When I speak in schools, I’m often asked for advice on how to help a friend with an eating disorder (and not just girls – a male student ask me in a school in regional NSW recently). So I was really pleased to see the piece ‘Help! My BFF is wasting away before my eyes: How to deal when your bestie has an eating disorder’. Lydia Turner, co-director of BodyMatters , says one in five diagnosed with anorexia nervosa will die from the illness, while other types of ED’s like bulimia nervosa are linked to high rates of self-harm and suicidal thoughts. While alarming, it is important for girls to know these harsh facts, especially in light of the raft of on-line pro-ana (anorexia) and pro-mia (bulimia) communities which encourage self-starvation as a life-style choice and post skeletal images as ‘inspiration’ for thinness.
While girls are advised to show patience and compassion, not centering conversations on food and appearance, it is imperative the need for professional help is stressed and GF does this. If the friend with disordered eating refuses to seek help, readers are encouraged to disclose to a trusted adult (such as a school counsellor) regardless – it could save her life. “It is extremely distressing to watch a friend deteriorate before your eyes, but it’s not your responsibility to save her and you don’t have to shoulder this burden alone. You need to let the experts take charge…remember that this is a complicated illness and you cannot deal with it yourself,” GF wisely advises.
Related is ‘Why diets are dumb’ about how fad diets compromise nutrition and health. Deprivation is discouraged in favour of learning to eat in a balanced, healthy way. Specifically addressed is carb cutting (some girls won’t even breathe around carbs let alone eat them) and informed of the benefits of carbs for health. Body detoxing is described as “completely unnecessary and bad for you.” Liver and kidneys perform that job. Skipping meals messes with metabolism and can lead to binging afterwards. Meal replacements are also discouraged, as they don’t allow the full range of foods for long term health. Read more here.
Important articles on the dangers of sexting and pressures on girls to deliver oral sex
There are two really important and timely articles in this issue. ‘The Sext files’, is straightforward and honest with readers about the risks of sexting. A recent GF survey found one in four readers have sent a sext. Personal stories are told of girls pressured to send sexual images, threats used to get a girl to send more pictures, images being shared with other without consent.
Kids Helpline, the Australian Federal Police, and Cybersmart all agree there is no safe way to sext, as once an image is sent, the sender loses control of it. “Girls can be embarrassed, bullied and socially outcast, which can affect friendships and grades at school, and can also lead to mental health issues”, says Gretchen Martins from Cybersmart. Readers are reminded that if a male pressures them to send a sexual image, this is not the kind of man who respects them, nor someone they can trust. They are also given a run down of where the law stands in relation to sexting – illegal if under 18, because they cannot legally consent. Taking and distributing images of under-age girls can represent the production or distribution of child pornography material which can carry a penalty of 15 years. Practical advice is given on what to do if you are asked to send a sext (“Remember the social and legal consequences and remind yourself that it’s just not worth it.”), If you’ve sent a sext (tell a trusted adult), and if you are sent a sext (delete the image, don’t forward, tell trusted adult).
The second significant piece is on the pressure on girls to deliver oral sex. A 2011 study by thefound 37% of Year 10 students and 57% of Yr 12 students had engaged in oral sex. Girls describe an unspoken expectation that they will deliver oral sex when asked. Some describe giving in after multiple requests, even though they don’t enjoy the experience. Jodie, 16, is one of them. She felt used and regretted giving in. “If I’d stood my ground, I would have been better off”, she says. “Whatever the reason, girls seem to be working off the assumption that they need to trade sexual favours to please guys. Girls deserve better than this,” says Girlfriend. Indeed they do and I commend GF for saying so. Read more here.
Many girls and young women look to girl’s magazines for advice on life, relationships, bodies, health and sexuality. But too often they receive conflicting advice and mixed messages and even, sometimes, outright contradiction.
Take for example, information provided in the sealed section of Girlfriend this month, where, within four pages of each other, two medicos give different information about age of consent laws. A 15-year-old, in a relationship with a boy the same age, enquires about age of consent laws because the two want to have sex. Dr Philip Goldstone replies “generally, if you are both under the legal age of consent, it is still illegal for you to have sex.” However Dr Sally Cockburn, under the heading ‘What if you’re both under the age of consent?’ writes: “If two people are both under the age of consent, but are the same or similar age, and both decide to engage in sexual activities, it’s not a legal issue – as long as there’s no coercion, violence or power imbalance involved. Basically, as long as you’re both in control and making informed decisions, there are no legal problems.” So who is the reader to believe? Isn’t this important enough to get right? How does the editing process work at Girlfriend for a contradiction like this not to be noticed? Girls don’t need confusing advice about where they stand under the law.
Not a matter of legal confusion, but something that is consistent is that I have to comment on the ‘Project You Reality Check’ again like I have to on the equivalent in Dolly. The logo is used so inconsistently I have little choice. On the front cover the ‘Reality Check’ provides the vital information that a tag was removed from fashion girl Kylie’s top and that the water in the background was darkened. Seriously, why bother? Then inside, ‘Style School’ features four girls with the ‘Reality Check’ telling us “We haven’t retouched any of these images – we didn’t need to! All the girls look great just the way they are”. So if that’s the case, does it mean that when girls are airbrushed they didn’t look ‘fine the way they were’? Do some need to be airbrushed while others don’t? Also confusing is that the young women featured are specifically clothed to highlight and play down certain parts of their bodies. For example Alex, 15, is dressed to give “the illusion of longer legs” and a mix of large and small prints “also disguises any unwanted bumps”. Eloieese, 14, is lanky, so given curves and a defined waist and “fuller figured” Gemma, 18, is put “in a peplum top, as it draws attention to the slimmest part of her body – her waist”. No airbrushing – but they are still dressed to give the illusion of something other than what they are, and to hide unwanted bumps. I’m all for the disclosure…but it needs to be consistently applied and align with what else is in the magazine as a whole. Otherwise it loses all meaning. Read article here.
From Mindfulness to Masturbation: Girlfriend’s January issue
‘Switched on: Sorting out the small things’ provides readers with 10 things they need to know about 2013, which ranges fascinatingly from the Australian Federal Election and our troops exiting Afghanistan, to One Direction’s World Tour and actors Ryan Gosling and Robert Paterson in Australia.
‘Are you a late bloomer? : That awkward moment when all your friends are talking about boys and you’ve got nothing to say’ looks at why some girls are not into boys yet. Readers are told that girls usually start to think about boys romantically and sexually from the ages of 9-16 but that it’s OK to be a romantic late bloomer – there’s “no shame in that”. Good advice from clinical psychologist Serena Cauchi: Don’t force yourself, because “being an individual and doing things at your own pace is a much healthier option than conforming with others.” Girls are assured it’s fine to be single take note Dolly – see January review and that maturity means she will be better equipped for relationships and setting boundaries later on.” In light of this sensible observation, I’m not sure about the term ‘late bloomers’. Girls might make a rational and considered decision to focus on their education, or engage in causes, rather than pursue dating relationships in their early teens. It doesn’t mean anything is ‘late’, it could be perfectly ‘on time’ when and if it happens. Read more here.
Waiting for their boyfriend/girlfriend to be ready (8%)
Not being interest in ever having sex (1%)
In this pornified world, with sexual messaging hitting them in their faces the minute they wake up in the morning, and given the assumption that most young people are having sex and that those who aren’t must have something wrong with them, these findings are revealing.
More than half are waiting to at least be in love. Maybe they want more than a cold soulless hook-up that leaves them feeling used? Maybe they’ve seen what coerced, unwanted sex has done to their friends? (Research from W.A shows more than 80% of girls regretted their first sexual experience, characterised by drunkenness and force). It would be valuable if GF were to unpack this further – that the desire to be ‘in love’ survives in a culture which treats girls as merely sexual service stations and orifices to be penetrated (read Zoo lately?) is worthy of deeper investigation.
A quarter of GF readers are sexually active. Of those, 89% have had intercourse, slightly less – 85% – have had oral sex. Average age of first sex was 16. A concerning 47% have had sex under the influence of alcohol, 12% under the influence of drugs. This means that 69% of sexually active readers engaged in sex when they could not exercise proper informed consent (14% of these encounters were with complete strangers).
A quarter say they have felt pressure from peers to have sex before they’re ready (including a 16 year-old who is quoted “They say I’m really stupid for not having sex, but I don’t know if I’m ready”), 27% say they have felt pressured from a guy. Perhaps GF could look at how it could better help strengthen and equip girls who are feeling pressured, to resist sexual activity they don’t feel ready for?
12 y.o ‘Reader of the month’, 13 y.o model finalists…
Girl Mag Watch October 2012
Reading the October issue (yes, I know, just scraping this review in in time) of Girlfriend, I found myself checking the front cover to make sure I’d picked up Girlfriend and not Dolly.
I’m wondering if perhaps Girlfriend is moving in on Dolly’s readership. And, if so, could this see Dolly pitching openly to 9 and 10-year-olds?
The ‘Reader of the Month’ is a 12-year-old: Kayleigh from Queensland. Buying Girlfriend is “my favourite part of the month” she tells us. Girlfriend is “like the teenage-girl handbook” (even for girls who aren’t yet, apparently).
We meet Girlfriend’s Model Search Finalists. While Dolly came in for criticism for reviving its model search, (its winner was 13), Girlfriend’s competition has been ongoing. But Girlfriend’s finalists are in a similar age range to Dolly’s. Under the heading ‘I wanna be a supermodel’ is Georgana, 13, Sharnee, 13, Jade, 15, Jessica, 14, Elizabeth, 14, Molly Grace, 15, and the comparatively older Stephanie, 17.
For women my generation who see a massive magazine heading “The Big O” and think it’s about Roy Orbison, you probably won’t want to read further. The “Big O” in this case refers to orgasm – in fact “your giggle-free guide to orgasms.”
Although if your daughter is a 13-year-old reader of Girlfriend (GF has profiled readers this age in its pages), you may want to see she is being told on the subject. Many mums would consider a girl who may have just entered puberty, too young for the material on offer even if it is in the ‘sealed section’.
In the same issue in which they are given recipes on muffin baking, they’re also being told how to reach climax. “If we were all having regular orgasms, we would be a lot happier,” explains sex therapist Jacqueline Hellyer. “Orgasms release hormones that make us feel happy, relaxed, confident and sexy. Plus, they’re good for your skin, hair and teeth.”
GF stresses a number of times that a girl shouldn’t “rush into sexual activity”, and to have respect for herself. Readers are also reminded of age of consent laws. But I wonder if this advice can complete with ‘happy, relaxed, confident and sexy’ and ‘good for skin, hair teeth’? Who wouldn’t want to rush into that? On the other hand, the article treats orgasm as almost a given (“Clitoral orgasms are the easiest to achieve, and the most intense”). Whereas many women, for a range of reasons, (one being hopeless lovers raised on a diet of porn) do not easily achieve this. Hellyer says: “Good sex is really, really good, but bad sex is really, really bad.” Well isn’t that a nice surprise, given Girlfriend (and Dolly) advertised mobile phone wall paper for girls that read: “Sex, when it’s good it’s really good, when it’s bad it’s still pretty good.” Julie Gale of Kids Free 2b Kids and I condemned this at the time and eventually the teen mags stopped advertising this lie. But it should never have appeared in the pages of magazines allegedly wanting to empower girls in the first place.
Still on the sex theme, GF shares reader’s views on recent advice that teens should read ‘sexy books’ (fantasy, not reality, won’t make us go out and have sex, if you don’t like them don’t read them, doesn’t matter what teenagers read, as long as they are reading, etc.). Only one of the four actually tells us she’s read some of the books in question. I’ve expressed another view in a piece titled ‘Should teens read more porn?’
A measly two ‘Self-respect reality checks’ this issue – it’s like even GF doesn’t think they are all that convincing anymore. (See my comments on these checks previously here). The one on the cover quotes actress Kristen Stewart “I think it’s ridiculous that you need to look a certain way to be conventionally pretty.” Right on, Kristen – we totes agree!” (which is totes funny when on p.58 GF tell us how annoying the word ‘Totes’ is, and says it should be replaced with ‘downright’). Yes, great quote, but was Kristen photo-shopped for the cover either by GF or pre-altered when they received it? Because if it wasn’t, that sure is one flawless face. The ‘Self respect reality’ check is supposed to tell us these things. If it doesn’t, it’s a waste of space.
Speaking of flawless, open to the first page and get Kate Moss and her new lipstick. Photoshop must have been working overtime. The next two pages are the same. Oh and look there’s Kesha advertising Casio and she’s been doctored too. I’ll stop here though there are other ads like it. As I’ve said before, why is advertising’s unreality exempt from the much touted ‘reality’ check?
The second ‘reality check’ tells us ‘Readers, not models were used in this shoot’. Nice to see a young black woman here.
Features include ‘How to break a habit’, ‘Why parents say the things they do’, ‘Is it OK to not have a best friend?’ , ‘Understanding your metabolism’, ‘How to beat a bad day’, ‘5 Reasons to Date the Shy Guy’, then on the next page how to dump him (well any guy who you decide you’re ‘just not into’). ‘Fast & Frenzied Feed: The new eating disorder’ concerns “What happens when a healthy appetite becomes a little too unhealthy for the body and the mind” Sarah Ayoub writes about binge-eating disorder affecting about 20 percent of Australian girls 18-22. This is a binging condition without the purging associated with bulimia (though laxatives are mentioned – isn’t that a form of purging?). Sufferers loathe themselves and have poor self-image. No surprises there.
This issue’s real life stories include a 20-year-old whose feet were amputated as a result of blood clots, a 17-year-old who started her own charity, an 18-year-old bullied for three years and a 19-year-old with lymphoedema, resulting in permanently swollen limbs. I like this section because it cuts through the fashion and beauty pages, grounded as it is in the real lived experience of real girls.
Here’s a piece which should be read by all mothers: ‘Does my mum look big in this?’ which cites research that mums can pass on their own negative messages about body image to their daughters. “If a mum has an unhappy relationship with her own body, her daughter can pick up on this dissatisfaction and internalise it,” says clinical psychologist Louise Adams. “Many of my clients with eating disorders report having mothers who were always dieting and criticising their own bodies. Daughters take this negative self-talk on board and start to talk about their own bodies in the same negative terms.” I remember a girl telling me about her mother who had purchased her a size 10 end of year formal dress, telling her “You will get into this by the end of the year”. The girl was a size 14.
The advice is helpful so I’m reprinting it for mothers whose daughters don’t read Girlfriend (or for Roy Orbison fans who got a shock):
1. When you hear your mum criticise her body, tell her how it’s making you feel about your own body. Try saying “Mum, when you talk about your weight in front of me and put yourself down, it makes me worry about my own weight and it makes me feel bad about myself.”
2. Ask your mum to please stop devaluing and criticising her body, and to stop unhealthy practices like dieting, food restriction or over-exercising.
3. Make a deal with her and promise each other that neither of you will talk badly about your bodies anymore – no exceptions.
4. Remind each other to think about your self-worth in broader terms than just appearance. Think about what you both like about yourselves as people (I’m kind, you’re funny) and focus on developing those aspects.
If this reader’s comment doesn’t get mums to change the negative self-talk, then I’m not sure what will: “My mum always asks me if she looks fat. This depresses me because I know I’m not skinny, and I feel that she is putting pressure on me because of my weight. When mum says she is fat, I feel fat. She affects the way I feel about myself.”- Christina, 14.
‘It was a liberating act to throw them away: I had been held captive’
I sat near a girl and her mum in the coffee shop recently. She would have been 10, 12 at most. She had on wedge shoes, tight leggings, a handbag, and flicked her long, blonde hair around like a cast member from Gossip Girl. I was so sad. Where are her running shoes? Why does she care about her hair? Why does she need a handbag? To stash her lipgloss? Where is she learning to dress and behave like this?
The endorsement of profligate spending habits, the lavishing of attention on the self, the preoccupation with other peoples’ lives, the obsession with celebrity, success, money and beauty above all else. Where did these ideas come from? From whence did they germinate and propagate throughout the world in turn telling us, ‘This is the way to look, to act, to be!’?
One might suggest that these are notions as old as Adam. That humankind has always looked to the “other” (beings, things, icons) for validation, security, community and guidance. That stories need to be told to connect us and that the pursuit of upward mobility is a natural state of being. And that the advertising, media and entertainment industries cannily cottoned on because commerce is king.
But never in history has the “image”, of self and of others, been so intensely present, forcing us to compare, assess and validate ourselves by these externalities seen on the screen and in print. In turn, the selves projected out into the world are edited, controlled and Photoshopped, and one’s internal politics are governed increasingly by a conscience distorted.
There need to be options for girls. Most will simply never measure up to TV/celebrity/model standards, the prevailing benchmark for women in our culture, as far as their physicality is concerned (and we know it is a concern: the surveys continue to tell us, but you only have to sit back, listen and observe). These external pressures should not be reason for them to loathe themselves. What is the answer?
One friend of mine, a mother and journalist, has a policy in her home called “bin juice”. If there is ever any negative talk around body image in her home, the immediate response is, “Bin juice!”. She herself, like me, has struggled with body image issues. It is personal; a source of ongoing shame that needs to be negated each time it rears its (ironically) ugly head. Now she will not tolerate “bin juice” in her home. She is starting a new family culture.
Yes, it starts with us.
We all have the potential, in small ways or large-scale, to rail against the culture and create a new status quo. The main problem is the sheer financial power and momentum behind institutions and industries that rely on bodies as a commodity. They are hugely influential in the public sphere. Take the Logies, for instance. What would Australian entertainment’s night of night’s be without the red carpet, the dazzling dresses, the makeup, the glamorous ladies, soon after populating all the magazine pages?
In consuming these images via television, the internet or in the magazines, though it might sound trite, we are participating, to an extent, in the perpetuation of the body-beautiful stereotype, as well as the idea that men can wear the same suit but stand-out because of their personalities, whereas women need to compete on physical points. In this act, their full personhood is essentially stripped of them, while at the same time we create and consume still more unattainable beauty benchmarks.
It’s exhausting, isn’t it? Round and round on the merry-go-round we go, until our heads are in such a spin that we do not know where we started out: ‘Where is my starting point?’, you might ask. ‘I don’t think I like this ride anymore.’ It’s not the individual women, by virtue of their chosen profession or entertainment associates, who are the problem: it’s the tangled web of industries all vying for our attention, our dollars and our sense. They are experts at captivating us. But we are collectively wising up.
Many women I know, including myself, have a no women’s/celebrity magazines policy in their home. It was a liberating act for me to throw mine away, though the reasons for doing so are manifold (personal, political and spiritual). I had built up a wall of them and I was held captive, oppressed by their sheer presence. For a very long time, I had justified my consuming them (in a way that should require a prescription) on the basis that “I need to be abreast of the culture” and “Hey, I run a media blog!”
Regrettably, because of my own influence, my nieces started to think it was okay to buy them. Girls will always want to emulate those who are closest to them, who show them love and attention. We are approval seekers.
And here’s the rub: I think some women can tolerate exposure to everything the entertainment, pop-culture and media industries can dish up for them with little effect to their personal wellbeing (as far as survey results go, we find there are few). There are others who skip past the culture with barely a sideways glimpse in its direction and carry on with all of life as if it did not exist.
These blessed women have never become indoctrinated into “glossy culture”, with its models and fashionistas and pricey clothes and tips on makeup application and the best new accessories and ‘all-hail-the-celebrity!’. But sometimes in life – like the Goldman Sachs banker who had an epiphany and resigned over the company’s “toxic greed” only to be met with a patronising “Well, durr” in response – there is a reason we enter into it, eventually finding ourselves complicit.
We have not yet seen the proverbial light, and we need to come to our own conclusions, awaken consciousness, about such things to grow as humans, which we are all entitled – indeed, should be encouraged – to do.
Why might someone choose to stew in a culture that benefits them little? That forces one to reflect on their body, their clothing, their achievements, their relationships and feel only inadequacy or anxiety? And that, in turn, causes to project these anxieties onto others? Or to think of others in the same way? To lead them also astray? What turns them into something their childhood selves would have despised or been saddened by?
Like someone possessed to spend their life savings at Star City, perhaps they simply do not value their own life enough, nor see the possibility that they might live a different way. A way that is even more satisfying and gratifying than what the culture is prepared to serve them. But there is an “out” as well as an “in”. You can turn off. Not buy. Bin ‘em. Pick and choose according to who you are and what you value.
The world has an amazing ability to numb our senses, our minds, our hearts into a state of apathy where we are prepared to just accept the status quo and onwards we go or else try to fit into it like a square peg in a round hole. But in order to create change – real, lasting, meaningful, thirst-quenching change – there must be the ability to reason, options to chose from and also the will to pursue that which we have decided is the better choice.
If I am to give up smoking, for example, knowing that it is injurious to myself and those around me, I must know how good it will make me feel to liberate my lungs and receive the appropriate support and edification to give up. If I am to give up eating fast food, then I must learn to love preparing good food for myself and my family and similarly gain knowledge and support where it is lacking. These things can take time. In some peoples’ lives, a “wake-up call”, like a heart attack, a diabetes diagnosis, or the birth of a baby might give us us a new appreciation for how precious life is and the determination to change on a faster schedule.
The former Fox film executive Scott Neeson had a profound experience in this sense and moved to Cambodia to concentrate on philanthropy. But there are some whose vested interest (or blind self-interest) is in keeping our options limited; there are others whose creativity for thinking around the status quo has been limited by the relentless 24/7 news environment or the world of commerce and the fashionable thinking of the day and the internet information exchange.
In order to think outside the culture, and carve out a self-identity apart from it if we feel our real selves have been suppressed, we sometimes need to step out or back for a while and ponder questions such as ‘Is this how I want to live my life?’, ‘Is this helping or hindering me?’, ‘Is there another ‘me’ I would like to be?’.
It must be a conscious decision: we cannot be forcibly pried away. And it does not necessarily require physically removing yourself (for example, you may have a job to hold down). It can be a process of elimination whereby habits and thoughts and feelings are more consciously reflected on. Feelings are fickle things, so it must go deeper than that. There is a “rightness” of heart and mind and soul that comes when you feel you are becoming who you are meant to become (the process may never reach a finite point, but there must surely be this progression).
But while I can escape from the culture, shutting it out or picking and choosing things for consuming, the dominant culture still remains to be absorbed, growing in strength and power. Inevitably, we must enter back into the fray where the world exists (seemingly tilting off its axis), hopefully having learnt something and created for ourselves more solid foundations, a firm sense of self apart from the culture; better equipped to tackle the the lure of the desirables all around us that coo and call in weak moments when vanity and the ego and the desire to be just like everyone else is vying against your better sense.
You are better able to discern the good from the bad; the worthy from the worthless, but we remain imperfectly human, given over to moments of hypocrisy, weakness and relational infidelity (one’s life quest might be to overcome these very things and replace them with sure-footedness, strength and loyalty).
As culture reflects our human progression, too, even those who choose to eschew it because it offends sensibility or triggers some lesser part of themselves to commit an act of personal treason, there are pointers within the culture that alight the collective heart and remind us that, ‘Hey, it’s not all that bad after all’. A story of a victory of humanity over circumstance, like that of Aung San Suu Kyi, or the ANZAC spirit that permeates the news media each year on April 25 come to mind. Such people and events reconnect us with what we truly value as humans; what we value AND what we despise; what we can let go of and what to reprise.
The world is a diverse and interesting, promising and hope-dashing place, and we are all products of upbringing, culture and our times, for better or for worse. None of us is free of the stain of making a mistake, of calling someone out when we were wrong; of daring to think ourselves superior in some way when the truth is that we are vulnerable; most of us have unwittingly, or by choice, fallen prey to the prevailing cultural snares or into the traps of our own shortcomings (they have a habit of playing off each other). All of life must forge forward, and we learn as we go.
But we have to also accept culpability when it is the right thing to do.The turning point in my thinking about the dominant culture for girls came about 2007 when I was a stand-in panellist on the Girlfriend magazine Model Search. (As an aside, in contrast, the Girlfriend of the Year competition, which celebrates girls’ gifts, abilities and talents all the more, has sadly never attracted as much revenue as the lucrative Model Search). On that occasion, after hundreds of hopefuls had ushered past, six finalists were announced.
But two girls shared the same name of the final finalist. Two approached the stage. One was turned away.
I cannot imagine how mortified that girl (whose name I conceal) would have felt that day: a teenager publicly embarrassed because she hadn’t measured up; hadn’t made the cut. I felt immense shame and rage at the injustice of it all, my hands forever stained to have played a part in the stage show. I phoned her mother and we organised for them both to visit.
In the event of this pathetic but earnest consolation, organised as much to appease my ill feelings as to build up the girl’s self-esteem, I was humbled by the humility, willingness and positivity of her and her mother. She shared with me all the good things she was doing in her life, and the positive, affirming way that she’d been raised. Her personality popped and buzzed and fizzed over. To be in her presence was a delight. The world seemed to say, ‘It’s going to be alright’.
But it would be a terrible shame to leave this life thinking that you could have helped to make at least a small change, especially when you yourself had been complicit due to ignorance (and, to this end, we must grant each other some pardon for failing to prevail against circumstances that set the wheels in motion). John Newton knew that, that’s why he penned “Amazing Grace”. I do not like to heap blame on others, to judge or condemn, and in the event that I have in the past, I have nearly always reaped discontentment in return.
When I hear of teen modelling competitions now, I can feel only sadness. Why are we still here? Why hasn’t something changed? Has the talk not been loud enough about the damage such things are doing to girls? Who are we loving more: the images girls are told to aspire to (and the income they generate as they circulate endlessly from magazine to internet and perpetuate over and over again), or the girls whose entry cards end up on the cutting room floor? Have we not loved girls enough to create a sweeping change? Or do we, as a culture, accept that the pretty girl still wins the on the day and that she is an entirely different and superior species or commodity to the regular girl next door?
I wish I could have stopped time and suggested that two girls, not one, sharing the same name would be finalists that day on the Model Search stage. Similarly, I wish I had reached out to that girl in the cafe, and her mother, and said, “Hey, how about we hang out sometime and I’ll show you how to climb a tree or write a poem – pack your backpack and we’ll make a day of it!”. Perhaps I will get that opportunity again some day? Every opportunity lost to tell a girl that there is so much more to her than how she looks, and to show her what life could look like outside the world of celebrity and fashion, is an oversight.
It’s hard for mothers to push back against the culture when they see their girls adopting behaviours and attitudes in conflict with their best intentions. It is a minefield out there. So there must be support from families, schools and teachers, communities, churches and other organisations to help them fight the onslaught with counter-cultural messages, activities and role modelling until the collective consciousness awakens to the damage it is doing, not just today but generationally.
It is a travesty to think that every day there are girls who cannot enjoy who they are or how they look due to external politics and economic self-interests (so expertly articulated by Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth all those years ago) that creep surreptitiously (or ostentatiously, as is the case with reality TV) into her life and subconscious. But I believe this current generation is smart; it’s one that can learn from the mistakes of before and rise above to declare war on that which distorts, robs and plunders their self worth.
As the “starfish story” goes, there is value in changing just one girl, but think of what the world could be if every girl could escape the trappings of culture. To find within herself the strength and self-knowledge to be exactly who she was created to be and to learn to hold onto what’s good while confidently declaring all the rest “bin juice”.
Erica Bartle is editor of GirlWithaSatchel.com and a former deputy editor of Girlfriend magazine. She has tutored in writing at Queensland University of Technology and has written for publications including Eternity newspaper and Sunday Life magazine.
In last month’s Girlfriend Review, I outlined the disturbing findings of the magazine’s annual body image survey. Our young women still despise their bodies, despite GF’s own positive body image initiatives, which I’ve argued, never really went far enough.
So it was refreshing to see in May’s issue a strong case for exposing systems and structures which make girls feel bad about themselves – getting it off the individual girl and onto the zillion dollar global beautification industry which contributes to her feeling so damn awful.
In the piece titled ‘We’re all real women’ (‘Readers not models were used in this shoot’), journalist and blogger Rachel Hills writes:
“The real girl resurgency in recent years isn’t just a response to increasingly ‘un-real’ technologies used to create them…it’s about culture, politics and systems. And rather than taking that out on individual girls and women whose physical appearance might be more culturally celebrated than our own, we should direct our anger and activism at the systems that create those narrow images of beauty and privilege them over everything else.
“[the problem is] a culture that says girls who are all those things are cuter, cooler and more worthy of our attention than girls who aren’t – not to mention a culture that says even if you are all those things…you could still look ‘better’ if you had Photoshop to trim your waist, thicken your hair, enhance your breasts or straighten your nose…The point is, there is no ‘us’ verses ‘them’. Impossible beauty standards hurt us all, and the idea that the most important thing a girl can do is meet those standards hurts us even more.”
Of course, one article does not a revolution make, but it’s something. The cultural analysis approach is echoed in a separate piece examining ‘Sh*t girls say’ – looking at some of the negative things girls repeat, for example that they need bigger breasts. “Perhaps you should criticise the kinda society that says bigger busts is the key to happiness rather than actually supporting it”.
I would have liked to have seen this advice applied also to waxing of public hair in increasingly younger girls – in a section titled ‘Down low: The vagina’, removal of public hair is described merely as a “fashion choice” rather than something increasingly culturally mandated and part of the widespread shaming of women’s natural bodies.
And while we’re talking about ‘reality’, what’s with all the slang terms used to describe female body parts? With the trend toward genital surgery (thanks in good part to the influence of pornography) it’s good for girls to know “There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ vagina”. But can’t we avoid the porno terms (beaver, pussy, hole etc)? And the same for breasts. Tits, jubblies and tatas are the degrading terms used in lad’s mags – they don’t belong in mags aimed at building respect for girls and their bodies.
There’s a two page piece ‘Picture Perfect’ which explains photoshop and re-touching and where Girlfriend stands. “When we feature a retouched image, we’ll make you aware of it with a Self-Respect Reality Check”. Except you won’t see one of those on any ad, including the just-too-perfect faces for Rimmel, Maybelline and Veet, for example (don’t tell me that’s their natural skin). Girlfriend has talked tough against advertisers, but never really done anything to force them to change.
Despite evidence which just keeps growing on the harm of objectified and sexualized images on girls and women, the ‘Oh, Lola!’ Marc Jacobs perfume ad of a very young looking Dakota Fanning referencing Lolita in a girly soft pink spotted dress with the phallic perfume bottle between her legs appears here again.
We meet the finalists of Girlfriend of the Year. The photo shoot is somewhat one dimensional. Jamie Howell, 13, is profoundly deaf and wants to represent Australia as an Olympic track and field athlete. It would have been good to see an image of her training, especially given it’s what she seems to be doing almost 24 hours a day! Toni Daley, 17, is a horse lover and also wants to compete at international level. But there’s not a horse in sight. (She is wearing Sportsgirl shoes at $169.95 though). Sienna van Rossum,16, wants to help Aboriginal communities, (though it’s unlikely she will do so in the $149.95 dress she’s modelling). But these girls are doing great things and I hope that doesn’t get lost.
Important piece by Sarah Ayoub ‘I thought I was a fun party girl…But I had no sense of self-worth’ about how girls can self-sabotage through drink-driving, self-harming behaviours, violent relationships, unsafe sexual practices sex (chlamydia infection most prevalent in women 15-24) and drug abuse. “…risk-taking among teenage girls has hit an all-time high, prompting warnings from professionals who fear that girls just like you are damaging their health thanks to the reckless risks they’re taking”.
The article suggests other ways girls can experience the thrill of risk-taking, in less dangerous ways, e.g sport, rock climbing or taking on a socially risky cause which also takes bravery. “By chasing these highs, you’re learning new skills, developing talents, friendships and confidence, and preventing yourself from failing to a trap that you might eventually regret”. I’m hoping Ayoub will be given more space in Girlfriend’s pages in future.
I’m always pleased to see pieces by young non white/non Western women talking about surviving hardship most of us just cannot image. ‘Life with Kony’, tells the story of Grace Arach who at 12 was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. For the next six years she suffered every depravity and violation before escaping and finding protection with the World Vision Uganda Children of War Reception Centre. She is now involved with CAP Uganda (Children/Youth as Peacebuilders). “My dream is to help my friends who’ve been traumatised by the war so that they can become productive and live meaningful lives…”
The story of most significance to the health and wellbeing of girls this issue is the reporting of results of a survey of 1000 of Girlfriend’s readers who were asked how they felt about their appearance.
Among the findings are:
25% don’t like what they see in the mirror
Only 9% “proud of the way you look” (‘proud’ seems an odd word to use in the survey, given GF a page before tells us genetics means we can’t help how we look)
45% have been on a diet, 56% have skipped meals, 35% have cut out a food group, 19% have thrown up after eating
32% have overexercised
45% know someone who’s been diagnosed with an eating disorder, 5% of readers surveyed have an eating disorder
67% said they feel bad when they compare themselves to their friends
65% said they feel “self-conscious” about their bodies
96% wanted to change a body part (69% wanted to change their stomachs)
94% say there’s room for improvement when it comes to how they feel about their appearance’, 66% of those said losing weight would help.
75% have been victims of negative comments made about their bodies
What strikes me about the three page feature is that there is no critique of the culture which sends girls toxic messages about themselves. There’s no mention of the growing body of research that point to, for example, media representations which objectify women and girls as a significant factor in body image issues.
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In this DVD, Melinda takes us on a visual tour of popular culture. “Melinda’s presentation leaves audiences reeling. She delivers her message with a clarity and commonsense without peer.” – Steve Biddulph, author, Raising Boys, Raising Girls
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“This powerful and humane book is a breakthrough…Big Porn Inc shows us we are poisoning our own spirits.” – Steve Biddulph
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“Getting Real contains a treasure trove of information and should be mandatory reading for all workers with young people in health, education and welfare” – Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Adolescent Psychologist
Do you read women’s lifestyle magazines? Have you thought about how magazines might affect you when you read them? Faking It reflects the body of academic research on magazines, mass media, and the sexual objectification of women.
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Defiant Birth challenges widespread medical, and often social aversion to less than perfect pregnancies or genetically different babies. It also features women with disabilities who were discouraged from becoming pregnant at all.