The Real Halloween Horror: another excuse to sex girls up too soon

Just when you thought you’d seen every possible way for marketers to pressure girls to be too sexy too soon, along comes another opportunity for stores to sell product and sexualise girls . . . Halloween! Though we may not have grown up with Halloween as a tradition, trick-or-treating is entering our culture in a big way.

For my daughter Teyah and son Kye (age 11 and 8), any celebration that involves dressing up and lollies is bound to be popular, so I took them to a Halloween store at The Supa Centre (Home Hub), in Castle Hill, to pick out a couple of costumes. I’ve always known the centre as a whole to be a fine place to take the kids.

So just how did this casual little school holiday outing to a suburban shopping centre end up with me appalled beyond belief, racking my brain for a response to a perplexed 8-year-old’s question about bestiality and hightailing it out of the store just before security came to escort me out?

The little girls’ Halloween costumes were stomach-churning examples of sexualising kids at too young an age. This one (below) is available in sizes to fit girls aged from 3 to 10. When Halloween becomes an opportunity to sexualise little girls, we’ve crossed a line. Girls aged 3 to 10 should never be dressed up as major flirts. Full stop.

If I sound like some kind of prude, let me just say that I don’t have an issue with women dressing up in a sexy way if they want to. And I totally get it that Halloween is one night of the year when people might want to express their wilder side.

What I object to is that, yet again, women are boxed into a narrow view of what “sexy” is. We shouldn’t be allowing Playboy (or any other brand) to define what “sexy” means. Not all of us feel at our sexiest or most feminine stuffed into a tight corset and fishnets. Real female sexuality is more interesting and diverse than the big-breasted, long-legged Playboy stereotype!

What I object to is that yet again women and girls are being made to believe that their true currency is their body and the best they can aspire to is to be sexy. Standing in that store was exactly like this cartoon by Andy Marlette, which sums it up perfectly. Boys can be superheroes, literary characters and martial arts experts. Girls can be . . . sexy.

What I object to is that there is simply too much blurring of the line between adulthood and childhood. Girls aged 3 to 10 have sexualised soldier and sailor outfits. Women and teen girls have sexualized Sesame Street costumes, like the ones I saw on Feministing (see top of this post).

The website sluttyhalloweencostumes.org (yes, seriously, it exists) asks: “Who doesn’t want to see a slutty version of our favorite Disney character?” Well, me for one. [Ed: me for two!]

The line between childhood and adulthood is often further blurred by retailers who place adult products at children’s eye level — think FHM near the chocolate bars at the checkout. The Halloween store I visited at Castle Hill seemed to be mainly aimed at kids, and I counted 11 children under the age of 10. Yet the adult costumes were mixed in with the children’s ones. Playboy was in amongst Star Wars. But even worse than that, there were some deeply offensive costumes for men openly on display for kids to see. They are too graphic to show here but one costume had a fake sheep attached to the groin area. Another had a blow-up doll dressed in a G-string attached to the crotch so that it would appear that she was giving the man oral sex.

I was angry that my children were exposed to this. My son actually asked me “What’s that man doing to the sheep, Mummy?” But I was polite when I went and asked the manager why this merchandise was on display for kids to see. I think my question was a very reasonable one, but I was asked to leave the store.

When Home Hub Hills’ management rented space to this retailer, I’m sure they assumed they would be selling the usual witch’s brooms and scary masks and lollies. I want to stress that in the past I’d always had good experiences at this shopping centre with my family. This weekend, the centre held a Cat in the Hat Family Fun Day and I can’t imagine that the management would be okay with kids visiting the centre possibly being exposed to depictions of bestiality and oral sex.

Australia’s Next Top Model a True Role Model?

Australia’s Next Top Model rates well. Really well. In fact, last year the premiere of series 5 entered the record books and became the most watched show on pay TV. Many of the viewers are teen girls and many of the contestants are teen girls. This year, of the 16 contestants, only two are out of their teens and the average age is just 17. What type of messages will girls be exposed to if they tune in this year? Past offerings give us something to go on.

In 2007, the American version set the tone with one of the most alarming and tasteless episodes I have ever seen. The models were asked to pose as victims of violent crimes for a fashion shoot. They were depicted shot, bashed, pushed down stairs—the images were graphic and deeply disturbing. But apparently, this graphic glorification of violence against women is so hot right now.

The judges made remarks like: “What’s great about this is that you can also look beautiful in death” and ”Death becomes you, young lady.” Even more disturbingly, the ‘victims’ were all meant to have been killed by other models, so vicious was the contestants’ desire to win that they would kill the others to secure the coveted prize. The scenario of one of the pictures was so over the top that it would have been laughable if it wasn’t so creepy: “Diana poses—organs stolen by a model”. What was the other model meant to have done with the stolen kidneys? Sold them for Prada?

In 2008, the Australian series was rocked by (read: the show grabbed free publicity and maximised its audience with) awful bullying. Contestant Alamela Rowan, the victim of verbal taunts and physical attacks, was left quite distraught. So bad did the systematic intimidation become that the show’s judges at the time—Jodhi Meares, Charlotte Dawson and Alex Perry—reprimanded the other contestants, but no further action was taken and the bullies weren’t punished.

This sparked a media debate on teen girl bullying, though the show’s culture of ‘compare and despair’ and practice of ranking girls on their looks was not called into question. The main bully, Demelza Reveley, ended up winning the series and going on to receive the lucrative modelling contracts—there, that showed her, didn’t it?

Throughout the seasons, the judges themselves have sometimes been less than ideal role models. Alex Perry has a reputation for doling out harsh criticism, calling contestants things like ‘wild pig’. Charlotte Dawson sends mixed body image messages. She now says she regrets some of the cosmetic surgery she has had, and that “anyone thinking plastic surgery will make them happier is wrong.” And she has a damning, dismissive and totally out-of-touch attitude toward plus-size models.

Last year saw a revolution of sorts, when a ‘plus-sized’ model, Tahnee Atkinson, won. She was a size 10. I say this was a ‘revolution of sorts’ as the average Australian woman is a size 16. It was hardly an earth-shattering move, was it? Yet many commentators asked if she was really top model material.

In an ideal world, the girl is unquestionably gorgeous—she’s got an exceptional figure and a smile that stops traffic. She’s professional, well-behaved and determined. Her ‘normal’ beauty is something that a lot of women would love to see more of in fashion magazines. But in the fickle and unfair world of modelling it probably won’t equal a long-term fashion career. As casting agents politely explained in the show, she just doesn’t have the matchstick-thin figure required by most top designers

What about this season then, post Tahnee, post the government’s Body Image Advisory Group? Don’t hold your breath that this season’s show will suddenly adopt the new voluntary code of conduct for the fashion industry and begin to promote a diversity of sizes. In the first episode of the new season, airing next week, viewers will see a 16-year-old contestant  excluded from a catwalk parade because she is ‘too big’. She’s a size 8. She says the experience left her feeling embarrassed and shamed into changing her eating habits.

The new season also has a ridiculous promo ad featuring models competing like racehorses—or are they greyhounds?—on a race track, trying to outrun one another to snatch the lure, i.e., the modelling contract. Women as thoroughbreds. And there is Sarah Murdoch with the starter’s gun. Sarah, an advocate of the government-appointed Body Image Advisory Group, seems to have forgotten advocacy is not a one-off gig but an ongoing commitment to how differently things could be done in the fashion industry. The rest of this advisory group also made that commitment, but do they see that the messages in Australia’s Next Top Model contravene many of the group’s recommendations?

If you haven’t guessed by now, Australia’s Next Top Model isn’t my favourite show. But before anyone is tempted to outright ridicule it in front of the teen girls who avidly watch it—or try to ban them from watching it—I want to say that I see a danger in demonising something that teen girls are interested in. 

From working with girls all around the country, I know that huge numbers of them dream of becoming a model, which is why I’ve always tried to take an objective look at modelling. Coming down too hard on girls for being interested in modelling or wanting to watch Australia’s Next Top Model is probably one of the least effective ways to minimise the potential damage. It makes us look out of touch and dismissive, and nothing is more frustrating to a teen girl than when adults act as if she doesn’t have a brain. The best way to get a teen girl to watch something is to say we hate it and she isn’t allowed to watch it.

To me, TV has always been an interactive medium, and I think it should be for all girls. The best thing we can do is encourage girls to deconstruct media messages, and that means getting a conversation going about Australia’s Next Top Model. Avoid the temptation to lecture, but instead ask questions about what the show tells us about the fashion industry and the media.

  • Is it fair that we are all meant to aspire to a narrow beauty ideal?
  • How achievable is that ideal?
  • Does anyone truly win when girls compete against one another based solely on appearance?
  • These are real teen girls on the screen, not made-up characters. Is it okay that they face this type of criticism and judgment for others’ entertainment?

What other questions do you think would be worth raising with girls in order to encourage them to see past the fashionista hype?

This article contributed by Dannielle Miller, CEO of Enlighten Education, which helps girls develop a sense of power, self-esteem and confidence. See www.enlighteneducation.com for more.

Is How a Woman Looks More Important than What She has to Say?

Recently, I received a comment from one of my blog readers that at first shocked me and then got me thinking about yet another issue that affects all women and girls: the tendency in our culture to demean women for their looks rather than to engage with what they have to say. The comment was short, and cutting: “We’ve seen your talks at schools. If you’re so keen to set a good example then don’t turn up to school looking like mutton dressed as lamb” — Kim

I wondered exactly what it was about me that came across that way to her. When I do my self-esteem and skills-building workshops with girls, I wear an Enlighten Education uniform of sorts. We are often up and jumping around with the girls, so skirts and high heels are definitely out. It’s jeans or tights in winter, or mid-length shorts in summer, and then a black T-shirt embroidered with our butterfly logo. Then I realised that the comment had drawn my attention away from the real issue: too often, when women raise their voices, they are criticised not for what they say but how they look.

Even now, in 2010, is the currency of a woman or a girl her looks? Is a female’s Achilles heel still her appearance? If you strike her there, do you take away her only power?

This isn’t the first time I’ve been criticised – not for my arguments on sensitive topics such as sexual harassment – but for the way I look. I have been helpfully informed that I seemed to have put on weight. I was sent an e-mail telling me that I couldn’t be a feminist because I have blonde hair. During the 2009 scandal involving Matthew Johns and teammates having sex with a 19-year-old girl, I wrote an article in defence of the young woman, who was being blamed and insulted in the media and on the internet. A reader commented that I was just jealous because I was wasn’t desirable enough to get a football player of my own.

I’m in good company. The woman whose writing had the most profound effect on me when I was young, Naomi Wolf, received a torrent of criticism for being too pretty to be a real feminist. On the other side of the coin, Germaine Greer has long been attacked for all sorts of supposed flaws in her appearance and femininity. Earlier this year, Louis Nowra described her in The Monthly as “a befuddled and exhausted old woman” who reminded him of his “demented grandmother”. It should be noted that Greer herself is no stranger to flinging looks-based insults, famously describing a fellow writer as having “hair bird’s-nested all over the place, f***-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage”.

Comments that target a woman for how she looks, rather than her ideas, are designed to do one thing and one thing only: to shut her up.

Yet it only spurs me on. The same can be said for other Australian writers and commentators I spoke to who also regularly receive such criticism. When I discussed this phenomenon with Emily Maguire, author of Princesses & Porn Stars and a regular writer on gender and culture, she told me:

“There’s no way you can present yourself that won’t attract criticism from the kind of people who think that criticism of a woman’s looks will hurt more than criticism of her ideas . . . It only makes me more sure that this stuff is worth speaking out about.”

Melinda Tankard Reist is an author and commentator who often appears in the media to speak out against the sexualisation of girls and women. She publicly commented on the decision of former Hi-5 performer Kellie Crawford to pose for a lingerie shoot in Ralph in order to “find the woman in me” after so many years as a children’s entertainer. Melinda asked people to question why the Wiggles didn’t need to “prove their manhood by stripping down to their jocks”. Much of the criticism she received afterwards didn’t address that question but told her that she was “a bitter ugly woman”, “sad, old and dog-ugly” and that she had “saggy breasts and a droopy arse”.

Old, saggy, mutton dressed as lamb age is a common theme to this type of criticism. Rather than seeming to gain wisdom, experience and authority, as is virtually expected of men, women are often deemed of decreasing value with each year they move beyond their 30s.

We see it throughout our culture. How many good roles are there for actresses over 40? How many women newsreaders have career longevity without resorting to Botox? It is as if once women have passed a certain age, it is time for them to step off the stage. It’s no wonder that many women are angsting and trying to achieve the body of a 20-year-old — an impossible and time-wasting task. Zoe Krupka put it perfectly in a post on the website New Matilda:

“How are we meant to do our work in the world and develop wisdom if we are still focused on the size of our butts?”

One would hope that the situation was improving, but in fact, it seems to be getting worse. And it is often women who use the strategy of attacking a woman’s looks. Dr Karen Brooks, social commentator and author of Consuming Innocence: Popular Culture and Our Children, told me:

“I have had my appearance criticised ALL the time . . . This has been happening to me for 13 years and it’s getting worse . . . I should add that most of the negative comments are from women.”

Perhaps there is an element of fear of change that drives women to this type of criticism. Perhaps this technique just comes all too naturally to women who have spent their whole lives learning how to play the “compare and despair” game. Perhaps the ultimate sin for women is to show confidence and to love themselves, so critics feel that outspoken women need to brought down a peg or two.

Whatever it is that drives looks-based criticism, the thing that hurt me the most about the comment I received on my blog was that this woman claimed she had seen me present to girls. At every school Enlighten Education has worked in, the girls line up afterwards to ask for a hug, a kiss and to tell us they love us. They tell us our presence changed their lives. So it made me sad to think that in the presence of all the joy and positivity and love that bursts out of these girls – for at least one woman, the lasting impression was my looks, something that the girls never notice or comment on.

Imagine the change we all women and men could make in the world if we took personal attacks out of public debate. Imagine if we all engaged in the debate, made respectful counterarguments, added our own ideas into the mix. Imagine if we all pledged to stop trying to silence one another. I have the greatest respect for the women thinkers and activists I have mentioned here. Do I agree with them on every single issue? Of course not. But I pledge to always argue my case while according them the respect they deserve. It will always be their ideas that I engage with, because ideas — not physical appearances — live on forever.

A comment I received from another woman sums it all up:

Common sense, dignity, rights, respect, responsibility — these basic human values should be blind to looks, age, gender. — Paola Yevenes

This article contributed by Dannielle Miller, CEO of Enlighten Education, which helps girls develop a sense of power, self-esteem and confidence. See www.enlighteneducation.com for more.

Are 14-year-old Girls Really Nothing But Trouble?

A recent UK survey of parents with children over 18 years of age revealed that 14-year-old girls are considered the most difficult to parent.

Kathryn Crawford, co-editor of the website that conducted the survey, said “New parents live in dread of the ‘Terrible Twos’, but parents of teenagers will tell them that the worst is yet to come. Ironically, many toddler traits surface again when children become teenagers, but often become even more difficult to deal with. The general consensus is that the teenage years are beyond doubt the worst.”

India Knight, of the London Times, felt compelled to write a defence of teen girls. They’re funny and sparky and interesting, intellectually curious, with a big appetite for life and new experiences (if not so much for food, alas, these days). Most teenagers aren’t difficult at all. They are pains, which is a different thing. They’re just trying stuff out, experimenting, kicking against boundaries in a way that may be exasperating but is hardly much more.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article contributed by Dannielle Miller, CEO of Enlighten Education, which helps girls develop a sense of power, self-esteem and confidence. See www.enlighteneducation.com for more.

The Darker Side of Facebook: Cyber-Bullying

Facebook has become a positive part of many of our lives, but there is a darker side of Facebook that all parents and educators need to be aware of: cyber-bullying.

It is inevitable that bullies will try to use social networking sites as a tool. It gives them a platform to humiliate their victims not just in front of a schoolyard full of kids but potentially a global audience, with little chance of being held accountable.

The problem has grown so great that dealing with the fallout has become a major part of many school counsellors’ jobs. The Adelaide Advertiser reported that at Blackwood High School, counsellors “spend all day Monday and sometimes longer dealing with the issues that are generated on Facebook and by text messages over the weekend”. 

Kids are also using Facebook to harass teachers. In Australia recently, students have posted messages on Facebook threatening a teacher with being “massacred by chainsaws”, targeting a female teacher with sexually offensive material and falsely alleging that another was a gay paedophile.

Bullies are renowned for being blind to the feelings of others, and when they take their bullying campaigns to the internet, a terrible thing appears to happen: that lack of empathy spreads like a virus. The victims become depersonalised – just images on a screen rather than real people with real feelings, and it is all too easy for others to join in the mocking. Recently, 60 students at an Adelaide high school were involved in bullying a fellow student on Facebook, according to The Advertiser.

This phenomenon in evident on a very disturbing misogynistic Facebook page that Melinda Tankard Reist blogged about. It is a page on which members can post pictures of women or girls they deem to be ‘sluts’. These ordinary young women are left completely vulnerable to appalling taunts and insults by people all over the globe. She wrote:

Some images are clearly posted for revenge. Often full names are used. What means do these women and girls have to defend themselves? How do they deal with it? What does it mean for them in their daily lives at school or work or at home or anywhere, to be identified to the whole world as a slut?

By allowing this site, Facebook is a conduit for bullying, harassment and abuse.

There are a number of pages on Facebook that are, to use Melinda’s words – “temples to human cruelty”.

I was mystified when a 14-year-old girl at a school I worked with recently told me she had joined a Facebook page for fans of Eminem, named after a line in his song Superman: “I do know one thing though, bitches, they come they go’s.”

The Eminem song is that of a battle-scarred adult, full of twisted hurt at failed relationships, and full of vitriol and hate against all women. The profile picture? A beautiful but scared-looking young woman with her mouth taped shut, her hands presumably bound.  What a bully’s fantasy that is. I think it’s important to be aware that we live in a world where 14-year-old girls can be drawn to, and get involved with, such a seemingly incongruous message and online community.

Of course, the worst thing we can do is have a knee-jerk reaction and try to stop girls from using Facebook. Not only would it be impossible, it would be a bad idea. Maintaining connections and mastering technology are vital for girls’ development. All young people need to not only be able to read and write in print media, but to be ‘multi-literate’; competent in the full range of media.

It is important not to lose perspective: most of what happens on Facebook is fine, and social networking sites can be a great way to get girls engaged in technology. Enlighten Education has its own Facebook page where positivity reigns supreme and the empowerment of girls is the ultimate goal. We post articles and videos to inspire girls and get them thinking, and we provide a safe and affirming forum for them to express themselves.

What we all need to do is get involved with our teen girls and give them the support and skills they need to use technology safely. At Enlighten, we run ‘digital citizenship’ workshops for teens and parents, because it is crucial for teens to learn to navigate the social world of the internet, in the same way that it has always been crucial for them to learn to navigate the social world of the schoolyard. 

Bullying must never be ignored, whether it’s taking place face-to-face, on the internet or via text messaging. As adults we need to take responsibility for bullying, and give teens the support they need to deal with it.

Combating Cyber-bullying

  • Sometimes girls hold back from telling adults about cyber-bullying because they fear they will be banned from using the internet. Rather than making threats, keep the lines of communication open and establish trust. 
  • Make yourself familiar with Facebook so you know what your daughter may encounter while using it.
  • Some adults become their daughter’s Facebook friend so they can monitor her. I think it’s more beneficial to work on a trusting relationship with your daughter so she knows she can come to you if she has a problem.
  • If you suspect your daughter might be a victim, don’t ignore it. Ask her sensitively about your concerns.
  • Parents should alert their daughter’s school to cyber-bullying. The only way to solve the problem is for parents and school staff to work together.
  • Encourage girls to think before they accept a Facebook friend request. Is this a person they would be friends with in the real world?
  • Emphasise the importance of girls setting their Facebook privacy to the highest level so only their friends have access to their page

This article contributed by Dannielle Miller, CEO of Enlighten Education, which helps girls develop a sense of power, self-esteem and confidence. See www.enlighteneducation.com for more.

See AWO’s article on Dannielle’s critically acclaimed book – The Butterfly Effect: A Positive New Approach to Raising Happy, Confident Teen Girls. [Read more…]

Girls in Trouble in a Post-Feminism World

Parents, teachers and educators everywhere know in our hearts that girls and young women are in trouble and need our support. And the evidence is mounting to prove that we are right to be concerned.

A 19-year-long Scottish study published recently in the journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology showed that teenage girls are now the most depressed section of the population.  [Read more…]

Making Sense of Twilight

There has been a kind of hysteria surrounding the Twilight series of late. With the release of the second movie, New Moon, bloggers, commentators (and just about anyone with an internet connection) have rushed to vent their opinions—not on the quality of the movie but on whether the main female character, Bella, is a good role model for girls.

The consensus is that Bella, with her angst-ridden relationship with the vampire Edward, is one of the worst examples our daughters could emulate. Bella is clingy, helpless and self-doubting. She is willing to withdraw from life and sacrifice everything—self, friends, family—for an obsessive romantic attachment to Edward, who while being handsome and chivalrous also just happens to be a stalker battling a powerful urge to consume and destroy her.

[Read more…]

The Fashionista Fallout

This is the Fashionista Generation. Chalk it up to Gossip Girl or Next Top Model or all those banks who handed out credit cards like they were candy — whatever the reasons, designer labels have become a part of our culture. We use them to fit in, to stand out, to create a glow of status and power.

Girls use brands to look more mature and hip; their mothers, to look more youthful and hip. This makes the marketers very, very happy. [Read more…]