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Month: July 2011

Just Speak Up – Getting Real About Post Natal Depression

This week I spoke publicly on what had until now been a very personal experience for me: the post-natal depression I had after the birth of my first child, beautiful Teyah, who is now 12. I was on a Kerri-anne panel that included 60 Minutes’ Peter Overton, a true gentleman who was visibly emotional talking about his wife Jessica Rowe’s far more public battle with PND, and journalist Angela Mollard, who spoke frankly about her raw emotions after the birth of her second child.

Though this discussion doesn’t relate to the raising of girls, the topic is so important that I want to share it, with the aim of supporting grown-up girls, too. I really hope this will spark conversations that heal.

If you feel that you might have symptoms of PND, help is available. You don’t have to suffer alone. A GP can refer you to the right specialist and there are several effective treatments. Beyondblue’s PND website,, is an excellent starting point for help and advice.

Jessica Rowe not only recommended justspeakup as a site to share with you, she has also given her blessing for me to run this moving and honest account she wrote for Vogue. For those who are struggling to understand what it feels like to have PND, and for those who have this illness and feel they are alone, Jessica vividly captures the thoughts and feelings that many women with PND share.


I had everything I could possibly wish for—my newborn baby, Allegra, and my decent, darling husband by my side. Minutes after I pushed my little girl into the world, I held her against my chest, peering into her little squashed face. Her eyes were still jammed shut but I couldn’t stop looking at her. I told her, “So, you’re finally here, my darling. I’ve been waiting such a long time to meet you. For so long you were just a thought, a wish upon a star, but finally you’ve joined us.” And with that she opened one of her eyes and fixed me with her first look at the world. Her clear, blue stare drinking in the love and relief that poured out of me. The greatest love affair of my life was just beginning.

That first week in hospital was a blur of unfathomable love, joy, sheer terror and excitement. I felt safe in my room at the end of the corridor. Allegra and I drew the curtains around us, safely tucked away from the world and the reality of what waited for us at home. As the days went by quickly in hospital I started to worry about going home. How would I cope? I didn’t know how to bath my baby. Changing a nappy was a nerve-racking affair. The midwives kept telling me I could lose the fairy-taps and be more confident in handling my precious bundle.

And my breast milk still hadn’t come through. When my little one was five days old, I was sobbing and laughing simultaneously as I lay in hospital with cabbage leaves stuffed in my ugly feeding bra. The nurses told me the cabbage leaves were the best way to stop my boobs from being so sore. I wasn’t making much sense at all as I obsessively wrote down everything in my notebook.

In those early weeks at home I thought I’d be living my long-held dream. Finally, at last, we were a family. Why on earth did my dream feel like it was free-falling into a nightmare? It took me quite some time to get out of my PJs once I got home with my little miracle. Getting out the front door was tough—I wondered if I would ever leave the house again. Assembling the pram, changing nappies and working out how to put Allegra in the baby capsule became my biggest achievements.

Despite the sleep deprivation, I couldn’t sleep. My waking hours were consumed by anxious thoughts. Why couldn’t I breastfeed? Was my baby putting on enough weight? Did using formula mean I was setting my daughter up for a life of obesity and lowering her IQ? I wondered how I could feel so wretched when I finally had my darling girl. After all, wasn’t I meant to be the superwoman who could deal with anything life threw at me?

These were all pretty standard thoughts for a new mum. But something was seriously wrong. Because what weren’t so standard were the scary, obsessive thoughts that started to sneak into my befuddled brain.

The small silver Tiffany’s clock that I used to time breastfeeds became a weapon in my mind. I wondered how easily the clock could crack my baby’s delicate skull. My eyes would be drawn to the sharp carving knife in our second draw in the kitchen. I wondered if such a knife could pierce my little daughter’s soft skin. I knew I would never hurt my baby but these bizarre thoughts, of turning everyday objects into hazards, kept going around in my mind.

I wrapped the knife up in newspaper and threw it away. I did this at night, so the neighbours wouldn’t see me. I hid the silver clock. It didn’t matter that these objects were out of sight, as they were very much still in my mind.

The outside world was none the wiser to how I was feeling. I was determined to keep up appearances. Fashion had always given me such pleasure and in some strange way I believed if I could walk out the front door looking together all was not lost. My uniform became a brightly coloured feeding bra, teamed with either a Zimmerman pink leopard-print frock or a fifties-style chocolate dress that was scattered with a mauve and pale pink diamond pattern. The look was complete with big black Escada sunglasses and gold or silver ballet flats. But as you know, appearances can be deceiving.

I was wearing one such outfit at the first meeting of the mothers group in my area. I arrived late, having struggled to pack the baby bag with the right number of nappies and dummies. Then it took another 20 minutes to work out how to clip the wretched baby capsule into the car. Suitably stressed out, I flapped into the group to be confronted by a group of women who seemed to all be blissfully feeding and snuggling their babies.

The new mum next to me said, “Isn’t this the best thing you’ve ever done?” Another mum told the group that it “just got better and better”.

It had taken so much to get me out my front door. I didn’t have the courage to confess that for me it didn’t feel like it was the best thing I’d ever done. I felt like I was making an enormous mess of things. And no, it wasn’t getting better and better. I was feeling so much worse, it was getting harder, not easier, and I feared the long nights ahead and those scary thoughts dominating the hours before dawn.

I felt like the odd one out. No-one else seemed to be drowning. I had never felt so isolated in my life. I vowed to myself never to go back to that meeting again. I’m sure on the surface I looked like I was coping; and looking back, there would have been some other mums in that group who, like me, were floating adrift, desperate to be thrown a lifeline.

. . .

What surprised me was the stigma I felt when I realised I had post-natal depression. It was ironic, as for many years I’ve campaigned for greater mental health awareness. The message I would tell people again and again, in media interviews, charity functions and education campaigns, was that having a mental illness was nothing to be ashamed of, that it was an illness like any other. But now, here I was feeling that shame.

. . .

After about six weeks of trying to ignore how I was feeling and attempting to hide my inner chaos by putting on my wardrobe armour, I realised I had to talk to my husband. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I felt that I was letting him down, too.

As my daughter slept, I sat next to Peter on the couch and told him I wasn’t coping. He kept asking me if I was going to harm myself or Allegra, and I told him of course not. But I knew that I needed someone to pull me out of the anxious, frightening world my head was slipping into. He held me and told me everything was going to be all right, and then, for the first time in a long time, I believed it.

We came up with a plan, that I would call my obstetrician the next day and take it from there. My doctor was wonderful. I rang her, explained a little over the phone about my black thoughts and she arranged for me to see her that afternoon. I remember pouring my heart out to her, sobbing as I explained how I had been feeling over those past few weeks. She organised for me to see a psychiatrist the following day.

I put on my diamond-patterned dress for the psychiatrist. She could quickly see through my appearance. I realised I didn’t have to pretend anymore and I just had to be honest. And when I sat there talking with her, describing my thoughts, I started to feel a sense of relief. She explained that the thoughts I was having were typical for someone with PND. No longer did I feel like a freak, some crazy woman. I already felt like I was on my way. The most difficult step for me had been asking for help. Now that I was getting the help I needed, I felt like this incredible weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

I was keen to get started on anti-depressants. I was desperate to get the thoughts out of my head. My psychiatrist laughed at my eagerness. Usually she would have to convince her patients of the benefits of a little chemical help. I knew medication had helped my mum, and I was keen to kickstart my recovery. And make up for lost time with my family.

After about three weeks on the medication, I started to feel a little better. I was standing in my front garden and noticed the smell of jasmine in the air. I could feel a slight shift inside of me, a little breeze of optimism. What a lovely change in the wind. And that positive wind blew stronger over the following weeks, taking my dark thoughts away with it. And slowly, I began to feel more and more like me again.

I realised I wasn’t a failure. What I had was an illness. It didn’t mean I was a bad mother, or that I didn’t love my baby. I just needed some help to get over a difficult, dark patch in those early months of my little girl’s life. Now when I put my darling girl to bed and she closes her blue eyes, I don’t dread the night ahead. We both sleep heavily, dreaming of the joy that daybreak will bring.

Helping Teen Girls in Crisis

Trigger warning: This blog post contains references to suicide. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or behaviour, seek help immediately. These help lines are open 24 hours a day:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
New Zealand
Lifeline: 0800 543 354

The tragedy of teenage girl Daani Sanders taking her own life this week weighs heavily on my heart. As a mother with teenage daughters, I have been giving them lots of extra cuddles and kisses. Some media are reporting that bullying on Facebook may have played a role. Certainly since her death, cyberbullies have attacked memorial pages set up on Facebook by her friends. I received comments that I felt were not healing for other teens on my YouTube page featuring an interview I gave with Kerrianne about this topic and made the decision this morning to disable comments:

The hateful comments that have appeared on Facebook are a timely reminder that we all need to keep a close eye on what our teenagers are doing and seeing online. It is especially important that we support our daughters and sons right now, as thousands of Facebook users, including many teens, are joining and viewing the memorial pages. The pages contain a mix of comments – some are healing; some are well-meaning but potentially damaging to vulnerable teens because they inadvertently glorify suicide; and some are intentionally malicious and destructive. Our kids need our help and support in navigating what they might see and read on those memorial pages.

Teens, especially girls, are immersed in the world of social networking from the moment they wake up till the moment they go to bed. These connections are vitally important to them, so the last thing I would want any parent to do is try to ban their daughter from social networking sites – instead, I think it’s important that we educate ourselves and get involved.

For guidance in speaking publicly about this topic, and in helping teens navigate what they see and read about it on social-networking sites and in the media, I have turned to the guidelines for journalists on the reporting of suicide. These guidelines were established by Mindframe, which is affiliated with the Federal Government’s National Media Initiative.

Mindframe cautions that there is “a strong association between news media presentations of suicide and increases in actual suicidal behaviour”, with greater coverage leading to an increase in suicides. This does not mean that we should stop talking to our kids about this topic, though. In fact, there is a decrease in suicidal behaviour when it is portrayed as “a tragic waste and an avoidable loss” and when stories about suicide focus on “the devastating effects on others”.

Many of the commenters on the Facebook memorial pages are conjecturing about the method used. It is important as parents and teachers that we reframe the conversation, because “not reporting method or location” is another way of decreasing the risk of others engaging in suicidal behaviour. Focusing on those who have overcome suicidal thinking is another way to decrease the risk.

Mindframe notes that “we need to find ways of increasing community discussion of suicide and suicide prevention”, which is my aim. Just one teen suicide is too many, so below I am sharing with you an excerpt from my book The Butterfly Effect on the warning signs and what to do if you notice them. For resources on cyberbullying and helping girls stay safe online, you might find these past blog posts helpful: Cyber Bully Busting
Making Friends With Facebook

And for strategies to deal with bullying generally: Bullying, It’s Time to Focus On solutions

Girls in Crisis

Posters available at
Posters available at

What many people who try to take their lives share is a sense of being trapped in a stressful or painful situation, a situation that they are powerless to change. Having depression or a mental illness raises a person’s risk of suicide. Stressful life events or ongoing stressful situations may fuel feelings of desperation or depression that can lead to suicide attempts. Examples of these stresses include the death of a loved one, divorce or a relationship breakup, a child custody dispute, settling in to a blended family, financial trouble, or a serious illness or accident. Any kind of abuse – physical, verbal or sexual – increases the risk, and that applies not only to teens but their mothers and fathers as well, even if that abuse took place many years ago but is unresolved. Substance abuse by any member of a family affects the other members of the family and can either directly lead to suicidal feelings or indirectly, through the loss of income and social networks or trouble with the law.

Looking at teens in particular, bullying needs to be taken seriously as it has been known to make children try to take their own life. Also, teens are right in the middle of forming their own individual identities and a major component of that is their sexuality. For a teenager who is questioning their sexual preference or gender, the pressure to be like everyone else, the taunting they receive because they clearly are not, or their own guilt and confusion can become unbearable. A relationship breakup can be a trigger for suicide in some teens. As adults, we have the ability to look at the bigger picture and know that in years to come, a teenage breakup will not seem anywhere near as important as it does at the time. Your teenage daughter, on the other hand, may not yet have the maturity to see beyond the immediate pain. If she seems unduly distressed about a breakup, pay attention. Another trigger for teen suicide is the recent suicide of someone close to them, or the anniversary of a suicide or death of someone close to them, so these are times when your daughter may need extra support.

Suicide is hard to talk about. It is almost taboo, simply too painful to touch on. But silence can be deadly. Often the parents of a teen girl at risk of suicide do not ask their daughter the tough question of whether she is planning to take her own life. In part they may be in a state of denial, which is only human – after all, no parent wants to imagine that their daughter feels suicidal. They may also have a fear that seems to be ingrained in our culture: that if they mention suicide to their depressed or distressed daughter, they will be putting the idea in her head. But experts in adolescent mental health agree that it is more than okay to speak directly to your daughter about suicide. “Parents are often worried that by asking they may make matters worse. Well, I have never known a child to suicide because someone asked whether they were thinking about it,” says Dr Brent Waters. “They should ask; the issues won’t just go away.”

Another unhelpful myth about suicide is that a teen who talks about suicide is simply seeking attention and won’t actually take her life. In fact, four out of five young people who commit suicide tell someone of their intentions beforehand. Besides, I have never understood the point of making a distinction between attention seeking, a cry for help or a genuine intention to commit suicide. Even if a teen is not actually going to go through with a plan to take her life, if she is distressed enough to cry out for help, her voice needs to be heard and she needs our support.

Suicide warning signs
• Loss of interest in activities she used to enjoy
• Giving away her prized possessions
• Thoroughly cleaning her room and throwing out important things
• Violent or rebellious behaviour
• Running away from home
• Substance abuse
• Taking no interest in her clothes or appearance
• A sudden, marked personality change
• Withdrawal from friends, family and her usual activities
• A seeming increase in her accident proneness, or signs of self-harm
• A change in eating and sleeping patterns
• A drop in school performance, due to decreased concentration and feelings of boredom
• Frequent complaints about stomach aches, headaches, tiredness and other symptoms that may be linked to emotional upsets
• Rejection of praise or rewards
• Verbal hints such as “I won’t be a problem for you much longer” or “Nothing matters anyway”
• Suddenly becoming cheerful after a period of being down, which may indicate she has made a resolution to take her life

What you can do
Reading the list of suicide warning signs is enough to chill anyone, but there is much you can do to help someone who is suicidal. Number one: if anyone – child, adolescent or adult – says something like “I want to kill myself” or “I’m going to kill myself”, seek help straightaway. Remove anything they might be tempted to use to kill themselves with and stay with them. Dial 000 if you need to, or a crisis line. The following phone counselling services are available throughout Australia 24 hours a day:
• Lifeline: 13 11 14
• Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
• Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
In New Zealand, phone:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Another valuable thing you can do to help someone you fear is having suicidal thoughts is to listen. These pointers are adapted from the Victorian Government’s excellent “Youth suicide prevention – the warning signs” on
• Listen and encourage her to talk
• Tell her you care
• Acknowledge her feelings
• Reassure her
• Gently point out the consequences of her suicide, for her and the people she leaves behind
• Stay calm; try not to panic or get angry
• Try not to interrupt her
• Try not to judge her
• Don’t overwhelm her with too much advice or stories about your own experiences

My thoughts are with Daani Sander’s family and friends. My thoughts are with all of us who have lost loved ones through suicide. May we all, somehow, find peace. xxx

Postscript 25/7:  I was interviewed by Miranda Devine for her column entitled “A Network of Nastiness” late last week. It offers further commentary on cyber bullying and the perils of the always on on-line world.

The Kids Who Call the Streets Home

Every day at Enlighten, we see the amazing potential that all young people have. So it breaks my heart when I think about the tens of thousands of girls and boys in Australia who don’t get the same chances to shine as most kids, because they’re trying to work out where they’re going to sleep tonight and where their next meal is coming from.

Depending on where you live, youth homelessness might not be all that visible a problem. But in fact, more than 36,000 people aged 12 to 25 are homeless, half of the young people seeking shelter are turned away because there aren’t enough services, and in Sydney more than 1,000 young people will be sleeping on the streets tonight.

Ella, a young woman I met through my work with Enlighten whom I admire, volunteers regularly to help homeless young people. She has written a story about her experiences one recent winter night on the streets of Sydney. I love Ella’s authentic, compassionate voice, so I wanted to share her story with you. And below, you’ll find links to some charities who are doing amazing work to help disadvantaged young people.


We were here to find the kids who call the streets home. The kids who sleep on cardboard boxes, subtly wedged behind the impressive sandstone structures of Central Station. The kids who might get a grant from Public Housing to rent a hotel room for the night and then cram 5, 6, 7, 8, sometimes more, kids onto the floor of one hotel room so they can stay warm and get high together.

It was cold. So cold that the chill made my nose piercing hurt. So cold I couldn’t feel the tips of my fingers or toes, despite wearing gloves. So cold that going from outside to inside the car, my glasses fogged up so much that I couldn’t see. We couldn’t find many kids. This made me so glad. There were a few we knew, hovering at the food vans for bread and hot tea. But they were mainly older. Not the 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds and others we usually see during the warmer months.

We went to see a few kids who’d called the coordinator during the day. “Do you need anything?” he’d asked and the answer was, without fail, a resounding yes. Things we, from privilege—and yes, we are privileged if we have a roof over our heads, food in the cupboard, blankets on our bed and electricity—shamefully take for granted. One girl requested “candles, food and blankets, please”. It was only the last word which astounded me. Despite coming from a home life most of us could not imagine, despite needing candles because where she was staying did not have electricity—which sends shivers up my spine as it is less than five minutes from my own home—she still managed to tack “please” onto the end of a sentence and be polite during our entire interaction. This girl I’d met before, during the warmer months, when she’d managed to find a place in a refuge. Her accommodation is so unstable that her suitcase lives in the coordinator’s car and he goes to meet her when she needs things.

“I met you a few months ago,” I told her.

She looked at me. “Sorry. I get high a lot. I don’t remember.” Then she turned back to the car and rifled through her suitcase to find her missing shoe.

Another girl, who again gave my naivety an electric shock, called us asking for food. She was not sleeping on the streets this winter. She was not in a refuge. She was not even bunked down with her street family in a hotel room or couch surfing with her friends. Oh no. She was staying with her parents for a little while. Parents so wrapped up in their own addiction issues that they were not providing food to their own child. Her home life was so unstable that this little one was forced to call us to ensure she’d get a meal. Sitting in the car outside her parents’ home, my heart just broke a little more.

We visited one of the major refuges for young people, which belongs to the agency I volunteer with. It is far from a hotel. With cracked walls and mismatching furniture, it’s a last resort for kids who would alternatively be on the streets or in jail. We pilfered some food and sheets (with permission, to give to kids who need them) and said hi to a few of the kids we knew—kids who were fortunate enough to have got a bed. But they are kids who bounce from the streets to friends’ houses to refuges—where they might get kicked out, or their time there expires, or they might chose to leave—and go back to the streets, to friends’ houses, to refuges. And it makes me wonder how we ever break this poverty cycle.

These kids are just like any other normal kids. Except they use drugs. And drink. And live out of a suitcase if they’re lucky. And they don’t have the support of a community because of The Stereotype. The Drop-Kick, Drop-Out, Dead-Beat, Useless, Worthless-Homeless-Culture Stereotype that we as a me-me-me culture impose on these kids. It’s a we-don’t-want-our-kids-to-associate-with-people-like-that, no-you-don’t-deserve-a-chance-because-of-where-you-come-from culture that makes the public housing towers of Waterloo exactly what they are. It makes it incredibly difficult for these kids to break out of the poverty cycle when they live in ghettos like that. It means these kids aren’t only up against adverse family situations, a low socio-economic status, difficulty obtaining work and education (it’s hard to do that when you don’t know where you’re going to be sleeping, aye), addiction and mental illness and lack of access to quality care. It means they’re also up against us, not giving them a chance.

And this means so much to me. It’s personal. And it makes me so angry. We have so much, we’re “the lucky country”—yet children, CHILDREN, are not afforded opportunity simply because of circumstances often out of their control. And most people won’t see the big hearts of these kids. Most people won’t know that my friend who is a youth worker got an SMS from one of her kids telling her she was an “angel” who was benefiting his life. Most people don’t see the appreciation of these kids when we give them a tin of soup and a donated bread loaf. Most people don’t understand what a big thing completing year 10 at school is for some of these kids.

I have written about this before, and I imagine I will continue to do so. While you’re warm in your bed, sitting in your heated office, taking a warm shower, cooking for the family, flipping through your textbooks for your degree, hanging off the fridge because you feel like something but there’s just too much choice, I’d encourage you to remember that there are young people in our own country who are not afforded these luxuries. Perhaps you’ve the money to donate to one of these charities which does so much work. Perhaps you’ve not the money, but the time to volunteer in a food van for a few hours once a fortnight. Perhaps you just want to understand a little more about this aspect of Australia we don’t talk about. All I hope I can do is encourage you to think as you’re walking down the street. And to look. And not judge. Maybe all is not as it seems.

This is an edited excerpt of a longer story, which you can read in full at Ella’s blog. For a list of agencies and helplines that support homeless young people across Australia, go here. For New Zealand, try here.

In Sydney, several charities do great work to help homeless and disadvantaged young people and they all rely on volunteers like Ella, as well as donations.

I applaud the philosophy of Father Chris Riley’s Youth Off the Streets: “We believe that in order to break the cycle of disadvantage, abuse and neglect, all young people need to be provided with the opportunity to achieve their full potential.”

The Salvation Army’s Oasis Youth Support Network offers education, training, jobs, counselling, drug and alcohol programs, food and accommodation.

Reverend Bill Crews’s Exodus Foundation provides food, showers, clean clothes, financial assistance, counselling and literacy programs.


(Heart image by Plismo, Creative Commons 3.0 license.)

The Blame and Shame Game

This week I have noticed an alarming trend on Facebook. Many of my teen girl “Friends” have been liking sites that make jokes about “sluts”. I don’t want to give these sites anymore oxygen here but there does seem to be a fresh wave of pages dedicated to this. I became so concerned I immediately sent out a message via our Enlighten Education FB page:

Amazons – here is the deal. I am friends with loads of teens and I notice many are “liking” sites that refer to girls as sluts or make jokes about sluts. Man – this makes me sad! There is NO excuse ever to call another woman a slut or make assumptions about her sexuality. By joking like this, and labelling, we give others permission to do the same…Love, Light and Laughter , Danni xxxx

I was reassured when within the space of 20 minutes, at least 45 girls had agreed with me and a number said they were sharing this as their status too.

EMsigningI thought it timely too to publish a guest post by one of my favourite young Australian feminist writers, Emily Maguire which further explores the dangers in defining women, and teen girls, by their outfits.

Emily is the author of three novels and two non-fiction books. Her articles and essays have been published widely including in The Monthly, The Australian and The Age and in 2007 she received an Edna Ryan Award (Media Category) for her writing on women’s issues. Emily was named as a 2010 Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year and is the recipient of the 2011 NSW Writers’ Fellowship. Her latest book is “Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice.” I am thrilled to share an extract from “Your Skirt’s Too Short” and hope it will illicit debate and discussion. I’d also like to add another argument here in defence of teen girls; whilst we are often quick to judge, we forget it is the culture that surrounds them (which is largely adult created) which tells them at every turn that their currency is their looks, and their capacity to be sexy. How can we condemn girls wearing short skirts when we have brought them Bratz dolls dressed in exactly the same attire since they were toddlers? Why wouldn’t a young woman want to dress like the role models popular culture presents her with? And if we are so quick to judge, why are we not surprised when they judge each other so harshly too?

Let’s not allow ourselves to get caught up in the blame and shame game, nor turn a blind eye when we see teens engaging in versions of it that are masked as being merely for LOL’s.

The meaning of a miniskirt

A good friend of mine was told by a senior co-worker that she should ‘rethink her clothing’. She asked for clarification. ‘You tend to dress like a slut,’ she was told. Note the accusation was not that she was a slut, but that she dressed like one.

If we agree that the term slut means to have more sexual partners than the user of the term finds acceptable, what does it mean to dress like one? Amongst the women I know there is absolutely no way you could guess who has slept with the most men simply by looking. Hell, look at me in my baggy jeans and overcoat and try and guess my sexual history.

Anyway, back to my friend who was told she dressed like a slut at work. I started to describe what she was wearing when this comment was made, but I went back and deleted it. Because, however much I want to defend her by explaining why her outfit wasn’t ‘slutty’, doing so would imply that, had it been skimpier/shorter/tighter/different, then she would have deserved the label.

I know a woman who had the phrase ‘Muslim bitch’ thrown at her as she passed a group of young men outside a convenience store. Her reaction, and that of all of us who heard about the verbal attack, was to label those young men ignorant, bigoted pigs. The idea that she somehow brought this on herself because of her clothing is frankly offensive.

Yet my ‘slutty’ friend looked immediately to herself to discover why she had been insulted, and almost everyone she told about the incident asked her to describe what she was wearing at the time, as though the answer would somehow excuse or explain the insult. Why do women, who would not dream of blaming the victim of racial or religious vilification, automatically move to check what they might have done to ‘incite’ sexist insults?

The comparison with my hijab-wearing friend is apt and I want to explore it a little further. Some people would argue that she did indeed incite the thugs by dressing in a way that advertises her faith. As this well-rehearsed argument goes, women who wear the hijab know that they stand out in the community and so can’t complain when they are abused or discriminated against because they are choosing to draw attention to themselves.

There are plenty of problems with this line of argument, but two in particular are relevant to our discussion about my allegedly slutty-clothed friend. First is the assumption that women’s clothing is a costume meant to signify to our audience what role we are playing, and that we should not complain when our audience responds accordingly.

Of course clothing is a social signal. Many people dress to signal their rejection of mainstream aesthetics or their identification with a sub-culture, for example. Adherents of certain religious groups do the same thing. Even those of us who don’t dress to express membership of a specific group, do adjust our attire depending on the location. We do this because we understand that jeans and sneakers ‘say’ something different than a suit or a bikini or a cocktail dress.

But recognising that clothing is a social signifier is not the same as saying that it invites a specific response. You see a woman in a dress that reveals a lot of skin: maybe her choice of clothing signifies a desire for attention. Maybe it signifies that she is part of mainstream fashion culture. Maybe she loves the colour or fabric. Maybe she wants to keep cool while out dancing. It’s not the right of others to pass judgment on what a woman is ‘saying’ or ‘asking for’ by dressing in a particular way.

The other problem with assuming that women in hijab or short skirts or whatever are inviting a particular kind of attention is that it’s impossible to anticipate how a random person will react. You might think your mid-calf skirt and long-sleeve blouse is modest but that Taliban wannabe at the bus-stop could become inflamed by your naked ankles. And the woman who was abused for wearing a hijab may leave it off next time and be insulted instead for her form-fitting skirt.

Certain ways of dressing may attract more attention than others, but some men will continue to insult women on the street no matter what the women are wearing. The office creep who stares at his colleague’s breasts or legs will do so regardless of how she is dressed, and there has probably never been a rapist who has let a potential victim walk on by because her dress was ankle length.

The subject of slutty clothing becomes particularly fraught when it is concentrated on teenagers. Most have heard their mum or dad utter the timeless classics: ‘Your skirt’s too short!’ or ‘You’re not leaving the house dressed like that!’ I don’t know how many times I’ve heard men—nice, progressive, liberal men—make comments along the lines of ‘I wouldn’t let my daughter dress like [Paris Hilton/catwalk model/random girl standing at a bus stop] because I know how teenage boys think.’ It’s not sexist to suggest teenage girls cover up, they argue, because it’s a biological fact that teenage boys are obsessed with sex and will think about, if not try to initiate, intimate acts with said innocent but skimpily dressed young girls.

Let’s get real: teenage girls do sometimes wear skimpy clothes. You can sort of see how some older people might make a comparison between the tiny skirts and skin–tight tops of teenagers and those of street-walking sex workers. But I bet that if those same critics opened up their teenage photo albums they’d find the same so-called hooker-wear proudly on display. I’ve seen photos of my mum and her sisters as teenagers and they’re wearing skirts so short that I can’t believe someone didn’t write an editorial about the improper influence of Twiggy. Chances are your parents have similar pics stashed in a drawer somewhere.

See, the clothing of ‘young people today’ is exactly the same as the clothing of young people yesterday (every yesterday) in that it is designed to: a) differentiate their generation from the one previous—whether Mum is a right-on feminist or a traditional homemaker, dressing like a burlesque dancer will work nicely to show the world you are not your mother; b) identify with a culture or sub-culture; and c) display sexual awareness and interest.

Obviously it’s the last one that agitates parents and excites the commentariat into a scarcely concealed sexual hypocrisy. The Australian current affairs magazine The Monthly illustrated an article about ‘sex and power in the age of pornography’ with a full page photo of teenage girls in very short skirts. The Sun-Herald’s feature titled ‘Sass to sleaze: the new girl power’, worried that raunch culture has ‘gone too far’ and then went rather far itself using three close-up photos of starlets’ breasts, another pic of a singer’s bare thighs and one of a pole dancer. The presentation of these two articles is representative of the mainstream media’s approach to the subject: young women are perved on, photographed, used to sell papers and then told to stop being so damn sexual.

But teenagers, whatever they wear, are sexual. We seem to have no trouble accepting this about boys: think of modern pop culture classics like American Pie or Superbad in which the quest for sex is an integral part of male bonding and coming of age. The fact that male sexuality is not feared and restricted like female sexuality is evident in the way our culture looks at teenagers. Adults may roll their eyes at boys with their pants half fallen down but there’s no panic about boys showing their bums in order to attract sexual partners.

Yes, clothes for teen girls do tend to reveal more flesh than those for boys, but that’s a reflection of a culture in which women are always provided with less fabric than men (think tux compared to evening gown; men’s business shirt compared to women’s), rather than a signal that they’re up for an orgy. They may well be up for that or anything else, of course, but their outfits aren’t going to tell you that. Clothes do communicate messages, but you have to understand the language to read them properly and, when it comes to teen culture, most adults don’t have a clue.

Teenage boys, on the other hand, do. Many of them are also, it is fair to say, preoccupied with sex, but that fact has no connection to what the girls around them are wearing (just like teenage girls think about sex no matter what the boys around them are wearing). A heterosexual teenage boy is capable of being turned on by anything even resembling a woman’s body. If a girl goes to school in a shapeless sack, teenage boys will spend all day imagining what is under it. Does anyone think boys in the 1950s didn’t have fantasies about what the girls hid underneath their pleated skirts?

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