This week I was invited to join regular panelist, Principal of Southport High School Steven Mcluckie and three times Olympic champion Hockey Player Nikki Hudson on ABC Radio Gold Coast’s parenting panel hosted by Nicole Dyer. I think the discussion is well worth a listen. My perspective on a few issues was quite different to the other panellists- particularly in relation to girls and clothing choices (an issue also explored at my blog here). Your thoughts?
Remember when we could barely get through a week without a pity party for Jennifer Aniston?
“Poor thing,” we’d collectively exclaim, as another magazine cover would reveal she was permanently lonely, grievously scarred by Brad, intimidated by Angelina and either pregnant or DEVASTATED by baby loss, often in the same week.
Occasionally she’d find a new boyfriend and the magazines would go on 24-hour bump watch, or she’d get her hair cut and look particularly foxy, and we’d all breathe a sigh of relief and think, phew, thank goodness for that, Jen’s alright.
It’s a thing we do with young women — build them up, obsess about their hair/clothes/boyfriends/character, then when they do something silly, or we get bored, you can feel the global tut of disapprobation.
“What’s that, everyone? An apology for treating me like one big sop story for so many years?”
It happened to Gwyneth Paltrow (Oscars speech 1999) and Anne Hathaway, and right now it’s Jennifer Lawrence — “oh I tripped again, is it still cute?” – who’s about to plummet from acclaim to disdain.
It’s one thing if you’re famous and can mitigate the fallout with a $5 million campaign for Chanel, or a trip to the Bahamas with your 30 favourite besties. But when the scorn and the faux hand wringing leaches down to young girls as a whole, we really need to step away from our assumptions and see them for who they really are.
Because if you believe the hype — and the occasional breathy columnist — girls are in crisis. They hate their bodies, they can’t communicate with boys, they’re obsessed with selfies, they’re the victims of porn-style sex, and they have terrible relationships with their parents.
No one talks about boys like this unless they’re a young footballer running amok, in which case they’re the architect of their own stupidity.
Well I’m calling bullshit, because if every sentence that starts with “girl” then ends with “neurosis”, “body-obsessed”, “eating disorders”, “anxiety” “self-harm” and “social media addict”, we may as well hand-deliver the script at birth and leave them to live it out. Girls can’t be what they can’t see and yet there’s an industry thriving on telling them how badly they’re messed up.
So here’s what I see.
I see girls communicating better than ever. It may not be face to face, but they’re expressing themselves and talking about their lives, whether via Facebook, Instagram, Kik or Snapchat.
Dannielle Miller, author of Loveability: An Empowered Girls Guide to Dating and Relationships, points out that social media has broadened their friendships beyond the school gate.
“Look at Debbie and Sue in Puberty Blues — they either had to meet up or talk on the phone. Today’s kids are powerfully connected and that’s reinforcing their human relationships.”
Yes we hear of girls being “dumped” online or via text, but wasn’t it ever thus? I’ll never forget Mark Munro (sorry mate, but I’ve waited years for this) enlisting his friend. “Angela, it’s Tim here. Mark doesn’t want to go out with you anymore. Bye.” There are still those jerks (of both genders), and long may they be pilloried.
What else? Oh, I see literary heroines aplenty. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Tris from Divergent make Little Women look like, well, little women. But it’s John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars — due out in cinemas on June 5 — that’s become a social media supernova.
Quirky, philosophical and funny, it tells the story of two teens who meet at a cancer support group. Like Love Story, the best-selling book in the US in 1970, it’s bittersweet, but with none of the “love means never having to say you’re sorry” nonsense. The characters, Hazel and Gus, are the furthest thing from clichés, but their love is every teen’s — “As he read,” says Hazel, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
Granted, one of the agonies of modern love is the public way in which it is played out. Status updates and Facebook feeds give a constant reminder, but as Miller points out, that’s not “teen typical”. As she says: “All of us are trying to make sense of relationships in the age of technology.” Seeing the person you love move on brings pain, but it also grows greater resilience.
Porn? Yes, it’s a thing. But increasingly visible are the messages to counter it. In her school workshops, Miller teaches girls how to set their own boundaries and to challenge the idea that “boys do” while “girls get done”.
As for fears that they lack “commitment” — that relationships are now referred to as “having a thing” — it’s just semantics. As a 21-year-old friend told me: “The idea that we don’t have real flesh and blood relationships is just stupid. Me and most of my friends are in relationships and we talk about our feelings, hopes and aspirations.”
Body image concerns and learning how to protect themselves from abuse remain critical issues for girls. But as Jennifer, Gwyneth, Anne and now J-Law have proved you are so much more than the messages peddled about you.
This week I am proud to have been given permission to publish an extract from one of the speeches given at yesterday’s Reclaim The Night rally in Sydney; this was given by 16 year old high school student Lily. The event was part of what is now a world-wide protest movement by women against sexual violence.
I am awed by Lily’s strength in speaking out in this way, and encouraged by the incredible grass-roots feminist group she has helped establish at her school.
May she inspire us all to work even harder for, and with, our girls. And may we all seek to create even more opportunities for young women to be given a platform from which they can share their experiences too.
Good evening! Thank you so much for having me. I’m Lily, I’m 16 years old and currently starting Year 12. I’ve spent a good amount of time with technology in my life and tonight I’m going to be speaking about the treatment of women on the internet today, as I see it and know it, and the experiences that other women have had online.
I’d like to start by giving a shout out to the feminist group at my school, Collective Voice, who are here today (there’s the banner)! In 2010 Collective Voice was started by our teacher Ms Fajou, in response to a lack of discussion with our peers about the sexism teens receive from the media, and each other. We discuss what feminism means to us – how we feel about body image, violence against women, homophobia, politics. We run campaigns at school encouraging girls to reject “beauty standards”, making posters and signing petitions.
We also have a very active Facebook page that we use to share videos, articles and current events connected with feminism. Here we share discuss issues that matter to us as young women. It’s awesome. We are building skills of productive dialogue and knowledge and opinion, which is powerful. One thing that we’re working against with Collective Voice is the widespread level of online sexism; a lot of online spaces have been claimed by a boys’ club of obscenity, anonymity and oppression.
I believe it is important, vitally important, to acknowledge that what happens online is still valid despite not being ‘in real life’. The attitudes and beliefs you encounter, the harassment you face, and the sexism which manifests is just as real online as offline. Just like in workplaces, boardrooms or any other social environments, online spaces can be made to feel unsafe and threatening. And when women perceive a space to be unsafe or threatening they are less likely to be able to participate equally in that space. If we stepped into a public space or workplace that was adorned with unavoidably graphic pornographic posters, where the people who you approached yelled hate speech at you or harassed you, where you were belittled or denied equal treatment due to your sex, gender, orientation or opinion – it would not be acceptable.
About a month ago, I attended my year 11 social. I had a good time and goofed around a bit, as you do. A few days later I found a particular photo of myself from the social on Facebook; it had been commented on extensively. Over 10 boys and men who are still complete strangers to me commented freely on my appearance, they debated whether they would masturbate to it, they told me that my photo would haunt me for years to come, they openly, and unapologetically discussed what they imagined my genitalia would look like. They were supported by over 40 others, who had ‘liked’ their comments.
This isn’t the first we’ve seen of Facebook acting as a medium for sexism and abuse, however. Notable additions have been “Punch a slut in the face day” (a group set up in a NSW school by boys who then went on to physically assault girls they perceived as promiscuous), “Define statutory: pro-rape, anti-consent” (from the lovely lads at St Pauls college from Sydney University); “it’s not rape if you yell surprise” and a swathe of pages titled with ‘women in the kitchen jokes’ in 2010. We saw the recent case of ‘Root Rate’, a page for young men to publically rate their sexual experiences with women, encouraging a lot of sexism and derogatory comments. Many of the contributors and the girls spoken about were underage.
Just two weeks ago, the world witnessed the case of Amanda Todd, a 15 year old girl who committed suicide after receiving extreme abuse online and in real time. Todd showed her breasts to a man online about 3 years earlier, and for this she was condemned by her peers and others. Before she committed suicide she posted a video online describing her story in detail.
Jarrah Hodge, who writes and educates on gender representations in media, politics and pop-culture, said, “(In the media commentary surrounding her case) there was no discussion of the pressure girls like Amanda experience to measure their worth through their sexual desirability. From her story it sounds like this man had the hallmarks of a predator—he tried to use her photos to blackmail her and yet she’s the one who got blamed. This comes from the idea that it’s up to girls and women to protect their purity at the same time as all their role models in the media say that you need to ‘get a man’ to be a complete person, that you need to be sexually attractive to be liked, appreciated, and valued. She said the guy she showed off to was telling her how beautiful she was. Given our culture that can be really tempting for a girl.”
What is surprising is that sexist, oppressive behaviour online has become very mainstream, especially considering that women make up the larger proportion of users of social media!
Currently 64% of Facebook users are female as are 58% of Twitter users. In theory, online space is a woman’s domain! And yet, online you receive 25 times as much abuse if you state that you are a woman or if your username is feminine…
…This is not a joke. This cannot be trivialised. What happens on the internet directly influences the way people behave in reality, and regardless how we interact with each other online is still a human interaction.
Of course, I am not the only person to speak out against the way women are objectified and men encouraged to degrade women online. There are numerous activists and online petitions targeting Reddit, Facebook and other forums.
It is how these efforts are responded to that perhaps gives us the most frightening insight of all.
Anita Sarkeesian has been running an online video series called Feminist Frequency since 2009, exploring and deconstructing pop culture in an accessible way. Sarkeesian makes video blogs (a form of blogging for which the medium is video, considered a form of internet television) analysing movies, TV shows, music videos – the things that influence us, and especially young people.
Her most recent project has been ‘Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games’, a 12 video project exploring the way women are represented in video games. During the making of it she has encountered unprecedented harassment. She writes:
“… a harassment campaign is being waged against me and has included attempts to get my accounts banned, a torrent of hate on YouTube, plus countless threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape. As part of that intimidation effort the Wikipedia page about me was vandalized with misogynist language, pornography and racial slurs.This was not done by just one or two trolls but was a coordinated cyber mob style effort involving a whole gang working together.”
So this is what it all comes down to. Sarkeesian, now backed by over 7000 donors, is breaking the rules of the male dominated gaming community with this project. Not only is she attacking the way women are treated in the games, but the way women are treated in the gaming community – there is no space for women to exist at the same level as men in a community which constantly sees them as objects…
…Now, don’t get me wrong, the internet can be a lovely place. And the reason we all use it so much is because it has infinitely widened our ability to learn, communicate and create. The problem lies in dealing with issues of prejudice and offense – we just don’t know how to effectively serve justice online.
All too often, the cry goes up that the internet is the problem.The problem never lies with the internet itself, the blame lies with wrongful attitudes and social acceptance of them.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for solving inequality on the internet, just as there isn’t one for ‘reality’. But we, as women, do need to be strongly active. We need to take the knowledge and perspective we have and make it heard. The internet is a highly modern space filled with primitive ideals, and frankly, we’re better than that.
So tonight we are here to reclaim the spaces we exist in and make them safe for all women! Let’s include in that, the online space. And let’s reclaim the right for all women to live free from violence, harassment, misogyny and abuse!
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.
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:
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.
There 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. Perhaps 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.
I 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.
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.
Thank 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.
CONFERENCES AND PUBLIC TALKS
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.
28–30 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!
16–18 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.
ENLIGHTEN EDUCATION’S WORK IN SCHOOLS
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!
More than a quarter of students aged 12-17 had drunk alcohol in the past week. More than a quarter of the boys aged 14-17 who had drunk in the past week had done so at dangerous levels: 7 or more drinks in a day.
The figure was even worse for the girls. Nearly a third of those aged 14-17 who had drunk in the last week had reached dangerous levels: 5 or more drinks in a day (the limit is lower because of physical differences).
The greatest binge drinkers? 17-year-old girls.
These figures are heartbreaking. To me, they tell a story of the pain teen girls are seeking an escape from, and the pressures they face to be sexy, grown-up, uninhibited. They have a false belief that drinking alcohol is empowering, when in fact it’s a train crash waiting to happen. Alcohol companies continue to push “alcopops”, and hotels offer mixed drinks aimed at young women, such as champagne and Red Bull.
But retailers may not be the greatest problem: almost half of the students who drank in the past week got the alcohol from their mother or father.
From my work in schools, I believe that these WA figures are a good picture of what is going on all around the country. Lucy, a 16-year-old student in NSW, told me how obsessed the girls in her year at school were about the alcohol they were going to drink at a party one weekend.
They all made bets on who was going to out-drink who, and who was going to get drunk enough to hook up with random people.
One girl was asking for advice on what drinks she could mix together to get herself “smashed” quicker, and another was bragging about her mum buying her alcohol to take to the party.
No doubt some of the parents who supply their children with alcohol are just plain negligent, but I’m betting many are parents who show great care and concern about other aspects of their children’s lives. They probably taught them to always buckle their seat belt, never talk to strangers and always wear their bike helmet. They probably worry about their kids’ safety getting to and from school, their marks and finding the right career. It just so happens that they also believe old (and dangerous) myths about teenagers and drinking. Some of the arguments I’ve heard:
They’re going to drink alcohol anyway. It’s safer if they do it at home where I can keep an eye on them.
Kids need to learn now how to handle their alcohol so they don’t get in trouble with it later on.
Alcohol isn’t as harmful as other drugs.
If I don’t let them drink, they might do something worse.
It is my great hope that if all parents understand the truth about under-age drinking, we will finally be free of these myths.
There is no such thing as safe teen drinking. It is never okay to supply under-age kids with alcohol or tolerate under-age drinking. And this is why:
Grow a brain. The brain keeps maturing until around 20 years of age. Less alcohol is needed to cause damage to a teenager’s brain than an adult’s, and the damage takes place much faster. The damage can permanently alter the brain. A teenage drinker is more likely to suffer falling marks at school. As an adult, she may be stuck with memory problems, learning difficulties, poor verbal skills, depression and a tendency to addiction.
Have no regrets. A teenager’s brain is also not yet fully developed for reasoning or thinking about consequences; it is far more finely tuned to respond to situations emotionally. Combine this with alcohol and you truly have a worrying cocktail. Many girls regret decisions they have made and embarrassing things they have done while under the influence.
Stay safe. Drinking makes teen girls feel invincible, but they are actually far more at risk when they are intoxicated. Their judgment is compromised; their reflexes are slowed; they are physically awkward. They are at greater risk of violent and sexual assaults. I am not blaming the victim: it is never her fault. But being drunk does make girls easier targets, as predators look for vulnerability.
Stay healthy. Drugs such as amphetamines and heroin are not the only threat to the health of our kids. Each year, more than 260 young Australians die from risky drinking behaviour. Binge drinking can lead to acute toxicity that at the best requires hospitalisation and at worse leads to death. Alcohol increases the risk of injuries from falls and road accidents, and in the long term increases the risk of stroke, breast cancer and liver disease.
Delay now, or pay the price later. There is no benefit in “teaching” kids how to handle their alcohol. In fact, research shows that when parents allow their children to drink at home, it normalises drinking and lowers the children’s inhibitions to drink. Studies also show that delaying a person’s introduction to alcohol lowers their risk of developing long-term problems with drinking.
As parents, we need to take responsibility for our kids’ drinking. A study conducted by St Peter’s Collegiate Girl’s School, in Adelaide, showed that girls actually want enforced curfews and they do not want parents to turn a blind eye to teen drinking. Teenagers crave boundaries and limits, because the pressure is then taken off them to make all the decisions.
So let’s set boundaries. Let’s set good examples. Let’s talk with our teenage kids openly and honestly about alcohol. And offer them things to do on the weekend that are way more fun than getting wasted.
Lily Allen’s song “The Fear” slams the vacuous world of celebrity as well as offering a poignant insight into the fears I believe many young women are harbouring.
Warning: the clip below contains strong language.
During the research process for my upcoming book, The Butterfly Effect, I had the opportunity to speak at length with many teenage girls who said that they were adept at pretending they were “all over it”, “onto it”, “okay with it”. Many girls wear a Perfect Girl facade.
Underneath, they tell me they actually feel scared, confused, exhausted. And lonely.
“I sometimes think I am the only one who feels like I am not really good enough . . . My friends seem so confident that I am scared to tell them what I really feel . . . I don’t want to look weak.” Julie, 14
“I feel so alone a lot of the time. Like, am I the only one who worries about my weight? Who feels self-conscious wearing clothes that show so much of my body? I feel like maybe everyone else is normal and I am a freak.” Dione, 16
“I am afraid. I can’t show it, as that’s a weakness and I might be targeted by other girls at my school if they see it. But I am afraid a lot of the time. I am scared of not being loved. Of not being noticed, of not getting it right (clothes, music, etc.) and then looking stupid.” Claire, 15
“I am really scared of making a mistake or failing. What would people think of me if I got it wrong?” Paris, 16
“I am scared I will never be beautiful.” Siobhan, 13
When I hear girls talk like this, I feel compelled to work harder to offer them voices of difference. I also suspect that by refusing to talk about the fears we all have, and more importantly how we have also overcome these, we run the risk of pathologising adolescent angst. How I love rock group REM’s line “Everybody hurts, you’re not alone . . . hold on.”
There is much to be gained from being more open about our fears and sharing our own journeys.
What are you scared of, and how might you manage these feelings and triumph over fear?
I stumbled upon this film made by “chubbygirl27” on Youtube. She starts by reviewing the film 3oo. She then deconstructs some of the unhelpful advice teen magazines tend to offer their readers and finally, she shares three REAL tips of her own. I like the advice she offers, take a look:
This week I want to share extracts from “Teenage Mental health: girls shout out!”, the third research report recently released by GirlGuiding UK:
Teenage mental health: Girls shout out! is an investigation into girls’ experiences of both hard-to manage and challenging feelings and recognised mental health problems. The report considers a new generation of potential triggers for mental health problems in girls – premature sexualisation, commercialisation and alcohol misuse – and also some of the more longstanding issues like bullying and family breakdown. It examines the impact of such factors on girls’ feelings and behaviour at home and in their communities, and asks young women themselves what might be done to help.”
Some of the statistics are frightening and yet they are consistent with the many other studies that have also examined the impact our toxic culture is having on young women:
• Half the girls questioned know someone who has suffered from depression (51 per cent).
• Two-fifths know someone who has self-harmed (42 per cent).
• A third have a friend who has suffered from an eating disorder (32 per cent).
• Almost two in five have a friend who has experienced panic attacks (38 per cent). • A quarter know someone who has taken illegal drugs (27 per cent).
• Two-fifths have experience of someone drinking too much alcohol (40 per cent).
It would be easy to feel overwhelmed wouldn’t it? But girls don’t need our dismay – they need us to get active.
What types of things can be done to support girls’ emotional well being? The report also offers some practical suggestions:
1. Give girls things to do: from adventure playgrounds to kung fu or street dancing.
2. Create safe places where girls can have freedom without parents worrying.
3. Boost confidence by giving girls opportunities to succeed outside school.
4. Encourage girls to try something new.
5. Make girls feel normal and accepted – whatever problems they might have.
6. Don’t overwhelm them with advice – give them space.
7. Help them understand that they can’t always help the way they feel.
8. Initiate a young mayor scheme – giving girls a say in important decisions.
9. Make information about where to turn for help easily available.
10. Use the Girlguiding UK website to offer advice and support.
I would add to this the following ideas:
1. Empathise – don’t dismiss her fears and anxities, nor think of her as a mere “drama queen.” Being a teen girl is challenging at times, and I believe this generation of girls have it even harder than we did. A great exercise that may help you reconnect with what it feels like to be a teenager was offered in one of my previous posts: Letter To My Teen Self. Do take the time to read the letters other Butterfly Effect readers contributed – they are so insightful. Add a letter of your own!
2. Help girls develop a language to describe how they are feeling; develop their emotional literacy.
3. Encourage girls to seek out a “Fairy Godmother” – a mentor who can help her navigate these tumultueous years. Enlighten’s Program Director for Victoria, Sonia Lyne, discussed this with great honesty and warmth in her previous guest post True Colours.
4. Get informed. Read books from My Library, read some of the articles on my Article of Interest page, watch some of the films in my Video Pod, visit some of the other web sites I recommend.
5. Encourage girls to critique the media messages that surround them. This blog has offered a variety of great practical activities that get girls active eg: my post on Talking Back to the Media.
The entire GirlGuiding report is so well worth reading that I am providing the PDF here for you and a “virtual treat” for you to have whilst taking 5 minutes to really think about how you can respond intelligently and compassionately to the pressing needs of the girls you care for…