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Tag: Melinda Tankard Reist

Sexting: the big picture.

On Thursday last week I attended the Sydney launch of Big Porn Inc, Exposing the Harms of the Global Porn Industry. This important collection of essays by leading experts and activists is edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray. The talks given, particularly by Ms Bray, were deeply moving and the personal toll that contributing to this book has taken on the writers was visibly apparent; what brave women they are to delve into the darkness so that we may see the light. Inspired by the contributors’ resolve, I committed to reading this book over the weekend and whilst I cannot say I enjoyed it, for it is (in parts) absolutely harrowing, I did find it deeply thought provoking. Works like this, which dare to challenge the rhetoric of porn as liberation or nothing more than a bit of fun, have the potential to help us reclaim and reshape our sexuality – which has unarguably been hijaked by an industry that increasingly views woman as nothing more objects to be used and abused for sexual gratification. 

Nina and I at the launch of Big Porn Inc

This week I wish to share with you an edited version of the chapter contributed by Nina Funnell. Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010 for this work.

Sexting and Peer-to-Peer Porn

Historically debates about children and pornography have tended to play out in two directions. Either children are discussed as being the victims used in illegal child pornography, or alternatively they are constructed as the damaged consumers of adult pornography which they inadvertently or deliberately access.

Both the “exploited victim” and “damaged consumer” approaches have produced a wealth of research that has contributed to public debates about pornography.

However, while these approaches have offered certain frameworks for understanding and discussing the harm caused to children, they have not been able to account for a recently emerging trend whereby young people are not merely accessing and consuming pornography, but indeed are now the active producers of pornography – specifically child pornography.

In recent years academics have been tending to the ways in which young people are incorporating technology into their dating, courtship and sexual socialisation practices. While many young people report that technology has enhanced their social lives, others have expressed concerns over the ways in which technology (such as digital photography, mobile phone cameras and webcams) has contributed to a paradigm where privacy is compromised.

The ease with which photos are now produced, the speed at which they travel, combined with the permanence of those photos once online has meant that young people’s private lives are now being shared and recorded in ways never seen or imagined before.

The advent of the smart-phone which allows users to access the World Wide Web directly from their personal phones also means that young people are now able to upload and retrieve digital information from anywhere and at anytime, with few time-delay barriers that might otherwise give an opportunity for reflective thought.

Of particular concern is the ways in which young people are now uploading sexualised personal content which is then immediately available for by peers and others. According to one study completed by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in America, as many as one in five teenagers has electronically sent a nude or semi-nude image or video of themselves. This statistic, which has been widely reproduced in media articles, has alarmed parents and children’s rights groups everywhere.

Blended with the concern that young people may be jeopardising their reputations and employment prospects is the fear that such photos could fall into the hands of paedophiles as once those photos are online it is virtually impossible to control how they circulate or where they end up.

But beyond personal safety fears, there are additional concerns regarding the legal risks that children and teenagers face.

In 2009 three teenage girls in Greensburg Pennsylvania took nude and semi-nude photos of themselves on their mobile phones before sending those photos on to three boys. When the images were discovered on the boys’ phones, the girls (for photographing their own bodies) were threatened with charges relating to the production and distribution of child pornography, and the three boys were threatened with charges relating to the possession of child pornography.

In the media commentary that followed, a debate erupted over the definition of child pornography and the application of the law in cases involving teens who willingly photograph their own bodies.

On the one hand, some claimed that prosecution was an appropriate response that would serve to deter other teenagers from engaging in a behaviour now known as “sexting” (that is, the production and distribution of sexualised personal photos via mobile phone or online).

But there are other questions that should be raised Why, for example, are laws which were initially intended to protect children now being used to criminalise teenage sexuality? Is it appropriate to group sexually curious teenagers in with convicted paedophiles? How can a girl be both the victim and the perpetrator of the same crime? What possible good can come from labelling these teens as sex offenders and putting them on a sex offender register for the rest of their lives? Shouldn’t we preserve that register for criminals who pose a real threat to society?

Eventually the Pennsylvania case was dismissed after the American Civil Liberties Union launched a countersuit against the District Attorney for threatening to lay the charges against the teenage girls. But the significance of the case is clear: the laws have been utterly outpaced by the speed at which the technology had evolved and are now woefully ill-equipped to respond to the current paradigm.

The case also illuminated one other thing: that at the time when these laws were first developed no-one had comprehended the possibility of kids themselves being the ones producing the pornography.

There is a long history of children expressing curiosity over bodies and sex and there is nothing inherently wrong or unnatural about this. However when images are taken without consent or distributed to third parties without consent, the results can be devastating.

In May 2008 a young woman named Jesse Logan appeared on a Cincinnati television station to tell her story. She had sent nude photos of herself to her boyfriend who sent them on to other classmates when the relationship ended.

Logan was harassed and repeatedly labelled a “slut” and a “whore.” She became depressed, withdrawn and avoided school. Two months after agreeing to talk about her experience on television her body was found hanging in her bedroom. She was only 18.

In 2010, another eighteen-year-old student, Tyler Clementi committed suicide by jumping from the George Washington Bride. Clementi who was not openly gay had recently had a sexual encounter with a man in his dorm room.

His roommate Dharun Ravi and another student had secretly filmed and streamed the footage of the encounter. Clementi’s Facebook status at the time of his death read “jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” His body was found a short time after.

In 2011, another 18 year old female cadet in the Australian Defence Force Academy engaged in consensual sex with a fellow cadet. Unbeknown to her he was secretly filming and live streaming the footage to six other males in an adjacent room.

On learning what had happened the cadet, “Kate” stated that her “whole world came crashing down” and she was physically ill. Despite this, after speaking out she was subjected to more harassment and bullying from fellow cadets.

When all of these stories broke, the public responded with a mix of shock, horror and disgust at the ways the victims had been treated. Adults in particular have scoffed over the actions of the young people involved in these events.

But when we look further afield, the practice of individuals filming or distributing sexually explicit footage of other people without their knowledge or consent has a longer history and one that, in certain spheres, has gone largely uncontested.

Twelve years before the ADFA scandal a teen comedy American Pie (1999) was released. In it the protagonist sets up a webcam to film a female exchange student getting changed. The footage is live streamed to boys in a nearby home.

At no point is there any comment in the movie on the ethics of this behaviour or the likely emotional impact for the girl. In fact in American Pie 2 she returns as a love interest for the protagonist. In other films such as Porkies, Sleepers and The Virgin Suicides, groups of boys perving on women without their consent as a form of male bonding is depicted as normalized behaviour. Of course this isn’t limited to film.

In 2009 a sports reporter named Erin Andrews was filmed nude while alone in her hotel room. The video quickly became one of the most searched Google items. Video-blogging on Feministing, American writer Jessica Valenti, made the following comment:

You know you can see plenty of hot naked ladies on the Internet. It’s not that hard to fine. But folks want to watch this and people are interested in this precisely because Erin Andrews doesn’t know she is being filmed. I think that reveals something incredibly f–ked up about the way American culture views women. That what we consider hot and sexy is looking at naked pictures of women without their consent.

Looking further afield again we can see many other examples where internet users have swarmed to download sex tapes of women which were produced or released without their consent: Paris Hilton, Kendra Wilkinson, Pamela Anderson and Katie Price have all had sex tapes distributed without consent. Many adults have downloaded and watched these films.

It is erroneous to suggest that celebrities or people who work in the public eye do not deserve privacy. Such an argument falls into the trap of suggesting there are two types of women in this world: those you are allowed to abuse and assault, and those who you cannot.

Likewise, it is also problematic to expect teenagers to live up to a higher standard than we set for the rest of society. We need to be consistent in our approach to non-consensual filming and distribution of sexual content.

While digital technology and social media have no doubt enhanced many aspects of our lives, they have also extended the ways in which women and girls can be violated, humiliated and abused.

To deal with this will require more than mere education for young people about the risks associated with technology. It will require us to teach them techno and sexual ethics and it will require us, as adults, to also abide by the standards we set for them.

To do this, we need to acknowledge and redress the misogyny, sexism and deep degradation that underscores so much of our current culture.

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.

Wanted — more girl champions

Women hold up half the sky. — Chinese Proverb.

Don’t you just love it when you read a book that changes the way you view the world? Last year for my 40th birthday Melinda Tankard Reist bought me a copy of  the Pulitzer-prize-winning Half The Sky. This brilliant work has been described by the publishers as a “call to arms against our era’s most pervasive human rights violation: the oppression of women and girls in the developing world”. I became so passionate about bringing an awareness to the plight of girls in the developing world and to how simple some of the solutions are that I immediately incorporated some of the messages into our Enlighten Education workshop on feminism as it applies to this generation of girls: Real Girl Power (for more on this workshop, you may be interested in this news article: Putting Girls Issues Back on the Radar).

One of the key resources that informed this workshop was Plan International’s brilliant “Because I am a Girl” campaign. Yesterday I was fortunate enough to have been invited by the forward-thinking team at Mercer (a global leader in financial services) to attend the launch of Plan’s new paper: “Because I am a Girl, The State of The World’s Girls 2010. Digital and Urban Frontiers: Girls in a Changing Landscape”. Plan is producing one girl report each year in the run-up to 2015, the target year for the Millennium Development Goals. Each report provides tangible proof of the inequalities that still exist between boys and girls. Mercer is supporting Plan in its life-saving work and has also been using me to present to executives who are involved in their truly vibrant Women in Leadership Network. Isn’t it exciting to see corporations involved in partnerships that make a real difference to the lives of not only their staff but to those who have fewer opportunities?

The launch started with a reminder about why unleashing women’s potential is not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do in order to combat poverty:

This year’s report was particularly of interest to me as it examined the impact of both urbanisation and technology on young women — issues we are also struggling with at a domestic level. A full copy of the Executive Summary may be downloaded here: Because I am a Girl – The State of the World’s Girls 2010.

What are some of the key findings?

Bright lights and big hopes — adolescent girls in the city:

For the first time in history, there are more people living in cities than in rural areas. This has the potential to lead to increased education opportunities and access to better health care services, and it is delaying the age at which girls marry. However, girls in cities are at particular risk of exploitation, poverty, overcrowding and physical and sexual violence.

I was particularly moved by the manifesto street girls and former street girls put together when they met at the 2010 Street Child World Cup in Durban, South Africa:

We, the girls living and [who] have lived on the streets and those of us in shelters from seven countries, the UK, Tanzania, South Africa, the Philippines, Ukraine, Brazil, and Nicaragua, have the following rights and we want them respected:

The Right to live in a shelter and home, The Right to have a family, The Right to be safe, The Right to be protected from sexual abuse, The Right to go to school and get free education, The Right to good health and access to free health services, The Right to be heard, The Right to belong, The Right to be treated with respect and decency, The Right to be treated as equal to boys,  The Right to be allowed to grow normally.

Adolescent girls and communication technologies — opportunity or exploitation?

The report identified several reasons why technology is important to girls. These included using technology as a tool to connect, educate, gain employability skills and increase knowledge about health issues such as HIV and AIDS.

Just as we are finding here, however, there is also a dark side: 79% of girls said they did not feel safe online, almost half the girls surveyed said their parents did not know what they accessed online, only a third of girls said they knew how to report danger or something that made them feel bad online, and almost 50% said they would go to meet someone they met online (this is particularly troubling in the developing world, where many young women are tricked into the sex trade by the offer of jobs overseas). Cyber-bullying was also a growing problem.

Moving forward

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Two young women who have been assisted by Plan International in Ghana — Gifty and Aisha — were at yesterday’s launch. They both spoke to me about the positive impact intervention has had on their lives. Education works. Investing in girls works.

Plan’s report concludes with a powerful call to action:

We can all contribute. We need to listen to adolescent girls’ views and ensure that their voices are heard by decision-makers. We need to learn from what they have to say. We need to include them in research, in planning and in policies. We need to invest in girls’ skills and ensure that they have access to information, the skills to use it and the power to protect themselves. And finally, we have shown that what many of them have achieved in the face of adversity is truly remarkable. We need to celebrate these achievements and ensure that all girls, wherever they live in the world, have the same chances in life as their brothers.

Girl Effect, an organisation that also does incredible work with young women in the developing world, tells it how it is on their website. The  launch page is emblazoned with the following:

The World could do with a good kick in the pants. Agree?

Yep.

So, what am I going to do to make a difference? I am going to continue, and in fact enhance, the workshops we run that inform girls about these important equity issues. I am also going to strengthen the work I do here in Australia with our Indigenous girls — many of these young women are living lives not dissimilar to those girls in the developing world are living, which I find deeply shameful. I am currently coordinating diaries with the amazing Cathy Freeman and hope to work with her on Palm Island with Indigenous girls. Cathy is a true champion of girls and if you are not yet aware of the work her foundation is doing in this area, do investigate.

I would like to also encourage you to act now too. Plan are calling for the United Nations to declare today, September 22nd, to be International Day of the Girl. A simple first step? Sign their petition. And then find out more about the numerous organisations that work to turn oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. Donate. Share this post with colleagues. Educate your girls about the plight of their global sisters.  The following video from Girl Effect is also well worth showing and using as a stimulus for discussion – perhaps girls might be asked to produce their own manifesto of rights they think all girls should have respected?

I have found that girls here do care — deeply. In fact, I believe they yearn for something that matters more than just the right jeans, the hottest boyfriend and the latest celebrity that has gone into rehab.

By not discussing the real issues, we do all girls a huge disservice.

Beyond Cyber Hysteria – Part 3: Dealing with more difficult truths

Please note: the blogging platform I use, Edublogs, filters out words like p*rn, hence the need to use asterisks. If you wish to comment, please use symbols to avoid your text being automatically deleted.

In a previous blog post, “Teens and P*rn, dealing with difficult truths”, I posed the following question: ” What messages will this generation receive about desirability if their emerging sexuality is largely shaped by p*rn?” P*rn is nothing new, but it has never been more accessible than it is today, thanks to the internet. In the excellent 2009 UK television series The Sex Education Show, three out of ten high school students interviewed said they learned about sex predominantly through viewing p*rn*graphy on the internet and mobile phones, or in magazines. However, recent Australian research conducted by the Family Planning Association provides some hope. This survey found:

  • Friends – Friends were the most commonly used source of information for young people, with 43% of respondents calling on their mates for information.
  • Sexual activities – 50% of young people turned to their friends for information, while only 20% sought advice from schools and parents.
  • Contraception – 48% of adolescents went to doctors for information; 38% went to friends first.
  • The Internet – 30% of young people combined the internet with traditional sources for information about sex.
  • Schools & Parents – 25% of the respondents turned to these sources for information.

Dr Deborah Bateson, Medical Director for Family Planning NSW said “The results show that young people seem to have an appropriate level of scepticism when it comes to using the internet for sexual health information.” The survey found that although young people are turning to the internet as a source of information, only 21% trusted the information they found and only 16% of adolescents trusted what they saw or read in the media.

It is pleasing to see young people may be cautious about believing all they see online. However, even if they don’t view internet p*rn as a source of information about sex, surely viewing it still shapes their impression of what a sexual relationship may look, sound and feel like? And I have to say, I am worried. I have come out in the media before expressing the need for caution and remain concerned that adolescents are having their sexuality shaped by internet p*rn, which is more often than not  focused solely on male pleasure, often degrading to the female participant and, indeed, often violent.

Even very small children may inadvertently stumble upon the most graphic of sexual images. When my daughter Teyah was 8 years old she searched Google images for a picture of a nun for a school project and was faced with p*rn images of women being abused in nun outfits. A few years later she accidentally typed in “hotmale” instead of “hotmail”. If you are looking for the Aussie website aimed at teens that claims to be “empowering girls worldwide”, girl.com.au, and forget to add the “.au”, you will hit the awful  girl.com, which features explicit images of pre-pubescent-looking girls posing naked.

The reality is that the proliferation of porn on the internet is not going away anytime soon, as it is such big business. Steve Jobs, the genius founder of Apple, caused a controversy when he was cited as saying he dreams of an internet devoid of porn. He is reported as declaring to a critic: “You may care more about p*rn once you have kids.” Apple does not allow applications that depict overtly sexual content but of course are powerless to stop what appears on the world wide web.

The Australian government’s report Adolescence, P*rn*graphy and Harm addresses some very real challenges parents and educators face in its conclusion:

Though restricting exposure will remain a priority, an over-reliance on this approach to protect against the perceived harms of p*rn*graphy is problematic as it fails to recognise the realities of ready availability and the high acceptance of pornography among young people. Moreover, it fails to examine the holistic way in which adolescents’ sexual expectations, attitudes and behaviours are shaped in our society and the complexity of factors that give rise to the cited harms. Protecting young people necessarily requires equipping them, and their caregivers, with adequate knowledge, skills and resources (e.g. media literacy; sex education; education about pornography and rights and responsibilities of sexual relationships; safe engagement with technologies) to enable successful navigation toward a sexually healthy adulthood, as well as tackling factors predisposing to sexual violence.

n229345874979_7801The internet can also be host to sites that are “temples to human cruelty”, a term Melinda Tankard Reist used to describe Facebook pages she alerted us to that depicted girls others viewed as “sluts”. Other pages I have seen that sickened me included one where people posted pictures of animals they had abused, and a page named “It’s not rape if you yell surprise.”  The image to the left is one taken from a Facebook page where members could discuss how they had used physical violence to “shut their bitch up”. A relative newcomer on the social networking scene is Formspring. Many parents are already telling me this site, which allows participants to ask others anonymous questions and post anonymous comments, is particularly frightening. It is very attractive to many teens as it is by its very nature confessional — “Ask me anything . . .”  Young people are often drawn to the notion of sharing secrets. However, most of the questions I have seen asked are really just designed to shock and hurt: “Are you really a slut, because everyone at school thinks you are.”

At my company, Enlighten Education, where we discuss a wide range of topics with young women in schools, including cyber safety and responsible use of technology, we have deliberately chosen not to run workshops on sexuality because families have their own values they wish to instil, and girls need to hear messages about sexuality at different ages, depending on their cognitive, emotional and physical development. We do believe, however, that by helping girls develop a strong sense of self, we are equipping them to be better able to make their own choices and to view themselves holistically – not just as a body but a heart, soul and mind, too.

In my book, The Butterfly Effect, I offer parents the following as part of an “Action Plan” to help raise healthy, whole young women:

Talk to your daughter honestly and non-judgementally about sex and her own sexuality. Her school will provide information on personal development and sexuality, but she needs you to be involved in this dialogue, too. This is part of your core business in raising your daughter to become a happy, healthy woman. When is the right time to start? I had a very wise grandmother who used to say ‘If a child is old enough to think of a sensible question, then they are old enough to hear a sensible answer.’ Keep in mind, though, that the onset of puberty is a stage of development that will unfold over many years. There is no need to discuss everything all at once. Be guided by her physical and mental maturity level, and her interest.

Be prepared for a few awkward moments; I have found that older teen girls often try to shock by asking questions they don’t think we will have answers for. (‘So what is a 69’er?’) If you respond calmly and in a matter-of-fact way, they are usually so impressed by your inability to be fazed that they go on to ask very thoughtful questions that really do matter to them. If you don’t have an answer, be honest and admit that you don’t know. In can be a powerful exercise to attempt to find answers together.

Be willing to attempt to resolve differences of opinion or at least be prepared to hear your daughter out, which will give her practice articulating her values. However, don’t back away from ultimately being the adult who sets limits about sex; and expect her to respect these. Encourage discussion by asking open-ended questions and actively listening to her.

It is vital to discuss the emotional component of sex, but think twice before making black-and-white statements such as ‘Sex is only for people who really love each other.’ Ideally, that might be true, but the reality may be quite different. Sex may be an expression of love, but it may also be an expression of boredom, curiosity, lust or even dark emotions such as anger or hate – for girls as well as boys. I have seen girls who engage in sexual acts only to later feel embarrassed by them. By helping your daughter to develop her emotional vocabulary, you will be helping her understand that sex not only has obvious physical consequences – pregnancy, STDs – but also an emotional impact. The glossy ads and catchy song lyrics rarely discuss complex human emotions. You should.

Get an effective internet filter. None of the filters on the market are completely fail-safe but they do offer some protection from porn on your home computers. Limiting and banning access to certain sites is only one strategy, though. It is far more effective in the long term to discuss why these sites are not suitable and what your daughter should do if she stumbles across one.

I’d be very interested in hearing your suggestions on how you are dealing with the ugly elements of cyber world.


The Government’s New Body Image Policy

bodyimagecodeLate last year in this blog, I gave my assessment of the National Strategy on Body Image proposed by an advisory group that was appointed by the federal government. Kate Ellis, the Minister for Youth, has just released the government’s body image policy in response to the proposal. So, how has the policy shaped up?

I had praised the advisory group’s recommendations for a Body Image Friendly Schools Checklist, so I am happy to see that the government will be distributing posters based on the checklist to every primary and secondary school in the country.

Regarding the rest of the policy, I think the intentions are good and many of the principles are undeniably sensible. Stores stocking a broad range of clothing for all shapes and sizes? Of course I believe in this recommendation, and many similar recommendations. However, I also believe that girls and young women deserve stronger action than what this policy takes.

The government has introduced an industry code of conduct designed to encourage the media, fashion and advertising industries to promote more positive body image messages. I agree with most of the guidelines in the code, such as calling on companies to: promote positive body image messages; include images of a range of body shapes, sizes and ethnicities; not undermine positive body image editorial messages with negative advertising; use models who are of a healthy weight and appropriate age; and cater to diverse women. One aspect of the code I am suspect of is that it asks companies to not digitally alter images to an unrealistic or unattainable degree, and to tell consumers when they have altered images. Frankly, this recommendation seems inadequate. Doesn’t any Photoshopping send the message that women are not good enough the way they are? That aside, in large part, I think it will be a healthier world for our girls to grow up in if companies follow the code of conduct. But—and this is a big but—the code is only voluntary.

This seems profoundly naive to me. What media, fashion or advertising company is going to invest time and money in following a voluntary code—unless it’s good for their bottom line?

This brings me to my next reservation about the new policy . . .

A national body image friendly awards scheme is to be launched. Organisations, initiatives and products that receive awards will earn the right to display a body image friendly symbol. It’s like the body image equivalent of the Heart Foundation’s tick of approval. But surely companies will only vie to win an award if it helps their bottom line. Are we seeing the start of the commodification of positive body image? That’s a possibility that truly makes me shudder.

Already we have seen companies such as Unilever using the body image issue to sell products, through their Dove “real” beauty campaigns. Given that Uniliver employs incredibly negative body image messages to sell some of its other brands, such as Lynx, Slim Fast and Ponds Skin whitening cream in Asia, I think it’s fair to conclude that at least in that company, profit is more important than positive body image. (There has also been some questioning of just how real the images in those Dove campaigns are. If you want to find out more, there are articles in New York magazine and Jezebel about a hypocritical casting call for “beautiful” and “flawless” women for their next real beauty campaign. Dove has since put out a statement that they didn’t approve the casting call—though I notice that they haven’t denied an association with the casting company that issued it.)

My main concern is that a body image friendly symbol could become just another marketing tool to drive profit—and one that may well be fairly meaningless to the consumer if it doesn’t reflect the whole reality of a company’s body image messages.

Last year, I noted that the proposed national strategy had nothing to say on the sexualisation and objectification of women and girls. The government’s policy also fails to address these crucial issues, even though the pressure to be too sexy too soon is a major part of many girls’ body image dissatisfaction. Experts in child and adolescent development, parents and social commentators have identified the damaging rise in sexualisation and objectification as something we as a society need to act on now.  The Australian Psychological Society has issued guidelines and has lobbied extensively in Canberra. So, why the deafening silence in the government policy?

Melinda Tankard Reist has written a couple of thought-provoking blog posts on this gap in the policy. Among other things, she discussed the absurdity of the media touting the size 14 model Laura Wells as the ultimate in positive body image simply because she is not thin and is happy to pose almost nude, squeezing her breasts together for the camera. I agree wholeheartedly with what Melinda wrote in a follow-up post:

You can have a range of body shapes, sizes and ethnicities represented, but they can still be posed and styled in sexually objectifying ways. Objectification in a size 14 is still objectification.

Associate Professor Karen Brooks, of Southern Cross University, in her column in The Courier-Mail, like me agreed in principle with the aims of the policy but had reservations. She believes, as do I, that it is unfortunate that the advisory group did not seek opinions from a greater number of outside bodies and individuals with expertise in these issues. Karen also notes that the government’s allocation of funding has opened the way for beauty industry involvement in the teaching of positive body image in schools. I think such involvement is a whole world of wrong, akin to a fast food chain going into schools to promote healthy eating. That’s why Enlighten Education will always remain proudly independent, never accepting sponsorships or partnerships with corporations of any kind, especially beauty and fashion companies.

I also share Karen’s view that it is key for any in-school body image initiatives to be targeted at large groups of girls, over a sustained period. This is something that Enlighten believes in very strongly, because evidence shows that large-group interventions—say, with an entire grade—are far more effective than small-group ones of only a dozen or so girls. It is critical to spread the message to as large a number of girls at once as possible. That way, a girl’s whole peer group is speaking the same language, so the message isn’t undermined.

Over the next few months, the criteria for earning the government’s body image friendly symbol will be fine-tuned. I join with Karen Brooks in urging the advisory group to use this time to consult more widely with experts and with young people. I applaud the government for its good intentions and for acknowledging that negative body image among young people is a real issue that we all need to be concerned about. However, given the policy’s limitations, I again urge parents, teachers and community leaders to keep up the good work of combatting negative body image messages. In the end, it is our responsibility to be body image role models for girls and to send positive body image messages in what we say and what we do.

Sticks and stones

Last week, I did a post sharing media I have been doing aimed at encouraging schools to be more proactive in dealing with sexual harassment. I received a comment from one of my blog readers that at first shocked me . . . and then got me thinking about another issue that affects all women and girls: the tendency in our culture to demean women for their looks rather than to engage with what they have to say. The comment was short, and cutting:

We’ve seen your talks at schools. If you’re so keen to set a good example then don’t turn up to school looking like mutton dressed as lamb. — Kim

I wondered exactly what it was about me that came across that way to her. When I do my self-esteem and skills-building workshops with girls, I wear an Enlighten Education uniform of sorts. We are often up and jumping around with the girls, so skirts and high heels are definitely out. It’s jeans or tights in winter, or mid-length shorts in summer, and then a black T-shirt embroidered with our butterfly logo. 
danni
Then I realised that the comment had drawn my attention away from the real issue: too often, when women raise their voices, they are criticised not for what they say but how they look.

Even now, in 2010, is that the currency of a woman or a girl  her looks? Is a female’s Achilles heel still her appearance? If you strike her there, do you take away her only power?

It isn’t the first time I’ve spoken out about sexual harassment or a women’s issue and been criticised not for my arguments but for the way I look. I have been helpfully informed that I seemed to have put on weight. I was sent an e-mail telling me that I couldn’t be a feminist because I have blonde hair. During the 2009 scandal involving Matthew Johns and teammates having sex with a 19-year-old girl, I wrote an article in defence of the young woman, who was being blamed and insulted in the media and on the internet. A reader commented that I was just jealous because I was wasn’t desirable enough to get a football player of my own.

I’m in good company. The woman whose writing had the most profound effect on me when I was young, Naomi Wolf, received a torrent of criticism for being too pretty to be a real feminist. On the other side of the coin, Germaine Greer has long been attacked for all sorts of supposed flaws in her appearance and femininity. Earlier this year, Louis Nowra described her in The Monthly as “a befuddled and exhausted old woman” who reminded him of his “demented grandmother”. It should be noted that Greer herself is no stranger to flinging looks-based insults, famously describing a fellow writer as having “hair bird’s-nested all over the place, ****-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage”.

Comments that target a woman for how she looks, rather than her ideas, are designed to do one thing and one thing only: to shut her up.

Yet it only spurs me on. The same can be said for other Australian writers and commentators I spoke to who also regularly receive such criticism. When I discussed this phenomenon with Emily Maguire, author of Princesses & Porn Stars and a regular writer on gender and culture, she told me:

There’s no way you can present yourself that won’t attract criticism from the kind of people who think that criticism of a woman’s looks will hurt more than criticism of her ideas . . . It only makes me more sure that this stuff is worth speaking out about. — Emily Maguire

Melinda Tankard Reist is an author and commentator who often appears in the media to speak out against the sexualisation of girls and women. She publicly commented on the decision of former Hi-5 performer Kellie Crawford to pose for a lingerie shoot in Ralph in order to “find the woman in me” after so many years as a children’s entertainer. Melinda asked people to question why the Wiggles didn’t need to “prove their manhood by stripping down to their jocks”. Much of the criticism she received afterwards didn’t address that question but told her that she was “a bitter ugly woman”, “sad, old and dog-ugly” and that she had “saggy breasts and a droopy arse”.

Old, saggy, mutton dressed as lamb — age is a common theme to this type of criticism. Rather than seeming to gain wisdom, experience and authority — as is virtually expected of men — women are often deemed of decreasing value with each year they move beyond their 30s. We see it throughout our culture. How many good roles are there for actresses over 40? How many women newsreaders have career longevity without resorting to Botox? It is as if once women have passed a certain age, it is time for them to step off the stage. It’s no wonder that many women are angsting and trying to achieve the body of a 20-year-old — an impossible and time-wasting task. Zoe Krupka put it perfectly in a post on the website New Matilda:

How are we meant to do our work in the world and develop wisdom if we are still focused on the size of our butts? — Zoe Krupka

One would hope that the situation was improving, but in fact, it seems to be getting worse. And it is often women who use the strategy of attacking a woman’s looks. Dr Karen Brooks, social commentator and author of Consuming Innocence: Popular Culture and Our Children, told me:

I have had my appearance criticised ALL the time . . . This has been happening to me for 13 years and it’s getting worse . . . I should add that most of the negative comments are from women. — Karen Brooks

Perhaps there is an element of fear of change that drives women to this type of criticism. Perhaps this technique just comes all too naturally to women who have spent their whole lives learning how to play the “compare and despair” game. Perhaps the ultimate sin for women is to show confidence and to love themselves, so critics feel that outspoken women need to brought down a peg or two.

Whatever it is that drives looks-based criticism, the thing that hurt me the most about the comment I received on my blog was that this woman claimed she had seen me present to girls. At every school Enlighten Education has worked in, the girls line up afterwards to ask for a hug, a kiss and to tell us they love us. They tell us that it changed their lives. So it made me sad to think that in the presence of all the joy and positivity and love that bursts out of these girls, for at least one woman the lasting impression was my looks, something that the girls never notice or comment on.

Imagine the change we all women and men could make in the world if we took personal attacks out of public debate. Imagine if we all engaged in the debate, made respectful counterarguments, added our own ideas into the mix. Imagine if we all pledged to stop trying to silence one another. I have the greatest respect for the women thinkers and activists I have mentioned here. Do I agree with them on every single issue? Of course not. But I pledge to always argue my case while according them the respect they deserve. It will always be their ideas that I engage with, because ideas — not physical appearances — live on forever.

A comment I received from another woman sums it all up:

Common sense, dignity, rights, respect, responsibility — these basic human values should be blind to looks, age, gender. — Paola Yevenes

Danni with students

Things I am Loving

Often companies that do the wrong thing are given lots of free publicity by virtue of the fact that activists  speak out in the media against the toxic products or services they are selling.

Whilst I recognise this is vital work, and certainly I am often called upon by the media to comment on companies who are exploitative, I sometimes wonder whether those getting it so very wrong (think those that pitch prosti-tot merchandise for tweens and those who run with slogans that sexualise and objectify women) might not actually relish the free publicity the ensuing consumer outrage sparks. There is no such thing as bad publicity, right?

This week, I want to also share the work of those who are doing the right thing and focus on some of the many positive things happening in girl world. Why is it we so rarely celebrate?

Kudos, then, to the new website aimed at female drivers: www.motherdriven.com.au. Not only are they uploading my blog posts to share, but they are also offering two free signed copies of my book The Butterfly Effect to members in a competition they are currently running. Better yet was Editor Olivia Richardson’s recent decision not to allow promotion on their site of clothing aimed at tweens that featured slogans like “Bad Girl” and “Rebel”. Olivia explained: 

We don’t like to support brands that encourage teen girls/tweens to be “bad girls”, etc. Our web site is a toxic -free zone. We believe girls should not be encouraged to grow up too fast.

Hear, hear.

25884_385479527169_38293082169_3806205_6438447_nBravo, too, to the organisers of the upcoming Insights 2010 National Conference on Girls’ Education to be held in Melbourne in June. They have attracted a stellar line-up of speakers, including one of my personal role models, Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner for Age Discrimination, Elizabeth Broderick (I am pictured here with her just before going on set at Mornings with Kerri-Anne earlier this week), Melinda Tankard Reist, Maggie Hamilton and Kaz Cooke amongst others. I am thrilled to be part of this and shall run a session for delegates on Friday, 18 June, as well as one for student participants, too.     

Finally, I am just loving the NSW Department of Education’s free parent web-based magazine School Parents. A browse through old issues turned up some invaluable resources, including facts on tutors, tips on helping your child to successful change schools, advice on hosting teen parties, and interviews with various leaders in education and parenting. I was pleased to be interviewed alongside Dr Michael Carr-Gregg for this month’s issue on managing peer pressure. I thought it apt to reprint the article (with their permission) here:

Girl Power – Saying No To Peer Pressure

fgirlpowerYour daughter’s school friends are their closest confidants and their meanest critics. Experts on teen girl angst, Dannielle Miller and Michael Carr-Gregg, share their wisdom on taking the heat out of peer pressure.

 


Find out where your daughter gets her messages from

Girls place far more pressure on themselves than they receive from their peers, says Dannielle Miller, author of The Butterfly Effect. Their friends will comment on body image and shape, sexuality and whether she is perceived by the peer group as being beautiful. This adds to the “inner angst” a teenager may be dealing with, says Dannielle. “Peer-girl pressuring is a reflection of the pressure that’s placed on girls more broadly within society,” she says.

Girls are not only meant to be beautiful, popular, smart and successful, there is also pressure on them to act like “Paris Hilton-type wannabes”, she says.

Ask your daughter to think about the media and broader social influences and whether they’re the types of messages she really identifies with. Quite often you will find that they’re not.

Get involved in your daughter’s world

Knowing your daughter’s interests in popular culture can be a springboard to having a really great conversation, Dannielle says.

“If you go in straight away and say, ‘We’re going to have a big talk about how you manage peer pressure at school’, they’re going to switch off. But if you watch a movie with them like Mean Girls, which shows really good examples of that, they’ll want to have a chat about it afterwards to unpack it.”

Perceptions versus reality

Have an honest discussion with your daughter about how often her friends actually engage in risky behaviour, says psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, author of The Princess Bitchface Syndrome and Girlfriend magazine’s agony uncle. Whether it’s binge drinking, smoking or sexual intercourse, a teenage girl’s ideas may be quite different to what’s really going on.

“Most readers of Girlfriend believe they are the absolute last virgin in their high school because all their friends are talking about their sexual experiences,” Michael says.

“Statistics show year after year that only about half of teens in Australian schools have sex by the time they have left high school. Daughters often feel indirect pressure from peers regarding having sex but much of what she is hearing is simply not true.

“Letting your teen know the truth about how often teens are avoiding these risky choices may let her know that she isn’t alone — something that she absolutely needs to hear.”

You are her greatest influence

“Parents need to know that they are one of the biggest influences on their daughters,” Michael says.

“It may seem like they aren’t listening, but they truly are. When parents stay involved in their daughters’ lives, tell them their views and values, they tend to make better choices for themselves. Many studies have backed this claim,” he says.

“Staying interested and involved in what your daughter is doing and continuing to be aware of what she is up to is crucial. Be consistent with your message about your expectations. If you expect that she will not drink, smoke, do drugs or have sex, she is less likely to do so – it’s as simple as that.”

Be straight about the no-go zones

If you suspect your daughter is taking part in illicit behaviour don’t mess around. Model assertiveness and boundary setting and be upfront, says Dannielle.

“Don’t shy away from those tough conversations if it’s something that is really non-negotiable.”

However, parents need to work out what is and what isn’t negotiable, she says. “If everything is going to be non-negotiable you are going to have conflict. You have to pick your battles. You might have to live with the messy bedroom if everything else is working alright, but with things like drinking alcohol and when it comes to her personal safety you have to let her know what is and isn’t okay,” she says.

“You can do it without belittling her but you need to be very strong and definite about your expectations.”

Seek advice from friends and experts

New parents don’t hesitate to seek advice on how to look after their newborn baby yet when our children reach adolescence we seem think we need to parent alone, Dannielle says.

“Parenting is this ongoing journey. A really important thing for parents who don’t feel comfortable and aren’t sure of how to advise their daughter is to find out what other parents are doing and how they’re dealing with this stuff and to brainstorm it,” she says.

“The other thing to realise is that it does takes a village to raise a child, so if there are some subjects that are just too touchy to raise with your daughter then perhaps an aunty, a neighbour, her favourite teacher or another family member could have a chat to her.”

Similarly, let her know that it is okay if she seeks guidance from other adults such as her year adviser or school counsellor if she would be more comfortable speaking to someone outside the family.

Be your daughter’s role model

“Quite often we like to talk the talk but we have to walk the walk,” says Dannielle. “Your daughter will pick up so much from how you manage yourself and how she sees you behaving and interacting, and similarly how you handle pressure.

“One of the key things that will make young people resilient to peer pressure and to toxic messages, whether they be in the playground or in broader society, is having a strong sense of who we are and what we value and that can be beautifully modelled by parents.”

Encourage your daughter to be assertive

Being assertive about what they believe in is critical, says Dannielle.

“We have to encourage them to speak their mind, not in an aggressive or confrontational way, and to not be afraid to set limits.”

When you see examples of your daughter being assertive praise and model it, she says.

“Show them how it looks. If they don’t see women in popular culture being assertive … then it’s going to be very difficult for them to emerge as a centred being who knows herself.”

Be aware of changes in behaviour

If your daughter becomes obsessed with dieting, the phone stops ringing or they begin spending too much time on the internet it may indicate that something’s not right in their world.

“Big dramatic changes in behaviour are always red flags that we need to be closely paying attention to,” Dannielle says.

“We know through research that a catalyst for eating disorders can be the peer group. A group of girls might decide that they all want to go on a diet together or lose a few kilos before the formal. Unfortunately, one girl will continue to get sucked up in that spiral.

“Similarly, if the phone just isn’t ringing for them anymore or if they seem to be online for an inordinate amount of time they might be caught up in a cyber conflict.

“These are indicators that you need to have a conversation and you need to be a bit more aware of what might be going on in her world.”

A phone call to her school to check that all is well there could also provide another source of support.

I’d love to hear what products and services you have found to be girl-friendly.

To the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General Censorship Ministers.

I am proud to have put my signature to a statement signed by more than 30 of Australia’s leading child experts which calls for an unprecedented ban on the sale of adult magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse and other ”soft porn” material from newsagents, milk bars, convenience stores, supermarkets and petrol stations.

We are also asking Australia’s censorship ministers to review the rules by which so-called lad mags – such as People, Zoo and Ralph – are reviewed, arguing that they are becoming increasingly explicit and contributing to the sexualisation of children.

The signaturies are:

Julie Gale, director Kids Free 2B Kids

The Hon Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC, former Chief Justice of the Family Court and Founding Patron, Children’s Rights International

Tim Costello, CEO World Vision

Noni Hazlehurst, AM, actor, child advocate

Clive Hamilton, AM, Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics

Dr Joe Tucci, CEO Australian Childhood Foundation

Steve Biddulph, psychologist, author and Australian Father of the Year in 2000

Professor Louise Newman, director, Monash University Centre for Developmental Psychiatry & Psychology

Dr Karen Brooks, associate professor in media studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences Southern Cross University

Barbara Biggins, OAM Hon CEO Australian Council on Children and the Media

Melinda Tankard Reist, editor Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls, social commentator

Dr John Tobin, Melbourne Law School

Elizabeth Handsley BA LLB LLM, Professor of Law, Flinders University

Kaisu Vartto, CEO Sexual Health information networking & education SA Inc (SHine SA)

Dr Cordelia Fine, Centre for Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics University of Melbourn

Bill Jackson, CEO, Children’s Rights International

Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, author, Child & Adolescent Psychologist and social commentator

Professor Susan J Paxton, Head of School. School of Psychological Science La Trobe University

Dr Beryl Langer, Sociology & Anthropology School of Social Sciences LaTrobe University

Dannielle Miller, CEO Enlighten Education and author, The Butterfly Effect

Professor Dorothy Scott, director, Australian Centre for Child Protection, University of South Australia

Dr Phil West, Ph.D Initiator and Co-founder: The Alannah & Madeline Foundation Founder & President Renew the Spirit Foundation

Mr Tony Pitman, CEO OzChild

Dr Emma Rush, co-author Corporate Paedophilia.

Dr Rick Kausman, medical doctor and author

Lauren Kelly , co-ordinator Northern Sydney Area Sexual Assault Service Royal North Shore Hospital

Dr Judith Slocombe, Chief Executive Officer The Alannah and Madeline Foundation

Rita Princi, Child, Adolescent & Family Psychologist

Professor Chris Goddard, Director Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia, Monash University

Hetty Johnston, founder and executive director of Bravehearts Inc

Carla Meurs, co-ordinator, Solving the Jigsaw

Angelique Foran, psychologist – child, adolescent and family psychology

Miranda Chow, project manager, Lasallian Foundation

Ramesh Manocha, GP and founder of Generation next

Susan McLean, former police officer & cyber safety expert including child pornography and online sexual solicitation

Women’s Forum Australia

Women’s Action Alliance

Ironically, the submission by Julie Gale to the government censorship working party was delayed because of public servants’ concerns about transmitting the graphic images! Both Julie and Melinda Tankard Reist have been very vocal on this issue for some time now. I do hope theirs, and indeed all our voices, will finally be heard.

The Darker Side of Facebook

Facebook has become a positive part of many of our lives, but there is a darker side of Facebook that all parents and educators need to be aware of: cyber-bullying. It is inevitable that bullies will try to use social networking sites as a tool. It gives them a platform to humiliate their victims not just in front of a schoolyard full of kids but potentially a global audience, with little chance of being held accountable.

The problem has grown so great that dealing with the fallout has become a major part of many school counsellors’ jobs. The Adelaide Advertiser reported that at Blackwood High School, counsellors “spend all day Monday and sometimes longer dealing with the issues that are generated on Facebook and by text messages over the weekend”. 

Kids are also using Facebook to harass teachers. In Australia recently, students have posted messages on Facebook threatening a teacher with being “massacred by chainsaws”, targeting a female teacher with sexually offensive material and falsely alleging that another was a gay paedophile.

Bullies are renowned for being blind to the feelings of others, and when they take their bullying campaigns to the internet, a terrible thing appears to happen: that lack of empathy spreads like a virus. The victims become depersonalised, just images on a screen rather than real people with real feelings, and it is all too easy for others to join in the mocking. Recently, 60 students at an Adelaide high school were involved in bullying a fellow student on Facebook, according to The Advertiser.

This phenomenon in evident on a very disturbing misogynistic Facebook page that Melinda Tankard Reist blogged about. It is a page on which members can post pictures of women or girls they deem to be “sluts”. These ordinary young women are left completely vulnerable to appalling taunts and insults by people all over the globe. She wrote:

Some images are clearly posted for revenge. Often full names are used. What means do these women and girls have to defend themselves? How do they deal with it? What does it mean for them in their daily lives at school or work or at home or anywhere, to be identified to the whole world as a slut?

By allowing this site, Facebook is a conduit for bullying, harassment and abuse.

There are a number of pages on Facebook that are, to use Melinda’s words, “temples to human cruelty”.

I was mystified when a 14-year-old girl at a school I worked with recently told me she had joined a Facebook page for fans of Eminem, named after a line in his song Superman: “I do know one thing though, bitches, they come they go’s.”

Image used on FB Page
Image used on FB Page

The Eminem song is that of a battle-scarred adult, full of twisted hurt at failed relationships, and full of vitriol and hate against all women. The profile picture? A beautiful but scared-looking young woman with her mouth taped shut, her hands presumably bound.  What a bully’s fantasy that is. I think it’s important to be aware that we live in a world where 14-year-old girls can be drawn to, and get involved with, such a seemingly incongruous message and online community.

But as I have written before in this blog, the worst thing we can do is have a knee-jerk reaction and try to stop girls from using Facebook. Not only would it be impossible, it would be a bad idea. Maintaining connections and mastering technology are vital for girls’ development. All young people need to not only be able to read and write in print media, but to be ‘multi-literate’, competent in the full range of media.

It is important not to lose perspective: most of what happens on Facebook is fine, and social networking sites can be a great way to get girls engaged in technology. Enlighten Education has its own Facebook page where positivity reigns supreme and the empowerment of girls is the ultimate goal. We post articles and videos to inspire girls and get them thinking, and we provide a safe and affirming forum for them to express themselves.

What we all need to do is get involved with our teen girls and give them the support and skills they need to use technology safely. At Enlighten, we run “digital citizenship” workshops for teens and parents, because it is crucial for teens to learn to navigate the social world of the internet, in the same way that it has always been crucial for them to learn to navigate the social world of the schoolyard. 

Bullying must never be ignored, whether it’s taking place face-to-face, on the internet or via text messaging. As adults we need to take responsibility for bullying, and give teens the support they need to deal with it.

Combating Cyber-bullying

  • 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. 
  • Make yourself familiar with Facebook so you know what your daughter may encounter while using it.
  • Some adults become their daughter’s Facebook friend so they can monitor her. I think it’s more beneficial to work on a trusting relationship with your daughter so she knows she can come to you if she has a problem.
  • If you suspect your daughter might be a victim, don’t ignore it. Ask her sensitively about your concerns.
  • Parents should alert their daughter’s school to cyber-bullying. The only way to solve the problem is for parents and school staff to work together.
  • Encourage girls to think before they accept a Facebook friend request. Is this a person they would be friends with in the real world?
  • Emphasise the importance of girls setting their Facebook privacy to the highest level so only their friends have access to their page.

Mags’ flawed obsession with body perfect

MTR-193x300Guest blog post by Melinda Tankard Reist, a Canberra based author, speaker, commentator and advocate with a special interest in issues affecting women and girls.

SHOCK horror: nude supermodel has dimple on thigh. In a move labelled daring and revolutionary, this month’s edition of Marie Claire features nude photos of Australian model Jennifer Hawkins airbrush-free. The shoot reveals “brave” Jen with all her flaws.

And what exactly are these impediments? A tiny crease in Hawkins’s waist, a slightly dimpled thigh and
“uneven skin tones”.

hawkins-146x150

Quelle horreur. As if this isn’t enough, Hawkins notes an additional flaw: her hips. She has them. Miss Universe 2004 is really the Elephant Woman.

According to Marie Claire editor Jackie Frank, the Hawkins images were inspired by a survey of 5500 readers that found only 12 per cent of women were happy with their bodies. That’s right, nude pics of a woman considered one of the world’s rarest beauties are supposed to cheer the rest of us up. The pictures will be auctioned this month, with proceeds going to eating disorders support group the Butterfly Foundation.

That Hawkins has been enlisted in the cause of girls who hate their bodies and are, in many ways, victims of the dominant ideal of female beauty kind of messes with my head. How can these pictures possibly help women feel good about themselves?

Labelling hips, a little dimpling on the thigh, a small waist crease (which looks like what happens when any woman sits down) and supposedly uneven skin tone as flaws is already problematic. Who decided these were flaws and not part of being a woman? And if these are flaws, then how are other women supposed to feel feel?

And what about all the other flaws Hawkins, 26, will accrue if she has kids and when she ages?

The problem is the emphasis on physical attributes over any other qualities a woman might possess. And a freak-of-nature body that gets 24-hour-a-day attention and the best of care to earn its owner an income. Most women will never have a body like this.

Why would an editor and an organisation concerned about body image choose a Miss Universe title holder as the pin-up for the love-yourself-just-as-you-are campaign? The images attract comparisons and judgment, and provide more opportunity for objectification. They have already prompted a rash of emails from self-appointed male judges who said Hawkins was pear shaped, that her bum was unappealing, that her breasts were too small, that she should have kept her clothes on.

More worryingly, the images have prompted women to compare themselves with Hawkins. “She wants to make [women] feel more comfortable about how they look, gee thanks, I now feel worse! I’m a size 10 and I still have more rolls than her!” wrote one.

Another email included a bulimia reference: “If anything is going to have me running to the toilet with my finger down my throat it’s a picture of Jennifer Hawkins naked.”

And who exactly is going to bid for the photos, you wonder.

Perhaps the Melbourne man who posted this comment on the Herald Sun website : “*Pant pant pant* OF COURSE Jen should’ve stripped, what a silly question to ask!”. Or Kit Walker of Geelong, who asked: “Where and how many of these magazines can I get!!!”Or perhaps the charming Darren of South Morang, who referred to his imminent Hawkins-inspired sexual arousal: “It’s likely to have a very positive effect on my body, that’s for sure.”

The whole PC beauty shift is for so many just a hilarious bit of theatre. But there is nothing amusing in mocking or encouraging the anxieties that cause untold misery and suffering to so many women. And the hypocrisy is everywhere, rising up to hit you in your flawed face. In the same newspaper promoting Jen “flaws and all” in a banner headline on its front page were three full pages of “Best bikini bodies: How 10 celebs got the perfect figure”. And who is featured there? Hawkins for “best overall body”.

“Our former Miss Universe easily has one of the most envied bikini bodies in the world,” it says, and Hawkins provides advice on how to “get a bikini body quickly”. (Other celebs are given accolades for “best bottom”, “best post-baby body”, “best tummy”, “best thighs”, “best boobs and abs”, and so on.)

Women are expected to believe that enlightened advances are being made in this quite monotonous and unimaginative regime.

This has been identified elsewhere, in regard to the tobacco and alcohol industries, as air cover: giving the appearance of social responsibility while really not doing much at all.

Marie Claire and Hawkins and her flaws, which aren’t really, will do nothing to lessen body dissatisfaction. Because it’s not really about celebrating a diversity of women’s bodies, as advertisers in the magazines spruiking body improvement products well know.

If Frank and fellow editors are serious about the body image problems their magazines have helped to create, will we see less airbrushing, less attention to the “thin, hot, sexy” cult and more real women, rather than insulting and meaningless token gestures?

See Melinda’s article as published in The Australian.

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