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Month: September 2012

“To all my Facebook Friends: promise never, ever to assault women.”

The news that the body of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher has been found has left many of us distressed, and searching for answers. And, driven by this fear, we are at risk of offering misguided and potentially harmful advice to our young women. Case in point, a friend posted this as her Facebook status today: “To all my female FBFs: promise never, ever to walk home alone. RIP Jill Meagher.”

My aim in pointing out why this status is so unhelpful and misguided is certainly not to embarrass this Facebooker, but I do want to draw attention to how problematic this type of discourse is as I have seen and heard many similar comments in the past 48 hours. In fact, following on from an excellent piece about the dangers in victim shaming written by Clementine Ford this week, I was asked to caution against dialogue that assumes those who are harmed must have been doing something wrong on channel 9’s Mornings program yesterday.

So, what are the uncomfortable truths?

Firstly, Ms Meagher lived 700 metres from her home –  it is highly unlikely a cab would have taken her such a short distance and even getting a cab home wouldn’t necessarily have guaranteed her safety: there are a significant number of assaults on women in taxis. In Western Australia alone, ten drivers were convicted of sexual assaulting passengers  in the period from January  through to August 2012, whilst the WA Transport Department  received 52 complaints about sexually inappropriate behaviour during this same time frame.

Secondly, even if women did remain forever vigilant and never left the house unless escorted, they are not guaranteed safety. The vast majority of episodes of violence against  women occur with someone the woman knew, and trusted; many women are not safe even in their own homes. One in three Australian women will experience violence in an intimate relationship.

Finally, let’s ask ourselves the following questions. Is it fair and reasonable to expect women to live in a state of perpetual fear? Where would we draw the line; do we expect all girls and women to only walk to and from their workplaces and schools if they are escorted? After all, violence does not only happen after dark. And, is a world in which women no longer have personal freedom, one we want to be promoting?

Wouldn’t better advice be: “To all my FBF’s promise never, ever to assault women”?

The uncomfortable truth is that there is no quick, easy fix. Violence against women will not be stopped simply be increasing female fear (besides, ask any woman – there is plenty of fear there already). Violence will not be stopped by only ever walking in company, or by refusing to go out at night, or by demanding women keep themselves safer.

This week, in an attempt to make some sense of the senseless, and initiate more nuanced discussions, I am sharing a post by Psychologist Jacqui Manning.

NB: this blog talks about the traumatic effects of sexual assault – if you feel this will be painful for you to read, please pause here and/or get support before you do – LifeLine are 24/7 on 13 1114.

Jill Meagher and the problem with our men

As with many people across Australia I am writing with a heavy heart as the body of Jill Meagher was discovered this morning. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her and think this is probably because I have done what she did a thousand times before. Why wouldn’t it be OK for her to walk a short distance home from where she was?

By all accounts she was smart, independent, savvy and familiar with her surroundings, all protective factors however the unthinkable happened to her.

The focus has been on women keeping themselves safe after dark, however it really should be on the men committing these heinous crimes and how we as a culture can make changes so this kind of crime diminishes over time.

Random brutal violence can happen to both men and women as we saw with the death of Thomas Kelly in Kings Cross, however while it does happen, the majority of attacks on men don’t involve sexual assault.

The ramifications of sexual assault are life-long. Even 20 years later those who experience this most horrible crime can suffer with the traumatic effects.

These can include:
* nightmares
* physical reactions of trauma and anxiety – heart palpitations, racing thoughts, sweats
* not wanting to get into a relationship
* not wanting intimacy with a trusted partner
* not being able to have children (fear of being examined/the whole process)
* not feeling safe in their own home – whether or not the assault took place there
* destroyed self-worth

I work with my clients to try and heal, re-build, learn strategies to alleviate the very real physical aspects of their trauma, and it does work over time. I remember many years ago one of my lovely clients who had just completed an emotional session with me regarding her sexual assault, walked out of my room beaming and saying “I never thought I could feel so light and free about this”.

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the therapy came as an early intervention for our men, rather than as a tool to mop up the mess? Wouldn’t it be great if by one man seeking help for his problems, this prevented the downward spiral that leads to committing the crime of sexual assault (and murder) which affects not only the victim but their families and loved ones?

In our culture men are taught (from a very young age) to toughen up, don’t cry, deal with it, ‘don’t be a girl’ if they are feeling sad/down/upset. So what are men supposed to do with their very real feelings?
In Australia they are ‘allowed’ to drink heavily, get angry, be sullen, perhaps even get violent, that is all just a part of ‘boys being boys’.

* They are not being taught constructive outlets for their feelings
* They are not being shown how to communicate anger/sadness/grief in a positive way
* They are not being shown at a cultural level that drinking is not the answer to everything (I struggle every year to buy a fathers day card without it referring to beer).
* They are told to ‘man up’ if they have a reaction to difficult situations (relationship breakdown, losing their job etc).

I know absolutely nothing about the man who raped and killed Jill Meagher and I don’t know if anything could or would have prevented him from inflicting such horror.

I do know however that we can try to do better and rather than constantly laying the responsibility at the feet of women to keep themselves safe, we need to shift that responsibility where it belongs – to the perpetrators and to a society that hasn’t taught their men better ways.

Please call LifeLine if this article has been difficult for you to read and/or seek help from a trusted professional. Lifeline 13 1114

Diet Crazy Mums

As a follow on from a number of posts I’ve featured on dieting and body image*, I thought I’d share this recent segment I did on channel 9’s Mornings Show; I am one of the program’s resident parenting experts and their body image spokesperson.

Whilst it would be easy to dismiss the new reality television series we discuss here, “Diet Cray Mums”, as merely extremist nonsense, in reality I think it illuminates many beliefs and behaviours that have become mainstream. An irrational fear of fat and the willingness to do anything to “save” one’s child from being larger. The belief that if we fit a narrow ideal of beauty we will be loved, happy and successful. An obsession with monitoring weight, rather than a focus on health…

Take a look and let me know what you think. Are many of us guilty of being “diet crazy” too?

If you continue watching my Youtube channel after the “Diet Crazy Mums” segment finishes, more vision of my Mornings Interviews will play. In fact, it is immediately followed by a related debate with fitness expert Amelia Burton on the suggestion we should be weighing primary school aged children in our schools.

* More posts on dieting and body image that have been featured on this blog include:

Unpacking the diet industry’s false promises

The toxic message in Facebook teen health and fitness sites 

Generation Cleanskin (a three part series that starts here)

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

The weight-loss industry has no place in our schools

Unpacking the diet industry’s false promises

This week’s guest post is by Lydia Jade Turner. Ms Turner is a psychotherapist and the Managing Director of BodyMatters Australasia. In this research article she explores the connections between body image, weight, the media, and food-related industries. The Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia (AGSA) invited Ms Turner to write this piece and it appears in the current edition of their journal, In Alliance. Full references were provided and may be obtained by contacting Ms Turner and / or referring to her original submission for AGSA.

Australia is currently facing a public health crisis. On one hand, approximately one-quarter of school-aged children are reported to be ‘overweight’ or ‘obese.’ On the other, the National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC) reports eating disorders have increased two-fold over the past five years. Working out how to foster resiliency against both extremes may feel daunting for many. While some are taught to put their children on diets, others are watching their daughter refuse to eat. Despite all the anti-obesity rhetoric and warnings about eating disorders, many are getting sicker. This paper argues for a paradigm shift away from a weight based approach to health, and makes the case for tighter regulation of the industries contributing to eating and dieting disorders in young people.

The effects of dieting and weight loss

Popular shows like The Biggest Loser suggest shaming and stigmatising ‘obese’ individuals inspires health-giving behaviours. It is troubling that many adolescents and children are exposed to such programmes, as ‘weight-based stigma’ was recently identified as a shared risk factor for both ‘obesity’ and eating disorders, in a research summary prepared by the NEDC. While such shows encourage dieting for weight loss, a landmark study by Dr Dianne Neumark-Sztainer demonstrated that adolescent girls who engage in weight-control behaviours are significantly more likely to gain weight and be heavier than their non-dieting peers five years later.

A consistent finding was demonstrated in a study published in the 2003 Journal of Paediatrics, which explored the relationship between dieting and weight change amongst ‘tweens’ and adolescents. Tracking 15,000 participants, the research found those put on diets were significantly more likely to gain weight than those who were not. Paradoxically, dieting for weight loss appears to increase the likelihood of becoming ‘obese.’ It is theorized this is due to our bodies adapting to famine periods over hundreds of thousands of years. It has only been a relatively short period of time that we have existed in a cultural mixing pot with the convenience of high calorific, nutritionally devoid foods and often sedentary lifestyles.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found the appetite stimulating hormone ghrelin actually increased by approximately twenty percent even one year after participants were put on a weight-loss diet. Leptin, which helps to suppress hunger and raise metabolic rate, was found at lower levels than expected. The appetite suppressing hormone peptide YY was also found at unusually low levels. It is not yet known how long these changes remain. The Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) which controls the amount of energy expended for the body’s basic survival functions also reduces. In essence, for many, the body works against the efforts to lose weight.

Those who engage in repeated cycles of dieting are significantly more likely to suffer from binge eating, as binge eating is the body’s survival response to deprivation. It overrides a person’s desire to restrict their intake to an uncomfortable level. Anorexia however presents an exception to this response, with emerging research showing it may be a brain disorder exacerbated by starvation, rather than a matter of unshakable willpower. For reasons not fully understood, the patient’s physiology does not ‘kick in’ to protect them from their desire to starve.

Perhaps this explains why nearly fifty years of research have demonstrated that weight loss approaches fail approximately 95% of the population over the long term. While many can lose weight in the short term, research has yet to show a dieting approach that works for most over two to five years. In fact one in five obese Australians is now reported to have eating disorder symptoms, despite appearing to have ample fat stores.

The US National Weight Control Registry provides some interesting insights into the lives of those who have maintained weight loss over the long term. The registry has enrolled over 6000 participants who have maintained an average weight loss of 15 kilograms for at least one year, and is often heralded as ‘evidence’ that weight loss maintenance is achievable for most. Yet a critique of the registry by Ikeda and her team of researchers as far back as 2005 found participants had to restructure their entire lives around food and weight, with many resorting to extreme measures to maintain their lost weight.

It’s clear dieting for weight loss carries many unintended consequences. Some would argue that the solutions prescribed to combat ‘obesity’ are the same behaviours eating disorders clinicians are diagnosing in their patients. The focus needs to shift onto disordered eating which damages the health of people at any size.

The unintended consequences of dieting include: food and body preoccupation, weight cycling, distraction from other health goals, reduced self-esteem, eating disorders, weight stigmatisation and discrimination. Dieting has also been identified as the biggest predictor of an eating disorder, while weight cycling has been shown to be more harmful to health than maintaining a higher but steady weight. For these reasons and more, focusing on weight loss as a goal is not recommended.

Weight stigmatisation

Weight-based stigma occurs when size is the primary focus instead of health. It is linked to a reluctance to engage in physical activity, which perhaps is not so surprising when one considers that exercise typically takes place in a public space. Weight stigmatisation is particularly harmful for young people, for example one study found obese children to be 63% more likely to be bullied, regardless of socioeconomic factors, race, gender, or what type of school they attended. Bullies often engage in bullying behaviour not because their target is fat or has big ears, but because it makes them feel comparatively powerful.

Instead of putting a child on a diet, the following factors are protective against an unhealthy lifestyle and eating disorders: fostering a positive body image, helping students find physical activities that they enjoy, modelling healthy behaviours, having students eat breakfast everyday, participating in regular and family meals, as well as fostering high self-esteem.

Anti-obesity messages

Anti-obesity messages are especially harmful to children. Public health messages must honour the principle of ‘first, do no harm.’ In a key research document by Professor Jennifer O’Dea, it was identified that “health education for child obesity prevention may result in the iatrogenesis of inappropriate weight control techniques whereby the health education program generates unplanned, undesirable and health damaging effects such as starvation, vomiting, laxative abuse, diuretic and slimming pill usage, and cigarette smoking to suppress appetite and as a substitute for eating”. Children and adolescents are also more susceptible to distorting anti-obesity messages, for example, by thinking that if low-fat milk is a good option, then no-fat milk must be even better.

Given the high failure rate and unintended consequences that accompany weight loss goals, a global shift away from a weight-based approach to health is currently being explored. The health-centred paradigm, also known as Health At Every Size®, acknowledges that health-giving behaviours have been shown to mitigate many of the diseases typically associated with obesity. Its key principles include finding pleasurable physical activity, engaging in intuitive eating, and viewing health as a multi-dimensional, ongoing process including physical, intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, and occupational aspects. We can feel good about ourselves for engaging in health-giving behaviours, instead of focussing on a certain number on the scales.

Negative media and industry practices

It is sometimes argued that parents are ultimately responsible for their child’s development of a healthy body image. While parents have some responsibility and can increase risk or resiliency, it is also the case that exposure to media images overwhelmingly contributes to increased risk of body dissatisfaction, which in turn is linked to eating and dieting disorders. A meta-analysis of seventy-seven carefully selected studies involving 15,000 participants showed that media images have more impact today on young people than they did in the nineties. Despite all the body image initiatives, ultimately media has greater impact.

In an attempt to regulate the industries contributing to poor body image, Australia’s 2009 government initiatives saw the National Advisory Board for Body Image introduce a voluntary code of conduct. Unfortunately this led to minimal change. It’s clear our current approaches to reducing harmful messages in our community are failing.

In contrast to Australia other countries have explored the possibility of legislative changes. For example in Spain there have been attempts to ban ‘cult of the body’ advertisements, which target dieting and plastic surgery products, before 10pm each night. France’s lower house of Parliament adopted a law in 2008, making it illegal for anyone, including magazines and advertisers, to incite ‘extreme thinness’. Just a few months ago, the Israeli government passed a law banning the use of underweight models in advertising and on the catwalk. It’s time Australia adopts a less compromising stance towards media images and the beauty industries.

It’s not only the beauty industries that need to face tighter regulation. The food industry should also adopt more ethical marketing practices. Specific industry practices need to change, such as supplying toys with Happy Meals, advertising ‘fun’ foods during children’s television timeslots, and encouraging eating past fullness. Ultimately a shift in health paradigms and a fresh approach towards the relevant industries will be necessary if we want to see a healthier future for Australian girls.


The toxic message in Facebook teen health and fitness sites

I work with thousands of teen girls across Australia every year. So I am always interested to note online trends as these provide an insight into their emerging interests; and nothing seems to be engaging teen girls more at the moment than the incredibly fast growing ”Teen Health/ Fitness” inspiration sites on Facebook.

There are at least two of these launching each week, and within a matter of weeks they gain tens of thousands of predominantly teen girl fans.

We might be tempted to think this is a good thing. After all isn’t there a much-talked-about obesity crisis? Aren’t we currently considering weighing children in schools as part of our response to this deadly epidemic? If our girls are finally taking matters into their own hands, isn’t that to be ”liked”, and ”shared”?

But these sites are very problematic. First, we have no idea who is administrating the pages and if they are even qualified to hand out advice (and after reading the advice posted I think it’s fairly safe to say that many most certainly are not qualified).

Second, all the pages I’ve seen are often nothing more than Thinspiration sites – sites that glorify unhealthy eating practices and become communities where girls with eating disorders can ”feed” each other’s illnesses by sharing tips and encouraging each other to stave off hunger and exhaustion.

Advice offered on one claiming to offer ”Healthy living tips” includes: ”Work out twice as much as your skinny roommate” and ”Look in the mirror and choose not to see any changes” (in order to feel motivated to work even harder). The research clearly shows that online sites that offer this type of advice normalise unhealthy relationships with food and exercise, and may trigger the onset of eating disorders in vulnerable young people.

And finally, these pages aren’t supporting girls to get fit or healthy so that they will feel good, but rather so they will simply look not just thin, but sexy.

One page, aimed at girls 13-25, tells its fans they should ”cultivate your curves – they may be dangerous but they won’t be avoided”. The cover photo shows a girl’s very large breasts in a skimpy white bikini (I’m not sure how you could exercise your way to those) and has its profile picture the almost obligatory shot of a headless girl (never a somebody, just a body) in skimpy undies holding up a midriff top to show her abdominal muscles.

Qualified Health and Fitness coach Amelia Burton explains: ”The difference between promoting healthy eating and exercise from a place of respect and love for your body versus a voyeuristic desire to be stick thin or to fit some sexy ideal is often blurred. And it makes me very angry as healthy diet and exercise offers so much more than just hot abs and bouncing breasts! For teen girls in particular, a balanced diet and sensible exercise program will assist them in many ways other than just the aesthetic: including eliminating stress, regulating sleep patterns and giving them the energy they need to study, work part time and party with their friends.”

But it’s not surprising that so many teen girls would like pages that promise them if they can only be less, they will get more – more attention, more love. After all, isn’t this merely a more extreme example of the very same messages the multibillion-dollar diet industry peddles to us every day in mainstream media?

History shows us that it is almost impossible to ban or regulate online content. Instead, we must educate girls to be able to deconstruct unhelpful and unsafe messages, and seek more reliable sources of information on their health and fitness.

I am hopeful more young women will start to recognise that pages like this are not only limiting but toxic. I cheered on the young woman who posted the following comment on an image the administrator of one site in this genre had posted that spoke about the virtues of eating only salads and carrots:

”Eat some lean meat, wholegrains and vegies … and maybe your life won’t sound like a desperate struggle to exercise to get thin! What a load of crap – motivating my ass!”

And, finally, as we head into spring and are faced with the annual barrage of dieting/body policing propaganda, let’s also be good role models and show our girls that there really is more to life than tits and a six-pack.

This post was originally published in The Age, 5/9. 

N.B I did a radio interview on this topic, and my upcoming visit to speak to the parent community at Perth College, with Perth radio’s 6PR on the 6/9/12 – you may listen to this here ( because of the size of this file, it may take a few minutes to load): Radio 6PR interviews Dannielle Miller on Facebook Thinspiration sites and Enlighten’s work in WA

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