This week I am hoping you’ll indulge me and allow me to share two projects I have been working on behind the scenes that have both just been launched.
As the co-founder and CEO of Australia’s largest provider of in-school workshops for girls, Enlighten Education, and as an author of three books aimed at supporting young women, I am often asked, ”But what about the boys?“
Yes. Boys absolutely need and deserve support. As the mother of a 12 year old boy, this matters to me at a deeply personal level.
Disengagement from school, the pressure to look buffed, feeling like they cannot express the full rage of emotions, fall outs with their mates, limiting gender stereotypes… all are issues plaguing our boys. Meanwhile we also need to do the urgent work that is required to educate them in order to help eliminate violence against women.
My two decades of experience in education, and my expertise in designing multi-award winning, engaging programs that can be delivered in schools, lead me to design our debut program – ”Myth Busting; busting stereotypes that harm boys.“ I also called on the wisdom of colleague and anti-violence campaigner Nina Funnell in producing elements of this – it truly is a considered, positive, and pro-active initiative.
And because I believe boys need more strong male role models, I recruited two highly experienced, qualified presenters with proven track records of working face-to-face with boys and men to lead these conversations that matter.
I am really proud of this initiative and of my team. I know that together we will create some really good fellas. Do check out our new site here: www.goodfellased.com
And secondly, the advertisement Nina Funnell and I were asked to create for the Australian Of The Year Awards has just ben launched! This ad will feature on every commercial Tv station nationally,and on all QANTAS flights. I will confess to shedding a tear when I first watched it – don’t the young women I was working with that day (from Stella Maris college in Sydney) shine?
What an honour to be asked to help promote building up the many local heroes we have in our community!
4. “She is only interested in exploring her sexuality as she’s troubled.”
It can be confronting for us to accept that our children will grow up and become sexual beings. However, self-motivated sexual exploration and age-appropriate information about sexuality are vital to our daughters emerging as healthy, whole women. Given that for many girls puberty will start in their early teen years, we should start having conversations with them about sex and sexuality while they are young. We need to offer them alternative voices and role models of sexuality to those they are exposed to in the media and in pornography. This is especially important given that advertisers and broadcasters certainly will be targeting them with messages about sexuality long before their early teen years; to me it seems damaging for girls who are just developing their own sexuality to be influenced largely by porn-inspired examples of sexuality. I am concerned not just because there are too many hyper-sexualised messages bombarding our girls, but because the ideal being presented to them of female sexuality is so narrow. Just as we are told that only a leggy size-8 model can be truly beautiful, we are now being told that only a busty, wet and wild blonde (who is solely focused on male pleasure) can be truly sexy. Women’s (and men’s) sexuality is, in reality, so much more diverse and complicated.
But before we can begin having truly meaningful conversations around our girls’ sexuality, we need to also establish a positive and non-judgemental attitude because in my experience, a negative or stigmatising attitude towards girls’ sexual development may cause harm, particularly when it comes from parents, teachers or other trusted figures.
Writer Emily Maguire offered an important caution against pathologizing female sexuality:
The idea that teen girls are asexual unless ‘activated’ by some external force. This is so common – this denial of the fact that teenage girls might be into sex (doing it, talking about it, imagining it, whatever) because they’re sexually developing human beings. It’s like, a boy who is distracted by lust, eager to gain sexual experience and proud of himself when he does so, is normal. A girl who acts this way is a dupe with low-self-esteem, a cautionary tale. Yes, there are external pressures on girls to look and behave in particular ways related to their sexuality, but more acknowledgement that not all sexually active/interested teenage girls have had their sexuality imposed on them by advertisers, pop culture or predatory men would be good. In fact, a lot of them, a lot of the time, are simply doing what feels good. (Or what they think might feel good, getting better at figuring out what that might be as they go along).
We still teach girls to equate promiscuity with low self-esteem and poor self-respect. Meanwhile boys are told that it’s only natural that they would want to sow their wild oats. The reality is that both boys and girls have sexual urges, libidos, pumping hormones and a desire for physical intimacy, pleasure, arousal and connection. So why do we shame girls, and teach them that they must have low self-esteem if they crave the exact same thing boys crave?
5. “Pink is for girlie girls!”
Emily Maguire in her essay “Letter to the Girls I misjudged” laments the fact that as a young girl she associated all things traditionally girly with weakness and took great pride in being seen as “one of the blokes.” This idea was extended by Clementine Ford in her post “Betraying Our Girlhood”;
Taking up arms against the demonisation of girlhood isn’t about reclaiming our right to love lipstick or dresses or have the occasional conversation about Ryan Gosling’s bottom – although those things are all perfectly fine. The fierce determination to distance ourselves from anything perceptibly “girlie” only furthers the stereotype that women who like “girlie” things are stupid and one-dimensional – and indeed that girlieness itself is stupid and one-dimensional. Some girls – like me – rejected boys’ toys entirely as children, loved pink and watched movies about high-school girls falling in love, yet they still grew up to be strident feminists. We’re all different.
As adult women, Nina Funnell and I have both admitted to each other (almost tentatively for fear of losing some feminist credibility) that as little girls we were bower-bird like in our pursuit for all that was shiny, pretty and pink. We adored our Barbies, were besotted by anything princess-like and suspect that were they around back then — we would have sold our little glittered-up souls for a Bratz. And yet like Clementine, we somehow managed to turn out just fine ( we explored this idea in a piece published by the Sydney Morning Herald: Barbie’s not an issue if girls can think for themselves). Raising healthy, well-adjusted girls has less to do with the toys they play with ( or the colours they chose to wear) and more to do with the values we instill in them. By teaching our children to think critically about cultural goods and by equipping them with skills to navigate complex cultural messages we will be empowering them for life. Education — not panic — enables girls to see clearly, think critically, and reinvent their worlds.
Girls too need to be told that there are many ways in which they can chose to be a girl and a woman. Enlighten Education Presenter, and Manager for WA, Nikki Davis agreed:
When I work with teen girls I tell them upfront that I have always been attracted to very traditionally “girlie” things – I demanded to choose my own (usually pink) clothes from age 3, dressed up as a Princess at every available opportunity and I still love high heels and make up. I then go on to tell them how important feminism is to me and how powerful I believe we all can be as women. I love to see the relief on the faces of a number of girls in the room as they realize that they don’t have to trade in their nail polish or love of clothes to be strong and independent with opinions that matter. I think telling girls that they have to fit into any sort of “mould” is incredibly limiting and we risk perpetuating age-old ideas around women having labels like ‘sporty’, ‘girlie’ or ‘tough’. There’s no reason why a woman can’t be all of those things if she chooses to be!
Once again, I’d love to hear from you. What messages do you think we deliver to young women that are harmful?
I often find myself frustrated by much of the dialogue that surrounds teen girls as it can in fact be very damaging. Sadly, those that use these assumptions and stereotypes are often those who may well have girls’ best interests at heart, but are possibly unaware as to how harmful the messages they are delivering really are.
I asked a number of leading feminists and educators to set the record straight for us and ensure that when we aim to support girls, we don’t inadvertently matters worse for them. Over the next few weeks I shall share their responses.
1. Skirt length = a measure of morality
The policing of the way teen girls wear their school uniform really concerns me. Whilst uniform guidelines are fine and part of life for both genders, framing these in terms of morality is not. So many teen girls tell me they have been told things like: “You’re a good girl, but that skirt length sends off the wrong message” , or “You’re distracting the boys…”. This is the slippery slope that excuses the harassment of girls based on their clothing choice and ultimately may lead them to feel shame about their bodies ( an idea I have explored before here). Author, columnist and academic Dr Karen Brooks agrees:
I think what bothers me most about this whole uniform and clothing issue is that somehow, female clothing has become a visual barometer that measures a woman/girl’s morality and ethics and somehow also controls men’s. That’s why claims that if a man or boy is distracted/loses control/rapes/abuses/harrasses etc. then it’s the girl/woman’s fault carry weight in society. We still somehow believe that a woman’s dress indicates her morality and invites or rejects (male) attention. Well, if that’s the case, why is that women and girls who wear hijabs or dress in non-revelaing clothing are still raped/attract unwanted attention/harrassed and are also held accountable for male behaviour when it is transgressive and/or violent?
Teachers surely know it’s not the short skirt that warrants changing, but antediluvian attitudes that let males off the hook.
It’s the Damned Whores and God’s Police model all over again, yet what girl’s are being told is that what they wear is a way of modifying, “policing” male behaviour and their own sexuality as well. There is a false notion circulating that women can control men and keep ourselves “safe” by our clothing choices. What utter nonsense.
Clothing is not the issue. Society is. Yes, we need to take responsibility for our behaviours, regardless of sex. As long as we allow men and boys to shift blame for their choices, for their harassment or worse of women, nothing will be resolved. Clothes do not maketh the woman, but actions maketh the man (and woman)!
Look: I understand the desire a school might have to encourage students to dress respectfully and semi-professionally; out-of-the-ordinary or extreme clothing is distracting on a purely asexual level. Could you study next to a guy in a clown suit? Or a woman wearing an enormous Pharrell hat that plays music? I couldn’t. The key is to make it clear that both men and women need to adhere to any rules put in place, and that the rules are to ensure student focus is on the instructor rather than on other students.
And the reality is that no matter how careful an organization is to make sure they don’t sound …sexist…, women have more at stake in adhering to dress codes than men do, because women’s fashion dictates that women must wear less in order to be fashionable. Girls get so many sets of conflicting instructions that they’ll be punished by either their peers or their school no matter what they do. Wear revealing clothing, or you’re a dork, says the media to women. Don’t wear revealing clothing, or you’re a slut, say institutions to women. Talk about distracting.
When I asked her for her input, journalist Tracey Spicer said she thinks it is also important for us to honestly reflect on how we dressed as young women too:
What I really hate are the casually sexist comments about how young women are dressed for a night on the town. All this ‘They look like hookers!’ and ‘They’re asking for it’ stuff. For goodness sake, I used to dress in revealing outfits at that age, as I was discovering my sexuality. That doesn’t mean I’m asking to be sexually assaulted.
2. Mean Girls
Social commentator and writer Jane Caro wishes we would question the rhetoric around girls as “mean girls” :
The idea that girls are bitchy and nasty to one another, whereas boys are simple creatures who fix things with a good thump (?).
We expect women to tend relationships, to do the emotional care taking, girls know this but when they are young, they’re just learning about relationships and they do them badly. Instead of congratulating them for taking on this difficult and complex task (understanding how people relate to one another), we jump all over them & stereotype them as mean girls. This drives me nuts! I also hate the moral panic around ‘bullying’, which often ends up with us bullying the supposed bullies. We need to be much clearer about what bullying is and what it isn’t, and that most kids are both victims & perpetrators at various times. As are we all.
Melissa Carson, the Co-ordinator of Innovative Learning at boys’ school Oakhill College also believes the boys-as-less-complex creatures myth is dismissive of the complex nature of mate-ship and equally as damaging to boys: “I’ve worked closely with young men for over ten years and I can tell you they do stew on their friendship fall-outs. They report feelings of sadness, anger and frustration over their friendships and often don’t know how to resolve things. They are every bit as complicated as young women and in need of just as much support.”
3. One mistake and you’re out!
The “one mistake and you’re doomed” approach to educating young people drives me insane. I often hear this in the context of cyber training; messages like: “If you ever post something on Facebook that’s not ideal, you’ll never be employed and will be socially shamed. And you will never be able to make that go away.” Implication? You may as well give up now if you’ve done something silly as you can’t ever make that right. Sadly, it is messages like this that lead young people to despair and to want to hide their errors for fear of being judged. Incidentally, I often wonder just who will be employed in the future if this was in fact true as I can’t imagine there will be anyone who hasn’t at least done one thing on-line that wasn’t smart at some stage in their youth. Again, Dr Karen Brooks agreed:
As for the cyber mistake. Oh puhleez! Yes, we need to educate young people that what they post could be potentially damaging and may impact in the future, but when and if they do post something inappropriate, we should also rally to ensure they understand that they can overcome this. In fact, understanding you can move beyond the inappropriate photo or posting can not only build resilience, but instil valuable lessons in how to cope with negative feedback, distressing reactions, how to negotiate an emotional and psychological minefield, but also how important it is to own what you’ve done/posted. Take responsibility and learn from it and move on (nothing to see here!). If it hits you in the face in later years, then take responsibility again, but also contextualise it and demonstrate how much you grew from that moment and what lessons you took away from the (bad and silly) experience to become the person you are now.
Yes, we catastrophize to ours and the kids’ detriment. So much for resilience, we’re teaching them to fall apart at the first mistake and to cry “my life is over!”. Ridiculous!
The most dangerous thing we can ever say to a young person is that there is no way forward, no light at the end of the tunnel, no possibility of recovery. And yet this is exactly the message they hear when we tell them that once you post something online, it is there forever, the damage is permanent and will never lighten. If a young person has made a mistake, catastrophising the situation will only lead to catastrophic outcomes and already we have seen one case in America where a teen took her life following a school seminar which reinforced the notion that she could never get a job or a university degree since she had already made an online mistake. Instead of this doom and gloom approach, we need to help teens develop resilience, the strength to overcome setbacks, and the insight to be able to put their mistakes into context.
More things we need to stop saying to girls NOW next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What messages do you think we deliver to young women that are harmful?
Remember when we could barely get through a week without a pity party for Jennifer Aniston?
“Poor thing,” we’d collectively exclaim, as another magazine cover would reveal she was permanently lonely, grievously scarred by Brad, intimidated by Angelina and either pregnant or DEVASTATED by baby loss, often in the same week.
Occasionally she’d find a new boyfriend and the magazines would go on 24-hour bump watch, or she’d get her hair cut and look particularly foxy, and we’d all breathe a sigh of relief and think, phew, thank goodness for that, Jen’s alright.
It’s a thing we do with young women — build them up, obsess about their hair/clothes/boyfriends/character, then when they do something silly, or we get bored, you can feel the global tut of disapprobation.
“What’s that, everyone? An apology for treating me like one big sop story for so many years?”
It happened to Gwyneth Paltrow (Oscars speech 1999) and Anne Hathaway, and right now it’s Jennifer Lawrence — “oh I tripped again, is it still cute?” – who’s about to plummet from acclaim to disdain.
It’s one thing if you’re famous and can mitigate the fallout with a $5 million campaign for Chanel, or a trip to the Bahamas with your 30 favourite besties. But when the scorn and the faux hand wringing leaches down to young girls as a whole, we really need to step away from our assumptions and see them for who they really are.
Because if you believe the hype — and the occasional breathy columnist — girls are in crisis. They hate their bodies, they can’t communicate with boys, they’re obsessed with selfies, they’re the victims of porn-style sex, and they have terrible relationships with their parents.
No one talks about boys like this unless they’re a young footballer running amok, in which case they’re the architect of their own stupidity.
Well I’m calling bullshit, because if every sentence that starts with “girl” then ends with “neurosis”, “body-obsessed”, “eating disorders”, “anxiety” “self-harm” and “social media addict”, we may as well hand-deliver the script at birth and leave them to live it out. Girls can’t be what they can’t see and yet there’s an industry thriving on telling them how badly they’re messed up.
So here’s what I see.
I see girls communicating better than ever. It may not be face to face, but they’re expressing themselves and talking about their lives, whether via Facebook, Instagram, Kik or Snapchat.
Dannielle Miller, author of Loveability: An Empowered Girls Guide to Dating and Relationships, points out that social media has broadened their friendships beyond the school gate.
“Look at Debbie and Sue in Puberty Blues — they either had to meet up or talk on the phone. Today’s kids are powerfully connected and that’s reinforcing their human relationships.”
Yes we hear of girls being “dumped” online or via text, but wasn’t it ever thus? I’ll never forget Mark Munro (sorry mate, but I’ve waited years for this) enlisting his friend. “Angela, it’s Tim here. Mark doesn’t want to go out with you anymore. Bye.” There are still those jerks (of both genders), and long may they be pilloried.
What else? Oh, I see literary heroines aplenty. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Tris from Divergent make Little Women look like, well, little women. But it’s John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars — due out in cinemas on June 5 — that’s become a social media supernova.
Quirky, philosophical and funny, it tells the story of two teens who meet at a cancer support group. Like Love Story, the best-selling book in the US in 1970, it’s bittersweet, but with none of the “love means never having to say you’re sorry” nonsense. The characters, Hazel and Gus, are the furthest thing from clichés, but their love is every teen’s — “As he read,” says Hazel, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
Granted, one of the agonies of modern love is the public way in which it is played out. Status updates and Facebook feeds give a constant reminder, but as Miller points out, that’s not “teen typical”. As she says: “All of us are trying to make sense of relationships in the age of technology.” Seeing the person you love move on brings pain, but it also grows greater resilience.
Porn? Yes, it’s a thing. But increasingly visible are the messages to counter it. In her school workshops, Miller teaches girls how to set their own boundaries and to challenge the idea that “boys do” while “girls get done”.
As for fears that they lack “commitment” — that relationships are now referred to as “having a thing” — it’s just semantics. As a 21-year-old friend told me: “The idea that we don’t have real flesh and blood relationships is just stupid. Me and most of my friends are in relationships and we talk about our feelings, hopes and aspirations.”
Body image concerns and learning how to protect themselves from abuse remain critical issues for girls. But as Jennifer, Gwyneth, Anne and now J-Law have proved you are so much more than the messages peddled about you.