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Tag: Dr Karen Brooks

Porn crackdown: It’s not an invasion of privacy. It’s parenting

Further to last week’s post on an alarming new type of lewd cyber scavenger hunt, I thought I’d share this Opinion piece by author, columnist, journalist, semi-retired academic and social commentator, Dr Karen Brooks. It was first published by The Courier Mail and is reproduced here with the authors permission. I was pleased to have contributed to to the discussion.  

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According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 40 per cent of all sexual assaults in Queensland are perpetrated by school-age children, while the number of young people under 19 committing sex crimes in Australia has almost doubled in five years; 770 are under the age of 15.

Experts believe the shocking increase can be attributed to easy access to online pornography, which is giving young people distorted and unhealthy ideas about sex and relationships.

In the past, for a child to sneak a peek at an adult magazine or movie was risky. These days, all young people need is a smartphone and that world is theirs. Only, it’s changed: it’s more graphic, demeaning, sadistic and brutal — especially towards women.

Currently, 80 per cent of teenagers access porn.

Kids are copying the sexual behaviours they’re viewing — whether the exposure has been accidental, involuntary or deliberate (for example, an older person showing them) — and at a time when they’re naturally curious and wanting to experiment with their sexuality, to test the boundaries.

As a result, they’re developing toxic relationships with sex, their bodies, and each other.

But it’s not only through pornography they’re being exposed to warped ideas about sex. Popular culture inundates them daily (through music, fashion, ads, movies, TV etc), and the idea that sex sells — even acceptance from peers.

When well-known celebrities, such as the Kardashians, Katy Perry, and Madonna willingly share naked pictures of themselves, claiming they’re aspirational, for a political cause or to self-promote, or US congressmen send “dick pics” as a form of flirting, is it any wonder the kids are baffled and the lines between sexuality, acceptability, and pornography are being blurred?

For young people, sending a naked selfie/sexting, has virtually become part of contemporary courtship/friendship and even a rite of sexual passage.

Yet, not only are we seeing confusion around issues of consent and privacy with this, but a growth in predatory behaviours, where young men especially bully and blackmail girls into sending nude pictures, and the girls, believing it’s a way to be noticed and liked, acquiesce.

What often happens is that trust is broken and the image is shown to a wider audience and slut-shaming occurs. The consequences of this can be personally and publicly devastating.

Not only can a young person’s reputation be shredded, the image left in cyberspace in perpetuity, but both the sender and recipient can find themselves facing criminal charges and labelled “sex offenders” (even if what they’ve done is consensual), because they’ve made and distributed child pornography.

So, what are we, as parents, adults, as a society, to do about these and the invidious effect they’re having on young people’s digital and real identities?

Firstly, it’s important to understand and accept that young people exploring their sexuality is perfectly natural and normal.

Sexting has become one of the ways to do this.

In a harrowing article in Qweekend, Frances Whiting cites Detective Inspector Jon Rouse of the Queensland-based Argos Taskforce, who reminds us, “We are not dealing with criminals, what we are dealing with is innocence, naivety, sexual exploration, and using technology to do that.’’

The “Young People and Sexting in Australia Report” (2013), states we need to “recognise that sexting can be an expression of intimacy… Framing sexual expression only as a risk does little to alleviate anxieties or feelings of shame that young people may experience in relation to their sexualities.”

Dannielle Miller, author and CEO of Enlighten Education, who works with thousands of young people across the country, agrees. She warns against moral panic and shaming. She also knows the abstinence approach — with sexuality and technology — doesn’t work.

She argues, “We urgently need to teach all young people about what respectful relationships look, sound and feel like.”

But when we provide them with very little in terms of “relevant, engaging relationships’ education”, we fail them.

We need to rethink sex education, at home and schools, and focus on intimacy, emotions; how we feel as opposed to what (not) to do. We need to have frank discussions about power, control and how pop culture exploits our sexual insecurities as well as entertains. How technology can be both positive and misused — the choice is ours.

But when the adults in a young person’s life and the popular culture in which they’re submerged can’t role-model healthy relationships, with each other, sexuality or technology, then how can we possibly expect our kids to have them?

Rouse says there’s only so much authorities can do. He warns parents, “you’re paying for these devices (phones etc), you’re providing these devices… take some responsibility for what’s happening on them… it’s not an invasion of their privacy, it’s parenting.”

Rouse believes we’ve let kids down.

It’s time we step up.

Feminism, girls and the economy, the art of being alone: my week in the media.

I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to, and write, some really interesting pieces for various media outlets this week. I want to share the highlights with you here.

The always-wise Dr Karen Brooks unpacked the reluctance some (including our political leaders) have with the term “Feminist” here: Why is feminism such an uncomfortable word?

Increasingly, young women are afraid to align themselves with feminism in case it makes them a social pariah. They also feel too intimidated to join the often robust dialogue about what it means to be a feminist in contemporary times for fear of how they’ll be spoken to or silenced or (mis)understood. An example of this can be seen in Helen Razer’s response to Watson’s speech (“a boxed kitten makes great digital capital” – ouch).

This lack of generosity towards fledgling feminists and their position needs to be addressed.

Dannielle Miller, author and CEO of Enlighten Education, runs workshops with tens of thousands of young women every year. She says less than 10 per cent call themselves feminists even though most admit they’re not quite sure what a feminist is. But once they understand, they see it makes sense to be one. “After all,” says Miller, “why wouldn’t you believe in gender equality?”

I loved having the opportunity to contribute and offer an insight into how young women feel about the women’s movement. As I explained in a previous blog post, for me, finding Feminism as a teen girl felt very much like finding Home. Finally, a place where I felt known, understood, accepted and challenged! I still find the sisterhood to be the most incredible source of inspiration and validation. What a joy then to be able to introduce the next generation to a movement that is still very much needed – and in desperate need of their perspectives!

One of the ways in which I connect young girls to Feminism through Enlighten’s Real Girl Power workshop is through humour (which is a great way too of instantly debunking any “feminists can’t be fun” stereotypes). We begin by exploring what popular culture will often tell us girl-power should look like and deconstruct how the phrase has been used to sell women everything from cleaning products to super-stomach-sucking-elastic pants (irony much?). You may read more about this workshop here. 

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Ninemsn ran the results of a huge UK survey on teens conducted by the Schools Health Education Unit. The key findings? 

The state of the economy is not just a bother for bankers — teenage girls seem to be absorbing the stress too, with a survey suggesting their confidence has dipped since the world was thrust into a Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

Cyber bullying is also taking its toll, according to the UK survey of 30,000 school students, with a third of 10 and 11-year-olds saying they fear being bullied.

Teens’ confidence ratings had been consistently improving between 1990 and 2008 when 41 percent of 14 and 15-year-old girls said they had a high self-esteem.

But that dropped in the following six years, with only 33 percent now saying they feel good about themselves.

Why might the economy may be impacting on girls in this way? I am quoted in the article: “Children are economically dependent on their parents and their families and those pressures filter downwards. Often the first things that tend to go are branded items, such as cosmetics and new clothes, which are the kinds of things that really matter to teenagers…Having the right shoes or brand of jeans can seem like such a critical thing for trying to fit in with a peer group. There also is social stigma about being the ‘poor kid’… I would imagine a lot of young people are feeling a sense of shame, which is impacting on their sense of self and their self-esteem.” I also helped explain why we may still be seeing huge concerns over body image and technology in this article so do check it out.

Finally, I wrote an Opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph on the art of being alone. Although this was aimed at all readers, not just those who care for young women, you may find some of the ideas on the art of connection useful.

More people are living by themselves than ever before. In fact one in 10 Australians live alone. Single, however, does not necessarily mean lonely. Countries with high levels of people living alone actually score well on international happiness ratings.

Is it because these solo artists are content in their own company?

Not entirely.

Despite the popular rhetoric around the appeal of “me-time,” the reality is we are social creatures and need human interactions in order to be happy.

Social researcher Hugh Mackay, author of The Art of Belonging, argues that “communities can be magical places, but the magic comes from us, not to us”.

The key then is to learn how to venture out and connect. And even more fundamentally, to learn that it is OK to do so. It is this idea that I explored in my writing.

Enjoy!

 

 

“That skirt is sending out the wrong message” and 5 other things we should never say to girls ( Part 1).

I often find myself frustrated by much of the dialogue that surrounds teen girls as it can in fact be very damaging. Sadly, those that use these assumptions and stereotypes are often those who may well have girls’ best interests at heart, but are possibly unaware as to how harmful the messages they are delivering really are.

I asked a number of leading feminists and educators to set the record straight for us and ensure that when we aim to support girls, we don’t  inadvertently matters worse for them. Over the next few weeks I shall share their responses.

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Image taken from Jezebel –

1. Skirt length = a measure of morality

The policing of the way teen girls wear their school uniform really concerns me. Whilst uniform guidelines are fine and part of life for both genders, framing these in terms of morality is not. So many teen girls tell me they have been told things like: “You’re a good girl, but that skirt length sends off the wrong message” , or “You’re distracting the boys…”. This is the slippery slope that excuses the harassment of girls based on their clothing choice and ultimately may lead them to feel shame about their bodies ( an idea I have explored before here).  Author, columnist and academic  Dr Karen Brooks agrees:

I think what bothers me most about this whole uniform and clothing issue is that somehow, female clothing has become a visual barometer that measures a woman/girl’s morality and ethics and somehow also controls men’s. That’s why claims that if a man or boy is distracted/loses control/rapes/abuses/harrasses etc. then it’s the girl/woman’s fault carry weight in society. We still somehow believe that a woman’s dress indicates her morality and invites or rejects (male) attention. Well, if that’s the case, why is that women and girls who wear hijabs or dress in non-revelaing clothing are still raped/attract unwanted attention/harrassed and are also held accountable for male behaviour when it is transgressive and/or violent?

Teachers surely know it’s not the short skirt that warrants changing, but antediluvian attitudes that let males off the hook.

It’s the Damned Whores and God’s Police model all over again, yet what girl’s are being told is that what they wear is a way of modifying, “policing” male behaviour and their own sexuality as well. There is a false notion circulating that women can control men and keep ourselves “safe” by our clothing choices. What utter nonsense.

Clothing is not the issue. Society is. Yes, we need to take responsibility for our behaviours, regardless of sex. As long as we allow men and boys to shift blame for their choices, for their harassment or worse of women, nothing will be resolved. Clothes do not maketh the woman, but actions maketh the man (and woman)!

Feminist web site jezebel recently published a thought provoking piece, “Is Your Dress Code Sexist? A Guide.” This paragraph particularly resonated with me:

Look: I understand the desire a school might have to encourage students to dress respectfully and semi-professionally; out-of-the-ordinary or extreme clothing is distracting on a purely asexual level. Could you study next to a guy in a clown suit? Or a woman wearing an enormous Pharrell hat that plays music? I couldn’t. The key is to make it clear that both men and women need to adhere to any rules put in place, and that the rules are to ensure student focus is on the instructor rather than on other students.

And the reality is that no matter how careful an organization is to make sure they don’t sound …sexist…, women have more at stake in adhering to dress codes than men do, because women’s fashion dictates that women must wear less in order to be fashionable. Girls get so many sets of conflicting instructions that they’ll be punished by either their peers or their school no matter what they do. Wear revealing clothing, or you’re a dork, says the media to women. Don’t wear revealing clothing, or you’re a slut, say institutions to women. Talk about distracting.

When I asked her for her input, journalist Tracey Spicer said she thinks it is also important for us to honestly reflect on how we dressed as young women too:

What I really hate are the casually sexist comments about how young women are dressed for a night on the town. All this ‘They look like hookers!’ and ‘They’re asking for it’ stuff. For goodness sake, I used to dress in revealing outfits at that age, as I was discovering my sexuality. That doesn’t mean I’m asking to be sexually assaulted.

2. Mean Girls

Social commentator and writer Jane Caro wishes we would question the rhetoric around girls as “mean girls” :

The idea that girls are bitchy and nasty to one another, whereas boys are simple creatures who fix things with a good thump (?).

We expect women to tend relationships, to do the emotional care taking, girls know this but when they are young, they’re just learning about relationships and they do them badly. Instead of congratulating them for taking on this difficult and complex task (understanding how people relate to one another), we jump all over them & stereotype them as mean girls. This drives me nuts! I also hate the moral panic around ‘bullying’, which often ends up with us bullying the supposed bullies. We need to be much clearer about what bullying is and what it isn’t, and that most kids are both victims & perpetrators at various times. As are we all.

It is the first point Jane raises that was explored at the Festival Of Dangerous Ideas session entitled All Women Hate Each Other. I was privileged to speak at this alongside the truly awesome Germaine Greer, Tara Moss and Eva Cox. You may watch this session here: http://play.sydneyoperahouse.com/index.php/media/1654-All-Women-Hate-Each-Other.html

Melissa Carson, the Co-ordinator of Innovative Learning at boys’ school Oakhill College also believes the boys-as-less-complex creatures myth is dismissive of the complex nature of mate-ship and equally as damaging to boys: “I’ve worked closely with young men for over ten years and I can tell you they do stew on their friendship fall-outs. They report feelings of sadness, anger and frustration over their friendships and often don’t know how to resolve things. They are every bit as complicated as young women and in need of just as much support.”

3. One mistake and you’re out!

The “one mistake and you’re doomed” approach to educating young people drives me insane. I often hear this in the context of cyber training; messages like:  “If you ever post something on Facebook that’s not ideal, you’ll never be employed and will be socially shamed. And you will never be able to make that go away.” Implication? You may as well give up now if you’ve done something silly as you can’t ever make that right. Sadly, it is messages like this that lead young people to despair and to want to hide their errors for fear of being judged. Incidentally, I often wonder just who will be employed in the future if this was in fact true as I can’t imagine there will be anyone who hasn’t at least done one thing on-line that wasn’t smart at some stage in their youth. Again, Dr Karen Brooks agreed:

As for the cyber mistake. Oh puhleez! Yes, we need to educate young people that what they post could be potentially damaging and may impact in the future, but when and if they do post something inappropriate, we should also rally to ensure they understand that they can overcome this. In fact, understanding you can move beyond the inappropriate photo or posting can not only build resilience, but instil valuable lessons in how to cope with negative feedback, distressing reactions, how to negotiate an emotional and psychological minefield, but also how important it is to own what you’ve done/posted. Take responsibility and learn from it and move on (nothing to see here!). If it hits you in the face in later years, then take responsibility again, but also contextualise it and demonstrate how much you grew from that moment and what lessons you took away from the (bad and silly) experience to become the person you are now.

Yes, we catastrophize to ours and the kids’ detriment. So much for resilience, we’re teaching them to fall apart at the first mistake and to cry “my life is over!”. Ridiculous!

Author, speaker and advocate Nina Funnell concurred:

The most dangerous thing we can ever say to a young person is that there is no way forward, no light at the end of the tunnel, no possibility of recovery. And yet this is exactly the message they hear when we tell them that once you post something online, it is there forever, the damage is permanent and will never lighten. If a young person has made a mistake, catastrophising the situation will only lead to catastrophic outcomes and already we have seen one case in America where a teen took her life following a school seminar which reinforced the notion that she could never get a job or a university degree since she had already made an online mistake. Instead of this doom and gloom approach, we need to help teens develop resilience, the strength to overcome setbacks, and the insight to be able to put their mistakes into context.

More things we need to stop saying to girls NOW next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What messages do you think we deliver to young women that are harmful? 

Constant over-praising is damaging our kids.

I’m thrilled to be sharing this brilliant post by a colleague I adore; the always-wise Dr Karen Brooks. This was first published by The Courier Mail, 26th May.
I had the opportunity to talk to this on channel 7’s The Morning Show. You may watch this segment below.

At the Positive Schools Mental Health and Wellbeing Conference held at the Brisbane Convention Centre last week, teachers were told the emphasis on self-esteem in education and parenting has failed our children.

Rather than creating happy, confident kids, the self-esteem movement has contributed to what behavioural psychiatrist Dr David Sack calls “a generation of self-obsessed, irresponsible and unmotivated kids”.

Other experts describe kids unable to deal with adversity, anti-social behaviour, gross egotism, selfishness and an overweening sense of entitlement.

Described sometimes as cottonwool, eggshell and even teacup kids (because they’re so fragile), children raised under the self-esteem banner have no resilience and crumble at the first sign of criticism or difficulty.

Where and how did something so well-intended go so wrong?

The self-esteem movement began in 1969 with the publication of Nathaniel Braden’s book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem. Over the next 30 years, his idea that high self-esteem was the most valuable gift we can give to children was absorbed into the popular consciousness, the education system and parenting.

Evidence of its pervasiveness can also be seen in reality TV and the huge self-help industry, including motivational speakers.

But it seems as if the ideas and methodologies Braden spawned have backfired.

Deakin University Adjunct Professor Helen McGrath, argues “… a lot of the people who gloat about how to develop self-esteem are now writing about how this is actually a dangerous thing to do because what we are really doing is producing kids who are narcissistic because we focus too much on telling them how good they are, how wonderful they are, how everything they do is fantastic”.

Some have been taught to have no resilience and crumble at the first sign of difficulty.

Some have been taught to have no resilience and crumble at the first sign of difficulty.

Handing out ribbons to every child in a race; discouraging competition, ensuring no report card contains words that might offend, upset, or indicate (God forbid) how ordinary or bad a child’s performance at school really is, we’ve created a conformists’ paradise of mediocrity, where those at the top are given the same kind of accolades as those at the bottom and no one strives anymore.

After all, what’s the point when everyone is “special”, “gifted” and “smart”?

Focused on showering praise and positive comments upon our kids to shore up self-esteem, even when they don’t deserve them, it’s only recently we’ve noted the concomitant rise in depression, body dysmorphia, bullying and anxiety.

Discouraged from giving honest critiques of students’ abilities and understandably nervous about the fallout when they do, teachers are forced to pander to the ideals spouted in this outdated and hideously damaging self-esteem movement.

The consequences of this are not only a dumbing-down of every level of education but a fear of candid and constructive feedback – the cornerstones of life-learning. Parents who fight their kids’ battles – whether it be poor test results, being left out of a team or bad behaviour in the classroom, are teaching kids they don’t need to deal with adversity, change their manner or try harder either – not when mum or dad steps into the ring on their behalf.

Yet kids only blossom when they can move out their parents’ shadows.

There’s no doubt that social networking facilitates narcissism, encouraging a generation to use any means at their disposal to shore up their fragile self-esteem and seek approval (“likes”). In the cyberworld, increasing risks are taken to maintain a distorted sense of self-importance and relevance – think of sexting.

Dr Lauren LaPorta, chairman of the department of psychiatry at St Joseph’s Regional Medical Centre in New Jersey, argues that through social media, “Relationships become shallower and more fleeting; self-interest exceeds the common good. The costs of narcissism, then, are paid by the society at large.”

Dannielle Miller, CEO of Enlighten Education, who runs self-esteem and school-to-work-transition workshops for young people, believes that self-esteem is all about connectedness, compassion and community – an ability to empathise with others. She says in order to value yourself, you must value the person next to you. Appreciating the skills you have, upskilling where necessary, she encourages young people to respect what others bring to situations, to be prepared to start at the bottom and to adapt.

Like many other experts, Miller believes high self-esteem isn’t the problem as much as false self-esteem. Steve Baskin, writing in Psychology Today, would agree. “Self-esteem is not something conferred, it is earned through taking risks and developing skills. When children stretch themselves, they expand their sense of their own capability and then feel confident to tackle the next challenge. Confidence comes from competence – we do not bestow it as a gift.”

In other words, despite what Braden argued in the 1960s, self-esteem does not cause high grades, high grades (earned through intellect, study, dedication, passion and a combination of all these) cause high self-esteem.

In shielding our kids from the vagaries of life, we’re doing them a huge disservice. We insulate them from experiences that encourage growth, mental toughness and build healthy self-esteem. Worse, we reinforce the notion they’re not capable of coping on their own.

If we want to prepare our kids for adult life – one that’s often harsh – then we owe it to them to give them a gift all right: resilience.

Dr Karen Brooks is an associate professor at the UQ Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies.

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

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

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

Two champions have recently emerged in this growing field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we really so shallow?

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

 

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

Babes, Bitches, and Blooming Awful Journalism! 

Women In Sport Hit The Grass Ceiling

 

Toddlers & Tiaras? Pull the Pin Now!

The type of child beauty pageant made infamous by the reality TV show Toddlers & Tiaras is coming to Australia. We’ve all been outraged by what we’ve seen of these totally inappropriate, hypersexualized competitions.

Enlighten’s own Catherine Manning, one of our stellar Melbourne presenters, is putting her outrage to good use. She’s started Pull the Pin, a group that’s organising public rallies around the country to send a message to politicians and pageant organisers: we don’t want child beauty pageants in Australia.

This week I’m handing over to Catherine so she can talk about Pull the Pin and how you can get involved. Catherine, you have a heart of gold—but more than that, you are a woman of action!

I also had a great in-depth discussion about why child beauty pageants are so damaging to girls’ self-esteem and body image on Adelaide radio, which you can listen to here.


When the news hit that an American child beauty pageant company, Universal Royalty, is holding a pageant in Melbourne in July, I was amongst the many thousands of people who felt sickened—not just by the images of little girls being blatantly adultified and sexualised in these pageants but also by the fact that such a beauty competition for children would even have a market here in Australia.

It’s one thing for little girls to play dress-ups, donning frocks and heels, putting on some lippy and parading around the lounge room—but when adults come along and turn it into a fierce competition for money and prizes, complete with professional make-up artists, hairdressers and photographers, that’s just creepy and every kind of wrong.

I feel compelled to take action, so I have started the Pull the Pin campaign, which is coordinating public rallies on Tuesday, 3 May, at 12:00 p.m. on the steps of Parliament House in capital cities around the country. The aim is to make our voices heard in a way that is sensitive to pageant participants but sends a clear message to politicians and the community that we don’t want child beauty pageants in Australia. The reason I have chosen that day is that parliament will be in session in Melbourne, so it’s a great opportunity to send a message to the politicians in the city where the pageant is planned to take place.

I will be arranging for some engaging speakers in each state to articulate our concerns, and some peaceful protest “action” on the steps of parliament, such as bubble blowing, skipping, face painting, hopscotch—ordinary things that children really like to do and should be doing.

I have been encouraged by the many people who have contacted me expressing an interest in participating in the rally action, and am now looking to you to help me organise the rally in your state or territory.

If you would like to get involved and help coordinate things on the day, please email me at info@sayno4kids.com. It would be great to have a diversity of people involved to show that this issue is one a wide range of Australians feel very strongly about. I want to thank my friends at Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants and Collective Shout for their support on this issue.

Some discussions in the media and online about the pageant and rally have suggested a “catfight” between those parents who are for pageants and those who are against. I certainly don’t condone anyone personally attacking pageant parents. But I also don’t think it’s acceptable for parents to have girls as young as 3 years old coiffed, waxed and primped, then paraded in a competition against other little girls. As Dr Karen Brooks writes in The Courier-Mail, “For years, experts have stated how damaging it can be to introduce children at such an early age to this kind of subjective and superficial evaluation.” Responsibility does need to be taken by parents, and also by governments that allow these competitions to be run. Ideally, I’d like to see a worldwide ban on child beauty pageants.

Some of the adult cosmetic practices inflicted on little girls competing in these pageants, such as waxing and spray tanning, should also be illegal for children, in my view. We used to be able to rely on common sense—who’d have ever thought we’d have to protect young girls from their parents actively sexualising them for prize money? (Anyone who doubts that these girls are being sexualised didn’t see the episode of Toddlers & Tiaras in which “a mother screeches ‘Flirt! You’re not flirting!’ as her six-year-old daughter practices her routine,” as Nina Funnell describes over on Melinda Tankard-Reist’s site.)

I’m tired of hearing pageant parents and organisers compare beauty competitions to sport. If a child engages in a sporting activity, when they lose they know they can go home to practice and hone their skills for next time—but when they compete in a beauty competition and lose, they can only feel unworthy and unable to do anything about it.

Girls are already constantly bombarded with narrow beauty ideals in our culture, from Disney princesses and Barbies and Bratz dolls, to music video clips telling them they should look and behave like grown women. We should be combatting the message society sends our girls that they’re “not enough”—not foisting beauty competition culture upon them.

Pull the Pin is motivated by our care for children and their rights. My hope is that the little girls who compete in pageants will be pleased to see that someone else is saying “no” on their behalf. Anyone who’s watched Toddlers & Tiaras knows that often the little girls’ pleas of “stop” fall on deaf ears in pageant land. The rallies and our peaceful protests may just give them the courage to say “See Mummy, those people are having fun with their little girls just doing normal, healthy things. I want to do that too.”

We want to send a really strong message that Australians don’t want this type of exploitative beauty competition here. And we want to encourage  parents considering entering their children to think twice and act in the best interests of the children, not their own or the pageant organisers’ pockets.

Catherine Manning is an Enlighten Education presenter in Victoria. She is also the director of the children’s rights advocacy group Say No 4 Kids, which campaigns to end children’s exposure to highly sexualised material in the media and public domain.

Be alert about sexualising kids but don’t make boobs of ourselves.

Brooks, KarenThis week I’d like to share a guest blog post written by Dr Karen Brooks. Karen is an author, social commentator, columnist, academic and public speaker. Karen’s book Consuming Innocence is one I would highly recommend to all teachers and parents who want to know more about the impact popular culture is having on our children and on the family unit. This post was originally published in the Courier Mail and is reprinted here with her permission. I am hoping this will stimulate discussion – what do you consider to be harmless fun, and what should warrant caution, or indeed alarm us?


Pop princess Katy Perry made global headlines last week for singing a duet with Sesame Street Muppet, Elmo, as part of the show’s 41st season. After numerous complaints, the skit was pulled from the proposed line-up (but remains on YouTube).

What were the complaints about? Perry’s attire, cleavage and breasts.

Others have now leapt to both the creator’s and Perry’s defence.

In the midst of the fuss, the makers of Sesame Street uploaded another clip, also featuring Muppets; this one a parody of the popular and very adult fantasy HBO-TV series, True Blood.

Based on Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels, True Blood is full of sex, blood and fangs. The Muppet parody, True Mud, while using puppets designed to resemble characters from the TV program, focuses on rhyming to create a lesson for its very young viewers.

Vampires are now “Grouches” and their desire for a drink of synthetic or “true” blood is transformed into a need for a mud bath.

Preschoolers learn about words such as “spud”, “dud” and “thud”, before a mud bath is wheeled out.

The end result may be dirty, but is the execution? Depending which side of the road you’re on, the air might be sweet, but Sesame Street is no longer “A OK”.

Is it just conservative wowsers, or are the complaints about Perry’s low-cut dress and the references to a vampire series valid?

Do the Sesame Street skits really deserve to have so much attention focused on them?

The answer is yes. Especially when they succeed in being pleasing, perplexing and push boundaries.

The Sesame Street producers have always intended to cater primarily to young children. In her book Buy Buy Baby, Susan Gregory Thomas says when the show was conceived in 1968, the producers not only used developmental psychologists, who drew on the principles of complementary but very different approaches to cognitive growth in kids, but also they saw the show as a guiding social agent, for at-risk children.

To judge from current commentary around the Katy Perry and True Mud skits, it seems that all kids are at risk from the offerings of this stalwart of children’s television.

Is this fair?

Like any successful product designed to capture children’s hearts and imaginations, the creators of Sesame Street also have to ensure that there is enough content to please the gatekeepers – parents and guardians – as well. This means that like other products developed for young (and older) children, they will embed many meanings and levels in the one tale so it can appeal simultaneously to children and adults.

Arguably, any child with responsible parents would never make the connection to True Blood or Katy Perry’s, ahem, body of work either.

Nonetheless, catering to children while appeasing adults will always be a task fraught with difficulties that often attracts a critical eye.

As the chief executive officer of Enlighten Education, Dannielle Miller, points out, “there are plenty of other artists who might like to hang with Elmo … choosing Katy Perry continues to blur the line between childhood and the adult world of raunch”.

But the complaints about Katy Perry’s attire and her breasts can also be read as a type of “slut-shaming”; something Miller also recognises.

This is when, by drawing attention to certain female displays and performances, a society shames young women into controlling their sexual self-expression and covering their bodies. It is a public way of taming and thus policing (and limiting) burgeoning female sexuality.

There’s no doubt we have to be so careful when it comes to being alert to the sexualisation of children in culture.

What the Perry incident draws attention to is how easy it is for something to be read in multiple ways – sweet and appropriate, tasteless and inappropriate, adult and childish – by a very wide and hyper-critical audience. When children are the target demographic, the scrutiny only intensifies.

But we also have to be careful when engaging in these kinds of debates not to make boobs, literally and metaphorically, of ourselves.

If you are interested in finding out more about the issue of the sexualisation of children, apart from Karen’s book I would  recommend you read some of my previous posts as it is a topic I also  feel very passionate about: Lady Gaga’s Toxic Mess, Girls in Trouble in a Post-Feminist World, and “She’s just a cute tween…” to name just a few.

I urge you too to find out more about the wonderful work being done by Julie Gale at Kids Free 2B Kids, and Enlighten’s own Catherine Manning at Say No 4 Kids. After reading Karen’s book you may also like to purchase a copy of  Melinda Tankard Reist’s excellent collection of thoughts on the topic by some of Australia’s most prominent child experts:Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls. My book, The Butterfly Effect, also explores how parents can help their girls move beyond Bratz, Britney and Bacardi Breezers. I am thrilled at the support my book has received and was thrilled that channel 10 did a news story on it just this week. I am hoping we can all help keep girls issues on the agenda.

Beyond Cyber Hysteria – Part 2: Cyber bully busting

Did we buy our children a bike and drop them off in the highway? Did we ever not say, “Drive safely” when our children drove off for their first time after they got their license? Did we not tell our children, “Don’t talk to strangers” when they go somewhere on their own?
Mary Kay Hoal, cyber-bullying expert.

Whilst bullying is by no means a new phenomenon, the relative anonymity the online world allows, and the fact that nasty words and images posted online cannot easily be erased, has seen increased alarm over cyber-bullying. The Australian television show 4 Corners produced a harrowing and informative episode on this, which may be viewed here: The Bullies Playground.

How common is cyber-bullying?

Although only around 10% of teens say they have been bullied online, research shows that teens don’t tend to use the term “cyber-bullying” as they find it amusing. If young people are asked whether or not they have ever received abusive text messages, for example, more tend to respond in the affirmative. The real statistics for cyber-bullying may therefore be much higher. We also know bullying tends to peak both online or offline for children around Year 5, and again around Year 7 or 8: it is assumed this is because these periods of transition often increase anxiety.

Janice Turner wrote a perceptive piece on the impact even less directly hostile exchanges can have on vulnerable young people in the UK Times recently: When hatred comes to your home page. In it, she writes:

(my friend, a psychotherapist) says it is the ordinary stuff which devastates her patients, the photos of a sleepover to which you weren’t invited, your best friend ignoring you and chatting on someone else’s “wall”. And everyone will know, by how many friends you have, whether you’re a big, fat loser. It’s not even proper bullying, just crude kidult passive-aggression. But, boy, does it hurt.

Even so, her patients cannot stop themselves logging in. They have to look. And so the mean-girl snubs, the whispering behind hands, follow them home and upstairs into lonely bedrooms.

We think as adults we are tougher, that something as remote and notional as a chat room cannot hurt us. Indeed, it is a blast, a liberation, when talking online to say what you really mean for once, to make mischief, to dispense with uptight British niceness, or even assume the guise of an avatar, a pumped-up, better-hung version of our own weedy workaday self.

In the glow of our screens, safely at home, we think our egos are armour-plated. But there is no protection as we step on to the ten-lane superhighway of a billion heartless strangers. It can smart like hell, that withering rebuke from someone you’ll never meet…

Whilst certainly even being snubbed socially can smart, social commentator, author and academic Dr Karen Brooks cautions that we should not overreact to some of the exchanges that happen online in her piece on bullying published in The Courier-Mail:

A prominent television campaign to discourage cyber-bullying even describes “using harsh words” as bullying.

While it is important that we educate young people about this – the implications, effects and consequences, on perpetrator and victim – it is also important that we do not conflate normal child and adolescent behaviour with the type of bullying that can have devastating consequences.

Frankly, if a child cannot handle being teased (distinguishing intention is paramount) or the occasional “harsh” word delivered in an emotive moment, then we have another problem we need to be discussing.

Building resilience in our children is essential. We hear a great deal about “cotton wool kids” – those who fall over psychologically and emotionally as soon as they discover they are not as perfect, wonderful, clever or talented as they have been led to believe.

I agree that both building resilience, and setting sensible guidelines, is critical.

What can be done?

Rule number 1: Don’t punish the victim by denying them access to technology. Although it is tempting to simply switch everything off, research shows that sometimes girls hold back from telling adults about cyber-bullying because they fear they will be banned from using the internet. Rather than making threats, keep the lines of communication open and establish trust.

When I work with young women, I keep it simple. My advice to them is: ask yourself, Would you do this in the real world? Would you go to your local shops and hand out pictures of yourself in your bikini? Would you agree to become friends with some random who marched up to you at the cinema and wanted to start hanging out ? Would you stand up at assembly and yell out, “I hate Samantha, she is a fat cow!” This last example is used in the excellent clip “Talent Show”:

It is also important to get to know your child’s preferred cyber world;  you cannot offer advice and guidance if you are not familiar with the cyber-environment they are part of. I also like the idea of encouraging your child to connect  to a cyber-mentor, a trusted older person who can “Friend” them on Facebook, for example, and keep an eye on what is happening and step in and offer advice if needed. Most young people can identify at least one older person who they think is cool enough to want to allow “in”. I also like the idea of developing scripts with your child that they can use when things do go wrong. I have done this with a 15-year-old friend. When her Facebook “Friends” spoke to her in a disrespectful way on her wall, we worked through suitable responses she could use and settled on the following: “Hey guys, I get that you’re joking but I still find it hurtful when people use that kind of language about me so let’s keep it sweet – coolies? :)” It is amazing how an assertive statement, followed by an emoticon, can diffuse a potentially hostile situation!

If the bullying is full-blown, teen Tom Wood, a cyber-bullying survivor who now blogs on how to resolve cyber conflict offers the following 5 Steps:

1. Don’t respond to the bully AT ALL (It will make it worse, trust me;)

2. Save the evidence, whether it is text, images or websites (He provides instructions on how to do this at his site)

3. Block and Delete the bully from the service (Again, instructions are provided)

4. Report Abuse to the Admins of the service

5. Tell trusted people, which may be friends, adults, teachers, parents and police if necessary – as it is a criminal offence.

One of the biggest challenges schools I work with are facing is knowing how to respond to concerns over cyber-bullying, particularly as the inappropriate online behaviour is rarely happening during school hours as most schools use filters to block social networking sites. The New York Times ran an outstanding feature on this: Online Bullies Pull Schools Into The Fray. I would strongly recommend schools circulate this and formulate some discussion questions to share at a staff meting. Questions that I think worthy of consideration include:

  • Professor James, an education law scholar, is quoted in the article as saying: “Educators are empowered to maintain safe schools…the timidity of educators in this context of emerging technology is working to the advantage of bullies.”  Do you agree? What steps should schools be taking to ensure all students feel secure?
  • Should schools have the right to search mobile phones? What is your school’s policy on this?
  • The NY Times explains that Principal Tony Orsini caused a controversy when he sent a letter home to parents stating that “There is absolutely NO reason for any middle school student to be part of a social networking site.” Do you agree? Has your school offered parents guidelines on how to manage their child’s cyber usage?

Next week I will look at some of  the ugly elements of cyber world – including the proliferation of P*rn. The reality?  We need to deal with the fact that it is not a matter of if our child will see it online, but rather when.

To make a booking for me to present my new parent workshop on managing cyber world, please email me: danni@enlighteneducation.com.

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