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Category: Eating Disorders

The weight-loss industry has no place in our schools.

The following guest post is written by Nina Funnell and was first published in The Age newspaper, 28th March. Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010. You may also wish to read my earlier post on this issue here: Alliance of Girls’ Schools Conference 2012 -Say No To Diets.

Image shared with us on Enlighten's Facebook wall by one of our "likers" Vanessa Henry.


The weight-loss industry has no place in our schools

Teenage girls are under great pressure to conform to a hyper-thin body ideal.

I was 12 years old when I first came face to face with a set of body-fat calipers. It was year 7 health class and we were learning about weight management and body image. The teacher produced a pair of calipers and asked for a volunteer to be measured. No one moved. She scanned the room and eventually landed on me. Next thing I knew, I was lying down on the teacher’s desk as she measured the fat on my thighs.

I suspect she picked me as the guinea pig because I was neither dangerously thin, nor heavily overweight. But as she read out my thigh-fat percentage to the class and declared it to be ”normal”, I frowned. By age 12 I had well and truly internalised the idea that ”normal” meant ”not thin” and anything other than ”thin” was undesirable. When I returned home that day I weighed myself and resolved to lose five kilograms.

Today, the pressure on teen girls to lose weight and conform to a hyper-thin body ideal is greater than ever. While we often hear that celebrity culture is to blame, the dieting industry – a billion-dollar industry that profits off body dissatisfaction – is also responsible for the extraordinary pressure placed on girls.

Every time girls turn on the TV or go online, they are bombarded with ads spruiking weight-loss products. The message they receive is not simply that ”thin is in” but that body transformation leads to a happier life.

Many techniques endorsed by the dieting industry actually mimic and encourage eating-disordered behaviour. Obsessive calorie counting, restricting or skipping meals, denying hunger, weighing food, measuring exercise (with pedometers or other devices) and rigid routines are all associated with eating disorders.

According to eating disorder specialist Lydia Jade Turner, dieting is the biggest predictor of eating disorders and unhealthy weight loss practices are becoming the norm in schools.

By age 17, 90 per cent of girls will have been on a diet of some kind. Eight per cent of teen girls smoke to control their weight.

It is no secret that the dieting industry has a vested interest in recruiting young girls in order to make them lifelong customers.

So why has Amy Smith, the chief executive of Jenny Craig, been invited to give the keynote address at a prestigious girls’ schools conference to be hosted in May this year? Regardless of what she speaks about, why would anyone who directly profits from female body dissatisfaction be given a platform at a girls’ school event?

According to Catherine Misson, the principal of Melbourne Girls Grammar School, which is hosting the event, Jenny Craig’s chief executive is a ”champion of women’s health” who will ”inspire” attendees at this year’s Alliance for Girl’s Schools Australasia conference.

Others are not so convinced. Numerous eating disorder experts from around the world have now made contact with the conference organisers to voice their disapproval over the decision. A petition has also been drafted calling for the replacement of Smith as a speaker.

Signatories to the petition include prominent eating disorder experts. Still more letters have been sent to the organisers and at least one sponsor has withdrawn their support.

The former Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, has retweeted a letter criticising the decision to include Jenny Craig’s chief executive in the line-up, but despite all this the conference organisers have refused to back down.

Regardless of the outcome in this particular case, when 12-year-old girls hate their thighs, the only one who wins is the dieting industry. The diet industry should be kept out of our schools, not given a platform within them.

Alliance Of Girls’ School Conference 2012 – Say No To Diets.

I recently noted that the program for this year’s Alliance of Girls’ Schools Conference, to be held in Melbourne 25th-27th May, was to include Ms Amy Smith, the current CEO of Jenny Craig. As I believe a woman who represents the diet industry has no place at such a prestigious event aimed at educators of young women, I sent an initial email of concern to Jan Butler, the Executive Officer of the Alliance.

On Tuesday I received a reply from Ms Catherine Misson, the Principal of Melbourne Girls Grammar, assuring me that Ms Smith is, amongst other things, “transforming the organisation (Jenny Craig) into a champion of women’s health.”

I am pleased to see the organisers of this conference have considerably extended Ms Smith’s bio in the conference program since receiving my initial email. She sounds like a truly remarkable, accomplished woman. However, I am still deeply uneasy about  her inclusion and felt compelled to explain why. I responded with the letter below. With the aim of eliciting support for my stance, and initiating vital discussion on girls and dieting, I then shared this correspondence via Twitter and Facebook. I was incredibly heartened by the positive response and particularly encouraged to see Kate Ellis, amongst other prominent educators, women’s advocates and health practitioners, circulate it too.

I have not received any response as of yet, other than a call from a Suzy Wilson who told me she was the PR representative for Jenny Craig. Ms Wilson asked me, “What is your problem?” and told me my letter was a “vicious attack” on Amy Smith. I think my letter clearly articulates what my issue is, and it is clearly not a personal attack on anyone.

If I receive any further correspondence, I will of course honour my offer to provide the Alliance with a platform here to argue their case.

*Letter begins*

Dear Catherine,

Thank you for your response to my concerns regarding the selection of Amy Smith as a speaker at the Alliance’s conference this year.

I have the utmost respect for the members of the Alliance Planning Committee and hold them in the highest regard. I am sure that all the members genuinely have girls’ education at heart and selected the conference speakers with care and diligence.

However, with due respect, I do feel that I need to stand by my convictions and state my position. Amy Smith may be a highly talented and accomplished woman, but I feel it sends the wrong message to educators of girls that the Alliance is giving a platform to a speaker whose current success is tied to the dieting industry. This industry contributes to some of the most serious issues affecting the health and wellbeing of girls: poor body image and eating disorders.

Constant dieting can cause “an obsession with weight and an increased likelihood of developing an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia”, according to research presented at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy conference in 2011. In the words of respected Australian eating disorder expert Lydia Jade Turner, the Managing Director of BodyMatters Australia, “Dieting is the biggest pathway into an eating disorder.” Research cited by the Butterfly Foundation notes that adolescent girls who diet at a severe level are “18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder within 6 months” and “over 12 months they have a 1 in 5 chance of developing an eating disorder.”

The rates of eating disorders and poor body image in girls are alarming. Research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that “disordered eating is emerging as a norm in Australian society with 90% of 12–17 year old girls and 68% of 12–17 year old boys having been on a diet of some type” (http://thebutterflyfoundation.org.au). A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2009 found that between July 2002 and June 2005, 101 children aged from five to 13 years old were newly diagnosed with an eating disorder.

According to the 2011 Mission Australia Youth Survey, body image is one of the top three issues of personal concern for young people in Australia. Poor body image has been identified as such an important problem that it was the subject of a parliamentary inquiry.

Looking beyond the research, Enlighten Education works with 20,000 girls each year around Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. I speak to girls, and most importantly listen to them, about body image. On a daily basis, I meet girls who physically, psychologically and emotionally are paying a high price for dieting and for their body anxiety, which is all too often spurred on by advertisers and marketers from, amongst other industries, the dieting industry.

The sad fact is that diet companies continue to play on girls’ and women’s body anxiety to sell a product that doesn’t even work. Ninety percent 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, according to research presented first at the Australian New Zealand Obesity Society in 2009 and again in 2010 at the International Obesity Summit. “In fact, weight tells us very little about a person’s health except at statistical extremes,” says Lydia Jade Turner. “Although it is commonly assumed that being ‘overweight’ is automatically unhealthy, in North America research shows that the overweight category (BMI = 25 to 29) is now outliving every other weight category.”

I am generally an enthusiastic supporter of the Alliance conference, and I feel that all of the other speakers the committee has selected are brilliant choices. I will attend the conference, as always, and Enlighten Education will have a stand, but it is with regret that I must tell you that Enlighten Education will not be sponsoring the conference this year, as we have in the past.

Enlighten Education was recognised in 2011 as Finalists for a Human Rights Award by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission for our work at furthering the wellbeing of girls. In light of that, and for all the schools and the girls that we work with, I feel that it is important that Enlighten Education acts according to our principles—and that means that we cannot sponsor an event where there is an association with the dieting industry.

On an individual level, as a parent whose daughter attends an Alliance school, I also wish to register my dismay at the choice of Amy Smith as a speaker.

Please know that I write this from genuine concern about the message that having a speaker associated with the dieting industry sends to the educators of girls. It is not a reflection on Amy Smith herself, and certainly not on the committee, whom I hold in great esteem.

As I initially expressed concern about the committee’s selection of Amy Smith in the public forums of Facebook and Twitter, I wholeheartedly extend to you the opportunity to respond in the same forums. If you would like me to publish your response on Facebook or Twitter, please do let me know.

Yours sincerely

Dannielle Miller
CEO, Enlighten Education
21/3/12

*Response received 22/3/12*

The Alliance responded and have made it clear that they are comfortable with their selection of Ms Smith. They have also made it clear they are not happy with my decision to raise these concerns publicly. As an educator, mother to two girls, author of two books aimed at improving body image anxiety, and as a  media commentator on girls’ issues I believe it would have been unprofessional of me not to have done this. I also stand by my response.

The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: A girl’s guide to claiming her power

The countdown has begun!

Ever since my book on raising teen girls — The Butterfly Effect — came out, mothers and daughters have been telling me they wish there was a version for teens. So I am thrilled to say that The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: A girl’s guide to claiming her power is to be released on 1 March!

I loved every minute of writing this book. Teen girls were my inspiration from the very start, and I am bursting with excitement to share this book with them. My aim is to encourage girls to question the limiting messages advertisers, the media and our culture keep pushing: that a girl’s greatest worth is her looks, and beauty comes in only one size and shape. My hope is that The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo empowers girls to find their strength and be true to their own hearts and minds.

Before the book went off to the printer, I sent it out to several girls for review, and I’m happy to say it received an overwhelmingly positive response. And I am honoured that two feminist thinkers I deeply respect have also put their support behind the book’s messages . . .

Finally a book for teenage girls that does not patronise or attempt to police them! The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo empowers teen girls to make their own choices. — Nina Funnell, writer, women’s rights advocate and recipient of Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award, 2010

Danni Miller is the big sister every teenage girl needs, offering the perfect mix of resolve-stiffening encouragement, soul-touching inspiration and real-world practical advice. — Emily Maguire, author of Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, power, choice

To be certain that your girls are among the first to get their hands on this book, you can pre-order (for $19.95 plus $5 postage and handling to anywhere in Australia). Each pre-ordered copy will be signed by me and will come with a beautiful bookmark and Enlighten Education wristband as free gifts. Click here to order now.

For a sneak peak at what The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo has to offer, check out Chapter 1, “The Battle Within”, for free, by clicking here. I hope that you enjoy it, and share it today with all the wonderful teen girls in your life!

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.

Drunkorexia: Why girls are starving for perfection and drinking to oblivion

We are coming up to a time of celebration for girls — end of exams, school formal, schoolies week, Christmas and New Year’s — and unfortunately that means we’re also heading into the prime binge-drinking season.

Seven out of 10 teenage girls engage in binge drinking, consuming five or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion. Meanwhile, among 15-year-old girls, almost 7 in 10 are on a diet. And researchers have coined a new term, “drunkorexia”, for a disturbing phenomenon: a growing number of girls and young women, especially university students, who avoid eating all day so that they can “save” those kilojoules for a big night of drinking.

Risky teen behaviour such as binge drinking is nothing new, of course. As adults, most of us can look back and wince at some of the excessive drinking we or our friends did. But the whole “make sure you line your stomach” idea that was prevalent when I was growing up doesn’t make sense to girls now who simultaneously feel the pressure to be thin and to drink (kilojoule-laden) alcohol with their peers.

There is a huge emphasis in our culture on balancing kilojoules in and kilojoules out — and some girls are taking drastic measures to balance those numbers. The consequences of being starved of food and bingeing on alcohol are even more drastic on the body, heart and mind.

I am glad this topic is getting some media play this week, because we all need to be aware of this trend and start a dialogue going with our girls, especially as they get ready for the party and holiday season. I spoke about it this week on Kerri-anne and hope parents found it helpful:

It frightens me that many parents seemingly dismiss their teen daughters’ (and sons’) drinking as just a rite of passage. I have spoken to many mums and dads who are almost hysterical about the possibility their teen daughter might start using drugs or have her drink spiked with drugs, yet are not at all concerned when they hear that she has been drinking alcohol. Often parents are the ones who actually buy the alcohol for their teens. In Australia we do have a tradition of using alcohol in every social situation — to celebrate, to commiserate, to relax with friends and family — but here are some reasons that I believe it’s time we all came up with some new traditions (from my book The Butterfly Effect):

What every girl should know about alcohol

Please take into account that figures are available only for men and women over the legal drinking age, 18. Younger girls, with their still-developing brains and growing bodies, are at even greater risk.

 

Females are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol than males. This is because males and females are physically different and so our bodies process alcohol differently. When a person drinks, alcohol enters the bloodstream and then, being water soluble, it is distributed throughout the tissues of the body that contain water. Females usually have smaller bodies than males, which means that there is less water volume to take up the alcohol, leading to a higher concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream and a greater effect. This is compounded by the fact that fatty tissues do not take up alcohol and females have a higher proportion of body fat than males. With fewer tissues in the body to take up the alcohol, a female will be more affected than a male who consumed the same amount. Additionally, the body’s ability to break down and rid itself of alcohol is limited by the size of the liver and on average females have smaller livers than males.

The culture of dieting and striving to be thin also increases the impact of alcohol on females. Dieting leads to an excessive loss of body fluid and as it is the body’s water content that takes up alcohol, there will be a higher concentration of alcohol in a dieter’s system. This has serious implications for teenage girls.

Heavy drinking is risky for both males and females, but females are more prone to the acute and chronic effects of alcohol abuse. Because of our physical differences, the risk to our health starts at lower rates of alcohol consumption than it does for males. For women, the risk of premature death increases once we start drinking more than two standard drinks of alcohol a day; at that point, the risk of death climbs to 40 per cent higher than it is for non-drinkers. For men, on the other hand, the risk begins to increase at four drinks a day.

The greater the amount of alcohol a person drinks above the guidelines, the higher their risk of premature death. Hence bingeing – consuming an excessive quantity of alcohol at once, a form of drinking adopted by most teen drinkers – is especially dangerous.

Because our livers are smaller than men’s, women are vulnerable to liver damage and cirrhosis at lower levels of alcohol consumption. Alcohol increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer and the risk rises with the level of alcohol consumed. A woman who drinks three or four standard drinks a day has a 35 per cent higher risk of breast cancer than one who drinks little or none. If a woman drinks more than four standard drinks a day, her risk is 67 per cent greater. Alcohol-related deaths in women usually take the form of strokes, injuries from falls, alcoholic liver cirrhosis, road accidents and breast cancer. Alcohol poses a further physical threat to women and girls in that it may increase the risk of being harmed by violence. Lastly, there is not only the risk of intoxication leading to unsafe sex or an unplanned pregnancy, but also the risks to the health of an unborn child.

Dieting and children – weighing up the arguments

I was recently invited to join a panel discussing body image on channel 9’s Kerri-Anne. The panel also included social commentator Angela Mollard, psychologist Ian Wallace, and Sally Symonds who is a weight loss consultant. The conversation got rather heated at points with quite different opinions expressed over dieting and the oft-reported obesity epidemic in particular. I’d love you to take 12 minutes to watch the vision below as I think these are conversations we should all be having, particularly at this time of the year (pre-Summer / beach time) when the diet industry really ramps up its push to have us all believe that we could transform our lives if we simply said “No” to food and transformed our bodies.

I asked expert Lydia Jade Turner to offer her insights and further unpack the above exchange. Lydia is a psychotherapist and the Managing Director of BodyMatters Australasia. BodyMatters Australasia is a specialist clinic that was established to not only treat disordered eating, but to diminish the complex factors that contribute to our global epidemic of eating problems. Lydia’s expertise has been featured at my blog before, both here (“Look good by doing very little’) and here (“Fat talk “).

 

Should children be weighed at school?

Children inevitably play the ‘compare and despair’ game, and for many, a comparatively higher weight will result in a deep sense of shame. Contrary to popular opinion, research shows that shame does not lead to sustainable health-giving behaviours, but instead increases risk of unhealthy weight loss behaviours and clinical eating disorders.

Weighing children in front of their peers also sends the message that weight is the most important determinant of their health, and that their health is everybody’s business. In fact weight tells us very little about a person’s health except at statistical extremes.

Although it is commonly assumed that being ‘overweight’ is automatically unhealthy, in North America research shows that the overweight category (BMI = 25 to 29) is now outliving every other weight category.

Given we share much of the same cultural DNA, it would not be surprising if that were the case in Australia. We also know that being a bit ‘overweight’ can actually be protective against certain diseases including certain types of cancer, and especially protective for the elderly population.

 

Should fat children be removed from their home?

In the Kerri-Anne clip, Psychologist Ian Wallace immediately paired the idea of fat children with trips to McDonalds and fast food outlets. Yet we cannot make assumptions about a child’s lifestyle choices simply by looking at them. It is a myth that all fat children are fat because they eat too much and don’t exercise enough.It is also dangerous to assume that all fat children are fat as a result of abuse and / or neglect.

At BodyMatters we see children at a range of sizes, many of whom are very much loved and supported by their families. While not all fat children binge or overeat, children who do overeat or binge, do so for a variety of reasons: it can be a way of coping with stress, parental divorce, grief and loss issues, a physiological response to dieting.

For some, this will lead to significant weight gain, but for others, they may still be thin. Regardless of size, they deserve help. But threatening to remove them from their families and pressuring those who are fat to lose weight will only exacerbate the situation.

Imagine the message internalized by a fat child who has just been told they may be taken away from their family: lose weight, or your family will be ripped apart. It will be all your fault because you’re too fat. This kind of messaging is likely to put a child at risk of developing disordered eating behaviours, reduced self-esteem, and significant distress.

 

Should fat children be encouraged to lose weight to avoid bullying?

Children will always find something to bully another child about – red hair, poverty, handicap. It does not make sense to pressure a child to change something about themselves in an effort to escape bullying, as this is a form of victim-blaming. Parents and teachers should work to change school culture so that children learn to respect difference and accept that bullying is never justified, and that there are consequences for engaging in that type of behaviour.

 

Is citing genetics just an excuse to be fat?

Earlier this year The Biggest Loser trainer Michelle Bridges wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald, claiming that people can outsmart their genetics. Unfortunately we now have evidence that many of The Biggest Loser contestants are weight cycling or have returned to their pre-diet weight.

Research tells us that weight is not as malleable as we think. How we each respond to a lifestyle is different, for example, two people can eat the same amounts of food, and while one person gains weight, another person’s metabolism will kick in and prevent weight gain.

Genetics account for about 70% of a person’s weight, and there are a host of other factors that contribute – socioeconomic disadvantage, ethnic background, Indigenous background, low income households, family history of obesity, regional and remote location.

This may explain why weight loss attempts fail 95% of the population after 2-5 years. Anyone can lose weight in the short term but we simply don’t have solutions that work long term. The good news is when people adopt a healthy lifestyle, they will experience health benefits, regardless of whether or not their weight changes.

We need to be cautious about making assumptions about people’s lifestyle choices based on size. Just as one person emailed the Kerri Anne show expressing frustration at being called Anorexic (even by her teachers) because she was skinny, the same frustration exists for people who are fat who are told they must not exercise enough and make poor food choices. We need to recognize that issues of health and weight are complex.

 

According to weight loss consultant Sally, there are far more people who are overweight/obese than those with Anorexia Nervosa. Should we therefore prioritise obesity issues above concerns about eating disorders?

This argument that “the odd anorexic is a small price to pay” is an unethical one. Nobody chooses to have an eating disorder, in fact we know that dieting is the biggest pathway into an eating disorder. Sufferers typically engage in weight loss attempts with good faith, believing that they are improving their health. Unfortunately this tips some over into a clinical eating disorder.

It’s time we recognized that the solutions typically prescribed to combat obesity are the same behaviours we are diagnosing in those with eating disorders – for example counting every calorie, weighing every gram of food, counting each step in pursuit of thinness. There’s something very wrong with this picture and Sally’s suggestion that we should encourage schools to integrate calorie counting with maths homework is incredibly dangerous and ill-informed.

We cannot continue to pit “The Obese” against eating disorder sufferers. There’s this idea out there that if people are not ‘obese’ or do not meet the strict criteria for an eating disorder, they must be healthy. Yet we know this is simply not true – there are many who exist in between these extremes, but who compromise their health due to body shame and internalization of misguided health messages.

Many put their bodies under enormous strain going on diet after diet, taking diet pills, smoking to control their weight, engaging in bizarre bariatric interventions (for example stomach balloon insertion), so it’s not as simple as sixty percent overweight/obese versus five percent eating disorders.

We would be better off focusing on promoting healthy behaviours, and letting people’s weight fall where it will. Kerri Anne’s statement implying that a poor lifestyle is “okay” when you’re young but will catch up with you when you’re fifty misses the point – if people want to be healthy, then they should be engaging in a healthy lifestyle whatever their age, whatever their size.

 

Sally has managed to keep the weight off since 2002- that’s nearly ten years! Should people aspire to be in the 5% who do manage to keep the weight off?

Sally’s long term weight loss is atypical. While it is wonderful to know she has made some healthy lifestyle changes, the reality is that the outcome of sustained weight loss is not likely to be the case for most. In fact, while I respect that she has a right to tell her story, every time she does, she perpetuates the fantasy that if others just tried damn hard enough, they could lose the weight and keep it off too.

Encouraging people to aspire to be in that five percent that keeps the weight off ignores research that shows inherent risks that accompany weight loss attempts – including weight cycling, disordered eating, reduced mood, eating disorders, food and body preoccupation.

Telling people to lose weight is essentially setting many up to fail – and when weight loss is the main focus, most quit when they find the weight is no longer reducing or has begun to increase. If people want to be healthy, then fitness and healthy dietary choices are important regardless of their size.

 

 

 

Size Apartheid. We’re Over It.

In the past week there has been much discussion over size. A diet book aimed at girls from 6 years old and up caused outrage by nutritionists and lead to me having a rather heated debate with Kerri-Anne on her television program regarding the current hysteria over the widely reported obesity crises (my argument? Basically that health may take many shapes and sizes and we need to stop obsessing over numbers, particularly when it comes to measuring and weighing our children). The National Eating Disorders Collaboration Conference (NEDC) was held in Sydney just yesterday too; its aim was to collaborate on best practice approaches towards treating and preventing eating disorders which are sadly on the increase and are now manifesting in children as young as 7. Simultaneously (in perhaps one of the worse examples of poor timing ever) Fairfax fashion writer Georgina Safe  caused an on-line furore over her opinion piece which slammed a plus-size fashion parade at the Fashion Festival of Sydney. 

Given the debates that are raging over how much space women should be allowed to quite literally take up, I thought it timely to offer a response to Ms Smart and turned to the fabulous Wendy Harmer for this. Wendy has just launched a new “online playground”, The Hoopla, aimed at women. I  was a guest over there earlier this month: you may like to read my post “Love thy daughter, Love thy self.” The following guest post is also featured at The Hoopla this week.  

 

Try as she may, there’s no way Fairfax fashion writer, Georgina Safe, can dress this one up. In her opinion, some of the plus-size models in the recent Myer “Big Is Beautiful” catwalk parade were fat and ugly.

How else can you interpret this: “While there were some pretty faces, others were wanting. Granted, some of them were regular citizens rather than professional clotheshorses, but this still defeats the purpose of inspiring consumers to buy the clothes.”

Hmmm. That’s as plain as the nose on your, or their faces. Safe even takes a swipe at one model who, on being selected for the show, said she’d be able to relax and eat a few cream puffs.

Oh, the outrage!

Safe goes on to say: “Plus-size shows and models should be judged by the same standards as any other fashion shows and models, as was observed by the director of plus-size agency Bella Model Management, Chelsea Bonner… ‘Plus-size models have to be just as aspirational, just as tall and just as heart-breakingly beautiful as any other model,’ Bonner says.”

But, hold on. Weren’t some of the models “regular citizens”? I imagine that was partly the point of the exercise, wasn’t it?

The parade took place as part of the Fashion Festival of Sydney and, as far as I can tell, was supposed to be an inspiration for big women who want to be fashionable.To make fashion more democratic and accessible for we ordinary schlubs.

But then there was the problem, according to some, that the plus-size models were not integrated into the main catwalk shows, but relegated to their own frumpy parade.

No problem for Safe, who clearly agrees with size apartheid, and writes: “But I disagree with Bonner on another point: while she applauded Fashion Festival Sydney for staging a plus-size show, she says true size equality would not occur until models beyond sample size were integrated into all runway shows. ‘Just chuck one or two in each show; don’t make an issue of it, just do it,’ she says.

“Frankly, why should we? Standard-size models, like Olympic athletes, are a genetically gifted species. Most consumers understand they will never look like them. The simple fact is that clothes look better on beautiful, slender young women. If the collection is lacklustre and the models are less than top-notch, what was the point of Tuesday’s show?

“The only truly stunning model on the runway was Lawley who, by the way, appears to have whittled down from a size 14-16 to a size 12.”

(Which means, given her height, she wasn’t a plus-sized model anymore by the standards of the majority Australian women, who, in most statistics I read, come in a comfy size 14-16.)

Safe misses the point, in my opinion, when she compares models with Olympic athletes.

Our athletes are applauded for their strong, fit bodies. By contrast we know that young women in many runway shows are dangerously underweight and when young girls try to emulate them, they risk developing eating disorders.

We also know that so many “regular citizens” look at fashion shows and cannot see a thing to wear as modelled by size 6, teenage coathangers. With the fashion industry in the doldrums, it would seem sensible to appeal to the majority of larger-sized women, of which I am one (too many “cream puffs” I suppose). I took a lingering look at many of the clothes and found a few there I’d buy.

Really, what is the point of sending a snippy fashionista along to a show that’s trying, for once, to make bigger women feel good about themselves?

If the clothes weren’t exactly “inspiring” as Safe says, that’s one thing. Making rude comments about women’s prettiness or otherwise is another. And in this article, Safe reveals her own character as “wanting”, if you ask me.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for a breakfast of cream puffs.

Taking the Blues out of Puberty: Part 1

I didn’t get my first period until I was 15 years old. I was the last within my circle of friends, and by then, even my younger sister was a veteran (oh the indignity). You’ve never seen a teen girl more prepared for this milestone than I was. I had been carrying tampons in my school bag for so long I think they may well have past their use-by date! I had even had practice in breaking the news to parents as my best friend had been too embarrassed to tell her mother when she started her period and I had broken this news for her : “Mrs Manton, our Janelle has become a woman…” The main feeling I recall when I started menstruating was that of relief. Finally, I was in the “big girls” club! I was so elated I ran into my school assembly and screamed out “I have my period!” to my friends- not realising the teachers were already present and waiting to start. My Year Advisor was very gracious and began the assembly by congratulating me.

For many girls today though there is not this same sense of preparedness, nor do they think there is much to celebrate. A significant number too are going through puberty younger than ever before. I was asked by Kerri-anne recently to discuss why, and what the implications are.

This is such an important subject that I wanted to find out more and draw on the expertise of Enlighten Education’s own sexuality education expert, Rachel Hansen, who is my guest blogger this week.

Rachel Hansen headshotRachel Hansen is the progam manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand and is an experienced educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Rachel is the founder of Good Talks, an organisation that offers sexuality education to schools and parents.

Most women have a very vivid memory of where they were when they got their first period, what they were doing and how they felt. I was 12 and very reluctant to grow up – life was good as a little girl! On the day my period started I was playing make-believe games with my little brother and sister in our garden and I noticed blood on my undies. I cried and cried and cried. I sat by the window for the rest of the day, watching my siblings play, having decided with great sadness that now I had my period I was too old to play those games. I felt a real sense of loss, and also despair that I was no longer in control of my body.

Research indicates that this moment is happening at increasingly younger ages than in previous generations. Over the past 20 years, the average onset of menstruation has dropped from 13 years to 12 years, seven months, and indications are it will continue to drop. As the average age has dropped by five months, it means that those girls at the lower end of the bell curve are also starting earlier. So nowadays it is increasingly common for girls to start menstruating as early as 8 and 9 years old. Researchers have found that 15 percent of American girls now begin puberty by age 7 (measured by the girls’ level of breast development). This is twice the rate seen in a 1997 study, and the findings are likely to be similar in New Zealand and Australia.

Why are girls reaching puberty earlier?
Some of the more widely supported theories about why this is happening are:
• As our standard of living has increased, so has nutrition. This means that there is less stress on girls’ bodies, allowing puberty to start earlier.
• Increased rates of obesity are thought to be a factor, as girls are now younger when they reach the level of body fat required to trigger puberty.
• There is a suspicion that increased levels of environmental chemicals that mimic the effects of hormones are causing girls to start puberty earlier.
• Interesting research from New Zealand indicates that girls exposed to stress at home (such as parental marital breakdown and domestic violence) were more likely to start menstruating before girls living in more settled home environments. One of these factors is that if a mother enters into a new relationship, the presence of a new man in the home triggers a hormonal response in girls that can lead to earlier puberty.

The consequences can be profound
Traditionally, puberty has marked the transition from childhood to adolescence or adulthood. Many girls absorb the message that beginning menstruation means that they are a woman. Just as I did, some girls who get their periods early can experience a sense of grief and loss, as they don’t feel ready to leave childhood.

For many girls, puberty marks the moment that they start to define their self-worth by the way they see themselves in the mirror. And all too often the girls don’t like what they see. Such a response is understandable: at the same time as girls are experiencing an increase in body fat and a widening of their hips, they are bombarded with messages from the media that suggest the perfect beautiful body resembles a prepubescent male or has proportions that can only be achieved through disordered eating or extreme Photoshopping.

I was so embarrassed by my body when I was younger that I couldn’t tell my mum I’d started my period, when I was 13. I lost it for 2 years thereafter as my weight plummeted, so I didn’t really have to deal with it and when it came back I was so angry. It meant a) that I had to deal with this THING happening to my body and b) I wasn’t a ‘good enough’ anorexic. My mum tried to talk to me about it, but I’d just slam doors and refuse to talk about it, or hide under my bed.

I found the changes in my body very distressing. I remember when I started growing breasts, initially at 12–13 and then again when I’d gained weight at 16–17 and I’d make deals with God that if I didn’t eat/was nice to my brothers/did all my homework/didn’t shout at my parents/etc., etc., that these things would go away. They didn’t. Now I’m kind of glad of that. – Ella

It is particularly concerning that evidence suggests that girls who reach puberty earlier have a more negative body image than girls who reach puberty when older.

Some girls eagerly anticipate their first period because they believe it will propel them into a world of sexual desirability and adult experiences. For girls at both ends of the spectrum, we need to be quite clear that getting your period does not equate to womanhood. Becoming a woman is far more than our bodies changing. We need to be careful about the symbolism we use surrounding menstruation and the expectations we place on girls.

Experiencing puberty at a younger age means that girls’ childhoods are being compressed and often their minds are not ready to deal with the changes that their body is going through. Many struggle to understand and cope with hormone-influenced emotions and sexual impulses, and are not ready to deal with sexual interest from males. Physical maturity often doesn’t reflect girls’ cognitive and emotional development.

In their study of the evolution of puberty, New Zealand researchers Gluckman and Hanson concluded that for the first time in human history we are maturing physically much earlier than we are maturing psychologically and socially. Meanwhile, our education system and our expectations as parents are grounded in the 19th century, when there was a closer match between physical and psychosocial maturity. “There will have to be adjustment to educational and other societal structures to accommodate this new biological reality,” they write.

poster - you are loved
The effect of this “new biological reality” is compounded by our consumer culture’s relentless march to shorten childhood. Prior to the late 1990s, marketers had not discovered the concept of tween, a phenomenon that now has girls wearing makeup and high-heels and their parents taking them to beauty salons or to get waxed. And the target market gets younger and younger, as we’ve seen with child beauty pageants. Earlier physical maturity, coupled with a highly sexualised society where girls are bombarded with the notion that sexual desirability is of utmost importance is a toxic combination – which is why it’s more important than ever to keep talking with our kids and showing them we love them for who they are, not for what they look like.

This is part one of a three-part series. In next week’s post, Rachel will look at what parents and schools can do to best support girls through puberty.

Asquith Girls High: Looking at the Big Picture

At Enlighten, we know that girls flourish and shine after our workshops, because we’ve seen it with our own eyes (and felt it in their big warm hugs!). But our work does so much more than give girls a self-esteem and confidence boost on the day. We aim to be part of a wider and ongoing culture change for the girls we work with, at school and beyond.

We encourage schools to maximise the benefit of our work by using it as part of a big-picture approach, and this week I’d like to share with you what I think is one of the best examples of a school doing just that. Jane Ferris, the principal of Asquith Girls High School, a public school in Sydney, last year attended a national conference in Melbourne that I was a keynote speaker at, “Insights: A Fresh Look at Girls’ Education”. In an unusual and forward-thinking move, she had brought along three of the school’s staff, too. They were inspired and felt that Enlighten’s message was what they needed, as part of the school’s broader program of improving outcomes for girls. Jane said:

When you have 900 young women attending an all girls’ school, it is a great opportunity to focus on issues confronting young women today. Since girls now outperform boys in external exams such as the HSC, it is too easy to consider that all the battles have been won and we no longer need to worry about issues in girls’ education. However, something is still holding young women back in our society as they are under-represented in business, our legal system and politics – what a waste of so much talent! Also, sadly, women as a group have too many experiences of abuse and violence. Therefore as a school we need to support young women to have a positive outlook, believe in themselves and ‘have a go’ in all that they strive to achieve.

From the outset, Jane saw that the greatest value would come from involving the whole school, so she organised her own one-day staff training conference for the teachers. I spoke, along with a number of other experts in teen girls’ issues. Then I came back to present to the girls, and something I have never experienced before happened: Jane released the entire welfare team for the day so they could come and watch me in action with the girls. This turned out to be incredibly valuable, because it meant that once I left, the staff had a deep understanding of what the girls had learned and experienced. They could speak the same language with the girls as I had, thus giving ongoing life to the work we’d done that day. The staff were empowered to be part of the culture change.

Jane notes that since starting their work on girls’ issues, the school’s “staff are more aware and taking things on board . . . At the nucleus is a gender team of staff and executive that have led a girls’ education conference and follow-up in all faculties.” They use every opportunity in the curriculum to promote the theme, Jane notes:

As Danni says, the most common glass ceiling holding girls back is the mirror they look in. Therefore this has proved a very positive starting point for our students, to think about themselves more positively. We want to follow through on this and get them to realise the pressures they are under as consumers. Through English and Commerce we want them to learn to deconstruct advertising and identify how they are being targeted in ways that not only ensure they buy more, but at the price of feeling they are not good enough. Through the curriculum we also want to make sure they learn about positive female role models.

Judging by the girls’ passionate and positive feedback, they were powerfully moved by the workshops I led. I am truly touched that one of the girls, Bec Torrington, in Year 9, has even nominated me for a Pride of Australia award in the Inspiration category. But kudos to Jane for seeing that there is wider, ongoing work to be done:

Danni is a highly motivational speaker and clearly has had a positive impact on the way our students feel. However, there are no quick fixes or magic wands. As a school we have to continue to promote a message of positive outlooks and friendships amongst our students.
In planning one always need to look at the big-picture rather than isolated programs or initiatives. Our approach is one of developing the whole young woman with a breadth of learning opportunities and extra curricular activities – to empower her with the experiences and skills to succeed in the world outside of school.

"Enlightened" girls completing the 21 day challenge.
"Enlightened" girls completing the 21 day challenge.

In light of Jane’s point about school staff working together to maintain a positive culture for girls, I’ve put together some discussion starters that schools might like to consider at their next staff meetings or staff development programs. These are based on previous blog posts, which can act as an impetus for discussion. Staff could split into groups, each considering one of these discussion starters, then report back to the whole staff:

Keeping Feminism Relevant
Rather than just fretting about and lamenting the plight of teen girls, at Enlighten we offer a viable alternative: feminism! This week a commentator in the UK made this excellent point, which I feel sums us up: “Feminists can make cause with traditionalists in wanting to limit some of the more extreme effects of an exploitative culture . . . But let’s be clear. We can only help [girls] if we have a good alternative to offer: the role models, the interesting jobs and the alternative ways of enjoying life that make a padded bra and a bit of rude dancing on the telly not shocking – just rather dull.” Yes!

About feminism:
International Women’s Day: Keeping Feminism Relevant
Putting Girls’ Issues Back on the Radar

Discussion starter:
– How are you connecting the young women at your school to the women’s movement?

Raising Girls Who Have the Courage to Be Imperfect

About embracing imperfection:
The Courage to Be Imperfect

Discussion starters:
– What signs are there that girls are numbing the feeling that they aren’t good enough?
– What steps can we start taking today to make the girls in our lives feel confident that they are loved and worthy?

Beyond Mean Girls

About bullying:
Bullying: It’s Time to Focus on Solutions

Discussion starters:
– In what ways does your school celebrate differences?
– What resources does your school currently access to assist in creating a safe environment for all students?
– How could these initiatives be enhanced?

Cyber Gals

About girls and information and communications technologies:
Real-World Tech Influencers

Discussion starters:
– How are the young women at your school encouraged to do creative, inspiring things using technology?
– Who are the female tech-influencers within your school who your girls can use as role models?

Girls and Eating

About girls and eating disorders:
Like Mother, Like Daughter
Eating Disorders and Primary School Children

Discussion starters:
– How can your school encourage girls to make healthy choices without shaming them?
– How might the relationship girls have with food affect their academic performance?

Girlworld meets the Boyzone

I am thrilled to be one of the keynote speakers in July at the conference of the Federation of Parents and Friends Associations, of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, in NSW. I will be speaking on how to raise amazing girls and clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller will be talking about his area of expertise, boys. I am often asked what I believe are the greatest challenges girls face and I am also often asked “What about the boys?” So I am grateful to Aurora, the diocese’s monthly newspaper, for giving their permission to share this article in which both Andrew and I get to answer those very questions.

Girlworld by Dannielle Miller, Enlighten Education CEO

danni presenting to girls
What kind of a girl were you?
Bossy. Busy. I was determined to expand my empire from ruling over my little sister to becoming “President of the Universe”—until I hit adolescence. My inner dialogue then became darker and more focused on how I looked. As I had scars (I have a third-degree burn) I became convinced my body’s “flaws” would limit my potential. How telling that, as little girls, we believe we have fantastic powers and unlimited potential, yet as older girls we start to feel powerless and see our currency as based on how we look!

It took me some time to reclaim my Presidential Powers.

What gifts do girls offer?
I find young women simply delightful! They are honest (ok, I admit at times they may be brutally honest—like the teen girl who recently asked me “So did they have make-up back when you were a teen too?”), affectionate (girls at our events will literally line up to hug and kiss me), and passionate. If you capture their hearts, their minds follow.

I think as teens, girls in particular can look so grown up and act so worldly, we forget that they truly still need our love and attention.

It’s tough raising girls—right?
There are absolutely many challenges. We know body image is a huge concern for many young women; in fact surveys have shown as many as 94% of girls say they do not think they are as beautiful as the average girl, and up to 25% say they would like to change everything about themselves.

Binge drinking is a huge concern too—teen girls are the biggest binge drinking demographic in this country.

The most problematic thing is that girls can look as though they are doing well. They are experts at putting on the “I’m all right” perfect girl façade. Yet behind bedroom doors, they may well be imploding.

The key I think to parenting girls and boys is to reach out. Read what parenting experts have to say (not just my book of course, but get lots of viewpoints so that you are informed), talk to the parents of their friends. It really does take a village to raise a child.

What is the single biggest challenge facing girls today, and how might parents address it?
I believe that despite all the progress feminism has helped women make, the ultimate glass ceiling still seems to be our bathroom mirrors. Girls caught up in playing the “compare and despair” game will not reach their personal or academic potential. Their inner dialogue will convince them that despite all they achieve, unless they can fit the increasingly narrow ideal of beauty that they are bombarded with, they will not be “worth it”.

I love the fact that healing our girls really encourages parents also to heal themselves. Girls cannot be what they cannot see. Our girls will not see themselves as whole unless we as parents see ourselves as whole too. We “big girls” need to stop engaging in toxic self-talk, lamenting the ageing process, yo-yo dieting . . . we need to step up and be role models for our daughters.

If you could give parents of girls one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t believe the self-fulfilling prophecy that mothers and teen daughters are destined to fight and drift apart. Don’t expect her teens to be troubled. Rather, connect with her. Enjoy her. Teens need us just as much as they did when they were toddlers! Every stage of parenting has its challenges but every stage also has joy . . . see the joy now too.

If you could give teachers of girls one piece of advice, what would it be?
See her as a whole person not just an academic candidate. Don’t dismiss her personal issues. If a teen is fighting with a friend, that matters most to her. You can forget learning until there is a resolution! It is strange to me that we never take time to explicitly teach such vital skills as resolving conflict. When we work with girls in schools they hang on our every word when we help them learn how to make sense of “Girl World”! We have a generation of young women who are being expected to cope with an increasingly complex world, yet they may only have child-like strategies to fall back on.

Boyzone by Andrew Fuller, clinical psychologist

What kind of a boy were you?
I was quite a shy boy but very lucky. Not only did I have my parents and family, I had an aunt and uncle who owned a farm so I got to play and roam. My neighbours also adopted me and I had breakfast with them every morning until I went to secondary school.

What are the joys that boys offer?
Boys are gung ho, wild, touchy pranksters who love stories, games, jokes and mucking about. They are the masters of minimalism. If you ask them to write 50 words on something and they write 51 words, they think they have overdone it. They are the practitioners of just-in-time management which is why they will leave almost any chore to the last possible moment.

It’s tough raising boys—right?
Keep boys busy and it’s pretty straightforward. They want to know you are there for them but they don’t want you in their face. Let them know that you respect them and even though they will pretend that they don’t want to hear you, make sure that they know you love them.

What is the single biggest challenge facing boys today, and how might parents address it?
We’ve narrowed the definition of success so much that many kids, girls as well as boys, think they are failures and cannot succeed. We can be the antidote to this craziness by insisting on our children’s right to be individuals and to find success in their own ways. Be the person who turns to young people and says, “I have no idea what you are going to do with your life or how you are going to get there but I know you will be an absolute world beater.” Believe in them.

If you could give parents of boys one piece of advice, what would it be?
Mothers of boys need to know that they provide a role model for his future relationships with women. Care for sons but don’t be too ready to rescue them. Love them but expect them to solve their problems. Don’t let them wriggle out of hugs or conversations with you. Know when to “become invisible” when their friends are around but be there as a backup.

Fathers of sons need to learn to stop trying to improve their sons. If a father can accept his son for who he is and believe in him, he does more to build his confidence and self-esteem than all advice and lectures put together.

If you could give teachers of boys one piece of advice, what would it be?
Boys thrive best as part of a “gang”. The most important gang they will ever belong to is their family. The second most important gang is your classroom. Run your classroom like a gang! Have clear rules and high expectations. Be the leader of the gang. Let boys know how to succeed and they will shine. Also know that boys’ love of games and competitions overrides any lack of motivation they may feel so run your classroom like a mix between a computer game and a game show!

To learn more about Andrew Fuller, go to www.andrewfuller.com.au. To read Aurora, click here. And for more information about the Federation of Parents and Friends Associations’ July conference, call Linda McNeil on (02) 4979 1303 or email her at linda.mcneil@mn.catholic.edu.au.

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