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Tag: Dannielle Miller

Material Girls

Lourdes' new fashion label "Material Girl" which is aimed at teens.
Lourdes' new fashion label "Material Girl" which is aimed at teens.

The current generation of children has been found to be the most brand-aware in history. Why should we be concerned about this? Because along with heightened consumerism, adolescents are taking on some very adult-size burdens. Australian teens are working and earning more than ever before and a significant number are suffering stress from owing money to credit card companies, mobile phone carriers, and friends and family. They are even beginning to show signs of something you may be familiar with as an adult: ‘choice fatigue’. That’s when you become overwhelmed by the vast array of consumer products you seemingly must make a selection from. More and more kids wish that the whole consumer merry-go-round would just slow down for a second. Researchers have even found that when a child is more materialistic, she tends to be more depressed and anxious and have lower self-esteem.

We should be concerned, too, because teenagers now account for such a big chunk of the consumer market that they are ferociously targeted by marketing and advertising campaigns. While our daughters are still learning, growing into adults and forming their own identity, they are especially vulnerable and impressionable consumers, and marketers know that. You can’t help but feel a chill when you read the words of one marketing professional who said at a big marketing-and-advertising shindig in New York: ‘Kids are the most powerful sector of the market, and we should take advantage of them.’ Can you think of any circumstance where it’s okay for the words ‘kids’ and ‘take advantage of’ to be linked? Me neither.

Often teen girls are told both by the marketers and her peers that if they wear a particular label, they will be noticed and accepted. Teens feel a strong need to carve out their own identity. They want to be and look like individuals, with their own style and image. Yet at the same time, no teenage girl wants to be on the outer or to be perceived as uncool or clueless about what’s in. They want to be part of a group; they have a genuine and valid need to fit in with friends and peers. You may remember treading a fine line yourself in your high school years. If you were too slavish a follower of the latest fashions you looked like a try-hard; on the other hand, if you were wearing the wrong shoes you risked being relegated to the outer reaches of the girl-world galaxy.

The people who sell products to our kids are only too aware of this eternal teenage paradox. Owning the right brands and products – and putting them together in her own style – is one way that a teen girl can walk that razor’s edge between being in and being out. Brand ownership enables girls to associate with a group: the other kids who gravitate towards those brands. The labels and products a girl displays can be like a social code, offering up signs of what kind of girl she is and who her tribe is. For instance, a Ralph Lauren top, Tiffany charm bracelet and Burberry bag sends out one signal. Vans sneakers, Roxy cargo pants and a Billabong T-shirt – a whole other signal. The importance of the social aspect of clothing can be seen when girls go shopping: they like to shop in packs. When a girl holds an item up to her friends and asks ‘What do you think?’ she’s second-guessing her own taste and testing whether it fits in with her tribe’s.

In our marketing-saturated culture, product ownership has joined the list of factors girls use to rank each other socially: to a girl’s beauty and popularity we can now add the rating of how fashionable and prestigious the stuff she owns is. American author Alissa Quart investigated the world of teen marketing for her eye-opening book Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. What she noticed during her research was that the girls who owned the most name- brand products tended to be those who struggled to fit in according to the standard criteria girls judge one another by: they had an awkwardness about them or weren’t conventionally attractive.

‘While many teenagers are branded,’ she writes, ‘the ones most obsessed with brand names feel they have a lack that only superbranding will cover over and insure against social ruin.’

Kerri-Anne has recently asked me to help parents deconstruct the fashionista hype and to discuss a new label that has been launched by Madonna’s daughter Lourdes – aptly named Material Girl. I thought both interviews worth including here as they do offer practical advice on how you can support your daughter to look beyond the brand; particularly if it is a brand that wants to encourage her to look too sexy, too soon!

This post is partly based on “Shopping for Labels…or Love?”, in my book The Butterfly Effect (Random House Australia). My book may be purchased by clicking on the Paypal link on the right hand side of this web page.

Putting Girls Issues Back On The Radar

The following is a reprint of an article written by Rachel Power for the June 2010 issue of the magazine published by the Australian Education Union (Victorian Branch). It is reprinted here with their permission. It may also be downloaded in its original format as a PDF to share with colleagues: News_4_feminism

Boys’ struggles in the classroom have dominated education policy for a decade. But it has it been at the expense of girls? Rachel Power investigates the return of feminism in education.

BOYS have been the focus of attention when it comes to literacy and gender issues in recent times. Meanwhile, girls have been “silently imploding”, educator Danielle Miller warns.

“Boys tend to explode, and so they draw lots of attention to themselves,” she says. “Girls implode. The statistics on eating disorders, binge drinking and self harm are starting to filter through now and I think this has put girls back on the radar big time.”

Miller, CEO of Enlighten Education and a former secondary teacher, is one of a number of women in education attempting to address some of these issues.

AEU women’s officer Barb Jennings agrees that the recent focus on boys’ failure to thrive in the classroom has led to a paucity of resources for programs and strategies directed at girls.

The exception is the issue of girls and body image, which has gained increasing attention. A 2008 AEU survey of female members found over 90% indicating they were either “very concerned” or “moderately concerned” about girls and women with body image difficulties, eating disorders, self esteem concerns or who were self-harming.

High numbers reported the issues as prevalent in their own school communities and at all levels of schooling, even preschool.

Miller is deeply concerned about the sexualisa- tion of children in the media and its impact on their mental health.

For young women, the ultimate glass ceiling has become the bedroom mirror, she says.

“Behind the facade of success — academically, socially and on the sporting field — our girls are in trouble. Girls exist in a subtle, insidious world created by marketing hype, peer pressure and unrealistic self-expectation, and it is poisoning them at a most vulnerable age.”

Since 2003, the national Enlighten Education program has gone from having “three or four clients to literally hundreds” — mainly secondary schools looking for a way to address body image and self-esteem issues and enhance outcomes among their female students.

Miller says parents and teachers are increasingly aware that the “sexed-up lifestyle” being marketed to children is having a devastating impact — on all young people, but girls in particular.

She wants to give girls the tools to critically evaluate the messages that bombard them every day and develop ways of responding intelligently and objectively. Enlighten Education delivers workshops for girls on everything from time management and coping with stress, to safe partying and maintaining positive friendships.

Among those contacting Enlighten Education for help are schools confronting a rise in inappropriate behaviour among their female students, with several reporting that Mondays are spent “cleaning up the carnage” of what happened on the weekend.

Welfare officer Fiona Isles was one such client, seeking a strategy for dealing with bitchy behaviour among female students in her region. “There were concerns from teaching staff about the types of behaviour they were seeing, particularly exclusion [of peers],” says Fiona, former wellbeing officer for the Portland Education Network. “It’s mainly in the playground, but of course that filters back in to the classroom.”

Enlighten Education offered what she wanted: a program that would help the students develop conflict resolution skills, as well as celebrate what it means to be a girl. Over the past three years, 180 Grade 6 girls from the town’s three main primary schools and the shire’s smaller rural schools have come together to take part.

“There was a lot to organise and some schools were less receptive than others about the whole ‘girls’ thing’,” Fiona says. “But to see the girls so receptive and willing to listen and share their thoughts was so brilliant.”

Its success has reinforced her belief in the need for programs that nurture girls and create a bond between them, without the pressure to “show off” for the boys, she says.

Fiona has since devised a program called “Power Girls” for her Grade 3/4 students at Baimbridge College in Hamilton, based on resources gathered while working for the Education Department.

“We ask them to develop their own image of what a Power Girl would be,” she says. “Girls can be passive and worried about hurting someone’s feelings. So we teach them how to be assertive without being aggressive, how to stand up for themselves and have a voice.”

The “F” word

Other educators are taking it one step further and introducing their students to the “F” word.

Teacher Anna Treasure’s “intuition” told her that the female students at Point Cook Secondary College were “starved” of information about feminism.

With the Year 12s away on a special study camp, and “teachers throwing up a whole lot of ideas for workshops they wanted to do”, Anna took the opportunity to trial a women’s studies program with small groups of Year 10/11 girls over three days.

The school’s 2009 student opinion survey had shown a negative self-perception among the Year 11 girls when it came to the differences between themselves and their male peers.

Anna says today’s celebrity-obsessed culture is pronounced at Point Cook, in an isolated corner of Melbourne’s west.

“It’s a new school in a new area — there’s nothing else here — so the playground becomes a kind of theatre, with everyone on show.”

While students study health and sexuality — and sometimes look at texts from a feminist perspective as part of English lessons — there is no dedicated gender studies program at the school.

In fact, South Australia is now the only state that offers Women’s Studies among its Year 12 elective subjects.

Anna drew on various resources to create her program but “pre-empted all of this (by saying) how much I love men,” she says. “I have five brothers, and male colleagues and a partner who are all great.”

She used psychologist Martin Seligman’s three primary conditions for happiness — feeling that you can “be yourself”; fulfilling work; and a strong relationship with a significant other — as a starting point to look at why each of these prerequisites was compromised for women of previous generations.

She also used material from the Miss G project, a Canadian gender studies organisation, to create a multiple-choice quiz and a timeline exercise. “When they had to work out which events happened a long time ago and what happened more recently, they flipped out!” Anna says. “They couldn’t believe that homosexuality was still considered a disease until the 1990s, or that pay disparity still exists.”

Her final activity was to present the girls with two images, one of a woman in a full-length burqha and one of women in a beauty pageant, and ask them to discuss “who was more free”.

She says the girls developed a whole new sense of history and their place in it. “So when they arc up about doing their work, it’s now in the context of women’s struggle for equal education!”

Where to for feminism?

Author Monica Dux isn’t worried that your average teenage girl is still wary of describing herself as a feminist.

How to give young women a new way of using the term was the central motive for her latest book, The Great Feminist Denial, co-authored with Zora Simic.

“I don’t think a 17-year-old girl needs to be calling herself a feminist,” says Dux. “If you educate 14–17 year old girls that ‘This is feminism’, it’s like leading a horse to water. Many of the challenges that will sharpen their sense of gender injustice still lie ahead.”

She believes that feminism has in many ways been the victim of its own success. “It’s easy to see how the marrying of the sexual revolution and increasing body obsession has diluted empower- ment messages and created this fallout of ‘raunch culture’.”

But if young women are given a sense of their legacy, they will be more likely to recognise the value of feminism later in life, she says.

“A feminist consciousness is often there; it’s just having an opportunity to articulate it. If you don’t have that awareness, when you come to certain moments in your life where you think something’s wrong or unequal, you’re not going to identify with feminism.”

When surveying young women, Dux and Simic found that most were alienated from feminism by distorted stereotypes created by its detractors, such as former PM John Howard. That makes it all the more important that feminist history now be part of the national curriculum, says Dux. “It is really important to educate young people about the massive impact that feminists have had on so many aspects of our lives — culturally, socially and politically. It’s not a marginal aspect of history; it’s about the way we all work and live.”

PB240014Girl Power

Enlighten Education is also urging girls to reclaim the feminist tag with its newest workshop, “Real Girl Power”.

Miller finds that while girls initially feel disconnected from feminism, their attitudes change once they realise there is diversity of appearance and opinion within the women’s movement.

“We need to bring it to this generation in a way that’s more palatable. They can still like fashion and boys; they can still shave their legs and be a feminist.” She says the media never portrays feminism in a positive light, so educators

have to demystify feminism and make it relevant. “The adolescent female brain is driven by emotion and impulse,” says Miller.

“You have to make them see that it matters; make them passionate about it. They get really charged up once they become informed about the history of feminism and the battles still being fought.”

Dux agrees: “We’ve just got to start claiming back the label, and I think standing up and arguing against all the misconceptions about feminists and feminism is one of the keys to achieving this.”

Getting serious about outcomes for girls

Picture featured in Daily Telegraph, 21/5/10

This week I have been asked by the media to offer parents and educators suggestions of ways forward in combating two important issues: the sexualisation of young girls, and the increase in sexual harassment in our schools.

I thought it worth sharing two of the interviews I have given.

As you may be aware, the parents and teachers of a US dance troupe have recently come under fire for letting the 7- and 8-year-old girls in the group perform overtly sexual dance routines. On the Kerri-Anne show, I was asked to help make sense of this and put it in a broader context. Watch the vision below and let me know what you think: too sexy, too soon?


Also this week, in the Daily Telegraph, I called on schools to respond thoughtfully and comprehensively to episodes of  sexual harassment. Ultimately, schools must  be proactive and create a culture where all students feel safe to learn and are not subjected to inappropriate and unwanted taunts or sexual advances. Despite my grave concerns, I know through my work that there are also many schools who are doing a brilliant job with this; I’d love to hear about strategies and programs you are familiar with that work.

Let’s move forward and demand more for our children.

After all, the standard we walk past is the standard we set.

Are 14-year-old girls really nothing but trouble?

A recent UK survey of parents with children over 18 years of age revealed that 14-year-old girls are considered the most difficult to parent. Kathryn Crawford, co-editor of the website that conducted the survey, said:

New parents live in dread of the ‘Terrible Twos’, but parents of teenagers will tell them that the worst is yet to come. Ironically, many toddler traits surface again when children become teenagers, but often become even more difficult to deal with . . .

The general consensus is that the teenage years are beyond doubt the worst.

India Knight, of the London Times, felt compelled to write a defence of teen girls:

They’re funny and sparky and interesting, intellectually curious, with a big appetite for life and new experiences (if not so much for food, alas, these days) . . .

Most teenagers aren’t difficult at all. They are pains, which is a different thing. They’re just trying stuff out, experimenting, kicking against boundaries in a way that may be exasperating but is hardly much more . . .

She resists the demonisation of teenagers that has got to the point where many people’s first instinct upon seeing a group of girls at a bus stop is to steer well clear of them.

Ms Knight, I couldn’t agree more. I unapologetically love teenage girls. And yes, I really do mean love. In my book, The Butterfly Effect, I talk about the feedback girls give us after Enlighten Education workshops. They say they loved the way we made them feel; they loved us; they were inspired by the power of the love we showed them.

At first I was surprised by how often they use the word love. Now I believe that it is the fundamental secret to Enlighten Education’s success. Without big, bold in-your-face love, there can be no connection between us and the girls we work with. Our love gives them a safe place from which they can explore their world.

In a society saturated in sex, shopping and self-centredness, ironically the one thing that can still truly shock and delight girls is simple, old-fashioned love.

Too often we assume that our daughters know that we love them; that our love for them is instinctive and so needs no explanation. But as this survey shows, rather than receiving messages of love from adults, teenage girls often get the message that they are hard to handle, troubled, unlovable. Too often we talk about the teen-girl years with a roll of the eyes, as a time that we must simply endure. Teen girls are Queen Bees, Wannabees, Bitchfaces, Princesses, Divas, Mean Girls, Drama Queens.

They may be some of these things at times. Yet they are also so much more. When I look at teenage girls, I see:

  • The 16-year-old who is my friend on facebook, whose profile page declares her to be a fan of Blu-Tack, Minties, Dory the fish from Finding Nemo and Bubble O’Bill ice-creams – and also features her reflections on gender differences and learning Italian.
  • The 15-year-old who had a baby, as a result of being raped, and turned up at the school carnival the next week to join in sporting events and cheer on her classmates.
  • The 14-year-old who sends me copies of her drawings of a fantasy world she has created, and badgers me for contacts in the publishing world as she wants to create her own line of products, ‘beginning with a book series and then obviously working my way up to films and merchandising’.

Try not to let the slammed doors, angry silences or adolescent sarcasm blind you to your daughter’s essential lovableness. Don’t be distracted by the toxic culture our girls are immersed in, for there is a risk that it can blind us to an even more important reality: the lovableness of all girls.

Don’t be afraid to show your daughter you love her.

You can show your love in such simple ways, in everyday moments, just as the parents of these girls have:

When it’s really cold and rainy, I come home from school and she’s got a cup of hot chocolate and pancakes made for me and my PJs ready to get into. Then we sit under a nice blanket and watch movies all night. Gemma, 16

My mum writes me little surprise notes and sticks them in my lunch box sometimes. I love them so much, I stick them in my school diary. I’ve never told her that I look forward to seeing them so much, as she’d probably do it all the time then and somehow that would spoil it. When I feel sad during the day, I look at the letters and smile. Michelle, 14

I love when me and my mum go shopping together, and after buying many things we will sit in a cafe and just talk. I feel comfortable to talk to her about my life, friends, etc. and it just makes me feel better that I can trust my mum and have that time with her. Steph, 16

I talked to Kerri-Anne on Channel 9 about all of this recently. My hope is that it helps a little in banishing the myth that teen girls are nothing but trouble! 

To the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General Censorship Ministers.

I am proud to have put my signature to a statement signed by more than 30 of Australia’s leading child experts which calls for an unprecedented ban on the sale of adult magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse and other ”soft porn” material from newsagents, milk bars, convenience stores, supermarkets and petrol stations.

We are also asking Australia’s censorship ministers to review the rules by which so-called lad mags – such as People, Zoo and Ralph – are reviewed, arguing that they are becoming increasingly explicit and contributing to the sexualisation of children.

The signaturies are:

Julie Gale, director Kids Free 2B Kids

The Hon Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC, former Chief Justice of the Family Court and Founding Patron, Children’s Rights International

Tim Costello, CEO World Vision

Noni Hazlehurst, AM, actor, child advocate

Clive Hamilton, AM, Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics

Dr Joe Tucci, CEO Australian Childhood Foundation

Steve Biddulph, psychologist, author and Australian Father of the Year in 2000

Professor Louise Newman, director, Monash University Centre for Developmental Psychiatry & Psychology

Dr Karen Brooks, associate professor in media studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences Southern Cross University

Barbara Biggins, OAM Hon CEO Australian Council on Children and the Media

Melinda Tankard Reist, editor Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls, social commentator

Dr John Tobin, Melbourne Law School

Elizabeth Handsley BA LLB LLM, Professor of Law, Flinders University

Kaisu Vartto, CEO Sexual Health information networking & education SA Inc (SHine SA)

Dr Cordelia Fine, Centre for Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics University of Melbourn

Bill Jackson, CEO, Children’s Rights International

Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, author, Child & Adolescent Psychologist and social commentator

Professor Susan J Paxton, Head of School. School of Psychological Science La Trobe University

Dr Beryl Langer, Sociology & Anthropology School of Social Sciences LaTrobe University

Dannielle Miller, CEO Enlighten Education and author, The Butterfly Effect

Professor Dorothy Scott, director, Australian Centre for Child Protection, University of South Australia

Dr Phil West, Ph.D Initiator and Co-founder: The Alannah & Madeline Foundation Founder & President Renew the Spirit Foundation

Mr Tony Pitman, CEO OzChild

Dr Emma Rush, co-author Corporate Paedophilia.

Dr Rick Kausman, medical doctor and author

Lauren Kelly , co-ordinator Northern Sydney Area Sexual Assault Service Royal North Shore Hospital

Dr Judith Slocombe, Chief Executive Officer The Alannah and Madeline Foundation

Rita Princi, Child, Adolescent & Family Psychologist

Professor Chris Goddard, Director Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia, Monash University

Hetty Johnston, founder and executive director of Bravehearts Inc

Carla Meurs, co-ordinator, Solving the Jigsaw

Angelique Foran, psychologist – child, adolescent and family psychology

Miranda Chow, project manager, Lasallian Foundation

Ramesh Manocha, GP and founder of Generation next

Susan McLean, former police officer & cyber safety expert including child pornography and online sexual solicitation

Women’s Forum Australia

Women’s Action Alliance

Ironically, the submission by Julie Gale to the government censorship working party was delayed because of public servants’ concerns about transmitting the graphic images! Both Julie and Melinda Tankard Reist have been very vocal on this issue for some time now. I do hope theirs, and indeed all our voices, will finally be heard.

No girl gets left behind.

I am just back from three days in Griffith, rural NSW. This trip was organised by Neville Dwyer, an incredible man who is the Director at a not-for-profit community-based child care service, the Dorothy Waide Centre for Early Learning, and Treasurer of Country Children’s Services. He is also a winner of the National Excellence in Teaching Award and runs many highly innovative programs aimed at connecting youth to learning and the community.

Neville invited me to work with local Indigenous teen girls on day one, with the local parent community during the evening, and with 170 primary-school-aged girls on day two. His aim?

All I want is the chance for these girls to have the power of positive light to shine on them and see that they are beautiful and worthwhile people — that they matter — to themselves, to their friends, to their family and to us as a community . . .

We all have the power to make change happen — whether we take that opportunity up is our choice, the challenge is to “dare to be exceptional” . . .

We are blessed to have around us people who can make a difference, who take the time to care, to be involved, to take up the challenge.

Young Indigenous girls do indeed need more people to make a difference, because: 

The trip was truly a career highlight. I felt incredibly humbled to have the opportunity to offer some powerful, positive messages. Feedback from the teen girls included:

You showed me I am beautiful, and I won’t care so much what others say. You taught me to believe in myself.

I loved meeting other people like me and speaking out.

Today was the best day, where we learnt how to treat friends and resolve fights without fighting.

It really touched me.

I should not try to grow up too quickly.

It showed me that not everyone is perfect, and it’s okay to be who we are.

I learnt about responsibility for my actions and the person within me.

I love that you care, and even though you were a stranger you have changed how I think about things and shown me that people do love me.

You made me feel like I can do more things in my life; I now understand the whole part of being a girl.

The day ended with me crying for joy and the girls lining up to be cuddled. A moment I will never forget was when one girl, who had sat looking frightened all day, yet listening intently, looked at me and asked, “Will you kiss me?” I gave her a kiss on the cheek, and we held each other and cried and laughed. Magic.

For the teachers, too, the day was  profound:

Seeing the girls react so positively was fantastic. I learnt that the kids can write positive things about each other and be made to feel so confident.

Kathy McKenzie from Youth Off The Streets offered this insight into why it worked so well:

[The key was] positive reinforcement, respectfulness, positive strategies and conflict management.

The general consensus? We can and will dare to be different in the way we seek solutions for young women. The local newspaper, Area News, were very supportive. They ran a great article on the event: “We can solve teen girl crisis”. I want to finish by sharing the editor’s opinion piece here as he raises some excellent points:

Click on the image to read

Footnote – the following resources may be useful to you in your work with young Indigenous woman:

Living Safe and Growing Strong — a booklet produced by the Women’s Legal Service (SA) on sexual assault aimed at young indigenous women.  
What Works? — a website that helps schools plan and take action to improve educational outcomes for indigenous students.   
ABC Indigenous — an excellent website offering everything from opinion pieces to news items and interviews with “Local Heroes” 
Reconciliation Australia — aims to support the development of relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians  
The Cathy Freeman Foundation — Cathy’s vision is to offer young Indigenous Australians the same well being, strong sense of self-belief, and educational opportunities as their peers. You can make donations on the site.     

The Reality of Cosmetic Surgery

I am passionate about bringing the body image crisis in our girls to public attention, so I’m happy to say it’s been a busy couple of weeks for me, media-wise. I was on Channel 7’s The Morning Show, along with the CEO of the Australasian College of Cosmetic Surgery, to talk about the effect that reality TV shows are having on body image and whether they’re encouraging more people to have cosmetic surgery. Some really important points were raised about girls’ body image, so it’s worth taking a look and forwarding on to others, to spread the word about why we need to empower girls. (Click on the image below to view. The interview starts after a short advertisement.)

The Biggest Loser, Extreme Makeover, Australia’s Next Top Model, Australian Idol, Big Brother—the list goes on and on of reality TV shows that all offer the promise of turning ordinary people into gorgeous celebrities. A big part of the story they tell is that appearance is more important than just about anything else, and that if we do something extreme to change the way we look so we fit into a narrow ideal of beauty, we will be happy and loved, and we will be famous. In the reality TV generation, instant fame has become the ultimate sign of success. What a limiting message for girls. What a dangerous message for girls.

As I said on The Morning Show:

While we might not be seeing an actual increase in cosmetic procedures, we’re certainly seeing an increase in angst over body. And lots of young girls believe the hype that if they have that new body or that new smile or those new breasts, life will be a lot better—and of course things aren’t that simple.

I thought it was really interesting that the head of the College of Cosmetic Surgery made a distinction between cosmetic procedures and reconstructive plastic surgery after accidents and burns. I think that procedures for purely cosmetic reasons are simply a no-go zone for girls, but I would also caution parents about rushing to get reconstructive surgery for their daughters. When I was two years old, I was badly burnt. I received third-degree burns all down my right arm and neck. As a teen, I hid my scars. I wore skivvies underneath my summer uniform, wore jumpers all year round. I avoided pools and beaches. My arm no longer seemed small; it seemed enormous. A huge, horrible, disfigured limb I would be forced to drag through what had been my oh-so-promising life. (Yes, teenage girls are good at drama.)

It was only in my adult years, as a teacher, that I finally explored ways in which I might come to terms with my burns. If I could not accept myself, how could I possibly ask my students to accept themselves?

I searched for soothing words, and found them in the writing of women such as Naomi Wolf, who wrote in The Beauty Myth:

We don’t need to change our bodies, we need to change the rules.

In women such as Sofia Loren:

Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than the belief that she is beautiful.

And in the words of the young women I now taught:

I love how you wear your scars, Miss, you don’t let them wear you.

Words healed me. I did not have plastic surgery, and now as an adult I am not concerned about my scars at all. They make me feel strong and unique; they show the world I am a woman with a history of bravery. The power of words to heal is something we should all take to heart and remember in our relationships with the girls in our lives. Cosmetic and plastic surgery may appear to promise happiness and success, like we see on reality TV, but it can really only alter our bodies. It’s the words we use to talk about ourselves and one another that have the power to truly heal our souls, and to change lives.

This post is partly based on “The Battle Within”, in my book The Butterfly Effect  (Random House Australia).

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.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

15968_178888282169_38293082169_2803328_5725903_nI love my job and the girls that I work with. I feel blessed to be able to do something I am so passionate about.

So I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that 2009 became a bit of a turning point, the year when the mainstream media – despite all its raunch culture and limiting messages for girls – began to pick up some of the messages I’ve been shouting out for years. Earlier in the year The Australian newspaper named me Australia’s Number 1 Emerging Leader in Learning; and my book The Butterfly Effect, encouraging parents to combat the pressures teen girls face by forging loving, open relationships with them, was widely reviewed.butterfly effect-COV-ART.indd

Now the(sydney)magazine – the Sydney Morning Herald‘s monthly glossy – has included me in its annual issue on Sydney’s 100 most influential people. I am so honoured to receive the recognition – but more than that, I am happy that the crises our girls are facing are finally getting a little airtime.

cover_Jan10Thank you to the wonderful women in the Enlighten team and to all the schools we worked with this year and the fabulous girls we had the good fortune to meet. In 2009 we worked with well over 100 schools right across Australia and New Zealand!  (The journo at the(sydney)magazine wrote that it was 15 schools. I don’t know where he got that from, but I am proud to report that my colleagues and I have been a lot busier than that! But in the spirit of the festive season, I say: “To err is human, to forgive, divine”!)

I am already excited about what 2010 will bring – the inspiring girls, dedicated teachers and innovative schools we will work with. There is a lot of creative energy going into girls’ education right now. Here’s just a small taste of what I’m looking forward to in the first half of 2010 that you might like to pencil in to your diaries, too.


16 March Wake Up Sleeping Beauty” I will be giving one of my parent information seminars at Castle Hill Library, in Sydney. These are great for any parent who wants to help their teenage daughter navigate the flood of messages from the media, advertisers, marketers and peer pressure. Tickets will go on sale early in the New Year.

19 March “Growing up fast and furious: Reviewing the impacts of violent and sexualised media on children” I am keen to attend Young Media Australia’s conference, at the NSW Teachers Federation Conference Centre in Sydney, at which a range of key international experts on children and the media will review the latest research.

2830 May 2010 –  “Skating on the Glass Ceiling” – I am excited that Enlighten Education is sponsoring the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia’s conference at Ascham School, in Sydney. There is a stellar list of keynote speakers, including Germaine Greer, Dale Spender and Cheryl Kernot. Come check out the Enlighten stand; we’d love to meet you!

1618 June 2010 –  “Insights: A Fresh Look at Girls’ Education” I am thrilled to be one of the keynote speakers on Risk Behaviour in Young Women at this national conference at the Grand Hyatt, Melbourne, which covers topics as broad (and vitally important) as technology; leadership, power and politics; relationships and work; and global and ethical responsibility. And I will be running a special session with teenage girls my true passion! I’m also looking forward to hearing other keynote speakers such as Elizabeth Broderick, Kaz Cooke, Maggie Hamilton and Melinda Tankard Reist.sunshine


Enlighten Education is excited to have been invited into some new schools in 2010. Here are some highlights for the first term alone:

We are proud to be part of the Orientation Program for new Year 7 students at Roseville College, Kambala, Brigidine College and Pymble Ladies College, in Sydney, and Canberra Girls Grammar.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, I will be working with more than 400 girls and their parents at St Margaret’s College and at Rangi Ruru.

For the Wilderness School in Adelaide, Enlighten will be working closely with all girls in years 7, 8, 9 and 10, and the parent community, as part of their Raising Amazing Girls initiative.

At Santa Sabina College, in Sydney, will be extending our work with girls in years 8, 9, 10 and 11 by including their parents.

And we are thrilled to be continuing to work with long-term clients St Brigid’s Lesmurdie in Perth, St Vianney’s Primary School and Domremy College, in Sydney, and Firbank Grammar, in Victoria, along with many other schools we have come to know and love right across Australia. Here’s to a wonderful and enriching 2010 for all our girls, their parents and their dedicated teachers!

too cute

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