Actress Kate Winslet recently made a powerful statement on the importance of modelling positive self image for our girls: “As a child, I never heard one woman say to me, ‘I love my body.’ Not my mother, my elder sister, my best friend. No one woman has ever said, ‘I am so proud of my body.’ So I make sure to say it to Mia (my daughter), because a positive physical outlook has to start at an early age.”
Those of you who have read my book for parents on raising positive, happy teenage girls, The Butterfly Effect, will know that I also believe the search for solutions to the problems our girls face haunts many mothers. While it haunts fathers, too, ultimately I believe fixing this mess is women’s business, for we are the ones who show girls every day how to wear the label ‘woman’. And we do not always wear this label as a badge of honour.
Studies have shown that while up to 68 per cent of teenage girls think they are less beautiful than the average girl, 84 per cent of women over the age of 40 think they are less beautiful than the average woman. A 2008 Australian Women’s Weekly survey of 15,000 women found that only one in six were happy with their weight, one in five had such a poor body image they avoided mirrors and almost half would have cosmetic surgery if they could afford it. Binge drinking appeared to be rife, too. A third of the women surveyed drank too much and one in five admitted she had been told she had a drinking problem.
Many of us tell our daughters they do not need to change in order to be beautiful, while we rush for Botox. We tell them inner beauty counts, while we devour magazines that tell us beauty is really only about air-brushed perfection after all. If even the grown-ups are struggling, is it any wonder that our daughters are? Girls cannot be what they cannot see.
It seems that in many significant ways we are far more like our daughters than we are different. How desperately sad.
But this recognition of sameness is also full of possibility. If we accept that the issues we need to work on affect all girls and women, then we have the opportunity to sort this mess out alongside our daughters. We no longer need to maintain the ‘Mother knows best’ facade and try to ‘fix’ everything for them. Or worse still, rage at their unhealthy behaviours, which really only parallel our own – how teen girls hate hypocrisy!
We can join our daughters and work together on something greater; we can together find new connections and deeper mutual understandings.
Sam Power, my Enlighten Program Director for the USA, was profiled at this blog a few weeks ago. This month Sam has encouraged her Real Girls readers to join her in a 21 Day Challenge; participants will become more positive about their bodies, and enhance their sense of self.
With the aim of being a positive role model not just for my teen daughter Teyah, 13, but for all the young girls Enlighten works with, I have joined in – and what fun it has been so far! Challenges include making a playlist of songs that inspire and motivate (Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” are on mine – spot the ’80’s chick), listing all the things in your life you are grateful for, and asking three people close to you to write you a note telling you what they value you about you. Embedded in this post are the submissions both Sam and I made for Day 3 of the Challenge – “Take a photo of a part of your body that you love and explain why you appreciate it.”
Love to see your submissions, and love to see you you show all the young women around you that are enough.
Trigger warning: This blog post contains references to suicide. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or behaviour, seek help immediately. These help lines are open 24 hours a day: Australia
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22 New Zealand
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
All of us at Enlighten have been heartbroken to see a number of media reports recently of teens taking their own lives. Cath Manning, one of Enlighten’s Victoria workshop presenters, is concerned about the high rates of depression and suicide in her area. Interviewed along with Steve Biddulph this week by her local media, Cath made this great point:
I think we sometimes forget that teen girls are going through the same things we went through when we were growing up, however, today there is even more pressure on them due to the relentless media images and messages they are bombarded with, and the added complications with social media. Of course, social media is here to stay, and there really are great benefits that come with that, but young girls just need to be given the tools to engage with the medium in a positive, helpful way.
Positive — that’s the key. There are positive things we can all do to help our kids cope. We can listen and look for the signs that all may not be well in their world, and we can offer our support. Due to the recent media coverage of teen suicides, a lot of parents and teachers have been asking my advice, so this seems a good time to share an excerpt from my book for parents, The Butterfly Effect, on how to identify and help teen girls in crisis. For the teen girls in your life, I have also written a version of the book specifically for them, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo. Both are available for purchase here.
Rage and Despair: Suicide
What many people who try to take their lives share is a sense of being trapped in a stressful or painful situation, a situation that they are powerless to change. Having depression or a mental illness raises a person’s risk of suicide. Stressful life events or ongoing stressful situations may fuel feelings of desperation or depression that can lead to suicide attempts. Examples of these stresses include the death of a loved one, divorce or a relationship breakup, a child custody dispute, settling in to a blended family, financial trouble, or a serious illness or accident. Any kind of abuse – physical, verbal or sexual – increases the risk. Substance abuse by any member of a family affects the other members of the family and can lead to suicidal feelings either directly or indirectly, through the loss of income and social networks or trouble with the law.
Bullying needs to be taken seriously as it has been known to make teens try to take their own life. Also, teens are right in the middle of forming their own individual identities and a major component of that is their sexuality. For a teenager who is questioning their sexual preference or gender, the pressure to be like everyone else, the taunting they receive because they clearly are not, or their own guilt and confusion can become unbearable. A relationship breakup can be a trigger for suicide in some teens. As adults, we have the ability to look at the bigger picture and know that in years to come, a teenage breakup will not seem anywhere near as important as it does at the time. A teenage girl, on the other hand, may not yet have the maturity to see beyond the immediate pain. If she seems unduly distressed about a breakup, pay attention. Another trigger for teen suicide is the recent suicide of someone close to them, or the anniversary of a suicide or death of someone close to them, so these are times when girls may need extra support.
Suicide is hard to talk about. It is almost taboo, simply too painful to touch on. But silence can be deadly. Often the parents of a teen girl at risk of suicide do not ask her the tough question of whether she is planning to take her own life. In part they may be in a state of denial, which is only human – after all, no parent wants to imagine that their daughter feels suicidal. They may also have a fear that seems to be ingrained in our culture: that if they mention suicide to their depressed or distressed daughter, they will be putting the idea in her head. But experts in adolescent mental health agree that it is more than okay to speak directly to your daughter about suicide. ‘Parents are often worried that by asking they may make matters worse. Well, I have never known a child to suicide because someone asked whether they were thinking about it,’ says child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Brent Waters.
Another unhelpful myth about suicide is that a teen who talks about suicide is simply seeking attention and won’t actually take her life. In fact, four out of five young people who commit suicide tell someone of their intentions beforehand. Besides, I have never understood the point of making a distinction between attention seeking, a cry for help or a genuine intention to commit suicide. Even if a teen is not actually going to go through with a plan to take her life, if she is distressed enough to cry out for help, her voice needs to be heard and she needs our support.
What you can do
Number one: if anyone – child, adolescent or adult – says something like ‘I want to kill myself’ or ‘I’m going to kill myself’, seek help straightaway. Remove anything they might be tempted to use to kill themselves with and stay with them. Dial 000 in Australia or 111 in New Zealand or a crisis line. The following phone counselling services are available 24 hours a day:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Another valuable thing you can do to help someone you fear is having suicidal thoughts is to listen. These pointers are adapted from the Victorian Government’s excellent ‘Youth suicide prevention – the warning signs’ on www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au:
Listen and encourage her to talk
Tell her you care
Acknowledge her feelings
Gently point out the consequences of her suicide, for her and the people she leaves behind
Stay calm; try not to panic or get angry
Try not to interrupt her
Try not to judge her
Don’t overwhelm her with too much advice or stories about your own experiences
Suicide warning signs
Loss of interest in activities she used to enjoy
Giving away her prized possessions
Thoroughly cleaning her room and throwing out important things
Violent or rebellious behaviour
Running away from home
Taking no interest in her clothes or appearance
A sudden, marked personality change
Withdrawal from friends, family and her usual activities
A seeming increase in her accident proneness, or signs of self-harm
A change in eating and sleeping patterns
A drop in school performance, due to decreased concentration and feelings of boredom
Frequent complaints about stomach aches, headaches, tiredness and other symptoms that may be linked to emotional upsets
Rejection of praise or rewards
Verbal hints such as ‘I won’t be a problem for you much longer’ or ‘Nothing matters anyway’
Suddenly becoming cheerful after a period of being down, which may indicate she has made a resolution to take her life
(Heart image by Seyed Mostafa Zamani, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)
Increasingly I am being asked by concerned parents and girls about the issue of self-harm, so this week I’m bringing you an abridged version of the section in my book The Butterfly Effect that looks at what drives some girls to hurt themselves, the warning signs to look out for, and what we can do to help girls in crisis.
Trigger warning: The following post contains references to self-harm that may be a trigger for some people.
What is self-harm?
Self-harm is when a girl purposely injures herself, usually in secret. There are many different ways that a girl might do this, including cutting, burning, biting or branding her skin; hitting herself or banging her head; pulling her hair out; picking and pulling at her skin; or picking at old sores to open them up again.
Self-harm warning signs
Cuts – especially small shallow parallel cuts on the arms or legs – for which there is no adequate explanation
Other frequent and unexplained injuries, such as burns or bruises
Starting to wear long sleeves or pants all the time, even in warm weather
Sudden aversion to going swimming or getting changed in front of other girls
Hair missing, where it has been deliberately pulled out
Mood changes, depression, anxiety
Spending a lot of time alone
Notable difficulty dealing with stressful or emotional situations
A drop in school performance
Why do girls self-harm?
While each girl’s situation at home, school, with friends and in the community influences her life in a unique way, there are underlying factors in our culture that are putting more teenage girls at risk than ever before. Being part of society means meeting certain expectations; around adolescence girls begin to be more fully aware of the pressure to fulfil these expectations, which were mapped out before they were even born. Girls can hardly miss the messages about what it takes to be an ideal girl or the ideal woman. Unable to match the ideal no matter how they try, many girls begin to loathe themselves for falling short.
To try to meet the expectations of who they should be, teenage girls may have to tame themselves, blunt themselves. They learn that if they express anger, they will turn people off, because feminine, good girls are agreeable, not cranky. Even though on the surface a girl may appear sad, happy or indifferent, she may really be bottling up rage. Where does girls’ suppressed anger go? For some, it may become depression, drug or alcohol abuse, or self-aggression such as anorexia, bulimia, self-harm or suicide.
In some cases, self-harm is a form of risk-tasking and rebelling, or even of being accepted into a peer group. In others, it is a sign of deep psychological distress, a way of coping with painful, overwhelming feelings. If a girl finds it hard to express emotions such as anger, sadness or grief, marking her body in this way may be her desperate attempt at self-expression. A girl numbed by depression or trauma may self-harm in order to feel something again. It can also be a cry for help. A girl who doesn’t know who to ask for help, or how, may be using her injured body to send a message. And as with eating disorders, there are girls who self-harm because they feel that they are not in control of aspects of their life; for them, self-harm is a way of asserting control.
During the act of hurting herself, a girl may feel as though she is releasing pent-up steam, as if opening the valve on a pressure cooker; the act brings a temporary sense of relief. But self-harm also brings with it guilt, depression, self-loathing, anger, fear, and isolation from friends and family.
Self-harm doesn’t necessarily mean that a girl is suicidal, but all cases of self-harm need to be taken seriously. Self-harm can be related to mental health issues including depression, psychosis, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder; to a trauma such as physical or sexual abuse; or to some other source of deep psychological pain. Self-harm may also do lasting physical damage. While girls rarely need hospitalisation because of self-harm, they may give themselves lifelong scarring as well as nerve damage.
What can be done to help?
In the short term, if a girl self-harms she needs to learn ways to cope when the urge strikes. Her therapist is likely to suggest ideas such as counting to ten or waiting 15 minutes, to give the feeling a chance to pass; saying ‘No!’ or ‘Stop!’; relaxation techniques such as yoga; or going for a run or doing some other kind of hard physical exercise. Another accepted short-term solution is to choose an alternative to self-harm, such as squeezing ice cubes between her fingers until they go numb, eating a chilli, standing under a cold shower, having her legs waxed or drawing in red on her body instead of cutting. Crucially, the underlying reasons why she self-harms need to be uncovered and worked through with a professional, who will also help her to develop healthier ways of identifying, coping with and expressing painful emotions.
There is much we can do to help prevent girls finding themselves at crisis point; and no matter how troubled a girl is, she can turn her life around. The key is communication. By strengthening a girl’s connections – to her parents, the rest of her family, her friends, community and school – we can give her the best chance.
Girls regularly tell me that what they want more of is their parents’ time. They want their parents to listen. Sometimes when we ask our daughters what’s wrong, we get a blank gaze or a huff or a slammed door, and we give up. Don’t give up too quickly. Your girl may be sending out all the signals to push you away while actually she needs you to keep asking, giving her attention, showing her you care. Therapist Martha B. Straus urges: ‘When she’s at a loss for words, guess and guess again.’ Many teen girls have a limited vocabulary for expressing their feelings, but we can help them. It can take something as simple as ‘I feel really angry about this – do you?’ to open the floodgates.
One of the most helpful things you can do is allow her to express all her emotions, rather than choking on her darker feelings until they turn into despair. ‘When girls can be angry,’ Straus writes, ‘they can also be reassured they are worth such powerful feelings – there is someone in there worth being mad about.’
Seek professional help. A good starting point is your GP, for a referral to a relevant specialist, local adolescent mental health team, counsellor or community health centre.
Be consistent. Set consistent boundaries, but also be consistent in your loving. Even if she takes a drastic backslide in her recovery, she needs to know that you still love her.
Banish secrecy. Maintaining a shroud of secrecy around a crisis is not helpful to girls.
Build networks of support. A girl’s networks may include doctors, therapists, adult mentors, relatives, school counsellors and friends.
Celebrate. When a girl is on the path to recovery there may be frustrating and disappointing setbacks, but there will be victories, too. Take heart in them. And celebrate.
In light of figures showing that there were almost 70 serious incidents in state schools in the NSW Hunter Central Coast region in the last half of 2011 – some of them violent, such as students fighting and fashioning their own weapons – a lot of parents are asking what schools can do to create safer environments. The Newcastle Herald asked me to submit an Opinion piece on this topic; I thought I’d share my thoughts with you here too.
I visit hundreds of schools every year, and I have seen some highly successful strategies. Strong peer-support programs, where older children buddy up with younger ones and look out for them, are effective. Schools can celebrate difference by hosting multicultural days, gender-awareness programs and anti-homophobia initiatives. Police youth liaison officers are happy to come to schools to discuss bullying and violence, and this can be empowering and healing.
There is a disturbing trend of children just watching, or videoing, serious incidents in the school ground – yet when bystanders speak out, bullies often back down. So schools need to do everything they can to support bystanders and encourage them to say enough is enough.
Most important of all, children need a whole-school culture that makes it clear that violence, discrimination and bullying will not be tolerated. Ever. A student is more likely to hurt someone at school if he or she feels that racists and bullies are not disciplined, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.
The buck does not stop at the principal’s desk, though. The same research also showed that families are just as important as teachers in preventing violence at school. Children who are in the midst of family troubles or aren’t getting enough supervision at home may be more prone to violence. The type of supervision is also crucial, for children whose parents discipline them with harsh punishments are more likely to attack someone at school.
Children cannot be what they cannot see. This means that if we want our kids to resolve conflict without physical intimidation and threats, we need to do the same. All of us, parents and teachers, cannot merely point the finger at violent students: we need to own the environments that foster aggression.
For young people, conflict tends to erupt into violence if they haven’t learned positive ways to solve problems with others. Yet conflict resolution is something parents seldom explicitly teach kids. Of course, it is the standard we set – the choices we make when dealing with conflict in our own lives – that will always be the primary way our children learn. But we can also be proactive.
I’m not suggesting that parents lecture kids on the right and wrong ways to deal with conflict. But I am suggesting that we have an ongoing, open conversation with our kids about the feelings that arise when we are in conflict, and the strategies we can use to move forward without violence or intimidation.
Try sharing these 10 Steps to Conflict Resolution with the young people in your life. They are very effective for the girls I work with and apply equally to boys (and adults!).
The 10 Steps to Conflict Resolution
1. Plan ahead. Think about what you want to say to the person who’s upset you, so you don’t say something you’ll regret.
2. Don’t put on a show. An audience will only escalate things. A one-on-one conversation is preferable.
3. Home in on how you feel. Use ‘I’ language – e.g. ‘I felt hurt that you talked about me’ – rather than ‘you’ language – e.g. ‘You can’t be trusted.’
4. Admit your mistakes and apologise. If you’re even partly at fault, defuse the situation with a simple ‘I was wrong, I’m sorry.’
5. Be specific. Clearly articulate only what upset you on this occasion. Do not dig up old wounds.
6. Offer time. Offer the other person time to think, so that they don’t speak or act impulsively.
7. Be calm. Learn some simple breathing and visualisation activities to help you stay chilled.
8. Assert yourself. Speak firmly and clearly, and be assertive rather than aggressive.
9. Expect to be heard. You deserve the other person’s attention, but if you’ve picked a bad time to talk, offer another time.
10. End on a positive. If your relationship ends over this conflict, it doesn’t mean you must automatically treat the other person as your enemy. You might not be friends, but you can still be friendly.
You can find a more detailed version of these steps in my books, The Butterfly Effect (for parents) and The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo (for teen girls). (With thanks to Courtney Macavint and Andrea Vander Plimyn’s respect rules.)
I embrace every opportunity to listen to teen girls — to connect with them and also to learn their hopes, dreams and concerns, not to mention their insights into Girl World.
So at the end of every Enlighten workshop, we ask girls for their feedback. We want to know what really gets through to them. What is the best way to connect? What brings about lasting, positive change? What are the best ways to help girls shine?
This week I want to give a voice to one of those girls: Sienna Fracchia, a Year 9 girl who recently took part in a workshop with our Queensland program director, Storm Greenhill-Brown, and team member Louise Beddoes. I hope that Sienna’s thoughtful — and impressively articulate! — feedback will be of valuable to anyone who works with girls, wants to better understand girls, and wishes to make a strong, authentic connection with them.
Not your average Friday!
I arrived at school on Friday 2 March thinking, ‘Oh, this Year 9 Development Day is just going to be another one of those “growing up” sessions about puberty and development!’ I predicted a whole day in a room full of Grade 9 girls, discussing various body parts and how our emotions will develop. An organisation called Enlighten Education was doing a presentation called ‘The Butterfly Effect’; I thought it was some type of nickname for girls going through puberty or something cheesy like that. It sounded like the worst way to spend a Friday. I spent a good hour before school reflecting on the many uncomfortable student-teacher moments of the past when we talked about puberty or another awkward topics involving adolescent development, and the many that were to come.
For educators, it can be a bit confronting to hear this straight from the horse’s mouth. But it’s a great reminder that sometimes even when it seems that girls have been given the required personal development courses, the messages still may not have got through. Whilst girls might be present in the room, they might not be engaged and another way may need to be found to connect with them.
When the bell rang, my friends and I trudged up the stairs to our doom; but when we slowly edged our way into the room, we were swept away from the world of smelly, hairy boys ruling our lives, into GIRL WORLD — a sea of pink and purple fabric, butterflies and glitter, where school shoes were just an accessory and girls ruled. My judgement was so wrong! A goodie bag and pamphlet were thrust into our arms, as our minds were registering the awesome day that awaited us.
Girls want (and of course deserve!) to feel special and important. Simple, attractive visual props and handouts set the scene. They signify to girls that this is a time and space set aside just for them, and that something transformative is about to happen.
We started our adventure learning the heartbreaking but also amazingly romantic story of our leader, Storm, from Enlighten Education. Then a little physical exercise (dancing!) and we knew that this was going to be one of the best days of our school lives. Through five different workshops, we discovered just how amazing GIRL WORLD and all the girls in it really are.
Sienna points out something that is crucial to getting through to girls: telling our own stories. If we want girls to be vulnerable and reveal their true selves to us, we must first do so ourselves. Only by being open and letting ourselves be seen can we expect to win girls’ trust and deeply connect with them.
After the first workshop, Forever Friends, I really wanted to become friends with all the girls and stand up for them. I really wanted us to become a family; we are sisters, no matter if we are presently in the same friendship group or not. After every workshop, we were presented with a small pink and black card that had an affirmation relating to the workshop. The first one read: ‘I attract good, positive friends into my life. I encourage and support others.’
The academic demands are so intense on girls now that I think we sometimes forget that friendship skills — making friends, choosing the right friends, resolving conflict — are also something girls need our help with.
Get It Together, our second workshop, taught us how to manage our time and develop techniques to calm ourselves and de-stress. A bit of yoga and calming music and we were in heaven. Free to move the way we wanted, and to be comfortable in our own skin, we learned to relax. My earlier fears were certainly proved wrong beyond any imagination. Our second affirmation read: ‘I enjoy learning. I have potential to achieve, and I have faith in my abilities.’
Girls are undeniably under a lot of pressure, so helping them learn healthy ways to relieve stress (rather than binge drinking, smoking or dieting, for instance) is more important than ever before. Incorporating short bursts of relaxation meditation or exercise (such as the dancing that Sienna loved) into the day can be relatively simple — and cost free.
The third workshop was after morning tea, and taught us about the dangers girls can face in the world. It was called Stop, I don’t like it but unlike the title, we loved it and the session really made all of the girls feel safer and more in control. Enlighten Education also provided us with contact numbers of help lines and emergency numbers, and for the information of all you women and girls out there, we actually practised the eye gouge and groin kick! Storm assured us that we were all strong, brave, beautiful Amazon women. The third affirmation card told us I listen to my butterflies and set boundaries. I am an Amazon.
We would all love to protect our girls from every danger they may face in the world — but we cannot be there all the time, so the best thing we can do is make sure they can look after their personal safety. Sienna’s feedback shows that girls can be empowered to look after themselves and feel in control.
Before going for lunch we had our fourth workshop: Princess Diaries. Firstly, we made stunning diaries in which to write our fears, dreams, achievements, failures and worries. Beautiful ribbons, glitter, paper, stickers and butterflies were presented to us with an exercise book for us to decorate to our heart’s desire (or until lunch, whichever came first!). Instinctively, the groups we were in stopped being selfish, and we all cared for and helped our sisters.
Teenage girls are just bursting with feelings and thoughts. Getting them down on paper helps girls get a handle on who they are, and who they want to be.
We finished the day in a workshop called Love the Skin You’re In. Just as the title suggests, that’s exactly what we did. Storm taught us how to accept that we are all beautiful, amazing and talented. She spoke about self-confidence and self-praise. I tried the self-praise part and it actually really does make you feel better about yourself. It was affirmed on the cards that: ‘I am precious. I choose to send loving thoughts to myself and others. I surround myself with positive words and attract good things into my life.’
Girls are exposed every day to so many voices (the media, advertisers, their peers) telling them they aren’t pretty enough, or popular or thin or smart or rich enough. We can’t silence those voices, but we can help girls like Sienna develop strong self-esteem that enables them to grow into resilient women.
Finally, we were set a challenge to wear a bracelet on our left arm and for 21 days, recite the words on the affirmation cards and only speak positively about ourselves and others. Then, when we complete the challenge, we move the bracelet to our right arm so that everyone knows that we believe in ourselves.
Friday 2 March was one of the best days, not only of school, but of my life. It came at the perfect time for me and helped me so much. I don’t know what I would’ve done without it. I read my affirmation cards every day and I hope to keep them for a very long time. My journal and bracelet will always stay very close to my heart and I will never forget Storm and Lou, our great, girl gang leaders!
Sienna, you and your friends are close to our hearts, too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, hopes, wishes and dreams with us. We hear you!
I feel passionately about the need to engage with girls and listen to what really matters to them. The launch of my book for girls, “The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo”, has been a wonderful chance to get on the media and encourage parents to do just that, and I was more than happy to talk in depth about this on Channel 9’s “Mornings” show this week:
This is a very exciting week for me, with my book written especially for teen girls, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, now on sale! At the launch party I was honoured and touched to be surrounded by inspiring men and women, including the writers Nina Funnell and Emily Maguire, who gave passionate, articulate and thought-provoking speeches. I wish that all of you Enlightened Amazons could have been there to hear what these incredible women had to say. For now, I’m sharing Emily’s speech here, as today’s guest post.
Emily Maguire is the author of three novels and two non-fiction books. Her articles and essays have been published widely including in The Monthly, The Australian and The Age and in 2007 she received an Edna Ryan Award (Media Category) for her writing on women’s issues. Emily was named as a 2010 Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year and is the recipient of the 2011 NSW Writers’ Fellowship. Her latest book is “Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice.”
About five years ago, I found myself increasingly annoyed by the overwhelmingly negative, often completely, stupidly wrong media coverage of young people, particularly young women. As I’m sure many of you have noticed, almost everything written or screened on TV about teenage girls presents them as either sex-mad airheads or sweet, delicate flowers. Either out-of-control tarts ruining society or innocent angels being ruined by society.
As a writer, I felt I was in a good position to address some of this crap. I wrote about my own experience as a teenager and about the lives of teenage girls and young women I knew. I undertook research in order to understand and write about the teenage girls and women I didn’t know, and along with some analysis of the representation of young women in pop culture and the mass media, this became my first non-fiction book, Princesses & Pornstars.
I – and my publisher – decided that a revised edition, especially for teens, was worth doing. So I did a second round of researching and writing, and the result was Your Skirt’s Too Short.
Thanks to these two books, I’ve spent the past four years speaking to and about young women across Australia. And among the many things I have learnt, two related facts stand out: 1) the majority of teenage girls are thoughtful, hard-working, creative, perceptive and resilient; and 2) many adults have absolutely no idea that this is true.
Consider these headlines from mainstream newspapers in the past year:
‘Lies, scams and deceit – just your average teenage girl’ (The Age, April 2011)
‘Our Teens Undress to Impress’ (Daily Telegraph, June 2011)
‘Do you know what your daughter’s doing tonight?’ (the (sydney) magazine, June 2011)
No wonder so many girls feel misunderstood. The version of their lives presented as news is a salacious cartoon; the characters meant to represent them are sexually loose magnets for trouble, not necessarily because they’re bad, but because they’re morally retarded and culturally illiterate.
The sad thing is that, often, parents buy into it, thinking that they’re learning essential information that will help them raise their daughters safely, when all it will really help them do is either infect their daughters with their own fear and panic or utterly alienate them.
To illustrate, here’s a short excerpt from an email I received from a 16-year-old Adelaide girl:
Seriously, I am so sick of my mum acting all suspicious every time I check my phone, just because she read another stupid story about teenagers sending crotch shots to each other. I’m too embarrassed to wear a bikini to the beach and she thinks I’m going to send people pictures of myself naked?
I was reminded of something a 17-year-old email buddy wrote:
It’s like ‘teen girl’ is this newly discovered species. Nothing we do has ever been done by humans. Nothing we feel has ever been felt. We are ‘teen girls’ doing things for our mysterious ‘teen girl’ reasons.
She’s right: so much of the media coverage takes this weird anthropological distance. The reporter stands back and pokes at the edges of this bizarre tribe, notes one aspect of their interactions, writes down the two most adult-shocking sentences and then declares some terrifying truth about the entire species.
We need a reality check: despite the often hostile world we adults have created for them, the majority of girls are not dopey, fragile creatures lurching from life-threatening crisis to life-ruining mistake. They work part-time, play sport, have supportive friendships and thrilling romances. They’re passionate about books, music and sport. They have exciting plans for when they finish school, and most have a good chance of fulfilling them.
Of course, the general awesomeness of teenage girls shouldn’t be taken as evidence that all is rosy in their world. There is, for example, the barrage of media messages about their apparent physical unacceptability. According to the 2010 Mission Australia Youth survey, body image is the number one personal concern of young people in Australia. Sexual assault also remains a major problem, with 38% of female secondary students reporting an experience of unwanted sex.
And of course dangerous abuse of alcohol and other drugs happens, though nowhere near as universally as media reports would lead you to believe. Nevertheless, it’s an issue and one that disproportionately affects those girls who are already vulnerable and at-risk for various other reasons.
So what to do? How do we protect girls without turning them into frightened rabbits or making them feel attacked and ashamed? How do we empower young people to tackle the tough parts of life without over-directing or under-preparing them?
The short answer is: Dannielle Miller.
With her first book, The Butterfly Effect, Danni helped parents understand what was going on in teen-girl world in general and – more importantly – how to reach out to their daughters and find out what was going on with them in particular. That is key: anyone can collate research reports and make observations about what girls are buying and wearing and doing. Very few bother to actually speak to the girls themselves, to ask them why they do what they do, how they feel about it, what they wish was different. Even fewer manage to establish the kind of trust and respect that allow girls to open up about their lives and their inner selves.
Danni writes so accurately, so insightfully about girls because she speaks to them, and they sense that she is on their side and so they speak to her. It sounds simple, but it isn’t – and, as I’m sure anyone who has read The Butterfly Effect alongside other parenting manuals or guides to teen girls will attest, it makes all the difference.
And now, with this, her second book, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, Danni brings her hard-earned insight directly to the girls themselves. The book’s approach to the big issues – body image, drugs and alcohol, sex and love, friendship, school and work – is personal but grounded in evidence. The practical advice is sensible but never prescriptive, and certainly never delivered from the high horse of moral authority. And the affirmations that close each chapter are to-the-point and have the potential to be genuinely empowering. Danni’s voice throughout is that of a trusted, trusting, wise-but-never-superior older sister. You know she won’t put up with your crap, but you also know she’s got your back. She expects a lot from you, but only because she thinks so very, very much of you.
In a world where girls hear countless conflicting messages about how they should live and who they should be, Danni Miller is a guiding light. Educator, activist, writer, mother, friend, mentor, feminist – every aspect of Danni’s life and being is directed towards helping girls navigate their teen years not only safely but with actual joy. Rather than encourage girls to attempt to avoid pain through making themselves meek and ultra-cautious, Danni encourages them to confront the hard stuff and stomp all over it. She doesn’t just want girls to be okay – she wants them to be magnificent and to know it.
Thank you, Danni, for this marvellous book. May its wisdom enter every teenage heart.
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.
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!
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 TheBeauty 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).
Lots of girls love Lady Gaga. Her music’s catchy, for one thing. Then there’s all the fashion and theatrics. And the controversy. Her videos have always been ultra-sexy with an undertone of menace, but her latest clip, Telephone, has gone way beyond acceptable for kids. Even for me as an adult, watching the full uncensored version, which is easily accessed by anyone on YouTube, was stomach churning.
For those who haven’t seen it and don’t want to give Lady Gaga any more oxygen by watching it, the idea is: Lady Gaga gets thrown in a sadomasochistic-porn-fantasy version of a women’s prison; there is violence, sexual intimidation, graphic tongue kissing, cigarettes, and barely any clothes. Then her lover Beyonce bails her out so they can go on a killing spree, murdering multiple people, most of them strangers, by poisoning them. They look like they’re having a great time. They drive off into the sunset. Think “Thelma and Louise” but drained of all meaning and instead filled with product placement for mobile phones, sunglasses and other branded gear you may soon be expecting teen girls to start asking for.
What a toxic mess of hypersexuality, consumerism and violence.
Some see Lady Gaga as a talented artist whose work is ironic and leans toward the Quentin Tarantino side of things. But as Jim Schumacher and Debbie Bookchin write in their excellent Huffington Post blog:
What if glitzy Lady Gaga is exactly what she appears to be: The latest manifestation of a culture industry that pushes the boundaries of civility and sexuality to the extreme in order to make a buck? And worse, pushes it on our kids long before they want or need to be presented with some middle-aged ad executive’s personal sadomasochistic sexual fantasies?
Who decreed that the highest bidder (read: the product sponsors who pay for such videos and media moguls who stand to profit) should be allowed to impose violent sexual conditioning on our kids?
Why isn’t anyone debating whether the hyper-sexualization of teenage girls and hyper-materialism that claims to be critiquing fame and consumerism, even while shoving it down our throats, is doing us any good as a society?
I am proud to step forward and do just that. I don’t think this is doing us any good as a society, and I think it’s bad for girls to see this stuff at the time when they are busy forming their own identity and ideas about relationships and sexuality. I hope that you, too, will join me by discussing the images in Lady Gaga’s videos with your daughters and students. We can’t censor what kids watch, but we can help them deconstruct it and consider it from all angles.
The other thing we can do is let marketers know that it’s unacceptable for them to push their products on girls by using hypersexual, violent, adult imagery. Virgin Mobile is the most notable product placement. If you agree with me after watching the Lady Gaga video and would like to let Virgin know how you feel, their email address is email@example.com, and their postal address is Locked Bag 17, ROYAL EXCHANGE NSW 1225.
Those who argue that this is a big fuss over nothing and girls aren’t influenced by hypersexual videos clearly haven’t seen this video of an 8-year-old girl on Brazil’s version of “Australia’s Got Talent”. She sings and dances just like Lady Gaga, complete with sexy moves she can’t (or shouldn’t) possibly understand the meaning of at her age:
Lady Gaga is not the only culprit, of course. When I wrote about this in my book, The Butterfly Effect, I noted the misogynistic and violent lyrics of rapper Eminem, and the hypersexual videos of The Pussycat Dolls and The Veronicas. But don’t get me wrong, there are also amazing female singers and girl bands that are all about power and strength. As well as helping our girls make sense of the too-adult, too-sexy images of many music videos, we can offer up examples of women who are producing music and videos that send a much more empowering message. So I want to end on a positive note by sharing with you the wonderful female artist India Arie. Girls at Enlighten Education’s workshops light up when we play her songs, which are not just great music but also the perfect antidote to the messages of so many other video clips. The girls (and I!) love her song Video (“I’m not the average girl from your video; My worth is not determined by the price of my clothes”) and the simply sublime Beautiful Flower, whose lyrics always bring a tear to my eye and make me think of all those beautiful girls Enlighten Education has worked with (“You’re beautiful like a flower, more valuable than a diamond”):
The article below originally appeared in Notebook Magazine, November 2009. It has has been reproduced here with their permission. Visit Notebook magazine – www.notebookmagazine.com
A PDF version of this feature article is also available to download / share here: dani
In the minds of many parents, a daughter’s teenage years loom like a trial by fire. Cracking the code to adolescent girlhood might seem unachievable, but as Donna Reeves discovers, it all starts with facing up to who you are.
No-one has ever said raising children is easy. While there is a general understanding the early years are tough – sleepless nights, tears, the dreariness of endless laundry – there is a certain terror that fills the hearts of many parents when they come to the realisation their beautiful baby daughters will one day develop into those slightly alien and scary creatures: teenage girls.
All legs and arms and attitude, there is something about teenage girls that induces fear into the most confident of parents. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Behind the prickly, and pimply, surface of adolescent girls lies a genuine psychological and emotional need to remain connected to their parents as they face the challenges of becoming young women. Being afraid of stepping on teenage toes, or believing that adolescence is akin to the lost years, isn’t doing your kids any favours. Instead of setting yourself up to fail, parents, particularly mothers, can grow with their daughters because when it comes down to it, both are facing similar issues.
“There has been this idea that teenage girls are somehow unruly and bitches and divas and difficult; that it’s this awful tumultuous time and the best we can do is bunker down and try and get through it,” says Dannielle Miller, a former high school teacher who has worked with thousands of teenage girls in both Australia and New Zealand. “This is such a ridiculous notion because it sets up this defeatist attitude towards connecting with your daughter and it also sets up conflict because you start to see the conflict as inevitable. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“The greatest gift a mum can give to her daughter is to grow with her and to be honest about that journey of growth. If we pretend we all just emerge as this completely whole woman, we’re doing them a disservice by not helping them understand that making mistakes is just part of that journey.”
Dannielle’s book The Butterfly Effect – A Positive New Approach to Raising Happy, Confident Teen Girls (Random House, $34.95) has just been published. It is well researched and documents with clarity and gritty honesty the issues facing today’s teenage girls, such as drinking, body issues, friendship and sex.
“Sometimes I think other parenting books make the world in which teenage girls live seem so foreign to our world that as an adult, you feel a little bit out of your element in knowing how to step in and help,” Dannielle says. “Yet, the issues really are the same. They might be drinking Breezers while we’re drinking chardies, and they might be watching ‘Gossip Girl’ while we’re watching ‘Desperate Housewives’, but the messages and the reasons why we’re engaging in those things are very similar. If you can start to see the similarities, rather than just the differences, I think it’s a great opportunity to connect with your daughter rather than disconnect from her.”
The Butterfly Effect offers practical advice to parents – in particular mothers – on how to stay connected, or rebuild relationships with their daughters during adolescence. Unlike some other parenting books, where the emphasis is on the child, this book forces parents to examine their own lives and behaviours. It’s an approach Dannielle says she has been using successfully for many years.
“Parents honestly think they’re going to come along to one of my seminars and I am going to sort out their daughter for them, as if she’s the one who needs fixing,” Dannielle says. “Then, within about five minutes of me speaking, I’ll see these little tears rolling down their faces as they realise they need to have a look at what they’re doing in their life. Maybe they’re always on a diet, or lamenting the ageing process, or caught up in a destructive relationship and drinking themselves into a stupor every night. Their daughters see this and that’s the truth of it. Many mothers find it quite confronting, and it is.”
Dannielle says what initially struck her when talking to mothers about their daughters was that they were both facing similar issues. “I was quite surprised that in many ways, despite all the rhetoric about there being this huge generation gap, so many issues that impact on our daughters’ lives really impact on us as women too, and we are really more alike than we are different.
“I noticed in the mothers’ faces that I was really speaking to them as well: they were caught up in the same vortex when it came to things like body image, beauty and drinking. Even when I would talk about things such as managing healthy friendships, the mothers would say, ‘It sounds like you’re describing my friendships with my girlfriends now.’”
One of Dannielle’s key messages in her book and seminars is that mothers have to set a good example and be a positive role model for their daughters. “Girls can’t be what they can’t see,” she says. “If we’re serious about saying to our daughters, ‘I want you to be really sure of yourself, to be really strong, to know how to set boundaries with people, to make healthy choices around alcohol,’ then we have to make those choices and decisions ourselves.”
If there’s one area in recent years that teenage girls have been drastically misunderstood, and perhaps as a result, let down, it’s in the assumption they are more mature than adolescent boys and therefore more independent. Dannielle says that while it is true teen girls do have more maturity than adolescent boys of the same age, they are still emotionally needy.
“The latest research is showing that adolescent girls have the emotional needs for affection and for love as they had when they were seven,” she says. “The first time I heard this, my daughter was seven and I thought about the number of times she might be touched, cuddled, told she’s beautiful. Sadly, by the time girls hit adolescence, and because they’re gangly and look a little bit grown up, we almost leave them to fend for themselves. That’s why they hunt in packs and why their peer groups are so important to them. It’s often the only place where they get that love and affection. It explains why you will always see teenage girls touching each others’ hair, tickling each other, laying all over each other. It’s because they yearn to be touched and to be loved.”
At my official Book Launch with mentor and valued colleague Clinical Professor David Bennett AO FRACP FSAM
Wanting to be loved doesn’t necessarily mean wanting to be best friends. It’s important to set realistic expectations around your relationships. As Dannielle says, you have to understand that for teen girls, pulling away and coming back and then pulling away again is a really important part of them growing into individuals and becoming independent. This seesawing behaviour can’t be taken personally, or else every mother would spend a lot of her teenage daughters’ years feeling offended or hurt.
“In an effort to connect with your daughter, I don’t think it works for mums to say ‘Alright, we’re going to have these big outings every month,’” says Dannielle. “You can’t force it. Sometimes, the best moments can be when you gently brush past each other in the house, or when you write your daughter a note for her lunch box which she doesn’t even bother acknowledging.
“We need to realise these moments we have with them, even if we think they’re not important, can be hugely important. Often we make the mistake of thinking it has to be a big gesture. It is very true that teenage girls don’t want to hang with Mum all the time, but they do really want a connection.”
One of the simplest pieces of advice Dannielle gives in her book – and interestingly, one of the most powerful – is for mothers to let themselves fall in love with their daughters again. Sure, motherhood isn’t easy, but neither is growing up. Think back to how you were as a teenager and the grief you caused your mother.
“As mothers, if we can get back to the core values of ‘I do love this girl’ and realise our daughters have remarkable qualities and focus on those, rather than try to control them, then that can be a good way of finding mutual ground,” says Dannielle.
“If you can get the parenting bits right and focus on being a good role model, there’s nothing more fun than having a teenage girl around. It is their flaws and their little idiosyncrasies, and the fact they are so brutally honest that makes them incredibly endearing. They’re like big labrador puppies – they’re delightful.”
I will be presenting a public seminar for parents on raising girls at Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College – November 11th 2009: this is being hosted by the organisation Young Love. All enquiries should be made directly to them.