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Month: January 2012

We dare you to move

Ever noticed how much of the talk around the new year focuses on our appearance? There is an underlying premise that if we just put more effort and energy into losing weight or getting clearer skin / longer hair / a more stylish wardrobe this will be the year we will achieve success and gain happiness.

Ever noticed too how often when we begin the new school year we start by telling our students all the things they shouldn’t do? I sat at an introduction to technology meeting last week and noted that the first 30 minutes was spent telling the girls all the things they must not do with their laptops. I had to wonder how inspired the girls (and their families) may have felt about the new laptop program after hearing a sermon on all the restrictions and the consequences of mistakes that may be made. Tellingly, despite the fact that the girls all walked out with a new computer, I did not see many smiles.

Body police. Dire warnings.

Let’s dare to do things differently. Let’s begin the year by raising girls up. Let’s (re)connect them – to their bodies, to their learning, and to other girls and women.

My 12 year old daughter, Teyah, made this film celebrating Enlighten Education’s work with girls for me in the school holidays. I love the sense of possibility, joy and connection it embodies:

With the dual goals of both inspiring and connecting girls to a wider network of strong women (girls can’t be what they can’t see)  I asked some female leaders to share their advice for the new year with your girls:

Please take risks. If you really want to do something and you’re secretly worried that people will laugh at you, this is a good reason to do it. If that means telling someone that they’re being an arse, or that you like a TV show everyone else hates, or you want to play electric guitar (which you should totally do p.s.) or learn French or wear leggings as pants, DO IT…You might not realise it yet, but the coolest people in the world are the ones who don’t care what other people think.

Karen Pickering. Karen is the host of Cherchez la Femme, co-founder of The Dawn Conspiracy, and one of the organisers of SlutWalk Melbourne.

Tracey Spicer

Never let anyone judge you on the way you look. Your heart and mind are all that count.

Tracey Spicer. Tracey is a news presenter and journalist.

Every time someone tries to silence you, just get louder. Never let anyone bully you into believing that your voice doesn’t count.

Clementine Ford. Clementine is a freelance writer, broadcaster and troublemaker based in Melbourne.

Jane Caro

Don’t take yourself or anything else too seriously. You are allowed to have fun.

Jane Caro. Jane is a media commentator, writer and senior lecturer in advertising with the School of Communication Arts at UWS.

Your intuition is usually right.

Nikki Davis. Nikki is one of Enlighten’s stellar presenters.

Each moment in life will pass whether it is good or bad so move forward without fear.

Diane Illingworth Wilcox. Di is Enlighten’s  Program Manager, Western Australia.

Be a good listener. Always try to see things from other perspectives and don’t be afraid to admit when you’ve made a mistake.

Catherine Manning. Cath is an amazing Enlighten Presenter and the founder of Pull The Pin, a protest group working to ban child beauty pageants.

Never be afraid of who you are.

 Monica Dux. Monica is a writer, social commentator and co-author of The Great Feminist Denial.

Julie Parker
Julie Parker

There is inside of you a unique spirit of courage, wisdom and beauty. There is no one just like you. That’s your incredible truth.

Julie Parker. Julie is a coach and clinical counselor who specializes in supporting positive body image. Visit her blog:

Don’t be afraid to express an interest in social justice issues or other movements that interest you (like the environment!). If someone tells you that you are "overthinking" an issue, chances are they are "underthinking" it. If they tell you that you are "over analysing it" chances are they aren’t analysing it at all. Remember, it’s OK to have an opinion. All interesting women do.

Nina Funnell. Nina is a social commentator and freelance opinion writer. She works as an anti–sexual assault and domestic violence campaigner and is also currently completing her first book on "sexting", teen girls and moral panics.

Perhaps at your next staff briefing, or Parents Association meeting, you might like to think about how you can dare to raise your girls up, and about what advice you think they really need to shine in 2012.
We’d love you to share your thoughts here too.

Behold the power of shampoo!

There is a whole world of nonsense out there in the marketing of haircare products to women. There are wild claims, like “unlocks the power of nature to give you 10X stronger hair”. There is all the jargon that means heaven knows what, like “our patented Bio-Ceramide Complex” or “natural protein fortifies hair for touchable softness” (well, if the softness is touchable, I better get a bottle now!). There are all those ingredients that must do something amazing, because you’ve never heard of them before, à la “argan oil from Morocco”.

Hollywood stars who have an army of stylists to get them looking just right rabbit on about products you are fairly sure they’ve never tossed into a shopping trolley. And of course, there are those pictures of models with tresses so long, shiny and digitally enhanced that it looks more like magical pony hair.

I think this haircare-ad spoof The Chaser team did, back when they were doing the show CNNN, is just gold. A woman’s dull, lifeless hair is “letting her family down” but after using “Esteem” shampoo her hair becomes “full of adjectives”:

A lot of teens spend a lot of hours angsting over their hair, as teens always have. How to wear it, how to cut it, how to make it straight or curly or thicker or thinner, how to get parents to agree to a hairstyle — you might remember going through all this yourself. And then there is the eternal greasy hair dilemma. The same hormone change in puberty that is responsible for the extra sebum (oil) production that leads to pimples is responsible for the oily scalp and hair that many girls feel self-conscious or even ashamed about.

With all these ads promising astonishing transformations, it’s no wonder that many girls (and women) go through a tonne of hair product and a mountain of disappointment looking for the magic bottle that will give them the “hair” they see on ads. I say “hair” because no one has hair like that, even the people in the ads. They have gone through hours of styling, are lit by state-of-the-art studio lighting and are then digitally enhanced. Ken Paves, who styles celebrities such as Eva Longoria and Jessica Simpson for hair ads, was quoted as saying, “It takes four hours of prep for one hair shot.”

To cut through all this trickery, I went looking to find out, realistically, how often it’s a good idea to wash hair and what to look for in products. And you know, for all the people in lab coats with molecular diagrams swirling around in the background of haircare ads, it turns out that there really aren’t many established scientific facts about hair washing. According to How Stuff Works, there is disagreement among medical experts who specialise in hair, skin and scalp about how often to wash hair — or even whether it’s a good idea to wash it at all!

One thing that seems clear, though, is that you probably don’t need to spend a lot of money on shampoo. They give a great explanation of what shampoo actually is: it’s about half water, with a mild detergent such as sodium laureth sulfate, plus coconut oil byproducts that don’t do anything for your hair but give the shampoo a desirable texture. Check out how quickly and easily a chemist can knock up a batch:

They recommend using a cheap, basic shampoo and saving your money to spend on conditioner.

I was surprised to find out how new the idea of regular shampooing is.

Back in the 1950s, it was common for women to have their hair washed and styled once a week at the hairdresser . . . Around the turn of the 20th century, women tended to go for about a month between salon visits. — How Stuff Works

After ABC radio presenter Richard Glover interviewed Times journalist Matthew Parris, who said he hadn’t washed his hair for 10 years, he challenged his readers to do the same for 6 weeks. Five hundred people took up the challenge, and 86 per cent of them said their hair was either better or the same.

I can’t see many teen girls wanting to try that out — me neither! So this is the advice I gleaned from Paula Begoun, “The Cosmetics Cop”, who devotes her time to debunking the outlandish promises made by the cosmetics industry: “Even washing hair on a regular basis . . . causes irreversible damage. There are ways to mitigate the damage: wash hair less frequently, condition the hair, and use protective styling products and conditioners . . . don’t over-strip hair by overdoing hair dyes . . . and use blow dryers and flat irons intermittently and carefully.” She recommends that you spend more time washing and massaging the scalp, to increase circulation, than the ends.

Some girls are embarrassed because they break out in acne around their hairline, and Begoun says that can be because some of the ingredients in shampoos and conditioners “are designed to stick to hair, which means they can also ‘stick’ to skin, too, and potentially clog pores”. She suggests rinsing well, using a gentle body and face cleanser, using only just enough conditioner, and going light on styling products.

And all those products that are designed to combat limp hair? Well, products themselves might be causing the limp hair in the first place. She says it’s best to use a shampoo with few or no conditioning agents and apply conditioner only where you need it, “not necessarily all over or near the roots and scalp”.

More than skin deep: Helping your teen with her changing skin

I didn’t have pimples very often as a teen but when I did get them, they were huge. Naturally, on the day we were having school photos one year, right in the middle of my forehead a pimple appeared that was so big I felt like a unicorn. Really, I am not just being dramatic here! It was a study in humiliation. So I get it when girls are deeply upset about having pimples.

And, of course, so do the companies who make acne treatments, who play on teen girls’ (and boys’) deepest fears in order to move their products. You know the ads: Girl has a date coming up and a pimple appears. The end is nigh; social ruin and a life of compulsive Farmville playing beckons, with only a houseful of cats for company. But wait! Magic tube of ointment makes the zit vanish in two seconds. Cut to girl confidently smiling at the adoring hunky boy.

Ever noticed that the girl is always impossibly thin and gorgeous — in a computer-enhanced, international-model kind of way — and has the most perfect complexion you’ve ever seen, except for one barely noticeable bump? Think how it looks to a teen who actually does have pimples: if the girl on the pimple-cream ad has perfect skin and is anxious out of her mind, just how anxious should she be? Awesome, now teen girls can feel not only the crushing anxiety of having pimples, but also play the compare-and-despair game with a TV fantasy girl who doesn’t even represent what a real girl looks like!

I love this example of the genre — partly because it’s so painfully obvious it’s dubbed from an American ad, but also because I’d really like to see the school where this young lady is able to waltz in and interrupt a class in order to deliver a note to a boy:

Marketers also use the scientific approach, using fancy words (that usually sound made-up to me) and promises that their product will help girls “control” their breakouts. It’s an interesting word, isn’t it? As a teen you feel like you have so little control, so how appealing this must be.

Another highly successful tack they take is the celebrity endorsement. Proactiv costs more than many products on pharmacy shelves, even though it shares the same active ingredient as the majority of over-the-counter acne treatments, benzoyl peroxide. How do you get people to pay more for the same ingredient? Have stars that teen girls adore — such as Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Avril Lavigne — give testimonials for it. (By the way, Jennifer Love Hewitt, whom you may remember from a past blog post as a champion of the fine art of vajazzling, refers to Proactiv as her “ultimate companion”. Okay, Jennifer.)

I worry that by manipulating girls’ fears of social doom because of pimples, advertisers are encouraging them to use too many harsh chemicals, which strip their skin raw and then cause more problems — which, of course, they then need more products to fix.

I asked Dr Alicia Teska, a cosmetic physician in Melbourne, if girls can harm their skin by misusing over-the-counter acne products, to which she replied, “YES!! YES!! And YES again!! People think that if a little bit of something makes a big difference to their skin, then using a hell of a lot more of it will be a good thing for their skin, and it’s actually the reverse. If they overuse medicated products, they will not only strip the outer dead layer of their skin down too much and therefore make it far more susceptible to sun damage, they can create incredible irritation and sensitivity in their skin.” This can lead to the development or worsening of eczema.

If you have a girl in your life right now with pimples, it’s important to tell her that she’s beautiful on the inside and outside, no matter what. It’s equally important to listen to her concerns and help her find out the best way to treat acne, rather than just fall for advertisers’ promises of instantly amazing skin. Acne really is an issue that needs to be addressed — for instance, a woman I know actually wagged school a couple times as a teen because she felt so ashamed of her skin. So I asked Dr Teska for some practical advice on what girls who have pimples can do.

Home treatments

“You don’t need to spend a lot of money on skin care,” says Dr Teska. “Cleanse regularly with a combination of mild soap-free cleansers once daily, and AHA or BHA cleansers (or a daily gentle AHA/BHA scrub) once daily to encourage increased turnover of keratin and dead skin cells, as these will easily block pores.” (AHA and BHA are types of acids.) “If black- or white-heads have already formed, a night-time treatment with an AHA/BHA gel or topical Vitamin A product (preferably low-strength retinoic acid, not retinol) will be necessary.

“The key is not to rely on only one approach. One needs to attack acne from multiple angles to get a fast response.” Dr Teska suggests balancing acid-based products with non-acid-based ones, such as Australia’s ASAP and the French brand Avène.

GPs, cosmetic physicians and dermatologists

Dr Teska suggests that girls with any type of acne, even mild cases, should go and see an expert for advice. “If your GP has an interest in skin, your GP might be a suitable point of reference.” She says that GPs tend to prescribe long-term antibiotics or the oral contraceptive pill, or may refer patients to dermatologists for the drug Roaccutane. If you are wary of jumping straight to medication, you may want to get an opinion from a cosmetic physician, because while they can prescribe antibiotics and the pill, they also give non-drug-based skin treatments that GPs do not provide.

Does makeup make pimples worse?

A lot of girls want to hide their pimples with foundation or concealer, but wearing makeup to school is a thorny issue in many households, not to mention the old advice that it makes acne worse. “The last thing any teen girl wants to hear is that they can’t wear makeup to school anymore,” says Dr Teska. “I always say to the girls I see, ‘If you feel the need to wear the makeup to cover your acne, then that’s okay for the short term.'” Once a girl is on a treatment program and seeing improvement, she encourages them to gradually wear less makeup. “Obviously the sort of makeup they’re wearing is important . . . Anything that’s oil based is going to dramatically aggravate the acne.” Dr Teska suggests girls use only oil-free formulations.

To squeeze or not to squeeze?

I asked Dr Teska about the truth behind the advice that squeezing pimples causes scars. And yes, your mother was right. When you squeeze a pimple, “you’re introducing infection and trauma . . . and can cause permanent scarring.”

Don’t wait

Dr Teska’s final words of advice are: “Whatever you do, please ensure that even mild acne problems are treated rapidly. This is a critical time of your teenager’s identity development, and issues such as mild or moderate acne may seem trivial to parents, but to a teenager they can have enormous consequences.”

Biggest losers from TV obesity cures are gullible viewers

If Christmas is the time to be merry and binge, then New Years’ is the time to focus and fast. January sees the highly lucrative weight loss industry ramp up its’ seductive promise that if we commit ourselves to grueling exercise regimes, detoxing, and to counting calories with religious zeal, we can begin a new life. The weight will be over.

For ‘thinspiration’ we need look no further than reality television’s The Biggest Loser, and its new counterpart Excess Baggage, which profiles celebrity weight loss.

But how helpful are these programs? And how honest is it to perpetuate the myth that a new body will equal a new life?

According to Michelle Bridges, personal trainer from The Biggest Loser, “eighty per cent of people who go on a diet will lose less than 10 per cent of their body weight, and be back where they started or heavier in five years… So don’t put yourself on a diet; instead, try implementing small, achievable, healthy changes to your lifestyle”.

Ignoring the fact that the 80 per cent failure rate figure is wrong (the figure is even higher at 95 per cent*), if the majority of people who go on a diet end up heavier in five years, then it seems unethical for the trainers to be putting already obese people on diets which- by their own admission- are highly likely to fail long-term. It is also unclear how an extreme boot-camp experience fits with the prescription of “small, achievable” change.

AJay Rochester was chosen as The Biggest Loser’s original host as she had lost a large amount of weight after years of dieting. Tellingly she has now joined Excess Baggage as a contestant after piling her own weight back on.

The results depicted in these programs are almost impossible to replicate at home where one does not have the luxury of a full-time trainer, a personal chef, and a home gym (not to mention months off work, away from the family and its demands).

But it seems that the results we see on screen may be misleading anyway.

In 2010, Kai Hibbard, a contestant from season 3 of the American Biggest Loser, breeched her strict confidentiality contract, speaking out against the show. Hibbard, who lost 54 kilograms in 12 weeks, claimed that the producers often gave the contestants more than a week to achieve their losses prior to the weigh ins, and that she learned some alarming weight loss tactics including “how to dehydrate to manipulate a scale” and that a cup of coffee counts as an entire meal. When she left the show, she stated that she loathed herself, was suffering hair loss and suffered from a “very poor mental body image”. Nor was the weight loss maintainable. At the time of speaking out, Hibbard had re-gained 32 kilograms.

Australian Biggest Loser contestants have echoed Hibbard’s accusations claiming that they too were weighed every 12-14 days (not weekly) and also used dehydration tactics.

It’s little wonder the Loser franchise has come under fire by experts who question the validity of the advice dispensed.

Psychologist and Managing Director of BodyMatters Australasia, Lydia Jade Turner says that “we need to look beyond the show’s manipulative emotionalism [and look] at exactly what messages it promotes about health and dealing with weight-related issues…One contestant collapsed two days after filming ended, having lost 40 kilos in 12 weeks. His gallbladder was removed after being rushed to hospital. Another contestant was hospitalised for low pulse rate as a result of starvation. Yet another was treated for dehydration. And these are just the cases we’ve heard about.”

So why do audiences seek instruction from these dangerous weight loss shows? And why do we postpone everything from our weddings to buying swimwear, putting our lives on-hold in the belief that it will all begin once we hit a certain magic number on the scale?

Ironically, the slogan for The Biggest Loser this year is “Love Yourself.” An admirable sentiment yet self-acceptance should not be conditional on the fact that we must first take up less and less space. The excess baggage we are all carrying around is not our weight. It is our preoccupation with size – at any cost.

Good health is an important goal, but let’s remind ourselves that this may take on a variety of sizes and shapes.

The only thing being boosted by the current culture of fat -phobia and body shaming is the profit margins of the weight loss industry.


* This figure was recognised at the Australian New Zealand Obesity Society 2009, and again at the International Obesity Summit 2010.

This post was co-written with Nina Funnell. Nina is a social commentator and freelance opinion writer. She works as an anti–sexual assault and domestic violence campaigner and is also currently completing her first book on “sexting”, teen girls and moral panics. The post was first published by the Sydney Morning Herald 9/1/12.

Be Brave.

The chance that we will be called upon to show the dramatic bravery that often wins awards is fortunately low. But every single day that we wake up and go and interact with people, we have infinite opportunities to show courage. We have the chance to intervene when another person is being bullied. The chance to blow the whistle when we see people abusing positions of power. To speak out against injustice. To speak our own truth with dignity and respect, even if it puts us at odds with our friends and peers. To be vulnerable and real when everyone around us is acting cool and invincible. To try something new, even if there is a chance we won’t succeed. And to try again, and again. To show our imperfections, along with our talents and skills and knowledge.

I recently asked Facebook fans on Enlighten Education’s page the question “What is the bravest thing you have ever done?” Their responses were incredibly poignant and inspiring:

  • “Telling my mum a secret I was ashamed of.”
  • “Facing up to the fact that I have to raise my daughters on my own.”
  • “After a messy family divorce, we were all devastated. I stood by my dad’s side to support him when no one else did. He met a girl and left the state for her. The bravest thing I did was let him, because it made him happy, even if it meant sacrificing my happiness.”
  • “Not giving up during all those years of IVF, miscarriage and grief. Becoming a mum heals some of that but doesn’t erase it. It’s part of who I am and makes me so grateful for what I have.”
  • “Preventing a girl who had passed out from drinking too much alcohol from being raped by a man.”
  • “Admitting that I had postnatal depression and getting help.”
  • “Moved to a school where I knew no one in year 11 to get a scholarship into teaching.”
  • “To go to the police about my childhood abuser. I couldn’t go through with the court case, but now they know about him. With that came facing up to a lot of my own fears, and surviving telling two people I’d never met before the most humiliating and shameful things.”

In 2012 let’s stand tall and shine, no matter what is happening around us or what our hair is doing that day, or our skin, or our weight.

Let’s take risks. Let’s stand for something. Let’s face uncomfortable truths. Let’s be brave.

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