Possibly the only TV show I make time to watch with my children is So You Think You Can Dance. We all love music, and watching these incredible dancers perform is often breathtaking. This year the dancers have included a group of particularly interesting young women: my current favourites are Ivy (who said she left the world of ballet and became a jazz dancer as she loved food too much to ever starve herself), Renee (who was honest about the prejudice she has faced as a dancer as she is not considered a conventional beauty) and spunky young schoolgirl Izzy.
But last night the PG-rated show turned its back on its strong family following by featuring guest artist Ke$ha singing “Blah, Blah, Blah”. The lyrics included:
Don’t be a bitch with your chit chat
Just show me where you dick’s at….
I wanna dance with no pants on…
I wanna be naked and you’re wasted.
The choreography featured her rolling about on the floor in a mock-orgy scene she described later in an interview they heavily promoted on the SYTYCD website as “raw”.
In the “controversial” interview with the star she appears drugged (her eyes roll, she is often only semi-coherent and she needs to wipe her nose at points). She raves in a deluded fashion about how she is possibly the reincarnation of John F Kennedy (or Franz Ferdinand, or perhaps John Lennon) and on how she wears her own placenta around her neck to help her gain “second sight”.
Yes, I could — and did — turn the show off when she performed. (I have since watched it online without my children present in order to critique it here.) But surely it is reasonable to expect shows that pitch for the family vote (in the same episode, judge Jason Coleman asked viewers to join together as a “family” and vote for their favourite dancer) to do better?
Big Fat Boo to you Channel 10 and Fremantle.
Let’s all tell them (as I have)that this is not responsible broadcasting by contacting them via these addresses (click on the hyperlinks below):
I am passionate about bringing the body image crisis in our girls to public attention, so I’m happy to say it’s been a busy couple of weeks for me, media-wise. I was on Channel 7’s The Morning Show, along with the CEO of the Australasian College of Cosmetic Surgery, to talk about the effect that reality TV shows are having on body image and whether they’re encouraging more people to have cosmetic surgery. Some really important points were raised about girls’ body image, so it’s worth taking a look and forwarding on to others, to spread the word about why we need to empower girls. (Click on the image below to view. The interview starts after a short advertisement.)
The Biggest Loser, Extreme Makeover, Australia’s Next Top Model, Australian Idol, Big Brother—the list goes on and on of reality TV shows that all offer the promise of turning ordinary people into gorgeous celebrities. A big part of the story they tell is that appearance is more important than just about anything else, and that if we do something extreme to change the way we look so we fit into a narrow ideal of beauty, we will be happy and loved, and we will be famous. In the reality TV generation, instant fame has become the ultimate sign of success. What a limiting message for girls. What a dangerous message for girls.
As I said on The Morning Show:
While we might not be seeing an actual increase in cosmetic procedures, we’re certainly seeing an increase in angst over body. And lots of young girls believe the hype that if they have that new body or that new smile or those new breasts, life will be a lot better—and of course things aren’t that simple.
I thought it was really interesting that the head of the College of Cosmetic Surgery made a distinction between cosmetic procedures and reconstructive plastic surgery after accidents and burns. I think that procedures for purely cosmetic reasons are simply a no-go zone for girls, but I would also caution parents about rushing to get reconstructive surgery for their daughters. When I was two years old, I was badly burnt. I received third-degree burns all down my right arm and neck. As a teen, I hid my scars. I wore skivvies underneath my summer uniform, wore jumpers all year round. I avoided pools and beaches. My arm no longer seemed small; it seemed enormous. A huge, horrible, disfigured limb I would be forced to drag through what had been my oh-so-promising life. (Yes, teenage girls are good at drama.)
It was only in my adult years, as a teacher, that I finally explored ways in which I might come to terms with my burns. If I could not accept myself, how could I possibly ask my students to accept themselves?
I searched for soothing words, and found them in the writing of women such as Naomi Wolf, who wrote in TheBeauty Myth:
We don’t need to change our bodies, we need to change the rules.
In women such as Sofia Loren:
Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than the belief that she is beautiful.
And in the words of the young women I now taught:
I love how you wear your scars, Miss, you don’t let them wear you.
Words healed me. I did not have plastic surgery, and now as an adult I am not concerned about my scars at all. They make me feel strong and unique; they show the world I am a woman with a history of bravery. The power of words to heal is something we should all take to heart and remember in our relationships with the girls in our lives. Cosmetic and plastic surgery may appear to promise happiness and success, like we see on reality TV, but it can really only alter our bodies. It’s the words we use to talk about ourselves and one another that have the power to truly heal our souls, and to change lives.
This post is partly based on “The Battle Within”, in my book The Butterfly Effect (Random House Australia).
Lots of girls love Lady Gaga. Her music’s catchy, for one thing. Then there’s all the fashion and theatrics. And the controversy. Her videos have always been ultra-sexy with an undertone of menace, but her latest clip, Telephone, has gone way beyond acceptable for kids. Even for me as an adult, watching the full uncensored version, which is easily accessed by anyone on YouTube, was stomach churning.
For those who haven’t seen it and don’t want to give Lady Gaga any more oxygen by watching it, the idea is: Lady Gaga gets thrown in a sadomasochistic-porn-fantasy version of a women’s prison; there is violence, sexual intimidation, graphic tongue kissing, cigarettes, and barely any clothes. Then her lover Beyonce bails her out so they can go on a killing spree, murdering multiple people, most of them strangers, by poisoning them. They look like they’re having a great time. They drive off into the sunset. Think “Thelma and Louise” but drained of all meaning and instead filled with product placement for mobile phones, sunglasses and other branded gear you may soon be expecting teen girls to start asking for.
What a toxic mess of hypersexuality, consumerism and violence.
Some see Lady Gaga as a talented artist whose work is ironic and leans toward the Quentin Tarantino side of things. But as Jim Schumacher and Debbie Bookchin write in their excellent Huffington Post blog:
What if glitzy Lady Gaga is exactly what she appears to be: The latest manifestation of a culture industry that pushes the boundaries of civility and sexuality to the extreme in order to make a buck? And worse, pushes it on our kids long before they want or need to be presented with some middle-aged ad executive’s personal sadomasochistic sexual fantasies?
Who decreed that the highest bidder (read: the product sponsors who pay for such videos and media moguls who stand to profit) should be allowed to impose violent sexual conditioning on our kids?
Why isn’t anyone debating whether the hyper-sexualization of teenage girls and hyper-materialism that claims to be critiquing fame and consumerism, even while shoving it down our throats, is doing us any good as a society?
I am proud to step forward and do just that. I don’t think this is doing us any good as a society, and I think it’s bad for girls to see this stuff at the time when they are busy forming their own identity and ideas about relationships and sexuality. I hope that you, too, will join me by discussing the images in Lady Gaga’s videos with your daughters and students. We can’t censor what kids watch, but we can help them deconstruct it and consider it from all angles.
The other thing we can do is let marketers know that it’s unacceptable for them to push their products on girls by using hypersexual, violent, adult imagery. Virgin Mobile is the most notable product placement. If you agree with me after watching the Lady Gaga video and would like to let Virgin know how you feel, their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and their postal address is Locked Bag 17, ROYAL EXCHANGE NSW 1225.
Those who argue that this is a big fuss over nothing and girls aren’t influenced by hypersexual videos clearly haven’t seen this video of an 8-year-old girl on Brazil’s version of “Australia’s Got Talent”. She sings and dances just like Lady Gaga, complete with sexy moves she can’t (or shouldn’t) possibly understand the meaning of at her age:
Lady Gaga is not the only culprit, of course. When I wrote about this in my book, The Butterfly Effect, I noted the misogynistic and violent lyrics of rapper Eminem, and the hypersexual videos of The Pussycat Dolls and The Veronicas. But don’t get me wrong, there are also amazing female singers and girl bands that are all about power and strength. As well as helping our girls make sense of the too-adult, too-sexy images of many music videos, we can offer up examples of women who are producing music and videos that send a much more empowering message. So I want to end on a positive note by sharing with you the wonderful female artist India Arie. Girls at Enlighten Education’s workshops light up when we play her songs, which are not just great music but also the perfect antidote to the messages of so many other video clips. The girls (and I!) love her song Video (“I’m not the average girl from your video; My worth is not determined by the price of my clothes”) and the simply sublime Beautiful Flower, whose lyrics always bring a tear to my eye and make me think of all those beautiful girls Enlighten Education has worked with (“You’re beautiful like a flower, more valuable than a diamond”):
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.