw from life and sacrifice everything—self, friends, family—for an obsessive romantic attachment to Edward, who while being handsome and chivalrous also just happens to be a stalker battling a powerful urge to consume her and destroy her. Author Stephenie Meyer was inspired by classic literature—Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights—for the first three books, but it is not difficult to see examples in real life of young women who are trapped in a world like Bella’s. Only for them it’s not a dreamy romantic fantasy but a nightmare of poor self-esteem and abusive, self-destructive relationships. No parent in their right mind would like to see their daughter aspire to any of this.

But ironically, in standing up for strong teen-girl role models, what most of the blogs and columns have underestimated is just how strong teen girls are in their opinions and critical reasoning abilities. I think one of the worst things we can do as parents and educators is to dismiss or belittle girls’ love of Twilight, or assume that girls lack the ability to form their own valid opinions of it. Just because Bella makes dubious choices, it doesn’t mean girls are automatically going to do the same. Girls are often highly articulate about why it would be utterly wrong to take the same path as Bella in real life:

I don’t like Bella’s character. Nothing can ever please her. Ever. She whines about absolutely everything, and the only person who seems good enough for her is Edward, which I think is a wrong view to have. —Cherie

Bella experiences crippling depression after she is dumped by Edward . . . If someone wanted to kill me because I smelt delicious, I don’t think I would feel never-ending numbness or pain—maybe more like happiness, joy or relief even. The fact that she can’t function and feels the need to block emotion really does not send the right message. But it’s not just this that I object to; it’s the controlling nature of the relationship. When Edward comes back, he won’t let Bella see her best friend. Turn this situation into a real relationship without vampires—well, that’s domestic abuse.—Maxine

I ended up hating Bella because she is SOOOO needy. But the boys creeped me out too—I could NOT handle having a partner up in my face like that the WHOLE time.” Kris, commenting on Mia Freedman’s blog.

Given the passionate views that so many girls and women have about Twilight—both pro and anti—I actually think it has the potential to be hugely beneficial to girls. It provides the perfect opportunity to communicate with girls and raise crucial issues. One teacher I know who works with a group of 12–18-year-old girls as part of a church youth group started a discussion session after the New Moon movie came out:

When I asked them what they thought of Bella, it took a while to get them to see her faults, but eventually they realised that she was not really that nice after all. She used Jacob relentlessly. She bailed on her friends all the time. She lied to her parents. She put herself in ridiculous danger to prove a point. She endangered the lives of her friends. We were able to discuss these points and talk about what would have been better choices for her . . . They led the discussion themselves and were able to identify the problems . . . We were able to have a great discussion about friendships, loyalty and safety.

Plenty of grown women are Twilight fans and besotted with Edward. Perhapsd_bella_edward_kiss that’s because Twilight takes them back to their own teenage years and the intense emotions of falling in love for the first time, with its almost inevitable pain and drama. What a powerful reminder these books can be for women of the ups and downs teenage girls are going through. Teenage emotions are so overwhelming and big, but as adults it’s easy to lose sight of that and try to minimise what girls are going through. But when we underestimate or make light of teenage crushes, first relationships and first breakups, we can create even more despair and conflict.

I do also think that Stephenie Meyer has instilled some positive values in the Twilight characters, and it can’t hurt to chat with girls about those as well: Bella does not embrace raunch culture; she dresses almost like a tomboy. She doesn’t diet or talk about weight, and she is largely uninterested in her appearance. Yet she is singled out for attention from the other characters, reinforcing that girls don’t have to dress provocatively or obsess over their looks to be loved and valued. Another positive you might have noticed is that Bella doesn’t feel the need to drink alcohol; nor do any of the other characters. And you certainly couldn’t call their alcohol-free lives uncool or boring.

While I don’t suggest for a minute that the Twilight books and movies are works of artistic genius, I do think that there is a benefit in anything that gets girls reading. It is even better if it encourages them to read the classics that inspired Stephenie Meyer.

 But most important of all is the chance Twilight brings women to bond with girls over something they feel strongly about. One of the reasons fantasy fiction is so popular is that it provides a safe space to indulge in fantasies that should have no place in the real world. We can look at the Twilight series as a safe place to let hormones and wild emotions reign for a moment, mothers and daughters alike. Most importantly, it can be the impetus for mothers and daughters to talk. To talk about what a good, nourishing real-life relationship is. To talk about the mistakes we grown-up women have made. The compromises it’s okay to make in a relationship, and the ones we should never make. That it is healthy to develop independence and resilience. We can revel for a time in Bella’s intense story—but talk about the ways in which she could look after herself and respect herself so much more.

Skinny Kids

The following YouTube clip was brought to my attention by the divine Noelle Graham (a long term Enlighten supporter and a passionate advocate for young women suffering from eating disorders).

Unfortunately, I did not find it shocking for it reflects what I see in schools right across the country. I did, however, find it deeply sad. It left me more passionate than ever about offering both girls and women a different view of self – a more healing, whole view that recognises we are all far more than just our bodies. We are somebodies. We are large, we contain multitudes.

Love to hear your thoughts.

Starving for attention

Guest post by Enlighten Education NSW’s newest team member, Nikki Davis:  

Looks like thin is no longer in. Skeletal is the new body ideal judging by the physiques of the female celebrities who are hot property right now.

I have to confess that I, and a number of my friends, were more than a little excited about the premiere of the new 2008 version of 90210. We were all huge fans of the original 1990’s series. The first ever episode aired when I was 13 years old and I was immediately hooked – complete with a huge crush on Dylan and a keen eye that followed the fashion choices of my new role models.

So I must admit that the thought of catching up with Kelly and Brenda again had me refusing to take calls from 8:30pm on the first night it aired.

And yes, it was fabulous to see Kelly and Brenda again (who were reunited at the Peach Pit nonetheless!).

However, I was very distressed by the new female cast who now play the children and little sisters of the originals. They are so thin. I am talking painfully thin. The lead girl “Annie” (played by Shanae Grimes) and her friend “Silver” (played by Jessica Stroup ) are excruciatingly skinny. As one of my mates so eloquently put it in her text message to me during the show the other night, “Watching this is making me hungry”. The characters must be hungry too as the only consumables we saw in Episode 1 were alcoholic beverages, coffee and salads (Annie had salad for lunch in the cafeteria, I guess you can’t look as tiny as she does by eating carb’s/protein/fat/non-vegetable matter). Why can’t teens on TV eat real food anymore? Even The OC had the girls eating burgers, fries, milkshakes and Thai takeaway….

One of the tiny stars of new series of “90210” – Shanae Grimes

Turns out my friends and I were not the only ones who noticed how thin these new stars are; a couple of articles have popped up on Entertainment websites claiming that “sources” inside Hollywood are reporting talks on set and at the network about the girls’ weight. One article even claimed that the male stars of the program are planning to stage an intervention with the girls as they never eat and the guys think it is unhealthy. Well if this is true, then go guys I say!

Below are pics of the old and new cast… the new photo doesn’t really show just how thin the young girls are in the series (perhaps they airbrushed them to be less thin for the pics?) but oh how the concept of a “hot body” has changed over time.

 


I grew up in the Supermodel era where Cindy Crawford reigned supreme. Cindy was a genetic freak (she was so strikingly beautiful) but her shoulder blades wouldn’t have taken an eye out – she had some flesh on those bones. In the late 90’s Kate Moss rose to fame and the fashion industry deemed the “coat-hanger” was the new body ideal. In turn, this lead Hollywood down the very thin, and the carb-less, garden path.

Researcher Botta, in the 1999 study on television images and adolescent girls’ body image disturbance, made the observation that “our culture’s obsession with the thin ideals is now played out in the media via models and actresses who may have eating disorders themselves, who may have personal trainers to help them maintain a thin body, and whose bodies, as portrayed through airbrushing and camera-angle techniques, may not even be their own.” What would Botta have made of 90210 – 2008 style?

Surely it’s not just me being alarmist, and surely the new “Beverly Hills waifs” provide just one example of how much worse have things become.

We are now seeing children as young as 8 hospitalized with eating disorders. Dieting, detoxing, purging…all have become normalized. I have been engrossed in the work of Courtney E Martin; her book “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters” really sums it up as she points out just how “normal” it has become to equate thinness, food deprivation and excessive exercise with success. Martin also looks at just how much time women spend thinking and obsessing about dieting and their bodies – is this what we want for our young women? To rate “thinness’ over wit, intelligence, talent, warmth? To waste their energy thinking about how they look in skinny leg jeans? No way!

I am hoping the backlash over the body shapes presented on the new 90210 continues to grow. We need to be speaking about this! We need to open our eyes and minds to a broader concept of gorgeous.

Because this look is killing us – literally.

Finally, on a lighter note, if you do still pine for your fix of 90210 (there are rumours of Dylan making an appearance so I can’t tune out yet!) or one of the array of other crappy American shows of this genre – do as my friend does in her share house with the four young women she lives with. Make Monday nights “90210 and cookies” night. Indulge in all the fun, fashion and cute boys without the starvation.

It’s much more fun.

It’s beautiful.

Beauty is not about how skinny you are.

 trashcelebdiet_small.jpg

Stylist to the stars Patricia Field (she of Sex in the City fame) has an oh so cool web site promoting must have items for budding fashionistas. One item, the Trash and Luxury Celebrity Diet shirt is described as: 

Another amazing celeb inspired tee. The celebrity diet, and our diet. Complete with a balanced cigarette, and some pills… any pills.”

Meanwhile the gossip mag’s tell us Hollywood’s latest must-do diet is the baby food diet. Stars reportedly swap real meals for baby food as it is lower in kilojoules, high in protein, and comes in small servings. Is the price for fortune and fame now Farax?

It is just not Hollywood stars, who bank on their looks quite literally, who are obsessed with the elusive body beautiful. Many of us have dieting down to an art form too; substituting real food for cigarettes, pills, and faddish concoctions. Purging through vomiting, laxatives, surgery.

Health experts warn we are simultaneously in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Our relationship with food, which surely should be so simple, seems to have become incredibly complex. Up to 39% of the population may be overweight, but eating disorders are widespread too and although they affect people of all ages and both sexes, they are more common in adolescent girls and young women. It is estimated that between 2-5% of all teenage girls fit the diagnostic criteria for anorexia and bulimia. However, the true estimate is probably much higher – many cases of bulimia in particular go undetected and some recent studies have shown the true estimate may be as high as one in five amongst the student population.

Tragically, all this dieting and suffering does not even work. Ninety five percent of people who go on weight loss diets (including commercial diets) regain all the weight they have lost plus more within two years. No wonder the weight loss industry is worth billions of dollars each year: once its slave, we are forever in its service.

In her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters American author Courtney Martin believes women now see our bodies as the enemy. She laments that fact that hating one’s body has become a rite of passage: “We can be well educated, creative, capable, experienced, and still not have the capacity to figure out how to free ourselves from guilt over every little thing we out in our mouths.”

How did this happen? Is this ok with everyone?

Back at home displaying the new normality of hating one’s body is ok as long as it rates. The Australian version of the ultimate diet show, The Biggest Loser, is cranking up for its 2008 launch with promo ads that show sad, lonely looking people – depicted in shades of grey – wanting what seems to me to be far more than just a healthy body. The ad that really struck me featured contestant Nicola; “I just want to be like every other girl.”

I have no doubt that Nicola will loose weight – dramatically. Yes, after much blood, sweat tears and a good dose of public humiliation she will get her reveal. But will she get the acceptance and love she so obviously craves? The irony is that Nicola is already like every other girl – she sees her body as the enemy.

The Biggest Loser’s theme song this year is Beck’s “Everyone’s Gotta Learn Sometimes.” The verse includes the lyrics “I need your lovin’ like the sunshine.” Isn’t that what we all really crave – love?

Some of us just get lost and think we may find love in food and then get even more bewildered when we listen to society tell us we will find it only through our hunger. The link between our emotions and our diet is nothing new yet it seems to be largely ignored by all the hype that surrounds each seductive promise of a new life through a new body.

Skinny is fine, but it doesn’t guarantee you happiness or love.

Four Year old Sophia believes that skinny won’t even guarantee you beauty:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/fULtU2NfPQA" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Forget carb counting and body fat index ratios. Maybe there are more important lessons we need to learn about ourselves first before we can ever be truly beautiful.

This blog post is based on a piece I wrote that was featured in the Opinion section of the Sydney Morning Herald today (29/1/08): The burden of treating girl's bodies as the enemy.  

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