Skip to content

Tag: Body Image

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.

Eating Disorders and Primary School Children

Last week the Herald Sun reported that children as young as seven are being hospitalised with eating disorders. Equally as alarming, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead’s eating disorders clinic, which specialises in working with people aged seven to 17, has experienced a 270 per cent increase in admissions since 2000.

The crew at Kerri-anne asked me to come on and discuss this worrying trend with viewers yesterday. I asked for Melinda Hutchings — an eating disorders survivor, ambassador for The Butterfly Foundation and author of the incredible Why Can’t I Look The Way I Want?: Overcoming Eating Issues to accompany me to offer her personal insights.


As is always the case with live breakfast television, there wasn’t enough time to offer all the insights we would like, so I have asked Melinda to be my guest blogger this week.

image001 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. About two-thirds were affected by anorexia nervosa; the rest were experiencing “food avoidant emotional disorder”, a condition unique to children, which involves extreme weight loss driven by high anxiety levels, rather than wanting to be thin.

And according to a 2003 study of 135 South Australian children conducted by Professor Marika Tiggemann, of the School of Psychology, Flinders University, two-thirds of girls in year 1 believed that being thin would make them more popular. Even more believed weight gain would attract teasing.

Children spend much of their early lives at school, an environment that can be competitive, with hierarchies often based on physical appearances. A negative fixation on weight and size potentially lends itself to self-destructive thoughts and behaviours, which can be triggered by situations, comments or events that bring up feelings of anxiety and worthlessness. These include family arguments related to eating (e.g. “You’re not leaving the table until you’ve eaten everything on your plate”), feelings of being misunderstood, rejection by peers (e.g. “Go away, we don’t want to play with you”) or feeling like a misfit.

Negative emotions can lead to unhealthy thought processes and feelings of insecurity around body image. If left undetected, these feelings can lead to the onset of an eating disorder.

In my book Why Can’t I Look the Way I Want?: Overcoming Eating Issues, there is a chapter dedicated to the early warning signs. These signs are often subtle and can be passed off as “normal” behaviour – unless you know what to look for. Common warning signs include avoiding eating in front of others, making excuses to avoid family meal times, obsession with food preparation and a change in attitude towards food, e.g. becoming vegan or cutting out entire food groups under the guise of wanting to be “healthy”. In addition, ritualistic behaviour when eating, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, insisting that meals are eaten at a particular time each day or obsessive use of the same crockery and cutlery is cause for concern.

There are also warning signs before the warning signs. If a child is constantly complaining of headaches and tiredness, or appears to have trouble coping at school, this could indicate there is something deeper going on. Emotional issues, including feelings of inadequacy, often manifest as physical ailments, so stay aware of any symptoms that persist or behaviour that indicates difficulty coping, such as falling behind in class.

Becoming vigilant about the early warning signs means there is a very real chance of catching the behaviour before it spirals from an eating issue into an eating disorder.

Here are five tips for parents and carers:

1. Eat with your child as often as you can so that you become familiar with their eating habits.

2. Watch for changes in those habits, especially anything that appears unusually strict and lasts for several weeks.

3. Listen to the language your child uses around food. If they start talking about diets or calorie contents, or complain that they are fat (when they’re not) this is a red flag.

4. Watch for a change in disposition. If your child displays hostility around meal times, they could be experiencing internal conflict towards food.

5. If your child eats large amounts of food constantly but doesn’t realise how much they are eating and/or aren’t enjoying it, especially during times of stress, this could indicate obsessive eating.

In the event your child begins to display an aversion towards food and changes in their eating patterns, seek medical advice as soon as possible so that they get the right treatment without delay. Early intervention is critical in reframing the mindset before it becomes entrenched.
Melinda Hutchings

Our teen girls, our teen selves

69119_459485973104_543228104_5588900_2236763_n
The diary I had when I was 14, branded “Sweet Dreams” for the teen-girl book series I loved so much.

I often say that one of the best ways to connect to teen girls is to reconnect with our own teen selves and remember how intense life was at that age.

Wow did I learn that lesson myself recently. I was packing to move house and found the diary I kept when I was 14 and in Year 8 at school. Reconnecting with 14-year-old Danni was by turns funny and shocking. Most of all, it was a reminder of why girls respond so passionately to the work Enlighten Education does — and why they need it so urgently.

My 14-year-old self was a mass of contradictions: studious and ambitious and desperate to grow up, yet childlike. Super-confident but self-critical. Sound familiar?

Here are some highlights . . .(with names changed to protect the anonymity of the friends I mention).

JANUARY

When I was a kid, I collected novelty erasers. I always thought I was about 7 when I did this but now I’ve realised I was 14. Dear God. (I still have them and get very anxious if my children want to touch them. They are kept on a high shelf in my wardrobe and shall be my legacy to the world.)

safe_image.php
My rubber collection. As soon as I took this photo I rushed and put it back onto the high shelf of my cupboard, where it is safe.

6th — Drove up to my Aunty’s. Tops as I got some rubbers on the way!

10th — Mum bought me a $2 Instant Lotto and I won $2! I bought 4 rubbers! Then we visited my Grandpa. God I love him. (Some things never change — my Grandpa will remain the great love of my life.)

18th — Bought some very cheap but very good rubbers.

You get the picture.

I was almost as enthusiastic in my interest in the opposite sex. Always from a distance, though.

22nd — Saw a boy at the pools. He was a spunk but he swore a lot. 🙁

There were special sections at the end of each month:

January’s Daydream: To be a psychiatrist and make everyone happy!

Goal for Next Month: To loose weight!

It saddens me to read that last entry, as I was a tiny teen. I hadn’t recalled ever worrying about my weight but I obviously did, just like most teens do now. When we ask for feedback after our workshops, girls often say things like the feedback I received from a teen girl just last week: “I stress a lot thinking I’m fat. I learnt today that I’m fine how I look, I shouldn’t care what others think and I’m not actually fat, I’m a size 10 – wow. Thanks!!” (Helen, Year 8 student)

FEBRUARY

Friendship drama ahoy!

9th — A day full of fights! Everyone reckons I said Melissa was a poser when we played hide-and-seek. Leanne had the shits with me after debating too.

10th — We made up but Melissa and Marrianne had a punch-up.

I was trying to be friends with the cooler popular girls at school, who had just “discovered” me.

Big Girl (kinda)

21st — Mum bought me my first bra! I love it!

Yet just days after the getting a bra, I say this about hanging out with my friend:

26th — We played dolls all day. Fun!

In the “Secret Valentine” section of the diary I wrote:

Although I never hang around the boys — it is Sean. God I love that guy. (I loved him? I don’t think we had spoken at this point.)

It makes me sad to read this. We did end up having one awkward pash, which was my first ever kiss. But by the time he was only in his late teens, this boy had died by suicide. I recall him as being very shy and quiet. Tragically, adolescence is a time that may mark the onset of serious depression for some young people; this reminded me to be mindful to watch for the early warning signs. Clinical Professor David Bennet’s book ” I Just Want You To Be Happy” is an outstanding resource on preventing and tackling teenage mental illness.

MARCH

Danni as the boss

13th — We decide to have a Club! It will be called The Aussie 4! We spent all day doing up the cubbie ready for it. I will be the Captain.

The rest of March seems to be almost a catalogue of fast food I loved (“We had Kentucky! Topso! I got the breast piece!” “We had McDonalds! Yummo!”), teachers I loved (“Miss Banting is tops! I love drama!”) and my marks (“A great school day ! I came first in every subject! Hoorah!”)

My goal for next month:  To be popular.

APRIL

Talent quest!

My best friend, a neighbour and my sister and I would have periodic talent quests. Although the competition could hardly be described as fierce, I was elated at my win! I danced to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and assembled all my cuddly toy animals as props. I performed this next to the fountain we had in our courtyard, for added jungle-realism. I set a very high standard for performance that day, I can assure you.

safe_image.php (1)
Me (right) pre-perm at 14 with “Bubby”, my sister.

Dramatic much?

3rd — No one seems to care that I am dying of asthma! Had to go to my Aunty’s to eat Easter eggs.

6th — I think my drama teacher hates my acting lately. 🙁 (I was a star in the school play: I was Mole in Wind In the Willows. Yep, a mole. And yep, the boys did tease me but I didn’t care as I LOVED this role. Mr Mole is hilarity.)

13th — I crammed in the library for a test. I had to. I must do well or I will die.

15th — Worst day of my entire life. Leanne etc all wrote me a letter said they hate me plus they are now playing with my other friends so I have NO ONE! I don’t even know why this is happening to me!

18th — I am really disappointed with my English mark . . . 92/100.  (Disappointed??!!)

MAY

Shopping weirdness

6th — Went shopping and nearly got busted for shop-lifting. We stole breath freshener. I feel really bad now. (Breath Freshener??)

7th — Bought really large knitting needles! Will knit things! Topso!

8th — Bought Mum a spoon for Mother’s Day. Chantielle (my sister) bought her honey. (Lucky. Her!)

Favourite Daydream: To have a spunky boyfriend.

JUNE

Danni as mean girl

14th — I was so slack to Jane as I said Simon Townsend’s Wonder World is going to film my rubber collection and interview me and I will be on TV. This is a lie. She was really hurt but she forgave me luckily.

Impending doom

26th — Went to visit Grandpa. He is very vague and sick.

JULY

Yes, this was the ’80s

1st — The rich kids all went off to the ski-weekend. I talked to the boys out the front of the school with my friends today. But I don’t really talk. I just stand there like a dag.

8th — I am getting a perm. I am very worried. I HOPE it is good. Darryl Somers also wrote to me. Exciting!

9th — My perm is tops! I’m in love with it it is so nice. Everyone at school loves it.

10th — I got my mole costume today! Love it! I’m helping Jane sell Avon. I hope we make a lot of money. A girl called Christine in our grade had sex with her boyfriend Adam. I got the top mark for maths.

19th — We had a mufti-day at school and I wore really nice pink leg warmers.

23rd — We went to a disco and I met a boy named Foxy. I kissed him. I think I am in love!

24th — I think I hate that boy now. (Fickle much?)

My goal for next month: To meet some boys and to be more popular. I love, love, love boys! But none like me! And I am scared of them! Problem!

Autographed pic I received from Daryl Somers. Was I excited much?
Autographed pic I received from Daryl Somers. Quite. The. Moment.

AUGUST

A date with Foxy!

There are many entries in the lead up to this date about Foxy and what I will wear, do, say, etc. Then:

14th — Well it was BORING! We saw Porky’s 2 which was just rude. We went to Mcdonalds which was the best bit. I would have had more fun if I just went with my girls! I spent $8 on boringness! I am never dating again.

18th — I dropped Foxy (yahoo!).

And then, amongst all the expected teen girl stuff comes a disturbing entry about an incident with my father, a sometimes-violent alcoholic.

28th — Mum took me to the markets and bought me cute koala earrings. Dad got drunk and punched me for nothing! It hurt. I hate him.

SEPTEMBER

A trip to Surfers Paradise with the family. Much discussion about rides and food.

Then much despair at the fact that my teachers all think I am not focusing and am “trying to be someone I am not” with my new friends (they were right!). Friends are having sex, smoking . . .

OCTOBER

Trouble looms

No mention of rubbers or school marks this month. I would soon be in Year 9, which used to be considered a notoriously problematic time when many teens went off the rails. Unfortunately, many schools tell me these problems now start in Year 8, because girls are attempting to cope with greater pressures at a younger and younger age.

15th — Pashed Jason twice but I don’t love him or really care if we don’t get together again. Louise F nearly died as she got so drunk the cops called an ambulance. (This all happened at the “alcohol-free” Blue Light Disco the police ran for youth.)

17th — The teachers reckon Marrianne is pushing drugs which is just bull!

NOVEMBER

5th — Tops party! We all got so drunk. We all went for a bush walk and I fell and hit my head which was so funny! I cried as Jazmine went to the toilet 16 times which scared me.

12th — Jane got a hickey!

18th — I wagged school with my friends and they got drunk. I didn’t. It was actually boring. I feel really bad about this (wagging)(This was the first and last time I ever truanted school.)

21st — Saw a plastic surgeon to see if now that I’ve fully grown they can fix my arm. They can’t. ;(

I was very self-conscious about scarring on my arm and neck from severe burns I received as a child. It wasn’t until I was much older, teaching in high school, that I was okay about it.

30th — School disco is dress up. I might go as a Playboy bunny. (OH. MY. LORD!!)

What can I say except that if even I was considering dressing up as a Playboy bunny, we shouldn’t let ourselves get too carried away with despair about the culture our girls are exposed to: there is hope for everyone!

DECEMBER

A lucky escape?

15th — I am practically dying and they might even put me in hospital.

I was truly very ill all month with glandular fever. This seems to me now a stroke of luck, as it meant I stayed out of trouble.

My New Year’s Resolution?

To try VERY hard at school again and not get used by boys.

Reading back over the diary of my 14th year has truly affirmed for me the work I do now. I would have loved Enlighten. I needed Enlighten!

Think back to what life was like for you as a teen too. If you have old diaries, revisit them. What does this reflection teach you about the inner-world of teen girls? What messages do you think girls need to hear – now.

Friends

Unilever – because white skin is the best skin.

This week I’d like to share a guest blog post by  Melinda Tankard Reist. Melinda is an author, speaker, commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls.

As I have just returned from an amazing repeat visit working with Indigenous girls in Griffith, rural NSW ( I shared the first in this series of workshops in a previous post) Melinda’s words particularly resonated with me.

I too have questioned the beauty industry’s obsession with making us feel (quite literally) uncomfortable in our own skin.  Back in 2007 I also offered the short film “A Girl Like Me” as stimulus for this discussion. I will also share it again here: Melinda’s post to follow.

MTR-193x300Promoting white supremacy

Here at the MTR blog we’re not exactly what you’d call fans of the global corporation Unilever.

Unilever has been named and shamed here before for its sexist advertising through the Lynx/Axe brand as highlighted here and here, for its hypocrisy in promoting so-called “real beauty” through its Dove brand while presenting women in degrading and objectifying ways, for its Slimfast products promoting rapid weight loss (because real beauty only comes in size skinny) and for promoting skin whitening products to dark-skinned women (Unilever – to the rescue of dark not skinny women everywhere!).

Now Unilever has taken its white supremacist ways a step further, with a new Facebook application which enables Indian men to lighten their profiles, while at the same time promoting its Vaseline brand of skin lightening products. The company spruiks the product using a Bollywood star whose face is split in half, showing the (unsightly) dark side and the (magically transformed) light side.

vaseline-skin-white-app

Unilever appears to have no shame. One of its earlier skin bleaching products was called “White Beauty”. Playing on certain racial insecurities by telling dark skinned people that they can never really be beautiful – that’s what Unilever is doing. For some great Unilever dark skin despising action, check out this You Tube clip.

Of course, it’s not just Unilever. Garnier, Nivea and L’Oreal (‘because you’re worth white skin’. OK, I made that up) do the same. These products promote ethnocentric stereotypes about the superiority of white people.

Sociology professor T. K. Oommen at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi told Agence France Presse:

Lighter skin is associated with the ruling social class, with wealth, with general betterment. Skin lightening creams for women have been a cosmetics staple in India for decades, so when a men’s cream debuted a few years ago, its success was almost ensured.

Even Indian children are internalising these dark-skin shaming messages, with 12-14 year olds constituting 13 percent of India’s skin whitening market.

The products are also dangerous, causing kidney damage and thin skin. They have also been connected to cancer (see: The hidden costs of skin whitening products).

Indian dermatologist Dr Aamer Khan has seen a rise in women suffering from serious skin conditions as a result of skin bleaching.

I see patients with hypo-pigmentation (loss of pigment) resulting in white patches and hyper-pigmentation leading to darker areas – both are caused by skin bleaching agents. People buy these creams that offer false hopes, but the fact is, there is no safe way to whiten your skin. There needs to be more stringent moderating of these products, as it is a very serious problem.

This is a perfect quote illustrating the hypocrisy, also from The Guardian:

…in an era of increasing transparency, parent companies like Unilever can’t hide behind a barrage of sub-brands anymore. They can’t promote skin-lightening in India and self-esteem in England and expect to retain any credibility when it comes to their corporate brand.

There’s a campaign calling on Facebook to remove racist applications. Why not add your name to it today.

Girls in Trouble in a Post-Feminist World

Parents, teachers and all of us at Enlighten Education know in our hearts that girls and young women are in trouble and need our support. And the evidence is mounting to prove that we are right to be concerned.

A 19-year-long Scottish study published recently in the journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology showed that teenage girls are now the most depressed section of the population. The study, by Helen Sweeting, showed that girls were reporting mental disorders at a rate of 44%. More than a third felt “constantly under strain”. More than a quarter “felt they could not overcome their difficulties”. Between 1987 and 2006, the number of girls who “thought of themselves as worthless” trebled to 16%. Those who were so distressed they might need to be hospitalised rose threefold, to 18%.

And recent UK government research into 42,073 children between the ages of 10 and 15 concluded that:

The choices being made by teenage girls regarding diet, lifestyle and other health-related issues were so consistently damaging that they had become ‘a standalone group of the population’ requiring immediate intervention.

Amelia Hill, of London newspaper The Observer, reported on the research in her superb article After feminism: what are girls supposed to do? which I urge everyone to read.

Helen Sweeting, the author of the Scottish research, found it significant that her disturbing results came at a time of major upheavals in society — in Hill’s words, “the period in which girls began to outperform boys academically, and the obsession with celebrity culture and the pressure on younger and younger girls to become sexualised”.

Girls’ problems are caused by a combination of very modern problems, including the breakdown of the family, and the pressures of rampant consumerism and of educational expectations – the need, in short, to have things, look good and succeed all at the same time. Add to that the spread across society of increasingly cynical, individualistic values and beliefs, and you have a pretty toxic mix. — Helen Sweeting

For explanations, Hill turned to a number of experts, including Natasha Walter, author of the new book Living Dolls, The Return of Sexism:

Feminism’s own language of empowerment has been turned against it. The language of empowerment has been harnessed to confuse sexual liberation with sexual objectification. — Natasha Walter

I agree with Hill that girls are “growing up in an atmosphere of unapologetic crudity”. Stripping, she noted, “is widely cited as a method of empowerment”.

Girls feel pressured now in a way they never have been before to be thin, hyper-sexy, smart, glamorous, rich. And these expectations have created a “narcissism epidemic”. Respected American psychologist Jean Twenge studied almost 60 years’ worth of data on 37,000 American teenagers and found a staggering rise in the number of teens who score high on the narcissism personality index. And it is females who suffer the most from the depression and anxiety linked to narcissism, Hill noted.

The narcissist has huge expectations of themselves and their lives. Typically, they make predictions about what they can achieve that are unrealistic, for example in terms of academic grades and employment. They seek fame and status, and the achievement of the latter leads to materialism – money enables the brand labels and lavish lifestyle that are status symbols. — Jean Twenge

Other UK findings uncovered by Hill that make it impossible to deny that girls are in trouble include:

  • Hospital admissions for anorexia nervosa among teen girls have risen 80% in the last decade.
  • In the past year alone there has been a 50% rise in violent crime committed by young women.
  • One in three girls, and one in two boys, believe there are times when it is okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex.

It is clear that the pressure girls feel to be more and to have more has grown to the point that they are struggling to cope. They need our support and understanding right now. 

Thank you to Sarah Casey for bringing Amelia Hill’s article to my attention.

Seeking positive alternatives for girls  

Enlighten Education is proud to be working with schools and communities who are seeking answers for girls. I have recently returned from working with a number of schools in Christchurch, NZ, and spoke about this positive initiative on New Zealand’s Breakfast program:

To watch this interview, click on this image. You will be directed to the URL.
To watch this interview, click on the link above. You will be directed to the URL.

Wilderness College Adelaide is to be applauded for launching their “Raising Amazing Girls” program:

As part of the growing momentum around Australia to address the problems caused by unrealistic media and marketing images of women and the pressure for girls to grow up early, an extensive program will be launched today by Wilderness School to equip girls, and their parents, with the tools to help them navigate the ‘tweenie’ years.

This will include a series of practical seminars, open to all parents, as well as an intensive program working directly with the students at the school on issues such as the sexualisation of girls, digital citizenship and cyber-bullying. I am thrilled to be leading this for Wilderness and will be presenting to all the girls in the school, and to their parent community, later this month.

In Sydney, I will be offering parents practical strategies on raising happy, confident teen girls at a workshop on 16 March at Castle Hill Library. Tickets can be purchased online.  

I’d love to hear how you are providing the girls you care for with the urgent help they need. Let’s share our ideas and turn things around for girls in Australia and New Zealand . . . and set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

Making Sense of Twilight

new_moon_poster_cullensThere has been a kind of hysteria surrounding the Twilight series of late. With the release of the second movie, New Moon, bloggers, commentators (and just about anyone with an internet connection) have rushed to vent their opinions—not on the quality of the movie but on whether the main female character, Bella, is a good role model for girls.

The consensus is that Bella, with her angst-ridden relationship with the vampire Edward, is one of the worst examples our daughters could emulate. Bella is clingy, helpless and self-doubting. She is willing to withdraw from life and sacrifice everything—self, friends, family—for an obsessive romantic attachment to Edward, who while being handsome and chivalrous also just happens to be a stalker battling a powerful urge to consume her and destroy her. Author Stephenie Meyer was inspired by classic literature—Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights—for the first three books, but it is not difficult to see examples in real life of young women who are trapped in a world like Bella’s. Only for them it’s not a dreamy romantic fantasy but a nightmare of poor self-esteem and abusive, self-destructive relationships. No parent in their right mind would like to see their daughter aspire to any of this.

But ironically, in standing up for strong teen-girl role models, what most of the blogs and columns have underestimated is just how strong teen girls are in their opinions and critical reasoning abilities. I think one of the worst things we can do as parents and educators is to dismiss or belittle girls’ love of Twilight, or assume that girls lack the ability to form their own valid opinions of it. Just because Bella makes dubious choices, it doesn’t mean girls are automatically going to do the same. Girls are often highly articulate about why it would be utterly wrong to take the same path as Bella in real life:

I don’t like Bella’s character. Nothing can ever please her. Ever. She whines about absolutely everything, and the only person who seems good enough for her is Edward, which I think is a wrong view to have. —Cherie

Bella experiences crippling depression after she is dumped by Edward . . . If someone wanted to kill me because I smelt delicious, I don’t think I would feel never-ending numbness or pain—maybe more like happiness, joy or relief even. The fact that she can’t function and feels the need to block emotion really does not send the right message. But it’s not just this that I object to; it’s the controlling nature of the relationship. When Edward comes back, he won’t let Bella see her best friend. Turn this situation into a real relationship without vampires—well, that’s domestic abuse.—Maxine

I ended up hating Bella because she is SOOOO needy. But the boys creeped me out too—I could NOT handle having a partner up in my face like that the WHOLE time.” Kris, commenting on Mia Freedman’s blog.

Given the passionate views that so many girls and women have about Twilight—both pro and anti—I actually think it has the potential to be hugely beneficial to girls. It provides the perfect opportunity to communicate with girls and raise crucial issues. One teacher I know who works with a group of 12–18-year-old girls as part of a church youth group started a discussion session after the New Moon movie came out:

When I asked them what they thought of Bella, it took a while to get them to see her faults, but eventually they realised that she was not really that nice after all. She used Jacob relentlessly. She bailed on her friends all the time. She lied to her parents. She put herself in ridiculous danger to prove a point. She endangered the lives of her friends. We were able to discuss these points and talk about what would have been better choices for her . . . They led the discussion themselves and were able to identify the problems . . . We were able to have a great discussion about friendships, loyalty and safety.

Plenty of grown women are Twilight fans and besotted with Edward. Perhapsd_bella_edward_kiss that’s because Twilight takes them back to their own teenage years and the intense emotions of falling in love for the first time, with its almost inevitable pain and drama. What a powerful reminder these books can be for women of the ups and downs teenage girls are going through. Teenage emotions are so overwhelming and big, but as adults it’s easy to lose sight of that and try to minimise what girls are going through. But when we underestimate or make light of teenage crushes, first relationships and first breakups, we can create even more despair and conflict.

I do also think that Stephenie Meyer has instilled some positive values in the Twilight characters, and it can’t hurt to chat with girls about those as well: Bella does not embrace raunch culture; she dresses almost like a tomboy. She doesn’t diet or talk about weight, and she is largely uninterested in her appearance. Yet she is singled out for attention from the other characters, reinforcing that girls don’t have to dress provocatively or obsess over their looks to be loved and valued. Another positive you might have noticed is that Bella doesn’t feel the need to drink alcohol; nor do any of the other characters. And you certainly couldn’t call their alcohol-free lives uncool or boring.

While I don’t suggest for a minute that the Twilight books and movies are works of artistic genius, I do think that there is a benefit in anything that gets girls reading. It is even better if it encourages them to read the classics that inspired Stephenie Meyer.

 But most important of all is the chance Twilight brings women to bond with girls over something they feel strongly about. One of the reasons fantasy fiction is so popular is that it provides a safe space to indulge in fantasies that should have no place in the real world. We can look at the Twilight series as a safe place to let hormones and wild emotions reign for a moment, mothers and daughters alike. Most importantly, it can be the impetus for mothers and daughters to talk. To talk about what a good, nourishing real-life relationship is. To talk about the mistakes we grown-up women have made. The compromises it’s okay to make in a relationship, and the ones we should never make. That it is healthy to develop independence and resilience. We can revel for a time in Bella’s intense story—but talk about the ways in which she could look after herself and respect herself so much more.

A National Strategy on Body Image

The issue of negative body image has officially crossed over into the mainstream public debate. We now have a proposed National Strategy on Body Image, put together by an advisory group appointed by the federal government.

Kate Ellis, the Minister for Youth, put together the group, which was chaired by Mia Freedman, former editor of Cosmopolitan, and  featured big names in the fashion industry and  media such as TV presenter and model Sarah Murdoch, children’s health and psychology experts including Professor David Forbes of the University of Western Australia, and leaders of youth organisations such as the YWCA. They considered submissions from the public–mostly young people, teachers, youth workers, social workers and psychologists–then came up with recommendations for government action to deal with the widespread problem of poor body image.

What excites me, and my colleagues at Enlighten, is that the Strategy gives public recognition to the important role school programs can and should play in helping girls develop positive body image.  The Strategy calls for increased funding for “reputable and expert organisations to deliver seminars and discussions on body image within schools” and for workshops that increase girls’ media literacy so that they can stand up to negative media messages.

Many schools access independent organisations to deliver one-off body image workshops or to facilitate body image discussions among students. A number of these types of interventions have been demonstrated as effectively reducing the body dissatisfaction of students. The Advisory Group encourages government to increase the opportunities schools have to access these activities.

Proposed National Strategy on Body Image

As a first step, I call on the federal government to immediately introduce the Body Image Friendly Schools Checklist in the Strategy (on page 42). It has some great practical ideas that I would love to see implemented in schools across Australia. The best of the recommendations:

  • Bring positive body image messages into the curriculum. It is easy to see how body image can be incorporated into health and physical education lesson plans, but teachers need not stop there. In English, students could be asked to write a critical thinking essay on how the media affects our idea of what a woman should look like. A media studies class might focus on the way that programs such as Photoshop are used by magazines to create an unattainable ideal of beauty.
  • Consult with students to develop a sports uniform everyone feels comfortable wearing. Being involved in sport has been shown to boost girls’ self-esteem and body image–yet it has also been shown that figure-hugging uniforms are one of the greatest barriers to girls participating in sport.
  • Provide Mental Health First Aid training for teachers that can help them identify body image and eating disorders in students and then know what steps to take next.
  • Give training for teachers in how to use body-friendly language with students–that is, no “fat talk”, either about themselves or their students.
  • Include positive body image in the school’s policy, even writing positive body image and the celebration of diversity into the school’s mission statement.
  • Do away with weighing and measuring students. It seems kind of crazy that in this day and age that has to even be spelt out, but it is still done in PE and even some maths classes. And for many students, the humiliation they experience leaves lasting scars.

Beyond the school system, there are some other good (and long overdue) suggestions in the Strategy that I hope the government implements. A standard system of clothing sizes to avoid the distress many feel when they find they can’t fit into a certain size. Stores stocked with a broad range of sizes, reflecting the diversity of our body types. Mannequins that look more like the many different women we see every day in the street.

But as with most such working papers put together by committee, within parameters set by a federal government, the Strategy of course has its limitations. For instance, it can simply suggest that funding should be increased in schools to ensure all girls receive the media literacy and self-esteem workshops they need; it can’t provide an assurance that this will actually happen.

The limitations of the Strategy become clearer when it deals with other avenues for promoting positive body image. The right principle is there: to encourage clothing designers, magazines and TV, the diet industry, advertisers and marketers to finally shoulder responsibility for the shame, disgust and body anxiety they routinely encourage young women to experience. But the Strategy recommends first trying the softly, softly approach: asking companies to follow a voluntary code of conduct and rewarding them for good behaviour by listing them in a roll of honour and awarding them the right to display a logo. Think of the Heart Foundation’s tick of approval, but in this case for creating positive body image rather than lowering cholesterol. Only once this approach had failed to produce results would penalties be considered.

I would be overjoyed if companies voluntarily started treating girls and women with more respect. And I think some would, so long as it was good for their bottom line. Think, for instance, of Dove, which uses the body image issue to sell a truckload of soap–while their parent company’s other key brands include Lynx (Boom Chicka Waa Waa, anyone?), Slim Fast and Ponds Skin Whitening cream marketed in Asian countries. A lot of fashion designers would  simply pull one of those frosty catwalk model faces in response to a suggestion they promote positive body image. I mean, can you really see Gucci saying “Hey, they’re right, we should stop promoting this unhealthy stick-thin image and adopt that voluntary code of conduct”?

I do wish that the proposed national strategy had more to say on the sexualisation and objectification of women and especially of girls. While body size and shape and the lack of diversity in the media are prime sources of despair, the pressure to be sexy–and only within a narrow ideal of sexiness–is increasingly causing serious problems.

Research shows that over time women can come to see themselves as objects and subject their bodies to constant surveillance, feeling disgusted and ashamed about themselves. So even if the code helps industry to get serious about presenting more realistically sized women, the expectation to be ‘‘hot’’ and ‘‘sexy’’ will remain. And industry will have the right product and the latest look we need to achieve this false ideal.

Misty de Vries, COO, Women’s Forum Australia, in The Age

The way I look at it, the National Strategy on Body Image is a great place to start. But its recommendations are only worth something if the politicians, the fashion and beauty product industries, and the media and advertisers follow through on them. It is thanks to all of us voicing our opinions that the government commissioned a Strategy in the first place. Now we have to keep up the pressure!

Friends Don’t Let Friends Fat Talk!

Does my bum look big in this?

I HATE MY THIGHS.

You look great–did you lose weight?

Fat talk. Many of us do it every day as we play the “compare and despair” game, trying to live up to an impossible stick-thin ideal of what we should look like and what it means to be feminine. But words have power. Even a casual remark about our own or another’s appearance can hold us back, reinforce our worst body image fears and stop us from being all we can be.

We should be celebrating our bodies and all our other amazing qualities and achievements!

So on Fat Talk Free Week, 19-23 October, please join me in trying to end the madness. Fat Talk Free Week grew out of a successful eating disorders program for young women on university campuses in the United States. It has snowballed into an international week to raise public awareness of how fat talk damages women and girls.

To get revved up, take a look at the video that was released last year for Fat Talk Free Week.

 

Some of the info shocked me, such as this statistic from the United States:

67% of women aged 15-64 withdraw from life-engaging activities such as giving their opinion, going to school or visiting the doctor because they feel bad about the way they look.

And the situation here is equally as alarming. A quarter of teenage girls surveyed in Australia say they would get plastic surgery if they could. Among 15-year-old girls, almost seven in ten are on a diet, and of these, 8 per cent are severely dieting. Six in ten girls say they have been teased about their appearance.

Let’s start freeing ourselves from all these negative and unrealistic body image beliefs–for our girls’ and our own futures. The Fat Talk Free Week website has great practical ideas for raising awareness in schools, such as:

  • making and displaying positive body image banners
  • writing down negative body image beliefs, screwing them up and cermonially throwing them out
  • writing down positive body image beliefs and displaying them in the school
  • making lists of friends’ best qualities, with one important exception: their physical appearance
  • groups making a pact to put a coin in a jar every time a girl fat talks during the week, then donating the money to an eating disorders organisation
  • discussion starters on defining fat talk and why it’s bad.

And I also love these great ideas that any woman or girl can try anywhere–at school, at work or at home:

The Top 5 Things You Can Do Now to Promote Positive Body Image

  1. Choose one friend or family member and discuss one thing you like about yourselves.
  2. Keep a journal of all the good things your body allows you to do (e.g., sleep well and wake up rested, play tennis, etc.).
  3. Pick one friend to make a pact with to avoid negative body talk. When you catch your friend talking negatively about their body, remind them of the pact.
  4. Make a pledge to end complaints about your body, such as “I’m so flat-chested” or “I hate my legs.” When you catch yourself doing this, make a correction by saying something positive about that body part, such as, “I’m so glad my legs got me through soccer practice today.”
  5. The next time someone gives you a compliment, rather than objecting (“No, I’m so fat”), practise taking a deep breath and saying “Thank you.”

Now is your chance to get prepared to try out some of these ideas on October 19-23. I’ll be sharing my experiences of ridding my life of fat talk, and I’d love to hear yours, too. Watch this space.

Step in the right direction or PR exercise?

I was recently invited onto Channel 7’s The Morning Show to discuss an “Extreme Makeover” story in Girlfriend magazine’s June 2009 issue. Using before and after shots of a teen girl, they show readers just how much work goes into producing the perfect images on magazine covers: the hours of hair and makeup, clever lighting and photography, and fashion styling – not to mention all the digital manipulation necessary to make beautiful girls impossibly flawless, with no blemishes or cellulite, and with perfectly white teeth and eyes. According to the magazine’s editor, Sarah Cornish, Girlfriend’s aim was to dispel the myth that readers too should – or could – look like the beauty icons they see in the media. Click on the screen image below to watch the interview I did alongside Sarah Cornish, or use the following URL: http://au.tv.yahoo.com/the-morning-show/video/-/watch/13306869/


I applaud the magazine’s sentiment, and the June 2009 issue of Girlfriend magazine does include some good articles. There is a “Love Your Body” section and a sealed “Good Advice” section that presents the advice of psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, author of books on parenting teen girls, and Dr Sally Cockburn, aka radio’s Dr Feelgood, an expert on women’s health. But this valuable and positive information is offset by a range of advertisements and advertorials that offer conflicting, toxic messages. How about this full-page advertisement on the inside back cover?


The model looks like she has stepped straight from a shoot for the men’s magazine Ralph: stilettos, skimpy bikini, large breasts. She is faceless. It is all about her body. The ad is for hair-removal products “specially for active and youthful skin”.

After we finished filming the segment at the Channel 7 studios, I raised my concerns with editor Sarah Cornish, and she agreed that the ad was not consistent with the values the magazine claims to espouse. She also assured me this particular ad would not get run again.

Sarah, and indeed all magazine editors, are in highly influential positions and have the power to communicate helpful messages to teen girls about body image. The need to do so has never been more urgent. Girlfriend magazine itself acknowledges in another article, “Drastic Plastic,” that 26% of their readers admit they have contemplated cosmetic surgery as a solution to their angst about their bodies.

I appreciate that editors may not be able to completely revolutionise their magazines overnight, and I suspect that in our tough economic climate they may even become less selective about the advertising they accept – but if they are serious about their commitment to young women, they simply must be more vigilant. During our brief meeting, Sarah struck me as genuine and open to an ongoing dialogue about how she can improve the messages she presents to girls. Watch this space.

Sex, Lies and Photoshop

The clip below is a really interesting opinion piece posted by The New York Times on March 10th. (Click on the image or visit: http://video.nytimes.com/video/2009/03/09/opinion/1194838469575/sex-lies-and-photoshop.html.)

This has particular relevance for us in Australia. Here, too, the camera always lies.

Does it matter? Yes. For some years now groups like ours have been advocating for more realistic and diverse portrayals of young women in the media; the current definition of beauty is so very narrow! Research from Mission Australia shows that for young Australian women in particular, concerns over body image are urgent. Through my work, I have seen firsthand that self-doubt can impact on every dimension of a young girl’s life: when girls are on extreme diets (and many are), or self-medicating depression by binge drinking, or being bullied by peers because they do not fit some ideal, they cannot possibly reach their full academic or personal potential.

I work with hundreds of schools right across Australia and New Zealand, and I can tell you that there is a real need to give girls skills to deconstruct the many unhealthy media messages they are currently bombarded with. The fact that our company, Enlighten Education, is so busy (we have worked with over 25 schools this term alone) is indicative of this. Schools recognise that they are not just responsible for producing strong academic candidates – they are concerned with the whole girl. They want their students to be healthy and happy and know that they are somebodies, not just bodies.

It seems that the Federal Government is also now keen to act. Earlier this month, it commissioned a group of fashion industry leaders to address body dissatisfaction levels among Australia’s youth. The group will be chaired by a former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, Mia Freedman. Girlfriend editor Sarah Cornish, model Sarah Murdoch and a number of representatives from health, media and youth groups will also be involved.

They have been charged with developing a voluntary code of practice for portraying body image in the media. The clear labelling of digitally retouched or modified images, greater diversity of body shapes and sizes, and mandatory model age limits are among the issues under consideration by the group.

This move is a welcome one – and has come not before time. I just hope the working party developing these standards don’t use this opportunity merely as a PR exercise. We need real action, not just a talkfest. We also need consistency: magazines cannot say on the one hand “We care about teen girl self-esteem” while on the other they allow advertisements that sexualise and objectify young women. After all, Girlfriend magazine gave free Playboy T-shirts away to readers not that long ago!

While the talk continues, we will keep working.

And we will keep listening to our client schools who are getting more and more inventive in how they follow up on our work. Teachers from St Mary’s Star of the Sea College, Wollongong, will build on it in their pastoral care program throughout the year. The girls did a reflective task recently in which they set their personal goals for the year ahead and celebrated by writing them on butterflies they decorated – and sent to me 🙂

Girls at Rangi Ruru in New Zealand created their own Hall of Fame and Wall of Shame. (See my previous blog post to get this started at your school.) Guidance Counsellor Jane Dickie sent me some wonderful feedback:

We also had cakes in the shape of butterflies to remind us to celebrate the beauty within us all. Throughout the year we will continue to carry on the themes discussed during the Enlighten programme. Not only has this been helpful for Year 10 as a whole, it has also given us ideas for working with girls higher up in the school. The saying “No girl gets left behind” has been something we have discussed with Years 11 to 13. We have also highlighted to the girls as a whole the influence of the media, and being vigilant about the pressure and ideas they are trying to sell. You are a consumer and therefore have power by not buying magazines, etc., that portray women in a negative light.

Love to hear what is happening at your school to provide girls with an alternative to the more negative messages they are surrounded with.

PS If you are establishing your own Hall of Fame / Wall of Shame, here are some new entrants:

Shame on Smiggle. They have just released a voodoo-doll-inspired pencil case, complete with a spot to insert a photo of the person you hate and pins to stick in this effigy! Julie Gale from Kids Free 2B Kids was quick to point out why this is grossly irresponsible: Kids Free 2B Kids protests against voodoo pencil case.

Shame, too, on Sydney radio station Triple M. They are running a new competition entitled Make Me a Porn Star: “Send us a photo of your best ‘porn star’ look, and you could win $5000 to pimp yourself up! We’ll also send you and a friend to Perth for Porn Week where you will get exclusive behind the scenes VIP access and star as an extra in an Adult Film!” Is a role in a porn film something we should be competing for on mainstream radio?

Subscribe By Email

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

This form is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Skip to toolbar