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Tag: Alliance of Girls’ 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 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.

A Conversation with Germaine Greer*

IMG_1118[1]Enlighten Education sponsored the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasian Biennial Conference, which was held last weekend on site at Ascham School, one of our long-term clients. I always enjoy these events as so many of our client schools are members of the Alliance and it is a delight reconnecting with all the educators we have developed such strong relationships with. This year’s conference was particularly inspiring as there was a stellar line-up of speakers including Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce, Cheryl Kernot, Dale Spender, Andrew Martin and Germaine Greer.

Television host Andrew Denton once described Greer as  “not so much a human being as a force”. I had expected her to be formidable and challenging, and she delivered. With a view to keeping the conversation alive, I want to share some of the points she made and pose some questions her sessions raised, which I believe are well worth wider discussion. Please, join in, either by commenting here or by taking these questions back to your staff rooms to discuss as a faculty. I have aimed my questions at educators, but they could be easily adapted and discussed amongst parent groups.

The Glass Ceiling

There is a current trend towards affirmative action policies that Greer does not believe will work. She fears that rather than truly addressing imbalances in power, they will only set up inexperienced women — who may not understand how the boys’ club that is “the corporation” works — as “cannon fodder”. She argues that this is what happened in England when the 1997 general election saw more women elected to the House of Commons than ever, yet many of the new female MPs grew disillusioned with the lifestyle of an MP. Nine of the so-called “Blair Babes” either chose not to stand or lost their seats in the 2001 general election. She also questioned why so many women seem to be opting out of leadership “just as they are most likely to be catapulted to the top due to affirmative action”.

Instead of playing a “numbers game”, Greer suggested we need to redesign democracy and build models of power that are more horizontal and truly inclusive.
What changes do you believe are necessary in order to encourage increased female participation at the leadership level?   

Greer expressed concern that girls, particularly in girls’ schools, are primed to take on leadership roles but then when they leave school, they are faced with systematic boys’ club rules that limit them. She fears there is a risk girls will feel guilty and internalise their inability to break through the glass ceiling.
Do you agree?  

Educating  Girls

Greer believes young women  judge each other more than men do. “Boys are more emotionally committed to each other,” she said.
Is this your experience in working with young women? If so, how can this be challenged?  

Greer believes girls are far more anxious as students and fear making mistakes: “I say to my students, ‘I don’t mind if I don’t agree with what you say, I just want you to have something to say!'” She talked about there being a “defect” in their self-confidence. Greer made the point that “as an economic driver, women’s insecurities are a billion-dollar business” and cited the cosmetic and diet industries as examples of this. She believes schools should “liberate the voice” of girls. 
Does the fear of failure paralyse girls? If so, how can we create classrooms that encourage risk-taking?  

Greer lamented the trend towards raunch culture and overt sexuality as a type of liberation. She referred to the sexualisation of children as “generalised paedophilia”.  She believes grown women are not visible enough in our culture: “We rarely see grown-up women who take up space.”
If girls cannot be what they cannot see, is it more important than ever to seek out healthy alternative role models? How have you managed to achieve this at your school?

*Apologies to Ms Greer if I have inadvertently taken anything she said out of context. Do I sound anxious about making a mistake? Yes, when it comes to Germaine Greer, I am! She left clutching a copy of my book, The Butterfly Effect. I lay awake the next night fearing that it might arrive back in the mail covered in red pen corrections — but Ms Greer, at least I have dared to find my voice!

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