Last month I briefly mentioned a Tasmanian case in which a father, a registered sex offender convicted of possessing child pornography, was given visitation right to his two daughters.I thought the story warranted a more in-depth examination, so I asked Caroline Norma to take a closer look. Caroline isa PhD candidate with the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne. She is a member of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women in Australia, and works part-time with the Policing Just Outcomes Project.
[Trigger warning for survivors of sexual assault and inter-familial rape]
Justice Robert Benjamin in the Robins v Ruddock case of22 January this year awarded a registered sex offender access rights to his two daughters. This was despite the fact that, in his judgment, Justice Benjamin said he believed one of the daughters, a ten year old, who told the court she was scared of spending time alone at night with her father. She had reason to be scared. Her father had been convicted for possessing child pornography, and was listed on the state’s sex offender register. Justice Benjamin believed the girl’s mother who told the court she had seen her ex-husband sexually abusing his stepdaughter. He believed a forensic psychologist who told the court the ten-year-old daughter had also been sexually abused at some point. Justice Benjamin believed the ‘mother was truthful in giving evidence’ (p. 22), and that she was unable to intervene in her husband’s abuse of her daughters because of his violent and controlling behaviour. Justice Benjamin described her ex-husband as having poor impulse control, as being ‘manipulative and disingenuous’ (p. 23), as opportunistic, as engaging in inappropriate ‘communication’ with his daughter, and as acting in self-serving ways. However, despite fully understanding and acknowledging the sexual threat the father posed, Justice Benjamin ignored the pleas of the girls’ mother and awarded a sex offender fortnightly access to his daughters.
How did Justice Benjamin arrive at this decision? The reason he was able to believe the girls, while still deciding to grant a sex offender access to them, seems to rest in an implicit belief in a biologically determinist ‘hydraulic model’ of male sexuality. This is a term coined by the head of the International Center for Research on Women, Geeta Rao Gupta. Gupta argues that even in the 21st century, some men still think their penises operate like hydraulic systems. In technical terms, a hydraulic system operates ‘by the pressure created by forcing water, oil, or another liquid through a comparatively narrow pipe or orifice’. So some men justify their raping behaviour on the basis of an unsuppressible and explosive biological need for sexual release. They imagine their penises function in a similar way to a hydraulic system operating with semen under pressure. They worry about their hydraulic systems breaking down if a vagina (or indeed any hole!) is not found to trigger the release valve.
The comedic quality of this bizarre ‘hydraulic model’ idea of male sexuality fades quickly into tragedy when the model is applied by judges in familial sexual assault cases. In Justice Benjamin’s case, an implicit belief in a hydraulic idea of male sexuality appears to have led him to think the father would rape the girls only if certain conditions prevailed. Specifically, three circumstances had to be guarded against if the father’s hydraulically-operated sexuality wasn’t going to explode:
First, the father must not come across the girls at night-time when they are less alert and wearing fewer clothes;
Second, he must not come across one of them alone, but only together in a pair (Justice Benjamin explains that he sees ‘the risk of the father acting inappropriately with the children [a]s significantly diminished when they are awake and alert and when the children are together’, at p. 23); and
Third, the girls must not be in the father’s bed.
Justice Benjamin’s judgment expresses a clear idea about what triggers the operation of the father’s hydraulic penis: provided the father doesn’t see his kids in darkness, sleepiness, or alone, there will be no risk of his sexually assaulting them. So Justice Benjamin made court orders designed to prevent these three conditions arising. First, he orders the two sisters to sleep in the same room, and the father to have another adult stay overnight at his house when the girls sleep over each fortnight. This person must be in the house between the hours of 8pm and 7am. Second, Justice Benjamin ordered that there be a ‘door on the children’s bedroom which is capable of being shut at the request of the children’ (p. 19). Third, he ordered that the father must not ‘invite’ the girls into his bed.
Justice Benjamin’s implicit acceptance of this myth of the male hydraulic penis in his reasoning means that the two girls now face real danger. The reality of men’s sexually abusive behaviour is very different from the view crystallised in the biologically determinist ‘hydraulic penis theory’. In reality, abusers go to great lengths to gain sexual access to girls at all times of the day, and often even look for employment that allows them to work with children. They put a lot of time and effort into grooming girls for sexual abuse, often using pornography and animals to instruct them. They document and share with other men techniques of sexual abuse. They go to great lengths to cover up the abuses they perpetrate, and will threaten and harass girls who attempt to speak out against them. To sexual predators, custody rights can seem like manna from heaven, allowing them to abuse their victims in the privacy and convenience of their own homes. In the Robins v Ruddock case, the father now has enough time and space to properly groom his daughters away from their mother so they will never again speak out against him.
The safety of children is endangered when people who appear to believe in hydraulic penises hear court cases involving children. Hydraulic penises are just a myth, and have no basis in reality. Biological determinist myths about male sexuality are dangerous because it looks like they render influential people like Justice Benjamin incapable of taking proper action to protect children’s safety and wellbeing. There are very few powerful people on whom children can call to protect them, and as long as myths about male sexuality permeate the Australian court system, judges will threaten, rather than armour, the human rights of the weakest members of our society.
It’s not sex it’s rape
I’ve written before about how rape is too often minimised in reporting of sexual crimes, reduced to “had sex with” and other lesser depictions.
Lauredhel from W.A, in a piece titled ‘A forensic semanticist on sex and rape’ published on the Hoyden About Town blog, makes the same point. Here’s an extract:
In Trenton, N.J., a group of up to seven guys—a mix of adults and minors—paid a teenager for her 7-year-old sister. They allegedly gang-raped the girl as the rest of the partygoers looked on.
Yet, the lead in the Web site story began, “Police in New Jersey’s capital say a 15-year-old sold her 7-year-old sister to have sex with as many as seven men and boys.”
Breaking news: The 7-year-old girl from Trenton didn’t “have sex with” up to seven men. If there was sexual contact, she was gang-raped. Read story here.
Why isn’t incest rape?
In an older but still vitally significant piece, Caroline Taylor discusses the courts’ refusal to use the word ‘rape’ in incest trials:
In one case, after complaints from the defence barrister, the survivor was threatened with contempt of court charges if they did not refrain from using the term rape when they described repeated acts of sexual penetration by their father. In a discussion between the trial judge and defence lawyer the judge declared that since ‘incest was consensual’ it could not therefore be rape, and so the survivor was wrong to make such a claim. To add insult to injury the defence barrister added that using the term rape suggested some kind of violence was used! Two other cases from the same sample involved legal discussions involving the inappropriateness of survivors or police using the term rape in ‘incest’ trials.’
In ‘Girl Slavery in America’, a recent post published on Huffington Post, Executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, Malika Saada Saar, highlights (like this earlier piece I published) that there is a marketplace for the bodies of girls in the West as well as other parts of the world. She also makes the very important point that it is not the girls who are victims of the prostitution trade who should be penalised, but the men who fuel demand for them in the first place.
…Unfortunately, in both urban and rural regions of the nation, American-born girls are being trafficked and sold. An estimated 100,000-300,000 American children are at risk for becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. According to the Department of Justice, the average age of a prostituted girl in the U.S. is 12-14 years. These sexually exploited girls are routinely raped, beaten into submission, and even tattooed like cattle by their pimps.
…we must …stem the demand for buying and selling girls for sex.
Men who purchase girls for sex are committing child abuse. They are not simply paying for sex; they are instead perpetrating brutal acts of rape against vulnerable children who do not choose to sell their bodies. No child wants to be sold for sex.
It is time to prosecute those who sell and purchase girls. If they are subject to punishment for their criminal acts against children, pimps and “johns” will be less interested in the marketplace of very young girls. The laws already exist—but there is minimal political will, at the state or federal level, to prosecute them–especially the “johns”. Despite all the political jingoism about being tough on crime or protecting our children, lawmakers are remarkably indifferent to prosecuting these child abusers.
How is it that in our nation, in the 21st century, any one of our daughters can be bought and sold for the purposes of sexual exploitation, and without the severe threat of punishment? What is happening that girls’ lives are worth so little? In the context of a civilized society, this level of tolerated violence against girls is an irreconcilable contradiction. No girl in America should be purchased, sold, raped, abused or exploited — and with impunity.Read article here.
In the review, titled ‘The tyranny of self-perfection’, the long-time Australian feminist campaigner for women’s equality admits she had “no idea” about how bad things were for girls in a hypersexualised culture:
…This reviewer has to confess a comparable ignorance….I had no idea.
For feminists such as me who have been preoccupied with statistics and watching public indicators of progress such as women breaking barriers in politics, in business and other public domains, the cultural revolution that has enveloped girls and young women during the past decade or so was completely off my radar.
I kept fobbing off questions about whether I thought raunch culture was incompatible with feminism: how relevant was that, I thought, compared with the important stuff….?
So Walter’s book was quite an eye-opener.
She documents a culture in which sexual allure is equated with empowerment and girls are driven to strive for an air-brushed perfection that is as artificial as it is unattainable. Every aspect of the culture seems to reinforce this message, from the normalisation of the sex industry via the explosion of lap-dancing clubs throughout Britain to magazines directed at girls that “relentlessly encourage their readers to measure up to a raft of celebrities whose doll-like looks are seen as iconic and whose punishing physical regimes are seen as aspirational.”
Girls today, says Walter, think sexual confidence is the only confidence worth having and will do anything to achieve the mandated appearance… the information I found most distressing was how young women feel obliged to shape themselves according to the expectations of the idealised female their boyfriends have acquired from pornography…
All this is especially germane because 10 years ago Walter wrote a book The New Feminism that argued that feminists should not be concerned about the growing sexual objectification of women…Walter has now changed her mind. Big time.
Summers goes on to say that she finds the material in Walter’s book “sobering” and “challenging”.
While I find it somewhat difficult to understand how so many prominent women actively working to raise the status of women failed to notice the wrecking ball impacts of a pornified culture which constricts the freedom of women and girls by reducing them to sexy dolls while dressing it all up as ‘choice’, I am glad they see it now.
But while Summers started so well, her conclusion is unfortunate – and wrong.
She writes: “No one — not Walter, not me — wants to be thought a prude, so no one is going to actually take on the hypersexualised culture that is supposedly spoiling the life chances of girls today…”
Summers had “no idea”, as she says, about what was happening. But is seems she also has “no idea” about the global movement against it.
No one is going to take on the hypersexualised culture? That’s a big call and contradicted by the facts.
There are many of us who have taken it on. Some key players appear in my book Getting Real: Challenging the sexualisation of girls (one of a number of books on the subject in recent years, including Living Dolls, The Sexualisation of Childhood, The Lolita Effect, So Sexy So Soon, Pornified, What’s Happening to Our Girls?, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Bodies, etc). Then there’s Kids free 2B Kids, the Australian Council on Children and Media, The Australian Childhood Foundation, Choices for Children, and the dynamic new counter cultural agitator movement Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation (www.collectiveshout.org).
Then there are individuals who have come together to lobby for change, including Julie Gale, Maggie Hamilton, The Hon Alistair Nicholson, Steve Biddulph, Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Noni Hazlehurst, Professor Clive Hamilton, Dr Emma Rush, Professor Louise Newman, Dr Cordelia Fine, Dr Renate Klein and others. We are all part of a global movement against sexualisation/objectification, led overseas by activists, advocates and academics such as Dr. Jean Kilbourne, Dr Diane Levin, Professor Gail Dines, Professor Ros Gill, Professor Catharine A. MacKinnon, Dr Melissa Farley, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood in the US, Object and Pink Stinks in the UK, and many others. The American Psychological Association’s Taskforce on the sexualisation of girls took the issue on, with a major report, and more recently, the UK Home Office, with a compelling examination of the problem.
Propelled by evidence of harm, all have acted together to bring about change. They haven’t given a stuff about being labelled “prudes” or anything else, recognising the vested interests at play that would try to shut them down.
Given the major battles Summers has engaged in over decades, I would have thought she was made of sterner stuff.
Sexualisation, pressured sex, pornified music video clips, Kiely Williams PR campaign for the women-love-rape movement, a little boy having his wish to go to a strip club granted, leg waxing for little girls, sexism in Christine Nixon reporting: a selection of articles from the last couple of weeks reflecting the status of women and girls. The bar is getting lower friends.
Are the sexually explicit images bombarding society shaping identities and mores?
A FEW years ago, Melbourne mother Julie Gale walked into a milk bar with her then 10-year-old son to buy him an icecream. Instead, she was horrified at seeing, in full view of her son, a magazine with the headline ”Tender Teenage Tw&t” above a picture of a girl in pigtails. ”I thought, that can’t possibly be legal…
Kindergarten teacher Dianne O’Dwyer has four-year-olds proudly showing off their ”little bras” and bringing make-up to school, a three-year-old who imitates pop singer Lady GaGa’s raunchy moves, and a little girl who boasts about being the skinniest in the class.
On television and billboards, and in shop windows, sex is a popular way to sell everything from the obvious – men’s clubs, brothels and treatments for erectile dysfunction – to an idealised, celebrity-based concept of success. Read article here.
THE rise of raunch culture and the ”advanced consumerist” culture of Western countries are creating new pressures on young women to have sex early and against their will, experts say.
La Trobe University sociologist Anastasia Powell says the sexualisation or pornification of society – the preponderance of sexualised imagery in media, music and other popular culture – has done little to empower young women. Read article here.
The latest film clip from American singer Kiely Williams is the musical equivalent of treason. Ordinarily the song’s over-reliance on cheesy synths and breathy vocals would be reason enough to can Spectacular. But its true crime lies in its portrayal of rape as a fun, crazy night out.
Dressed in a tube skirt and corset top, the former Disney star heads out for a big night, meets a guy in a bar, drinks a whole bunch of drinks and wakes up the next morning staring in horror at his naked butt.
She doesn’t remember the guy’s name or if he used a ”rubber”. She was so tanked (and possibly drugged) that she remembers just about nothing. Or, as she sings it, ”I was face down, ass up, clothes off, broke off, dozed off”. Read article here.
An animated TV ad for Red Bull featuring a young boy who convinces his mother to let him go to a strip club has been banned by the Advertising Standards Bureau because it “normalises sexualising children”. Read article and watch video here.
Women, we’ve arrived. We’re equal now with men. The conditions for equality have been met. Am I talking about political, social and financial equality? No.
Access to maternity leave, child care, the opportunity to balance work and family life? No. The ability to live free from harassment and sexual bullying. No.
We know we are empowered because now we can buy men like they buy women. Men can be prostituted to provide sexual services for women. Here is proof of our newly won freedom: we can participate in the sexual objectification of men in the same way we have been objectified through history.
Free from restriction, the sex industry is now open to all. And there’s lots of pseudo-feminist rhetoric to make us all feel good about it. It’s all there in a piece in The Age, which reads like a free plug for a new male escort service (”She needs more Melbourne-based men and older men, in their late 30s and 40s”).
But just because it’s women doing the buying — and the pimping — doesn’t make it liberating. Being able to trade in human flesh doesn’t mean that emulating the sexual behaviour of men and their sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, is progress.
This move is part of a capitalist celebration of the female sexual consumer who can choose to buy dildos, botox, pole-dancing classes, new breasts, Brazilians, surgically altered and coloured labias – and men. These are the tokens of our emancipation? This is what ”freedom of choice” has delivered?
This is a parody of liberation in which women become a mere participant in a mass-marketed orgy of so-called sexual freedom.
I do have some sympathy, however, with the argument that women cannot find men they want to be with intimately. In our pornified culture we are raising men who are callous and insensitive to the needs and desires of women. We knock tenderness out of them with a diet of brutality from the earliest of ages. Boys’ role models are celebrities and sporting figures who see women as conquests, there for the taking.
But buying a man won’t fix that. It is a reflection of distance, disconnection, a lack of intimacy and a subtraction of emotion from sex.
And it’s dishonest to tell women who want something more than a quick $500 f— that they can have ”the whole boyfriend experience” — hair stroked, hand held and even a walk in the park with her, her kids and her dog. For a mere $1200-$1500 a day. That’s a lot of money for simulated intimacy. That’s a pretend boyfriend, not a real one. How does that ”make a woman feel special”?
Hiring prostitutes remains fundamentally a male preserve, which is why we don’t see huge line-ups of women wanting to buy the bodies of boys and men. When women pay men for sex, it doesn’t have the same social effect because there is no history of women enslaving men, the porn industry is still primarily driven by men’s sexual demands. And there’s no social construction of men as sluts who enjoy their own degradation.
The rise of male ”escort” services reflects a devaluation of sex because of the primacy of exchange and commodification of another person.
All we’re seeing with this new men-for-sale business is the democratisation of objectification. Buying and selling male or female bodies for sex will always be reducing them to a means to an end; a denial of their full humanity.
Earlier in the year I was asked to take part in the Intelligence Squared debate on internet filtering organised by the St James Ethics Centre. I agreed. I have since changed my mind. In this letter to the producer, I explain why.
Ms Deb Richards
St James Ethics Centre, Sydney
Dear Ms Richards,
After significant consideration, I am writing to advise that I must pull out of the St James Ethics Centre Intelligence Squared Debate scheduled for May 11.
As mentioned in previous correspondence, it is hard enough going into this debate in the first place, given the level of misinformation and misrepresentation of the Government’s proposed mandatory filtering scheme.
But then, for you to include – without any consultation – a Chinese speaker who defends the Chinese firewall, means that our side is doomed to fail before we’ve even started the debate. His inclusion makes it a lost cause for us: the audience will have to vote against us because they won’t support political censorship –I don’t either. I don’t support the Chinese firewall, I don’t support any filtering of political content, I don’t support filtering of the views of dissenters and minority groups. I have been publicly critical of China’s human rights violations, including the lack of freedom of expression.
If the format were something other than a “debate” – for example, the opportunity to express a range of views as individuals - I could view it differently. However, as it is a debate, in which the audience votes to determine the winning team, how can we possibly have a chance of winning (unless the audience is stacked with PRC supporters, even then, this would not be the support I’d be seeking).
I am not wishing to reflect on Kaiser Kuo personally. He may have some good arguments. He may be a nice man. He may have been educated in the West. We may agree on “one or two points”. But that is hardly recommendation enough to have him on a team which doesn’t agree with his overall position and is therefore divided. Going into a debate like this requires unity of position and our side will not have that. The other side will. They will have opportunity to discuss their approach beforehand, to meet face to face if they wish, to hone their arguments amongst themselves. We, however will have none of these opportunities and would enter the debate at a disadvantage. We would also be essentially one person down.
In your email of March 27, you write, “If it is any consolation, the ABC’s Q&A program have leapt at the chance of having him on their panel”. This is irrelevant. Why wouldn’t they want to have him? He is interesting enough. But it is a completely different format. A panel discussion is not a debate in which the audience votes.
It has been important all through the porn filtering debate to distance the policy, and differentiate the argument, from the Chinese fire-wall. In other words, to make it very clear that the arguments for filtering illegal pornography (among other things) are completely distinct from those for political censorship, and that we are as opposed to political censorship as those who are against porn filtering. The national classification scheme that the Government’s policy is based on does not consider political content at all.
The decision to invite a defender of the Chinese Government’s political censorship – on the spurious grounds of “cultural relativism” – is very damaging for our side of the debate. We will be inescapably bracketed with arguments in favour of wider censorship which can only play strongly into the hands of the internet libertarians.
I cannot join a debating team that will include a member arguing that it is legitimate to censor from the internet material that a government finds objectionable on political grounds.
When the audience comes to vote on the proposition, those inclined to favour porn censorship would have to vote “no” because a “yes” vote means a vote for political censorship as well.
I apologise for any inconvenience my decision might cause.
Today, two guest posts which are critically important contributions to the recent push for compulsory child weigh-ins and other interventions to supposedly reduced childhood ‘obesity’. The first by a Melbourne writer, (who asked that her real name not be used but who is known to me), who says poignantly: “When my parents started weighing me, I was already sensitive about my weight. Their efforts only served to create a punishing lifelong obsession”. The second is a re-print of another personal piece on the same issue – also profoundly expressed - by Elizabeth at My Spilt Milk.
To weigh, or not to weigh? In an age of fear and media hype about childhood obesity, it’s a loaded question. A parent myself, I understand anxiety about our children’s health. And in an image-saturated culture where ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ seems woefully antiquated, I fully understand how we turn ourselves inside out with worry about how the world will treat our precious charges.
In a recent post on Mia Freedman’s blog, ‘Obesity: Helping your family’s health by making them hit the scales‘, Freedman shares a story about ‘Val’, friend of comedian Wendy Harmer. After noticing one of her children has gained a few kilos, Val decides that getting each family member to regularly step on the scales is the best way to keep them honest, and trim. Freedman admires Val’s ‘no-nonsense’ attitude to weight control. I’m afraid I don’t share her enthusiasm.
There’s a world of difference between the way an adult with healthy body image might process that message, and a child who may be anxious about their weight. Then there’s the question of what each child’s ‘healthy weight’ actually is at any stage of their development. And then there’s the issue of how we teach kids about moving their bodies, and making good food choices – without making too big a deal out of it. And I’m quite sure that scales don’t have much to offer any part of the problem.
Most mornings of my life between the ages of eight and fourteen, I was weighed by my parents. Like Val, they felt I was gaining weight and worried that I’d get fat. Like most parents, they wanted to teach me about healthy eating and weight control, and save me from the cruelty that other kids can dish out. And they thought they could achieve all this by keeping close tabs on my weight.
They began to scrutinise every piece of food that came anywhere near me. Weigh-ins became a lecture or praise, depending on my result. At one stage, I was taken to evening weight loss groups, where my weight was recorded on a card and grown women smiled at me with sympathy. They told the eight-year-old me that it was good I was starting early: I wouldn’t get a boyfriend unless I was slim. But seeing as I was growing, not shrinking, and the number on the scales reflected this, I very quickly learned to see my weight as a measure of how badly I was failing at life.
It wasn’t that my family ate poorly. My father was a health fanatic, and my mum cooked good, nutritious food. It was just that my body was doing things my parents didn’t trust. And because I wanted to please them by producing a better number on the scales, I became anxious about starving myself whenever I could. I really wanted to have a better body, the right body: one my parents would like.
The more control my parents exerted, the more out of control my eating became. To curb my adolescent hunger at age 12, my mother took me to the GP for appetite suppressants. At one point, food was locked away. And then there were the occasional school weigh-ins. Those days I felt so sick with fear and burning shame I’d want to run away so I wouldn’t be forced to hand my peers more ammunition, or show them exactly how heavy a failure I was.
My eating was chaotic: starving to be ‘good’, then bingeing in secret, doused in self-hatred and shame. I’d eliminate fat, then carbohydrates, and meticulously record all calories and fat grams in neat columns. I’d calculate percentages of calories derived from fat and every day aim for decreasing totals of each. I’d obsessively exercise, chain-smoke and drink black coffee to avoid eating. I’d spit food into the bin instead of swallow it. And the scales became a punishing ruler: I’d weigh myself dozens of times a day, filled with fear over what the number would say each time.
When I finally reached ‘thin’, my parents’ control over my eating finally stopped. But when the nervousness in their voices told me it was time to stop, that I’d lost enough weight, I can’t deny a dirty sense of satisfaction. No, I’d keep going, thanks. This is what you wanted.
While it was true that age eightI had begun to gain a little weight, it was called ‘puberty’. Despite everything, until my mid-teens I was a healthy weight – if a bit heavier than most girls my age. That makes sense. I’m also quite a tall woman, muscular, broad-shouldered and physically strong. I look scrawny at 70 kilograms. And I often wonder what might have happened if, instead of reacting with fear, my parents had responded thoughtfully to my growing body.
If my parents had recognised that my body shape was more like my grandmother’s than my older sisters, would my weight have stabilised, found its natural place? If my parents had never let the scales dictate their emotions, would I never have let them rule mine? Would I have learned how to respond appropriately to the hunger signals of my growing body? I was never given the chance.
I’ve no doubt my parents thought they were doing the right thing, keeping tabs on the number on the scales, carefully watching every mouthful, joking about my fat knees and muffin top. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Parents have no way of knowing exactly how any child might respond to overt attempts to control their weight. In the end, we need to ask if the interventions we plan for our children are going to do more harm than good. We need to see the red flags ahead, and slow down. We need to respond, instead of react.
A recent Mission Australia survey indicated that body image tops the list of young Australians’ concerns – and this anxiety over our bodies is starting early. It would be the rare child that doesn’t listen up and listen hard to how our culture views people who are heavier than most. We mete out harsh and relentless punishments to those whose bodies don’t fit our mould, and we say we’re doing it for their own good. But we’re agonisingly slow to learn that shaming people about their weight and relationship with food just doesn’t work.
Despite my parents’ best efforts (and mine), I didn’t stay thin. And I’m quite sure my body didn’t turn out as it was meant to. I’ve now lost and gained weight over a sixty-kilogram range, and I’m still technically ‘obese’. In attempting to change my body shape to suit our cultural preference for thinness,’ I’ve told myself how stupid, worthless, hopeless, disgusting I am. I’ve starved and binged more times than I can count. I’ve had substances injected into me I can’t even identify. And all of this simply because I learned very early that my body was wrong, and needed to be controlled. I was taught to pursue a body type I could never achieve, nor maintain.
In a recent submission to US First Lady Michelle Obama, author and dietician Ellyn Satter wrote:
“Research shows that children who are labeled overweight or obese feel flawed in every way – not smart, not physically capable and not worthy. Parents who fear obesity hesitate to gratify their child’s hunger for fear s/he will get fat. Such labeling is not only counterproductive, it is unnecessary.”
I couldn’t have said it better. I am an accomplished woman, with gifts and talents I am very proud of. I’ve raised beautiful children, and fought my way back from post-traumatic stress disorder and post-natal depression. Every day I work hard to overcome the limitations these, and other traumas, have put upon my life. And yet, there’s not one waking hour that I don’t obsess about my weight, my appearance, my body and the food I put into it. There’s not one hour that I don’t wonder how I can starve my way into becoming a more physically ‘acceptable’ human.
When my parents started weighing me, I was already sensitive about my weight. Their efforts only served to create a punishing lifelong obsession.
In subjecting her kids to a regular session on the scales, Val may think she’s making a light-hearted joke. She may not think she’s making a big deal out of her children’s weight and appearance. But will her kids perceive it that way? If they’re anything like me, they might just learn the damaging message that they’re only as good as their last weigh-in. They might get the message that their body is wrong, and needs to be controlled. They might learn to feel, like me, flawed in every way.
Now that I donate blood regularly, I am weighed a few times a year. This is the most frequently I have stood on scales in recent memory. It’s been interesting, to me, to note in numbers how my weight has altered (mostly increased) during this period of post-partum body adjustments, depression, medication and other health events. The number on the scale doesn’t mean very much: it is a number. It would seem very high to some, but then, I know that my dense body is heavy even when not particularly fat. So I don’t fret. But I can’t share that number with you here, as much as I would like to have that kind of fearless candour. It is still too early in my fat acceptance journey, perhaps. Or maybe it’s because I know what numbers mean to other people.
I know what numbers can do.
Like many people, high school Physical Education classes were not funtimes for me. I was labelled as unfit and unco-ordinated very early on in my school career and thereafter it didn’t seem to matter what I did. If I tried hard to improve my fitness, I was laughed at (mostly by other students: one notable time, by a teacher.) If I dawdled and wheezed, I simply confirmed the stereotype. If I listened too hard, I heard the slurs whispered behind my back as teams were picked or we lined up at the swimming pool, bodies exposed to scrutiny. Sometimes the hostility was overt.
A few times, we were weighed in class and those weights were listed publicly. I remember the trembling shame, and the flooding relief to not be heaviest. I remember the knowledge that I would never be popular until I was thin. But my body doesn’t do thin. It didn’t do acceptable in those formative years any more than it does now.
Kate Moss was it-girl of the moment (how little things change!) and my body, my unwaif-like body, was never going to make it onto the ‘hot’ list. And because I am obstinate and strong, I decided to just bide my time until I could choose to be around less-judgemental peers. But that wasn’t an option for everyone – fad diets were a weekly event for some of the students at my boarding school and I sporadically joined in. I remember telling a friend, mid-diet, that she was perfect how she was, and being laughed at. I was a fat girl, a lost cause, what would I know?
I feel like I need to say here that I wasn’t that fat. I wore straight sizes. I was active. I may have been in the D grade team, but I played sport. But it was apparent to me that in the eyes of my adolescent peers, and also my family, my body was outsized, unattractive and out of control.
My stepmother wasn’t generally big on body shaming but she did worry about my weight. Inconsistency raised me: my parents encouraged me to restrict portions one day, indulge the next. They loved me with food because physical and verbal affection were generally out of their range. And they singled me out from my siblings by making me do extra exercise. A lowlight was when my stepmum publicly informed a few other mothers from my primary school that I had graduated up to adult sizing (something that frequently happens quite suddenly to girls about to hit puberty). They were audibly shocked, no doubt thinking, gosh, I’m glad that hasn’t happened to my daughter yet. It’s twenty years later but their judgement still smarts.
It wasn’t that I didn’t try to control my body. I documented my first serious attempt at a diet in a notebook. I drew up tables and stuck them on the fridge, indicating which days I would be allowed to have dessert. I was eight years old.
Eight is the same age of the daughter of one of the commenters on this post by Mia Freedman about weighing children, and about the age at which most girls are beginning to be aware of their weight. In her post, Freedman asks: “We’re obviously keen not to give our kids any complexes about their weight but does that mean turning a blind eye to weight gain for fear we might say the wrong thing?” Apparently, Freedman accepts the premise that the growth of a child’s or adolescent’s body requires commentary, and that such commentary could actually control that growth.*
The problem with these types of arguments about weighing children to ‘fight childhood obesity’ is that they show little understanding of how diet–weight–health interact: that is, in a far more complex and non-linear way than is popularly believed. A number on a scale doesn’t shout to your body: hey, stop growing as you wish to grow (largely due to genetic factors) and fit neatly onto this chart, dammit! But it may say to the adults around a child: start putting undue scrutiny on this child’s appetite, start singling her/him out for ’special’ exercise or food, start making her/him feel less than for not looking the right way.
What infuriates me most about the idea of frequently weighing children and adolescents – or publicly weighing them – to keep them ‘on track’, is that it singles out the fat kids, and the solid kids, and even the underweight kids. It perpetuates the disproven notion that weight and health are intrinsically linked. I’m all for improving the health of young people. I think reducing our reliance on processed foods and increasing people’s activity levels are admirable goals. But when you aim these goals almost solely at vulnerable people who are already singled out by their appearance and who are already at risk of low self esteem, you do them a huge disservice. And actually you do everyone a disservice. Because thin children need nourishing foods and plenty of fun exercise in the fresh air, too.
More than that, we all need to stop buying into the lie that a single aesthetic ideal is a virtue to strive for, or the answer to everything. It has taken many years to overcome the damage done in PE classes, but finally I don’t much care what the scales tell me. They can measure how much the fluids and tissues of my body weigh. They do not know if I am strong or healthy. They also do not know my worth.
Concerned parents, teachers, public health authorities and popular culture commentators with successful blogs take note: We must not make the mistake of letting some children think that they are worth less — worthless — because they weigh more. Numbers on a scale are not nuanced, they are not intelligent, they are not loving, they do not listen. They are no substitute for real information about health and wellbeing and they are not a parenting tool. Our children deserve so much more.
* N.B. It is common sense that where sudden weight gain is large or coinciding with other symptoms (other than puberty) then that is a good reason for a health check with a good GP, and subsequent discussion. But for a typical increase in chubbiness? For heaven’s sake, children ought to be allowed to just be happy in their bodies. Bombardment with fat-shaming media is never far away so parents aren’t actually required to join in. Besides, shaming children into restricted eating and/or exercising will not make them lose weight – unless it pushes them to starve themselves. For more information on how children can regulate their own food intake and body size, Ellyn Satter is a good starting point.
One of the great delights in writing this blog in the past five months has been the quality of the comments it has attracted. Many are the comments are so good they could easily be guest blogs on the main page. So that’s where I’m putting some – in full or as extracts – today. I’ll probably make ‘favourite comments’ a more regular post but because this is the first, the ones I’ve selected go back awhile. And isn’t that last one by Kelsey (13) special? (#biasedmother).
I agree that tokenistic efforts like this do little good- marketing dressed up as benevolence. Similar to Unilevers Dove brand campaigns, when Unilever endorses The Biggers Loser under thier Flora brand. We will know when this issue has made head way when magazines showcase diversity without advertising it as their point of difference. We need to speak with our wallets and not purchase such tokenistic gestures.
The whole concept of voting on women- not only the sexiest mp but also on celebrities as Lydia has highlighted demonstrates that a womans worth is still very much dependant on her appearance. Getting females to vote on celebrities is an alarming practice that is so mainstream now so many women do so without even considering the practice or its consequences. Essentially it is playing women off one another & reminds me of Foucault’s “panopticon”, the self governing jail, where “the sentiment of invisible omniscience” means that women must constantly watch themselves- because they are always being watched…
I cannot tell you how tired I am of being reminded of the second class status of women every time I buy a loaf of bread. I cannot tell you how tired I am of seeing young women deforming themselves in an effort to be attractive to men, whom they perceive as desiring only porn models. I do not want my daughter to have to ask – as, of course, she will one day ask – why girls are naked on the cover of magazines.
… the problem is the normalizing of pornography. The association of commerce with sexuality. And the masculinization of sexuality. Perhaps you have never known a man who was distorted by pornography, or perhaps they simply did not confide in you. I have known many. And they do have problems, a lot of problems. Problems with sexual confidence. Problems with sexual intimacy. A number stumbled onto child porn in the course of their nightly porn searches and it nearly ruined their lives. Others became addicted, and needed help. And others still became desensitized to the degree that they were no longer capable of identifying why pornography is antithetical to civilization…
Thank you Jackie for courageously speaking out concerning how the legal system too, silenced you and ensured the male rapist’s lies given far greater weight and creditability.
I happen to know how the adversarial legal system operates in respect of trying males charged with rape and how the system ensures the woman/girl is not even allowed to rebut the lies and insinuations defence counsel commonly charge her with. Far too many men and too many women too believe the innumerable rape myths and misogyny concerning women’s and girls’ supposedly innate untrustworthiness and who all supposedly seek to take revenge on ‘poor innocent respectable men.’ Read the full comment here
Dave Grossman, an ex-lieutenant, psychologist and writer, described in his book ‘On Killing’ (1995) the various ways that soldiers are taught to kill. The military does all it can to destroy mens’ natural inhibitions against killing. Violent films are a central part of it. They work very well and anyone in the army knows it. It’s hard to comprehend that people can still believe movies have no effect. Grossman is very concerned about popular culture (movies, games, music etc.) that seems to be related to escalating violence in the Western world. And of course rape is part of that, as well as being a regular feature in war.
Part of the problem with movies, he points out, is that extreme violence and horror begin to be associated with comfort, pleasure, soft drink, confectionary, and the intimate contact of one’s date…
John Mayer’s comments about prefering to be with his ‘virtual’ women is something I have recently personally experienced (… the problem is that porn addiction, just like drug & alcohol addiction is that other people are hurt and damaged by the porn addict. It is not a case of the porn addict just hurting themselves.)
I had recently been seeing a guy for just over a month. He had spoken of seriously pursuing a relationship with me, and said things like I was an ‘amazing woman’ and ‘beautiful person on the inside’. I had however noted that on some occasions his actions did not match his words in that I would not hear from him and he did not bother to ask how I had been etc.
I discovered that this was because he had decided that sitting in his room wanking over internet porn every night was much better than bothering with me. Until he wanted to use me for cuddles or care or just plain ‘ego trip’, I guess. Read the entire comment here.
Emma Rush is correct the deliberate sexualisation and dehumanisation of girl children is not the sole cause for widespread male sexual violence against women and girls.
However, popular culture, mainstream media and not forgetting corporate advertising which consistently promotes the notion girl children are not human but males’ sexual service stations, reinforces and naturalises misogyny and belief only males are human. Females however have yet to achieve recognition they too are human and therefore entitled to be treated with dignity and respect…
The story reported by the Australian almost couldn’t have described a worse scenario for a 12-year-old girl to have to face. Not only was the girl pimped and raped, but she had her torture recorded, and was infected with STIs by the multitudes of men who raped her. This story should have been on the front page of every Australian newspaper, and should have been written in language that properly reflected the horror of the girl’s situation–which mainly consisted of being raped by over a hundred men. Perhaps properly labelling these men rapists, as Melinda suggests, will force authorities to take women’s interests seriously and have all the men brought to justice.
Supre gets skankier and skankier and tighter and tighter nearly every week, as a part of the “new fashion”.
Me and my friends don’t wanna shop there anymore!!
Kelsey R (13) Ex customer
I have the most supportive publishers in the world
Here’s a comment on another blog, posted by Susan Hawthorne at Spinifex Press.
April 8, 2010
As the publisher at Spinifex Press I want to thank you for mentioning Getting Real again on your blog (after your earlier positive comments on Getting Real). Getting Real is resonating with members of the community who come from a wide range of political views and life experiences. All want to bring about real change to girls’ – and women’s – lives – in exposing the pornified world we have to live in for its harmful ways. It has been incredibly gratifying to see a large and still growing number of international reviews from media outlets of all persuasions about Getting Real. Melinda Tankard Reist deserves full credit for putting together such an inspiring book. We are proud to be its publisher.
French-Marie Claire goes sans air brushing, but not sans camera tricks, makeup, lighting and models already near ‘perfect’.
French actress Louise Bourgoin graces the cover of this month’s edition of French Marie Claire – hailed as the “totally non-airbrushed April issue”. Leaving aside the fact that it’s not totally non-airbrused because the women in the ads still are – should we rush to congratulate Marie Claire for its bravery? Should we declare this a step in the right direction for body image?
Digital enhancement is only one part of a modelling shoot. No one is saying how long the hair and makeup took, what camera tricks were used, or how the models to be depicted au naturale were selected in the first place.
Even if the models in these issues haven’t been kissed by the photoshop fairy godmother, we are still being presented with an unrealistic expectation of how women should look. Existing beauty standards will not be compromised, even if Mr Airbrush takes a day off.
And I’m sure the editors picked the model who could put the best body forward, sans airbrushing.
We’re told these non-airbrushed images are supposed to make us feel good about ourselves. That’s what readers of Australian Marie Claire were informed when Jennifer Hawkins was featured on the cover “naked and non-airbrushed.” I wrote about this in January, arguing that making Miss Universe a poster girl for poor body image – with her dimple on the thigh and ‘uneven skin tone’ – treated women like idiots.
Using pretty much flawless young women in the first place hardly proves that models and celebrities are just like us. Give us a break.
…Burning out the skin using overexposure, soft light, adding a half blue filter to whiten the skin, pulled back images, large smile’s for celebrities so their nasal labial folds are hidden, pulled back hair with hands stretching the skin and smoothing the wrinkles. Using grainy film and converting the images to black and white to neutralize the skin tones.
If young women deserve to know when images have been digitally enhanced, don’t they also have a right to know about these techniques as well? Also, is this move just a one-off jump onto the anti-airbrushing bandwagon or is Marie Claire going to keep the blow torch of its models in future issues? It seems unlikely.
The value of removing the digital Barbie-fication of models remains in question when magazines continue to promote one beauty ideal that is generally tall, fair and ectomorphic [characterized by long and thin muscles/limbs and low fat storage]. In the absence of airbrushing, magazines will endure by utilizing the world’s most beautiful models (who generally do not require “digital enhancement”). The French edition of Marie Claire featured Louise Bourgoin. Comparable “non-airbrushing” initiatives in France by Elle and Harpers Bazaar have used supermodels such as Cindy Crawford and actresses like Monica Bellucci. In Australia late last year we saw Sarah Murdoch’s “un-airbrushed” shoot on the front of The Australian Woman’s Weekly. These magazines continue to uphold the homogonised beauty ideal that contributes to body image disturbances through selecting models who incite unrealistic and largely unobtainable beauty ideals.
Ultimately this begs the question: what are the public health consequences of promoting such beauty ideals? This is an easy question to answer as the consequences are very well documented. Study after study reveals that promotion of a thin and homogenized beauty ideal contributes to body dissatisfaction and dieting- risk factors for the development of disordered eating.
This positions body image disturbances and ultimately eating disorders as a very serious public health issue- indeed a public health crisis. Tokenistic marketing activities by magazines giving lip service to this issue is simply not good enough.
Spain is one country taking the issue seriously. In 2007 Spain banned ultra thin models from the catwalks following a number of models literally starving themselves to death. In April 2008 an “anti-anorexia” bill was passed, banning uber-thin models and making it a crime for anyone to incite “excessive thinness”, food deprivation or extreme dieting. A new law bans the broadcasting before 10pm of TV ads that promote beauty products and treatments that suggest surgical or chemical ways to achieve a perfect body. The moce was prompted by concern that the ads were fueling a rise in eating disorders in young people.
But all we’ve got is the unsatisfactory recommendations of the National Advisory Group on Body Image and a Voluntary Industry Code of Conductwhich appears to have achieved not much at all.
It’s difficult to know who is really behind the release of the Britney Spears before-and-after airbrushing images for Candie’s (shoes). Some accounts say Britney released them herself, others question it,given that Spears didn’t actually release any statement and the pics appeared in The Daily Mail.
As helpfully pointed out by the gigantic arrows, in the final images Britney’s calves and thighs have been made slimmer, some barely-visible cellulite has been removed from the back of her thighs, and tattoos and bruises have been airbrushed.
If it is Britney herself wanting to highlight what airbrushing does, I think that is a good thing. But again, I can’t help wondering about the use of lighting, camera angles, and the other tricks already mentioned. The more cynical part of me (rescue me Satchel Girl!) looks at the ‘before’ pics and wonders if there’s been some airbrushing done there as well?
The fact is, Britney is still presented in a sexualised and objectified way, inviting comments that focus on her body: cutting her up, analysing her piece by piece. For years Britney has attracted cruel comments for how she has looked, condemned for “baby flab”, mocked for wearing outfits that show her tummy, the usual ‘is she pregnant or just fat’ jibes. The Daily Mail reminds us of “A display of her flabby tummy on tour last month….”
Because Girl with a Satchelknows so much about these things, I asked her opinion late last night:
It seems odd that Britney would release these photographs, though this is the girl who produced a highly orchestrated MTV comeback documentary as a prelude to her post-breakdown comeback. If a celebrity wants to increase her female-friendly factor, whether that be to boost sales or attempt to genuinely connect, inspire and motivate women, then showing her real/authentic self is usually a good start. And can’t be any worse than having your butt splashed across the tabloid papers and magazines thanks to a courteous paparazzo.
Britney’s probably one of the most airbrushed celebrities of our time, as her career came to fruition in the 90s when we weren’t all so aware of the practises being used in the magazine industry. To see a relatively unpolished image of her online could be a good thing for her young fans.
But the fact that these images have been fed to The Daily Mail, a tabloid dubbed ‘The Daily Hate Mail’ by the feminists at jezebel.com for its often masochistic treatment of women, as opposed to a more women-friendly title (does such a thing exist?) smells like ‘stunt!’
Is this a case of pop star one-upmanship? After all, Jessica Simpson is on the cover of Marie Claire sans makeup and airbrushing this month, in aid of her new show, The Price of Beauty.
Now of course, showing women not digitally enhanced is better than what ACP’s former Art Director Louise Bell and colleagues once did, as told here:
What limits did you attempt to stick to? I was an art director at a time where retouching or “airbrushing”…was a very new technology. And Mia [Freedman] and I just went for it! We literally did as much as we could get away with – different heads on bodies; you name it.
A mini brow lift; Botox in her brow and frownline area; a nose job; fat injections in her cheeks, nasolabial folds and lips; chin reduction; neck liposuction; had her ears pinned back; a breast augmentation revision; liposuction on her waist, hips and inner and outer thighs; and a buttock augmentation.
Here’s a letter to the editor I sent to The Australian in response to a piece on the Commentary page last Friday, ‘Hockey stays home holding the baby’ (The Oz didn’t run it – so I sent it to myself and I agreed to publish it).
I’m concerned about what is implied in the heading “Hockey stays home holding the baby” and the cartoon with it (April 9, p16). The article says Hockey is on leave and that his colleagues say he is “not doing enough”. While the baby isn’t mentioned in the text, the cartoon shows a dishevelled Hockey holding a swaddled baby in one arm and a toy in the other. Hockey is haggard, his face unshaven, his hair greying and his tongue lolls uselessly in the corner of his mouth. There appears to be baby spew over his black suit jacket.
Are we to read by this that looking after a baby is somehow beneath a man of politics (or any man?) and that he has been reduced to an unkept moron as a result while real men get on with the job of politics?
I really hope not. I really hope I’ve got it wrong.
Antoinette Jones – Principal – Mitcham Girls High School
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