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Tag: self esteem

Want narcissistic children? Shower them with praise

This post was first published in the Daily Telegraph and shared online at RendezView 4/1/16.

Thanks to the “every child gets a medal” approach to raising children, many researchers argue we are now dealing with a generation of entitled, fragile “teacup” kids.

It seems the self-esteem movement of the late 1960s, which encouraged parents to boost their child’s self-confidence regardless of any real merit, has had some undesirable and unexpected outcomes.

Professor Helen McGrath cautions that “a lot of the people who gloated 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… we focus too much on telling them how good they are, how wonderful they are, how everything they do is fantastic”.American Ethan Couch may well serve as the poster boy to warn of the dangers in overindulging our offspring. At 16 years old, he killed four pedestrians while drink driving then claimed in court that he suffered from “affluenza” — that he no longer knew right from wrong as his parents had never held him accountable.

When the judge seemed to accept this defence and sentenced him to 10 years probation rather than prison, his mother then helped him flee (after first holding a going away party for him).

Both mother and son were arrested by authorities in Mexico last week.

It’s clear that Mr Couch and his mother need to be given some long overdue time out — in a jail cell.

But what’s less clear is where the line between supporting your child, and enabling your child, is drawn.

I’ve noticed that on social media, parents are now so loathe to appear to be boosting their child’s sense of self-worth that they begin posts with disclaimers such as “Warning: Proud Parent Brag”.

It strikes me as sad that we now feel worried about sharing our children’s triumphs for fear of being labelled as either pushy or posturing.

Because the real problem isn’t so much high self-esteem in kids, it is false self-esteem.

Screen shot 2016-01-27 at 9.17.31 AM

Real self-esteem is about appreciating the skills and abilities you do have, learning how to upskill, and also respecting the gifts others have (in order to value yourself, you must first value the person next to you). It is about competence and connectedness.

And praise is the food that helps children thrive — if it is evidence based and spooned out judiciously.

This year I’d love to see more parents proudly sharing not just their frustrations — after all, there’s a longstanding tradition that allows for eye rolling at our kids — but their triumphs too.

Your child blitzed their exams? Three cheers! They coped well with a loss at soccer and helped rally their teammates? Do tell. They’ve just started their own car washing business to earn extra pocket money? I’m sharing the news.

When achievements are truly noteworthy, I’m all ears.

And when praise is genuine, children are all ears too. Kids have a finely-tuned radar for falsities and can see that the ribbon they scored just for participating is really fairly worthless.

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.

Raising Girls – My recent work in the Illawarra region

The Illawarra Women’s Health Centre was the the charity recipient for this year’s Illawarra International Women’s Day committee event for their project “Empowering Young Women of the Illawarra.” The Project enabled the Centre to offer our Enlighten Education workshops to over 500 Year 8 students from the area, and to also offer parents and Educators sessions that aim to help ensure sustainability of the work.

I had the opportunity to speak to the local press about why this work matters:

…we want to create – a generation of young women who actually think it’s fantastic and exciting to be a woman, that don’t see themselves as being victims or as being at the mercy of marketers and media.We want them to feel that they can actually talk back and re-shape their world to better suit them, and they can.

The many emails I received afterwards from the young women I worked with on the day highlight just how vital this work is. The following are shared with permission from the girls who sent these to me; both wanted others to also know just how challenging it can be to be a girl in a culture that is not always very kind:

Click on image to enlarge to read

 

Click on image to enlarge to read

WIN 9 News featured our work in their News bulletin that evening. I am very proud of the girls’ honest and heart-felt responses. I love too that the vision captured some of the incredible energy from the day. As event organiser Samantha Karmel commented, “…they had a ball – tears of sadness and of joy.”

With some of the amazing teen girls from the Illawarra region

Yes. If we capture girls’ hearts, their minds will follow.

Let’s empower and inform our girls so that they can then turn their critical gaze away from their own bodies and the bodies of their peers, and instead direct it outwards towards the media and our broader culture. As Naomi Wolf declared in her book The Beauty Myth back in 1991, “We don’t need to change our bodies, we need to change the rules.”

Amen!

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

Doing what I love: Presenting to girls

All school children should take part in compulsory body image and self-esteem lessons.

This is the finding of a three-month inquiry by the British government into young people, body image and self-esteem.

Yes! Governments are now at least trying to catch up with parents and educators who have been concerned for years that girls and boys are hurting because of the unrelenting pressure to fit narrow, impossible-to-achieve physical ideals.

I am heartened by the fact that British MPs from across the political spectrum declared that body image and self-esteem lessons should be compulsory for all children. The Australian government didn’t go quite that far when it established policies based on the work of its National Advisory Group on Body Image. The Australian policies are a start, but as I’ve discussed here before, I think they need strengthening before they will bring about the impact that is needed.

Just as they do in Britain,  kids in Australia and New Zealand need more body image and self-esteem programs in schools – and just as crucially, they need the right type of programs. So, when it comes to body image and self-esteem programs, what really works?

The British inquiry confirmed that media images of unrealistic bodies are largely to blame for young people’s body image angst and self-esteem battles. This is why we think it is so important to equip girls with media literacy skills. Policing and patronising simply won’t work, as anyone who’s ever tried banning TV, taking away internet privileges or chucking out magazines will tell you. The end result is usually a resentful girl and an atmosphere of distrust at home. Besides, no matter how hard you try to stem the tide of harmful images, they are everywhere – on billboards, the sides of buses, you name it. The best gift we can give girls is to help them develop lifelong skills to look at advertising and media critically, deconstruct them and make up their own minds. Only then will those photoshopped images representing the ideal woman lose their seductive and damaging power.

At Enlighten, what we want to see are girls with healthy all-round self-esteem based not on appearance alone but on all that a girl has to offer the world. Her brains, compassion, humour, business smarts, sporting ability, musical talents – whatever her own unique attributes happen to be. A big part of creating healthy self-esteem is building up resilience, the ability to bounce back after facing adversity. It is important for kids to have a solid sense of their own self worth so that they don’t crumble when things don’t work out as they hoped – when their marks aren’t as good as they expected on a test, their boyfriend drops them, they don’t get a role in the school musical. The stakes only get higher as kids grow up and face adversity as adults, which makes it vital to develop coping skills from a young age.

So we love what Geelong Grammar is doing. Teachers there are following the principles of “positive education”, which was developed by US psychologist and educator Martin Seligman, who is probably best known for his book Authentic Happiness. In positive education, students are taught not only traditional school subjects but also the skills to be happy and resilient.

This is not about kids walking around with a smile on their face, ignoring critical human emotion. It’s about a flourishing person who is in control of their emotion, who can deal with adversity, knows that adversity is going to hit them and there will be sad times and bad times, but they can bounce back from that. Geelong Grammar Vice-Principal Charlie Scudamore

Some public schools in Victoria have adopted a similar approach and are seeing great results, and South Australia is doing a pilot study with Seligman to see whether they should introduce positive education in all schools in the state system.

Feeling the love: Me with a beautiful girl who brought her well-worn copy of my book for teen girls along when I presented at her school

Positivity is crucial when working with girls, because only by embracing the positive and connecting with girls’ hearts can we truly effect change. Often girls shuffle into our presentations expecting the usual lecture – do this, don’t do that – but leave on a high because we create a positive, loving vibe and an atmosphere of fun in order to get very serious messages across. We see the results in the faces of the girls as they light up, and we know that the impact lasts long after the girls have left school for the day. We hear it from parents:

I had two daughters come home this afternoon absolutely passionate about their experience with Enlighten Ed today, it seems to have been able 2reignite all the girl power I’ve been sending their way since they were toddlers, except in a fun, fascinating, non-dorky-mother atmosphere. Thanks for trying so hard to equip our little girls for the harsh and hideously sexualised world that lies ahead 🙂 – Olivia Brasington

And we hear it from educators and the girls themselves. One of the schools we work with in Tasmania drafted a reflective survey for their girls one year after we presented there. When asked if the presentation made a long-lasting change to the way they behave towards other people, responses included:

Yes, I believe it did. I have a better perspective of my life, and how I see myself and other people.

Yes, I have come to respect who people are and what they believe in.

Yes! I have stopped basing everything on looks and started looking at the inside of people. I’ve realised I can have amazing friends that don’t need to be popular or pretty. I’ve started being more happy with myself.

We are always trying to find new ways to get serious messages across in playful ways that engage girls. Recently we produced these stickers designed to go on mirrors and provoke thought and discussion. The stickers are on sale at our site, where we also offer free resources to engage girls, such as our beautiful-looking iPhone app and wallpapers with inspiring and empowering messages.

A school where we regularly present has ordered a sticker for every school bathroom mirror . . . including those in the boys’ toilets. The school told us:

It’s exactly the type of message we want our students to understand and it is delivered in a way which will engage them and get them thinking and talking.

And this is the most important part of all, the key to any program or intervention with young people: get them thinking, get them talking. Create a supportive environment for ideas to take root and flourish. Win their hearts, so that their minds will follow. And always, always keep the lines of communication open.

 

Boy-band crushes and body image — the week that was

Last week was a big week in girlworld. Unless you were recently deposited back on earth by aliens, I doubt I need to tell you that One Direction arrived in Sydney for their Australian tour. I was in at Channel 9 to talk on Mornings about whether teen girls screaming and crying over this boy band is healthy and normal (yes!) or something parents need to worry about (no!):

For my daughter, Teyah (13), and stepdaughter, Jaz (17), the best part was that they were allowed into the studio to breathe the actual same air as their beloved One Direction, as the boys made an appearance on Today.

Jaz, 17, and Teyah, 13, in the same studio as their beloved One Direction

The fans squealed. They wept. They trembled all over. But please don’t dismiss their feelings as silly or hysterical. Their feelings are very real and raw. And they have their origins in biology: the frontal lobes of the brains of teenagers are primed for high emotions, fighting, running away and, oh yes, romance.

I actually think it is beautiful to see the fans’ excitement for their squeaky clean and sexually harmless objects of desire. The big appeal of One Direction, according to almost every teen fan you ask, is that they are wholesome, down to earth and hard working. They pose little or no sexual threat. And there is no risk of rejection.

But of course there had to be a media kerfuffle about One Direction’s visit, with dire warnings being issued, and much tsk-tsking about the unbridled libidos of teenage girls these days. (Because the hysteria over the Beatles, Kiss, NKOTB, The Backstreet Boys, and so on and so on, was somehow different, apparently.) It all started when Channel 7 apologised because their Sunrise cameras captured fans in Martin Place holding signs that said “Point your erection in my direction” and “Send your one thing Down Under”. Many voices chimed in to express their outrage about the sexual nature of young fans’ adulation. Some pointed the finger at what many girls were wearing, saying their outfits were too revealing.

The fact is, there was a veritable sea of benign, nonsexual signs being held up by the screaming crowds. And anyone who wants to criticise teen girls based on how they dress should take a look at this Facebook album of One Direction fans and do a reality check. These young women are all shades of gorgeous.

To me, the real issue is why society is okay with young men making highly sexual comments, while girls seemingly should not even think about sex. Case in point: on that Facebook album, many males have left comments about whether the girls are hot or not. How sad that some little girl enjoying her first concert with friends inadvertently enters an online beauty quest. How sad that while girls are reviled for expressing a physical interest in their celebrity crushes, no one tries to stop those males publicly ranking teen girls on their hotness. And we wonder why girls end up playing the compare and despair game.

Why are we so threatened by what Wendy Harmer calls teen girls’ “emerging sexuality with training wheels”? Clementine Ford nailed it when she wrote last week in Daily Life:

The nascent sexual desires of boys are so readily accepted as part of life that we barely blink at the mention of them. . . . But instead of encouraging a similar sexual expression in girls (who experience the exact same explosion of hormones during their teen years), we demonise it . . .

At best, this trains girls to adhere to a system that constructs women as passive bystanders to sex . . . But at worst, it encourages the idea that their burgeoning desires are unnatural and gross . . .

A handful of girls waving titillating signs outside Martin Place isn’t representative of an orgiastic trend sweeping the nation, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. But it is a sign that no matter how much we try and shield girls from sex, they’re going to find ways to explore it and it doesn’t always mean they want to actually do it.

The answer isn’t to keep talking about how uncomfortable it makes everyone . . . it’s about giving [girls] the right tools to explore that sexuality in a healthy way, and trusting them to make the right decisions. They’re not delicate dolls, so stop treating them that way.

Hear, hear, sista!

Another big thing last week in this particular girl’s world was that I was on Life Matters on Radio National, talking to Wendy Harmer about positive ways to raise teen daughters. Of course, we talked about boy-band crushes, but we talked about much more, too. I especially loved having the chance to chat with listeners who called in with their concerns. One was worried about teen girls binge drinking. Another asked for advice on how to bolster the self-esteem of her beautiful teen daughter, who struggles with low body image and is teased at school for being flat chested. And a mother was deeply concerned about her 10-year-old girl who is of average weight yet is determined to stay on a diet because she believes it’s “part of being a girl”. All of their issues were heart breaking, so I was glad to have the chance to offer some practical suggestions for turning these situations around. You can listen to the interview by clicking here.

Hearing the stories of those mothers who are worried about their daughters’ body-image angst makes me more determined than ever to help make things right for our girls. If you know any young women who are struggling with body image, please let them know they can read the chapter on body image from my latest book, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, free of charge. Simply click here for this free sample chapter.

 

Are we raising a generation of narcissists?

There are more narcissistic young people in this generation than ever before. That’s the finding of a long-running study by US psychology professor Jean Twenge, who was in Australia recently. She gave 16,000 university students across the United States psychological testing and found that 30 per cent were narcissistic. This is a doubling in the number of narcissists in just three decades.

Naturally her findings created a bit of a stir in the media, and I went on Mornings with Kerri-anne for an in-depth discussion about it:

The research potentially has major implications for this generation’s future, because narcissism isn’t just spending too much time in front of the mirror or being a bit “up yourself”, which is the way we often use the term in everyday language. A person is classified as narcissistic if they:

  • have an inflated sense of self
  • are arrogant
  • think they’re unique and special
  • believe they are entitled to be treated better than others
  • take the credit for others’ achievements
  • lack warmth and empathy
  • can’t form lasting relationships
  • are highly materialistic
  • continually seek attention and are very vain about their appearance
  • get angry or even violent when things don’t go their way.

Often, things initially do go the narcissist’s way, because they show great confidence and charm. But because their sense of self is built on a shaky foundation, the honeymoon—whether it’s in a new job, a relationship or a friendship—may end quickly and dramatically.

So then, what does Twenge’s research mean for our kids? How alarmed do we need to be?

First, let me say that while giving workshops in schools all over the country, I see far more under-confidence in girls than overconfidence, especially about their looks. I see less vanity and more anxiety. Rather than lack of empathy, I am usually overwhelmed by girls hugging me and saying “I love you” at the end of my session. In my experience, girls are often very keen to get involved in their community and help other people by doing volunteer work.  And even if girls are more focused on having the newest and best of everything than earlier generations were, let’s not forget that they are also the most marketed-to generation: they see between 400 and 600 ads per day.

Twenge’s research in fact backs up my observation that the majority of girls aren’t all that much more narcissistic than earlier generations. She points out on her website that “the average person is only moderately more narcissistic now than 15 years ago.” It’s at the far end of the scale, where a person could be diagnosed with clinical Narcissistic Personality Disorder, that there is an alarming jump: “There are three times as many young people vs. older people with the disorder. That means there are many more highly narcissistic people now than just a decade or two ago.”

There are things we can do to stop the trend. It comes down to modelling the behaviour we’d like our children to show; as I always say, girls cannot be what they cannot see. If the culture around them is all about having the newest and best of everything, getting plastic surgery and being famous for doing nothing, can we blame kids for being focused on those things, too?

Young people are bombarded with images of celebrities who make narcissism look like a desirable lifestyle choice. (I’m sorry to say that Charlie Sheen’s approval rating has gone through the roof with young men recently, according to a poll in The Australian.) They are bombarded with advertising and marketing for products that will make them look richer, thinner, hotter (and more like a celebrity!). You will never be able to stem that tide—but you can talk to them about the media they consume and support them in forming their own judgments and values.

Protecting the next generation from rising narcissism also means making sure that when we praise our kids it really means something. There has been a trend over recent decades to repeat to children that they are special and unique. Increasingly, medals are awarded just for turning up. Of course, this has been done with love and the best of intentions to boost children’s self-esteem. But to create self-esteem that has a solid foundation, we need to:

  • acknowledge real achievement
  • encourage children to be involved in their community
  • encourage them to explore which skills they are good at and identify those they need to work on
  • help them understand that while they see instant successes on reality TV, for most people achievement is the result of hard work and discipline; a good way to do this is to encourage teens to take a starter job.

Finally, here is a great piece of advice from Jean Twenge, who is herself the mother of two young children. When she was asked on Melbourne radio what parents should do instead of telling their kids that they’re special, she answered:

What most parents mean when they say that to their children is “I love you”, so say that instead. That’s a much better message.

It occurred to me that perhaps if the research had been done on Australian or New Zealand young people the result may have been different. What do you think? I would love to hear your perspectives, and your stories about the girls in your life and how they’re developing their own sense of self.

Girls in Trouble in a Post-Feminist World

Parents, teachers and all of us at Enlighten Education know in our hearts that girls and young women are in trouble and need our support. And the evidence is mounting to prove that we are right to be concerned.

A 19-year-long Scottish study published recently in the journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology showed that teenage girls are now the most depressed section of the population. The study, by Helen Sweeting, showed that girls were reporting mental disorders at a rate of 44%. More than a third felt “constantly under strain”. More than a quarter “felt they could not overcome their difficulties”. Between 1987 and 2006, the number of girls who “thought of themselves as worthless” trebled to 16%. Those who were so distressed they might need to be hospitalised rose threefold, to 18%.

And recent UK government research into 42,073 children between the ages of 10 and 15 concluded that:

The choices being made by teenage girls regarding diet, lifestyle and other health-related issues were so consistently damaging that they had become ‘a standalone group of the population’ requiring immediate intervention.

Amelia Hill, of London newspaper The Observer, reported on the research in her superb article After feminism: what are girls supposed to do? which I urge everyone to read.

Helen Sweeting, the author of the Scottish research, found it significant that her disturbing results came at a time of major upheavals in society — in Hill’s words, “the period in which girls began to outperform boys academically, and the obsession with celebrity culture and the pressure on younger and younger girls to become sexualised”.

Girls’ problems are caused by a combination of very modern problems, including the breakdown of the family, and the pressures of rampant consumerism and of educational expectations – the need, in short, to have things, look good and succeed all at the same time. Add to that the spread across society of increasingly cynical, individualistic values and beliefs, and you have a pretty toxic mix. — Helen Sweeting

For explanations, Hill turned to a number of experts, including Natasha Walter, author of the new book Living Dolls, The Return of Sexism:

Feminism’s own language of empowerment has been turned against it. The language of empowerment has been harnessed to confuse sexual liberation with sexual objectification. — Natasha Walter

I agree with Hill that girls are “growing up in an atmosphere of unapologetic crudity”. Stripping, she noted, “is widely cited as a method of empowerment”.

Girls feel pressured now in a way they never have been before to be thin, hyper-sexy, smart, glamorous, rich. And these expectations have created a “narcissism epidemic”. Respected American psychologist Jean Twenge studied almost 60 years’ worth of data on 37,000 American teenagers and found a staggering rise in the number of teens who score high on the narcissism personality index. And it is females who suffer the most from the depression and anxiety linked to narcissism, Hill noted.

The narcissist has huge expectations of themselves and their lives. Typically, they make predictions about what they can achieve that are unrealistic, for example in terms of academic grades and employment. They seek fame and status, and the achievement of the latter leads to materialism – money enables the brand labels and lavish lifestyle that are status symbols. — Jean Twenge

Other UK findings uncovered by Hill that make it impossible to deny that girls are in trouble include:

  • Hospital admissions for anorexia nervosa among teen girls have risen 80% in the last decade.
  • In the past year alone there has been a 50% rise in violent crime committed by young women.
  • One in three girls, and one in two boys, believe there are times when it is okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex.

It is clear that the pressure girls feel to be more and to have more has grown to the point that they are struggling to cope. They need our support and understanding right now. 

Thank you to Sarah Casey for bringing Amelia Hill’s article to my attention.

Seeking positive alternatives for girls  

Enlighten Education is proud to be working with schools and communities who are seeking answers for girls. I have recently returned from working with a number of schools in Christchurch, NZ, and spoke about this positive initiative on New Zealand’s Breakfast program:

To watch this interview, click on this image. You will be directed to the URL.
To watch this interview, click on the link above. You will be directed to the URL.

Wilderness College Adelaide is to be applauded for launching their “Raising Amazing Girls” program:

As part of the growing momentum around Australia to address the problems caused by unrealistic media and marketing images of women and the pressure for girls to grow up early, an extensive program will be launched today by Wilderness School to equip girls, and their parents, with the tools to help them navigate the ‘tweenie’ years.

This will include a series of practical seminars, open to all parents, as well as an intensive program working directly with the students at the school on issues such as the sexualisation of girls, digital citizenship and cyber-bullying. I am thrilled to be leading this for Wilderness and will be presenting to all the girls in the school, and to their parent community, later this month.

In Sydney, I will be offering parents practical strategies on raising happy, confident teen girls at a workshop on 16 March at Castle Hill Library. Tickets can be purchased online.  

I’d love to hear how you are providing the girls you care for with the urgent help they need. Let’s share our ideas and turn things around for girls in Australia and New Zealand . . . and set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

Model Obsession — Part 1: Body image

Huge numbers of girls dream of becoming a model. It really is almost an obsession. But a girl’s choice to pursue that dream can bring a mixture of pride, uncertainty and downright anxiety to her parents. I wanted to know more about why modelling is so very appealing to teen girls, and how the reality compares to the dream. So for insight, I turned to Enlighten Education presenter Nikki Davis, who spent a number of years dancing and modelling professionally after completing her BA Communications degree, and continues to do some modelling work. She writes my guest blog this week, looking at what makes modelling attractive to so many girls, and the self-esteem and body image issues that arise in the modelling world. At Enlighten we strive to help girls and their parents make informed decisions about the future, so in following weeks Nikki will talk about the positive aspects of being a model, along with the practicalities and the challenges. 

When girls I’m presenting to for Enlighten find out I have done modelling, there is this sense of awe. “What kind of modelling have you done?” “Are you on any television commercials?” “What magazines have you been in?” “What clothes, what designers?” They want to know everything!

Professional shots Nikki uses to promote herself with prospective clients.
Professional shots I use to promote myself to prospective clients.

When I was 14, I started at a new dance school that also had a modelling agency, and I began getting my first serious offers of work. The fact that people were approaching me to do modelling was very exciting to me. If someone said to Mum, “Can we do photos of your daughter?” my little ears pricked up. The thing that frustrated me about my mum as a child — but that I’m thankful for now — is that she didn’t really allow me to do any professional work until I was about 16. That was when I did a Channel 7 ad, and I was absolutely blown away by the glamour of it all.

The main reason that I was drawn to modelling, and why I think girls are now, was the simple pleasure of having confirmation that I was special. It validates that you have the “right” look. You think breaking into modelling will cancel out any of your self-esteem issues and doubts because it means that you are what society thinks is beautiful and special.

But of course the reality is far more complicated than that.

Me to Vin Diesel's right - complete with fake tatoo!
Me to Vin Diesel's right (complete with fake tattoo)

In some ways modelling does make you feel special, and in some ways the glamour does come through. I remember once I was in the newspaper after being hired to walk the red carpet with Vin Diesel. I’d had a totally glamorous makeover, and I thought I looked pretty amazing — I loved it! The next day, I had all these people I went to school with — funnily enough some of whom had teased me at school — texting and emailing me. And that kind of thing is fun.

Then sometimes it all comes crashing down.

You’ve been feeling pretty special sitting in the hair and makeup chair for 3 hours before a shoot or a catwalk show, and you go over to the rack of clothes . . . and you don’t fit the pair of jeans they’ve given you. All of a sudden you land with a thud back on Earth. So at each job, you would walk in feeling nervous. It was a panicky feeling; your heart would beat quickly. If you didn’t fit something, you’d have to put your hand up in the crowded fitting room and say, “I don’t fit this, and a dresser needs to go and get me the next size up,” and someone would shout across, “Aw, Nikki doesn’t fit the size 10; you have to get her a 12.” On one occasion, I had a photographer who was used to working with very thin high-fashion models say out loud, “I can’t position her in a way that doesn’t make her legs look fat!”

When these things were happening to me, I was around 19 to 21, and like most women that age, my body was changing a lot. I tried a low-carb diet and lost a bit of weight, and the other models and the dressers started praising me, saying, “Oh! Oh, you’ve lost weight. Oh, you need a smaller size in this!” Many unhealthy relationships with food and exercise have been started this way. I was given so much positive feedback that I became quite obsessed with not putting the weight back on — which is of course exactly what I did, because I became so concerned with weighing my food and denying myself that when no one was looking I’d eat four blocks of chocolate.

It was also around this time that fashion swung from the Cindy Crawford look to Kate Moss, and clients wanted the quite skinny girls. It blew my mind that my figure was out of fashion. I thought if I lost weight and I was smaller, everything would be good because I’d be making more money and I’d have a better career. The pressure that your income relies on how much food you put in your mouth is really overwhelming.

At that stage of my life I had just finished uni and wasn’t focusing on much else than modelling and dancing, and that was a big part of the problem. I think that’s when modelling gets a bit dangerous: when it’s all you’ve got going on. All you’re thinking about is your body all the time, and your looks all the time, with nothing else to distract you.

My advice to young models is to always have something else going on in your life as well. To be studying, to be learning another language, to be writing or producing art, to be training as an actor or TV presenter — something else that’s not pure modelling. It is important not to get so hung up on looks that you lose perspective. I have met models who won’t go out with their friends because they have to stay home and put four coats of fake tan on. You can get so caught up in looks that you forget to live.

Finally, I relaxed into the idea: “This is who I am. Book me or don’t book me. Don’t book me and then torture me when I get there because I don’t fit something.” It’s so hard for young girls, because they don’t have that maturity. I didn’t have that attitude until I was 27. I’d had time by then to develop the other parts of me. I’d been writing for a dance magazine, and I’d been working in production and events, so I knew I had a lot more to offer than just my looks. That self-confidence takes time to develop, which is why if you skip uni and go straight into modelling when you’re 17 and you do put on weight or your look goes out of fashion, it can seriously affect you.

I am grateful that my parents always made me feel as though my appearance and success at modelling weren’t the most important achievements in my life. How well I did at school and how I treated other people were more valued. I don’t want to give the impression that modelling is only full of negatives for girls, because there is good stuff to be had from modelling — but it is crucial that we put a girl’s looks into perspective, stressing that the kind of validation modelling brings is not the be-all and end-all, and prettiness is not the most important value a girl has to offer.

The good stuff to be had from modelling? Increased confidence, interpersonal skills, resilience — these are a few of the qualities it can help girls develop. Next week, I’ll get into those positives, along with some hard practical realities of making a living out of modelling. Until then, we would love to hear about your experiences with girls and modelling.

Nikki Davis,  BA (Communications), is an Enlighten Education presenter based in Sydney. She has worked as a model, dancer, dance teacher, scriptwriter, magazine editor, and video and special events producer. Training to be a volunteer telephone counsellor with Lifeline gave Nikki the opportunity to explore her interest in counselling and psychotherapy, which she continues to study. She has a special interest in social issues related to girls and women. (Nikki also just happens to have been one of my favourite and most talented students when I was a high school English teacher. I adored her so much, I just had to keep her! — Danni)

Making Sense of Twilight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A National Strategy on Body Image

The issue of negative body image has officially crossed over into the mainstream public debate. We now have a proposed National Strategy on Body Image, put together by an advisory group appointed by the federal government.

Kate Ellis, the Minister for Youth, put together the group, which was chaired by Mia Freedman, former editor of Cosmopolitan, and  featured big names in the fashion industry and  media such as TV presenter and model Sarah Murdoch, children’s health and psychology experts including Professor David Forbes of the University of Western Australia, and leaders of youth organisations such as the YWCA. They considered submissions from the public–mostly young people, teachers, youth workers, social workers and psychologists–then came up with recommendations for government action to deal with the widespread problem of poor body image.

What excites me, and my colleagues at Enlighten, is that the Strategy gives public recognition to the important role school programs can and should play in helping girls develop positive body image.  The Strategy calls for increased funding for “reputable and expert organisations to deliver seminars and discussions on body image within schools” and for workshops that increase girls’ media literacy so that they can stand up to negative media messages.

Many schools access independent organisations to deliver one-off body image workshops or to facilitate body image discussions among students. A number of these types of interventions have been demonstrated as effectively reducing the body dissatisfaction of students. The Advisory Group encourages government to increase the opportunities schools have to access these activities.

Proposed National Strategy on Body Image

As a first step, I call on the federal government to immediately introduce the Body Image Friendly Schools Checklist in the Strategy (on page 42). It has some great practical ideas that I would love to see implemented in schools across Australia. The best of the recommendations:

  • Bring positive body image messages into the curriculum. It is easy to see how body image can be incorporated into health and physical education lesson plans, but teachers need not stop there. In English, students could be asked to write a critical thinking essay on how the media affects our idea of what a woman should look like. A media studies class might focus on the way that programs such as Photoshop are used by magazines to create an unattainable ideal of beauty.
  • Consult with students to develop a sports uniform everyone feels comfortable wearing. Being involved in sport has been shown to boost girls’ self-esteem and body image–yet it has also been shown that figure-hugging uniforms are one of the greatest barriers to girls participating in sport.
  • Provide Mental Health First Aid training for teachers that can help them identify body image and eating disorders in students and then know what steps to take next.
  • Give training for teachers in how to use body-friendly language with students–that is, no “fat talk”, either about themselves or their students.
  • Include positive body image in the school’s policy, even writing positive body image and the celebration of diversity into the school’s mission statement.
  • Do away with weighing and measuring students. It seems kind of crazy that in this day and age that has to even be spelt out, but it is still done in PE and even some maths classes. And for many students, the humiliation they experience leaves lasting scars.

Beyond the school system, there are some other good (and long overdue) suggestions in the Strategy that I hope the government implements. A standard system of clothing sizes to avoid the distress many feel when they find they can’t fit into a certain size. Stores stocked with a broad range of sizes, reflecting the diversity of our body types. Mannequins that look more like the many different women we see every day in the street.

But as with most such working papers put together by committee, within parameters set by a federal government, the Strategy of course has its limitations. For instance, it can simply suggest that funding should be increased in schools to ensure all girls receive the media literacy and self-esteem workshops they need; it can’t provide an assurance that this will actually happen.

The limitations of the Strategy become clearer when it deals with other avenues for promoting positive body image. The right principle is there: to encourage clothing designers, magazines and TV, the diet industry, advertisers and marketers to finally shoulder responsibility for the shame, disgust and body anxiety they routinely encourage young women to experience. But the Strategy recommends first trying the softly, softly approach: asking companies to follow a voluntary code of conduct and rewarding them for good behaviour by listing them in a roll of honour and awarding them the right to display a logo. Think of the Heart Foundation’s tick of approval, but in this case for creating positive body image rather than lowering cholesterol. Only once this approach had failed to produce results would penalties be considered.

I would be overjoyed if companies voluntarily started treating girls and women with more respect. And I think some would, so long as it was good for their bottom line. Think, for instance, of Dove, which uses the body image issue to sell a truckload of soap–while their parent company’s other key brands include Lynx (Boom Chicka Waa Waa, anyone?), Slim Fast and Ponds Skin Whitening cream marketed in Asian countries. A lot of fashion designers would  simply pull one of those frosty catwalk model faces in response to a suggestion they promote positive body image. I mean, can you really see Gucci saying “Hey, they’re right, we should stop promoting this unhealthy stick-thin image and adopt that voluntary code of conduct”?

I do wish that the proposed national strategy had more to say on the sexualisation and objectification of women and especially of girls. While body size and shape and the lack of diversity in the media are prime sources of despair, the pressure to be sexy–and only within a narrow ideal of sexiness–is increasingly causing serious problems.

Research shows that over time women can come to see themselves as objects and subject their bodies to constant surveillance, feeling disgusted and ashamed about themselves. So even if the code helps industry to get serious about presenting more realistically sized women, the expectation to be ‘‘hot’’ and ‘‘sexy’’ will remain. And industry will have the right product and the latest look we need to achieve this false ideal.

Misty de Vries, COO, Women’s Forum Australia, in The Age

The way I look at it, the National Strategy on Body Image is a great place to start. But its recommendations are only worth something if the politicians, the fashion and beauty product industries, and the media and advertisers follow through on them. It is thanks to all of us voicing our opinions that the government commissioned a Strategy in the first place. Now we have to keep up the pressure!

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