Over the past few days the New Zealand media has been in a bit of a frenzy about sexuality education. The headlines say it all: Sex ed shock for angry parents
, Sex at 14 - I learned all about it in class
, Parents complain about sex ed's 'plastic black penis'
, Shock over sex education subjects
As the outpouring on talkback radio and social media sites demonstrates, sexuality education is an issue that lies very close to our hearts. There have been some very controversial statements made, and I certainly don’t agree with them all. But I am delighted that this topic is getting attention from the media and the New Zealand public.
Because sexuality education in New Zealand is not in a very good state. An Education Review Office (2007) report The Teaching of Sexuality Education in Years 7 to 13 found that "The majority of school sexuality education programmes are not meeting students’ learning needs.” Some schools are providing fantastic programmes – but many schools have programmes in need of an overhaul. In some schools, the Ministry of Education's sexuality education requirements
The quality of sexuality education programmes has far-reaching impacts on our community’s health and well-being. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies
in the OECD. And 20% of New Zealand 13 year olds have already had sexual intercourse
. It’s crucial we get sexuality education right.
Sexuality education is a compulsory part of the curriculum from Years 1 – 10. When I explain this to parents, I sometimes hear a gasp of shock – “What?! Sex ed in Year 1!!!!” At which point I think it is really important to define sexuality education. It's not just about intercourse! According to the Ministry of Education, when learning about sexuality students will consider “how the physical, social, mental and emotional, and spiritual dimensions of sexuality influence their well-being.
” It is supposed to be holisitc and it’s all about age-appropriateness. Sexuality education in the early primary years could be as simple as labelling body parts – eyes, ears, neck, penis, toes. Sexuality is inherent in all of us and our education system can't simply ignore it.
Most of the media commentary this week has been regarding the topics being taught by teachers. Questions have been asked about the qualifications and experience of the teachers delivering this very sensitive topic. Before we start a witch hunt I think it’s important to examine how sexuality education fits in to our education system.
In high schools, sexuality education is usually delivered by the Health and PE department. My experience is that about 95% of Health & PE teachers specialised in this subject for the PE, rather than the health. This means that all too often, sexuality education in high schools is delivered by a reluctant PE teacher. In Primary and Intermediate schools, sexuality education is usually integrated into the programme by the classroom teacher. I have contacted Colleges of Education for some details about the amount of sexuality education instruction in their degree and diploma programmes, but their answers have been vague and elusive. I get the impression – “not much”. This has been verified by speaking to teachers. I have spoken to some primary teachers who claim that they received absolutely no instruction on sexuality education within their qualification. Upon graduation, they are expected to teach sexuality education immediately, with very little (if any) professional development. (If anyone can give me any more detail on this, please do contact me!)
Many teachers I meet hate teaching sexuality education, but they have to, so they are in a tough situation. When I am in a school delivering a Good Talks
programme I am usually greeted by teachers with sighs of relief and thanks. For a variety of reasons, many teachers just do not feel comfortable discussing some of the aspects of sexuality education with their classes. And I totally understand this.
I believe that sexuality education taught badly is worse than no sexuality education at all. It's such a delicate topic, and all too easy to get it wrong.
When I am presenting in schools I like to precede the student sessions with a parent seminar. This ensures that the parents are on the same page, understand what I am discussing with their children and gives them the chance to ask questions. It also gives them the knowledge and confidence to support their children in their sexuality education. Because parents will always be the most important educators of sexuality.
I am delighted this conversation is happening in the New Zealand media. I want it to continue. But I want the witch-hunt aspect to stop, as talk-back radios try to out-compete each other in the-most-dreadful-sex-ed-story-they-have-ever-heard. I want the conversation to turn to a discussion about what sexuality education is, why we need it, and how our communities can best support schools to deliver it effectively.
- Click here
to read an earlier post on ridiculous journalism + sex ed.
- Blog posts coming up later this week on sexuality education content (what should schools be teaching?) and the role of the parents and wider community in creating school sexuality education policies.**Disclaimer – there are some schools and some teachers doing an absolutely fantastic job delivering sexuality education in New Zealand. I applaud these people. Those that are struggling with it are struggling because of a multitude of reasons, not easily addressed in a 200 word attention-grabbing newspaper article. If you are a parent and are concerned about the sexuality education in your school, I urge you to contact the Principal and your Board of Trustees to discuss your concerns.
Today I have a guest post written by Catherine Manning. Catherine is an Enlighten Education colleague of mine based in Melbourne. She is also the director of the children’s rights advocacy group Say No 4 Kids, which campaigns to end children’s exposure to highly sexualised material in the public domain. Catherine started the Pull The Pin (Against Child Beauty Pageants) campaign in Australia earlier this year and together we are coordinating Pull The Pin New Zealand. Pull The Pin is campaigning to end all child beauty pageants. It is our view that pitting young girls against each other in a competition based on physical beauty is potentially harmful to their development, and can lead to lowered self esteem and other conditions including eating disorders and depression. We are also concerned with the adultification and sometimes sexualisation of pageant entrants, and their engagement in adult cosmetic treatments such as waxing and spray tanning. We are calling on the government to legislate to stop parents and pageant organisers from exploiting children by enforcing age restrictions on beauty pageants and adult cosmetic procedures (unless for medical reasons). We'd love for you to support us by signing our petition and joining our Facebook page!Catherine has issued a media release on why she thinks Victorian Child Safety Commissioner Bernie Geary has got it so very wrong in his recent statement that the recent Universal Royalty pageant in Melbourne was not sexual:
he Victorian State Government thinks by sending Child Safety Commissioner Bernie Geary to the Universal Royalty Pageant in Melbourne last month, that they have done enough to investigate the harms of beauty competition on children. Are they seriously trying to say that a visit to the pageant by Mr Geary with no input from any other interest group or experts, is valid enough consultation to make an informed decision about the impacts of pageants on children and our culture?
The State Government are ignoring the concerns of many thousands of people who want to see regulation of child beauty pageants not only in Victoria and around Australia but overseas, including The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists
, numerous Women’s and Children’s Rights organisations, child development experts and academics, and the majority of the community (around 95% according to numerous polls and callers to talkback programs overwhelmingly in support of action).
Could it be due in part to the fact that some commentators focused heavily on sexualisation rather than the core issue?
It’s easy to be outraged by the sight of a four, five or six year old waxed and coiffed to resemble a thirty year old, then encouraged to gyrate around a stage winking and blowing kisses to adult judges. If there’s one thing we can thank the show Toddlers and Tiara’s featuring popular child beauty queens and over enthusiastic mothers for, it’s bringing the issue of the sexualisation of girls in pageants to the fore.
But is sexualisation in pageants really any different to other realms of children’s performance? Just recently I saw young girls at a local junior school performance sashay up centre stage before turning with a ‘booty slap’ to lyrics far more appropriate for their older audience than the performers’ six years. It did make me wonder who the performance was supposed to be for. Attend just about any children’s dance recital, calisthenics concert or cheerleading competition, and you’re guaranteed to see just as much sexualisation, if not more, than a few cutie patooties shakin’ their booties at a pageant. To focus on sexualisation as the argument against pageants misses the point.
It’s not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned and speak out against young children being encouraged to emulate pole dancers. I am certainly a strong and active advocate for children being allowed to explore and express their sexuality in their own time and way. The infiltration of porn culture and the narrow sexual ideals foisted upon the lives of young children deserves more than a shake of the head from all of us, but I do despair when all of a sudden the sight of a little girl dressed as Lady Gaga or Sandy from Grease at a pageant is enough to send some commentators into a complete spin and lose focus about what is inherently and uniquely wrong with child beauty pageants. I for one as an impressionable nine year old idolised Olivia Newton John’s Sandy, and at the time would have loved to don some leathers and parade around singing ‘you’re the one that I want’ on a stage, complete with fag hanging out of my mouth. What I wanted to do and what my Mum let me do were often two different things.
Sexualisation wasn’t the reason I started the ‘Pull the Pin (on beauty pageants for children)’ campaign, in fact I hadn’t ever even seen an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras. My motivation was the issue of beauty competition. Would you stand your two daughters or nieces side by side and tell one she’s more beautiful than the other? Whether they’re primped, preened, waxed and dressed in leathers and cone bras or straight out of the dress up box in their own creation with no make-up, for most people it’s a resounding ‘no’, on the basis that it would be a cruel and horrible thing to do - to both girls, but that’s exactly what beauty pageants do.
I work in-schools delivering self-esteem, body image and media literacy workshops to teen girls (through Enlighten Education
we reach over 20,000 girls per year), and I can tell you that 100% of them feel they’re not pretty/hot enough. Their negative self talk comes from the onslaught of media and advertising messages. We see on average between 400-600 ads per day (TV, internet, billboards, bus stops, etc.). One out of every 11 ads has a direct message about female beauty. That’s not counting the indirect ones. Most children aren’t media literate. Not enough adults are either. A media literate can see the toxicity of the ‘compare and despair’ messages behind the beauty industry. At a time when mental health issues around body image and self-esteem are on the rise with Eating Disorders Victoria
reporting a 270% increase in the number of girls hospitalised with eating disorders over the past 10 years, with some girls as young as seven years old presenting with anorexia directly related to body image, and four year olds are calling each other fat and talking about diets and cosmetic surgery, we have to question a culture that condones pitting young girls against each other in a beauty competition. As a society we’re saying it’s okay to judge and reward our children for their physical beauty. We’re teaching girls that their physical beauty is their currency. We are actively marketing an industry to them that feeds off the insecurities created by a narrow beauty ideal. We’re telling them that to be worthy and to win the crown, they must fit that narrow ideal. Wax your eyebrows, spray tan your skin, put in fake teeth - Botox for children isn’t that farfetched an idea. Beauty isn't a talent or skill they can practice, enhance or improve. No other competition for children compares.
We should also consider why it is that the majority of participants are female. When asked where all the fathers are on this, one talkback caller said ‘they’re taking their sons to watch the footy’. Can of worms indeed. As the beauty industry widens its sights to capitalise on the male market driving men to spend more time in front of the bathroom mirror, will we eventually see more boys thrust in to beauty competition? You bet.
To trivialise the importance of legislating against child beauty pageants is to trivialise how beauty obsession impacts on the status of women and the myriad of mental health issues around body image facing young people today.
Interestingly after many months spent spruiking the praises of pageants and spewing vitriol toward our campaign, Kristin Kyle the very woman who organised bringing the Universal Royalty pageant to Melbourne, has now conceded she agrees with Pull the Pin after her middle child didn’t win a prize at the pageant. ‘My heart broke for her that her sisters were ultimately told they were prettier’ she said. Perhaps Mr Geary should speak with Ms Kyle now.
It’s a disgrace that the Victorian State Government let go an opportunity to at least investigate these issues. In the meantime, other companies here in Australia are soldiering on with their Toddlers and Tiara’s style full-glitz pageants with categories including Most Photogenic (can edit/airbrush), Prettiest Smile, Best Hair, Bright Eyes and Most Beautiful.
Physical beauty should never be a competition – especially not for children.
Last week I offered some tips to support parents in talking to their girls about puberty and getting their first period, because now more than ever, parents need to have the knowledge and confidence to be able to discuss sexuality with their children. The work of parents also needs to be backed up by quality holistic sexuality education within all our schools.
If, like many parents, you assume that your child is already getting basic sexuality education at school, think again. Despite the fact that more than half of Australian teenagers are sexually active by the time they are 16, there is no mandatory, comprehensive Australia-wide sex-education policy. In New Zealand, sexuality education is a key area of learning in the National Curriculum, which means that it must be taught at primary- and secondary-school levels. Yet a 2007 report
by the New Zealand Education Review Office concluded: “The majority of school sexuality education programmes are not meeting students’ learning needs.” In both countries, there are some schools that offer fantastic programs, but there is no guarantee that your child will be one of the lucky ones.
Many parents say to me, “Oh, but my child has no interest/no idea/no awareness about anything to do with sexuality.” This may be true, but their classmates do, and their classmates are talking. If a child isn’t getting information from her family or her school, she will turn to her friends or the internet. I don’t have to persuade you that googling “vagina” is probably not going to throw up much useful advice for a 10-year-old. So I urge schools to do everything they can to meet the physical and emotional needs of students as they reach puberty.Make it age appropriate.
As I discussed in an earlier post
, puberty is starting earlier for girls, and it is important that they understand what is happening to them before they get their first period. This means that schools need to rethink the age at which they teach students about puberty. In New Zealand for at least the past 40 years, students have been taught about puberty usually in years 7 and 8. As it is not uncommon for girls to start menstruating at age 9 or 10 now, I encourage schools to teach it in years 5 and 6.Don’t segregate!
Ensure that the boys in your school are equally well informed about female puberty as the girls, and vice versa. The boys need to be in on the period talks, and the girls need to understand erections and breaking voices. If girls and boys understand what the other is experiencing and why the changes happen, bullying is likely to be greatly reduced. When we had the puberty talk at school, the boys and the girls were separated. I never knew what the boys learnt, but afterwards they were fascinated with our ‘pad packs’ that we’d been given, and they stole them and teased us, demanding to know what we had been told. We were all really embarrassed and didn’t know what to say to the boys. I thought that it would be really naughty if we told them – because obviously our teacher didn’t want them knowing. Because they weren’t taught about it, it made it seem like periods were taboo and secret from boys. — Kelly School was tough. The boys used to grope us to see if we were wearing a pad, then announce to the entire corridor that we had our periods. Or they’d go into your locker looking for pads to steal and stick all over the corridor. — SophieStock your library with books and pamphlets on puberty.
Age-appropriate books and take-away pamphlets are fantastic for students to access in their own time and when they need answers. Primary schools can be reluctant to put sexuality and puberty books in the library for fear that parents of younger students will complain. One solution that I have seen in some schools is to have a special part of the library dedicated to the older students. These students like it because it’s their special place, and it’s somewhere they can go for answers if they don’t feel comfortable asking their teachers or parents.Make sure students know where to go for help and advice.
Students need to know who to go to for support at school if they have concerns or questions about puberty or sexuality. Make sure that girls also know where a supply of pads are kept in case they are caught out. Many schools have these at the administration office, which is always staffed during the day. It is worth having a brief discussion with staff at the start of the year about what to do when a girl gets her period and needs support, as some staff will be unaware of the stress that periods cause some girls. I got my period for the first time in my first week of high school. I was mortified because I didn’t have a pad. My friend went and asked the lady at the front desk and she gave me one – thank goodness! I am not sure what I would have done otherwise. — Laura There was always the fear of getting caught at the far end of school from my locker, needing to change pads and having, in the time a teacher thought was acceptable for a loo stop, to run from one end of the school to another to get supplies. — Sophie
Also be sure that girls can dispose of used pads and tampons appropriately. As the average age at which girls get their first period decreases, primary schools now need to make sure there are sanitary bins in the girls’ toilets. I urge parents to encourage their daughter's school to offer quality holistic sexuality education and to check what measures the school is taking to ensure girls are supported through puberty.
When I mention the ‘P’ word to a group of tweens, it usually incites squeals of embarrassment and excitement. Girls crave information about what will happen to their body over the next few years but are often not quite sure how, who or where to ask.
It can be a difficult time for parents. They may feel excitement at their girl reaching the next stage in life. But there is sometimes also a sense of sadness that their little girl is growing up or anxiety about how their girl will cope, particularly if she is young. Many parents are embarrassed or reluctant to discuss puberty with their children and often feel that they don’t know enough to teach them – if you feel this way, you are not alone!
The most important thing you can do with the girls in your life is talk, talk, talk! Rather than having a single “puberty talk”, it needs to be an ongoing conversation. Seize upon teachable moments to discuss puberty and related issues with your daughter. The more we talk, the easier it gets, and girls start to see periods as a normal part of the female experience. I’ve found it distressing helping girls who have come to me in absolute shock because their period had started and they didn’t know what to do, because no one had ever talked to them about it. I got my period when I was 11 and I had no idea what was happening. My mother just said it was horrible and dirty and refused to discuss it. My Dad explained in horribly embarrassed terms. It was really traumatic. – Emma My mum and I were sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and there was a poster on the wall with a picture of a toilet and the words ‘If you see blood in here, talk to your doctor.’ Obviously my mother saw it and thought it would be a good time to give me the period talk – without actually using the words period, menstruation, monthly, tampons or pads. She simply said, ‘If you see blood in your undies, let me know.’ For years I thought she was talking about bowel cancer. – Kim Powell
If you are a reluctant puberty talker, there are some great resources that can help you become more comfortable, including these books
and Puberty Girl author Shushann Movsessian
’s website. Also look for parent workshops in your area.
In many cultures, a girl’s first period is a rite of passage that is revered and celebrated. In our culture, particularly among girls who menstruate early, periods are often associated with embarrassment and confusion. We need to reclaim this. Give your daughter the message that her body is beautiful and incredible. For some mothers, this may involve healing of their own, as many women carry with them the shame and confusion they experienced with menstruation as a child. Some families like to celebrate – go out for ice-cream or have a celebration with family. Other girls prefer to keep it private. The most important thing to consider is your daughter’s wishes, as this woman illustrates: I got my first period during a family dinner and Mum announced it to the whole family. My grandfather hugged me – this did not help!!! I cried. Mum made Dad go out and buy a cake – my nana called it a period cake. It was a hideous experience! - Hannah
Make sure girls know what tampons and pads are, what they look like and what they are for. There are many opportune teachable moments for this to happen. When I was about 10 there was a tampon ad on TV. My mum launched in to an account of the ‘menstrual cycle’ and told me that one day I too would need to use tampons. She gave a good biological description, but I was a bit confused because I couldn’t work out what the beach and white swimsuits had to do with periods! – Chloe
Keep in mind that you may not be there when your daughter’s period starts, and it will be much easier for her if she can deal with it herself. Have supplies ready. If possible, get your daughter her own brand or colour, so she knows they are hers and doesn’t feel she has to sneak things that belong to others in the house. Some parents like to give their girl a ‘pad pack’ that goes discreetly in her school bag in case her period starts at school. I had my first period about 6 months after my mother had died. I was so thankful that she had left me with a box of pads and a puberty book, so that when I got my period I was able to cope by myself. I wasn’t at the stage I wanted to share with my dad – a little too embarrassing – so I managed to cope fine. I think it is important for girls to have a book they can refer to as needed, and a pack of pads and tampons. – Lucinda
There are times when your daughter (or son) will have questions that you are unable to answer, or when she would prefer to find out for herself. Books are fantastic for such occasions. Mum brought us home a puberty book to read – we feigned disinterest. I noticed my older brother had been reading it, so I waited for my chance to get it alone (when no one could see me), but before I finished it, Mum returned it to the library because she thought we weren’t interested. ‘But I need to know too!’ I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t. – Laura My parents sat and read ‘What’s Happening To Me?’ with me. I remember being absolutely disgusted at some of the things, and embarrassed reading it with my parents. It was much better when they left me to read it in peace! – Kim
Indeed, Peter Mayle’s What’s Happening To Me?
is as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1981. Puberty Girl
, an engaging book aimed at preteens, clearly explains the different aspects of puberty. I recommend Cycle Savvy
for teen girls (and adult women!) to help them understand the intricacies and wonders of menstruation. My Little Red Book
, by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, is an anthology of short stories from women of all ages from around the world about their first period. It is my favourite book to help girls understand how normal periods are – and how vastly different everyone’s experience of them is. And this is the main message that you need to pass on to your daughter: that pubertal change is not dirty or weird, but simply a normal part of growing up that happens to everyone.
Checklist for Parents
• Rather than planning a “puberty talk”, make it an ongoing conversation.
• Prepare yourself by attending seminars, reading books or searching online.
• Ensure your daughter knows ahead of time what menstruation is and how to deal with it.
• Find books to help you and your daughter through her puberty journey.
• Mothers, share your stories – remind your daughter that you survived puberty once too!
Most women have a very vivid memory of where they were when they got their first period, what they were doing and how they felt. I was 12 and very reluctant to grow up – life was good as a little girl! On the day my period started I was playing make-believe games with my little brother and sister in our garden and I noticed blood on my undies. I cried and cried and cried. I sat by the window for the rest of the day, watching my siblings play, having decided with great sadness that now I had my period I was too old to play those games. I felt a real sense of loss, and also despair that I was no longer in control of my body.My experience was very different to my colleague Danni Miller's:I didn’t get my first period until I was 15 years old. I was the last within my circle of friends, and by then, even my younger sister was a veteran (oh the indignity). You’ve never seen a teen girl more prepared for this milestone than I was. I had been carrying tampons in my school bag for so long I think they may well have past their use-by date! I had even had practice in breaking the news to parents as my best friend had been too embarrassed to tell her mother when she started her period and I had broken this news for her : “Mrs Manton, our Janelle has become a woman…” The main feeling I recall when I started menstruating was that of relief. Finally, I was in the “big girls” club! I was so elated I ran into my school assembly and screamed out “I have my period!” to my friends- not realising the teachers were already present and waiting to start. My Year Advisor was very gracious and began the assembly by congratulating me.
Research indicates that this moment is happening at increasingly younger ages than in previous generations. Over the past 20 years, the average onset of menstruation has dropped from 13 years to 12 years, seven months, and indications are it will continue to drop. As the average age has dropped by five months, it means that those girls at the lower end of the bell curve are also starting earlier. So nowadays it is increasingly common for girls to start menstruating as early as 8 and 9 years old. Researchers have found that 15 percent of American girls now begin puberty by age 7
(measured by the girls’ level of breast development). This is twice the rate seen in a 1997 study, and the findings are likely to be similar in New Zealand and Australia.Why are girls reaching puberty earlier?
Some of the more widely supported theories about why this is happening are:
The consequences can be profound
- As our standard of living has increased, so has nutrition. This means that there is less stress on girls’ bodies, allowing puberty to start earlier.
- Increased rates of obesity are thought to be a factor, as girls are now younger when they reach the level of body fat required to trigger puberty.
- There is a suspicion that increased levels of environmental chemicals that mimic the effects of hormones are causing girls to start puberty earlier.
- Interesting research from New Zealand indicates that girls exposed to stress at home (such as parental marital breakdown and domestic violence) were more likely to start menstruating before girls living in more settled home environments. One of these factors is that if a mother enters into a new relationship, the presence of a new man in the home triggers a hormonal response in girls that can lead to earlier puberty.
Traditionally, puberty has marked the transition from childhood to adolescence or adulthood. Many girls absorb the message that beginning menstruation means that they are a woman. Just as I did, some girls who get their periods early can experience a sense of grief and loss, as they don’t feel ready to leave childhood.
For many girls, puberty marks the moment that they start to define their self-worth by the way they see themselves in the mirror. And all too often the girls don’t like what they see. Such a response is understandable: at the same time as girls are experiencing an increase in body fat and a widening of their hips, they are bombarded with messages from the media that suggest the perfect beautiful body resembles a prepubescent male or has proportions that can only be achieved through disordered eating or extreme Photoshopping.Ella: I was so embarrassed by my body when I was younger that I couldn’t tell my mum I’d started my period, when I was 13. I lost it for 2 years thereafter as my weight plummeted, so I didn’t really have to deal with it and when it came back I was so angry. It meant a) that I had to deal with this THING happening to my body and b) I wasn’t a ‘good enough’ anorexic. My mum tried to talk to me about it, but I’d just slam doors and refuse to talk about it, or hide under my bed.I found the changes in my body very distressing. I remember when I started growing breasts, initially at 12–13 and then again when I’d gained weight at 16–17 and I’d make deals with God that if I didn’t eat/was nice to my brothers/did all my homework/didn’t shout at my parents/etc., etc., that these things would go away. They didn’t. Now I’m kind of glad of that.
It is particularly concerning that evidence suggests that girls who reach puberty earlier have a more negative body image
than girls who reach puberty when older.
Some girls eagerly anticipate their first period because they believe it will propel them into a world of sexual desirability and adult experiences. For girls at both ends of the spectrum, we need to be quite clear that getting your period does not equate to womanhood. Becoming a woman is far more than our bodies changing. We need to be careful about the symbolism we use surrounding menstruation and the expectations we place on girls.
Experiencing puberty at a younger age means that girls’ childhoods are being compressed and often their minds are not ready to deal with the changes that their body is going through. Many struggle to understand and cope with hormone-influenced emotions and sexual impulses, and are not ready to deal with sexual interest from males. Physical maturity often doesn’t reflect girls’ cognitive and emotional development.
In their study of the evolution of puberty, New Zealand researchers Gluckman and Hanson
concluded that for the first time in human history we are maturing physically much earlier than we are maturing psychologically and socially. Meanwhile, our education system and our expectations as parents are grounded in the 19th century, when there was a closer match between physical and psychosocial maturity. “There will have to be adjustment to educational and other societal structures to accommodate this new biological reality,” they write.
The effect of this “new biological reality” is compounded by our consumer culture’s relentless march to shorten childhood. Prior to the late 1990s, marketers had not discovered the concept of tween, a phenomenon that now has girls wearing makeup and high-heels and their parents taking them to beauty salons
or to get waxed
. And the target market gets younger and younger, as we’ve seen with child beauty pageants
. Earlier physical maturity, coupled with a highly sexualised society where girls are bombarded with the notion that sexual desirability is of utmost importance is a toxic combination – which is why it’s more important than ever to keep talking with our kids and showing them we love them for who they are, not for what they look like.This is part one of a three-part series. In next week’s post, I will look at what parents can do to best support girls through puberty. I am seeking personal stories about experiences with school sexuality education. Please email me your stories!
A couple of months ago Universal Royalty
announced that they were heading to Australia. That's right, the company of 'Toddlers and Tiaras' fame decided that Australia needed to glitz up their kids, and they were the people to help!But there was a strong voice of opposition in Australia, and many voiced outrage at the proposal. Catherine Manning founded Pull The Pin and rallies were held all around Australia to draw attention to the pageants and the the harm they cause.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists have backed calls for child beauty pageants to be banned, saying they encourage the sexualisation of children and can cause developmental harm. The chair of the college stated "We're giving these kids messages that how they appear, how they perform and standards about what they're to come up to is actually more important than what they're like inside." Catherine is an Enlighten Education colleague of mine, and last week when Universal Royalty announced they were also New Zealand-bound, Catherine asked me to coordinate the Pull The Pin campaign in New Zealand. I felt honoured to be asked, and set up the Pull The Pin NZ facebook page.
We are campaigning to end all child beauty pageants in New Zealand. It is our view that pitting young girls against each other in a competition based on physical beauty is potentially harmful to their development, and can lead to lowered self esteem and other conditions including eating disorders and depression. We are also concerned with the adultification and sometimes sexualisation of pageant entrants, and their engagement in adult cosmetic treatments such as waxing and spray tanning. We are calling on the government to legislate to stop parents and pageant organisers from exploiting children by enforcing age restrictions on beauty pageants and adult cosmetic procedures (unless for medical reasons).
We will be co-ordinating public rallies once we have more information on when and where these pageants will be held.It's been fantastic receiving so much support on this issue - it is definitely a topic that many New Zealanders feel strongly about!New Zealand media coverage over the last couple of days:Enlighten Education
's CEO Danielle Miller
was interviewed this morning about the sexualisation of girls and the effect that child beauty pageants have:
And if you needed any more convincing that these pageants are NOT something we want to become a part of kiwi culture, check out this video featuring Universal Royalty's Eden Wood:
In 2009 I was in a yoga class with the wonderful Nat from Zing. My mind was wandering
to this seemingly far-off, unattainable goal of being a freelance educator - creating and delivering inspiring and empowering programmes that change people's lives. In a lightbulb moment I suddenly realised that I needed to start on that goal - NOW. There was never going to be a better time. By the time I got home from that class there was a plan in place. On reflection, I had been in great need of some destuckification
and something about Nat's class got me on-track. (Thanks Nat!)It's been quite a journey. I let go of the ridiculous notion that I would be a neglectful mother if my son spent time in a daycare (I compromised on two days a week and became a night owl. I also cried in the classroom the first morning I had to leave him). I created my own website on a $50 budget (yes, this one - it's nothing fancy, but don't think you need oodles of cash to get a website). I started writing again, and discovered I love it, and I started reading reading reading. And then I made sure I told the people who were writing the amazing stuff how great I thought it was. Most importantly I started to get out and about in the world telling people who I am and what I do. It took a fair amount of courage, because I don't think we live in a society where it's seen as admirable to 'think big'.I was clear in my mission:
To empower youth to build positive relationships based on respect, love and healthy choices. I knew how I was going to do this. But I was stuck on a name. What do I call what I do? I got myself a Facebook Page
and connected with some amazing people, but I didn't want to just brand myself as 'me'. It's going to be bigger than that. I got a little stuck again, trying to define what it was that I was going to be doing.Then I made a great decision: I would have this clarified by the end of these school holidays. The thing I love about deadlines is that it prompts me to action. I am one of those sorts of people who never reads the instruction manuals, but just jumps right in. It's not always a great result, and I admit I do break a LOT of stuff, but I am definitely a woman of action rather than contemplation. So, having set my deadline, I was ready to jump right in and could barely focus on anything else.
(Warning: Hanging out with me can get monotonous if I am in a 'stuck on an idea' frame of mind).Last night I told my mother that I wanted this name to incorporate the idea that I wanted to encourage people to start having conversations, to be authentic and real and honest - to encourage "good talks". And then I suddenly realised I had it - "Good Talks"
. I couldn't sleep last night because I was too excited. This thing is launched already - I would love you to come and join the conversation.
The interim logo. I need a logo. I need someone to design me a logo. Tell me if you want it to be you!
On Saturday I got a text message from a friend tasking me for advice on car seats for their baby. Car seat safety is an issue I am very passionate about and I believe it is something that needs to be talked about MORE. So I decided that today I would post an email I sent to many of my friends this time last year, after being in a car accident.6th April, 2010Hello friends,Sol and I were recently in a car accident and this made me totally reassess his carseat situation. (We were fine, but both cars are written off). The shock at how easily a lovely sunny day could have turned so awful scared me. I spent a lot of time researching a replacement car seat. Frankly, I was horrified at what I discovered. The current popular practice in NZ, Australia & the USA is that children rear-face until they are a year old. In following this ‘rule’, it was a lovely milestone for us when Sol started forward-facing at a year. I had no idea that in doing so, he was 75% more likely to be injured or killed if we were in an accident. Why? – mainly because the weight of the head in comparison to the body is so much higher in young children, and in a head-on collision children who are forward facing are likely to suffer from 'internal decapitation' of the head. In contrast, when a child is rear-facing, the whole body — head, neck, and torso — is cradled by the back of the safety seat in a frontal crash. The odds of severe injury to a forward-facing child are five times greater than a child in a rear-facing seat.Our child restraint laws and recommendations are woefully inadequate. In Scandinavia many children are rear-facing until they start school. After researching this issue, I had no option but to get a seat that allowed Sol to rear-face as long as possible, hopefully until he is 4 years old. The main comment I have got from people is “Oh, my child would HATE to go back to rear-facing” – I said exactly the same. As have most other parents I have spoken to about it. The funny thing is, I have not heard of one child who cared at all! I got Sol a big mirror, he was chuffed and couldn’t care less whether he faced forward or backward. There has been quite a lot of media coverage in NZ regarding child safety restraints, after some horrific accidents over Easter. Campbell Live featured this issue this evening. The other important message from this is that car seat belts do not fit properly until children are 148cm tall – this means some 75% of nine and ten year olds still need to be in booster seats.All young children should be rear-facing - if you need any more convincing, I highly recommend you view the videos of these crash test dummies (the crash test dummies part is at about 1min28). And here and here for information from NZ sites. All I hope is that this email may make some people consider having their child rear-facing for longer. And that this in turn may save an injury/death. I would love you to forward this message to anyone you know with young children.With love, RachelPostscript:
- Last month I was delighted to hear that the USA has revised their child car seat restraint guidelines so that children should now rear-face until they are two years old, children should be in boosters until they are 8 - 12 years and no children should sit in the front seat until they are 13 years old. This news clip
is an excellent overview of these guideline changes and the reasons behind them.
- One year on, Sol turns three later this month and is still happily rear-facing...- This article about a New Zealand two-year old in an car accident has a compelling comment at the end regarding rear-facing.
Three years old in a few weeks - tall for his age, but very happily rear-facing.
I am fascinated by the way media portrays gender. Particularly gender as it applies to children. The images, the colours, the words.As the mother of an almost-three-year-old boy, I am becoming increasingly aware of the gender-limiting stereotypes
he is surrounded by.
Many of my son's favourite past-times are what toy companies would tell me is "typical boy behaviour" - any random stick becomes a gun, he loves nothing more than rolling on the floor wrestling with his Dad, he is fearless of heights and water, and he is fiercely competitive. But what all toy marketers seem to ignore is that my boy also loves cooking, "helping" fold laundry, wearing jewellery, vaccuming, dressing up and painting his nails. Yesterday I discovered that Canadian Chrystal Smith had created a word cloud comprising
of the words used in television advertising for children's toys. Two word clouds were created
- one for toys aimed at boys, and one for toys aimed at girls:
I stared at these two images for ages.
I love that 'fun', 'magic' and 'love' are the top words used for girls. I don't love it that these are closely followed by a whole lot of words pertaining to beauty and fashion.
I don't mind that 'battle' and 'power' dominate the words used for boy's toys - I enjoyed many hours immersed in imaginary wars as a child. But it really concerns me that I can't see any words relating to caring, nurturing or relationships.
I haven't stopped wondering since I saw these - will the TV advertisements in NZ show a similar picture? This is my homework this weekend. Watch this space!
The words we use create our reality and shape our perceptions. Today's children are the most marketed-to generation of all time and the words they hear have a huge impact on their values and beliefs. Looking at the words used to market prized possessions to them makes me very angry about the reality we are creating for our kids.
A few days ago I wrote a post
about a radio station who were running a "Win a Wife" campaign. Along with many others, I thought this was appalling. We decided to gather together like-minded people in a Facebook page to share ideas and information
about why this competition was not OK, and strategies to stop the competition. In six days we gathered the support of over 1200 people!This campaign has been a huge learning experience for me on a number of different levels. Learning Experience #1I have been saddened and horrified and depressed and angry at the abuse and pornographic images hurled at us. A few of the less-explicit examples can be found here.
I learnt that there are a lot of people with lots of destructive anger out there. This vitriole is reason enough for us all to question what sort of sentiments this particular radio station is encouraging.*Update: If it's all getting a bit much, the best remedy is laughter. Do check out this post with a choice selection of some of The Rock's supporter arguments.Learning Experience #2More importantly, I learnt
that there are so many wonderful people out there who are so passionate about creating a just and equal society, and are willing to take action to make this happen. And I just loved connecting with them all. People sharing their knowledge and supporting each other. The Facebook page we created was just a vehicle that brought such people together.It was amazing to realise that a small action (creating the page) snowballed in to something so much bigger than we ever thought it would. AND WE MADE A DIFFERENCE!
- A number of advertisers have withdrawn their advertising from the radio station. (This speaks volumes, because if the advertisers aren't there, stations are forced to change their approach.)
- This afternoon the radio station announced that due to the complaints received, they were changing the name of the competition. (This name change of course doesn't automatically make the competition OK. BUT we have signalled to the media and to the general public that there is a line of decency, and when it is crossed, we don't all just sit back and accept it.)
This could be just the start. I am so proud of our group. Learning Experience #3
It was a beautiful summer evening this evening. My family was here for dinner and my little boy was being particularly gorgeous. (I know, I know, I am biased, but that's him this evening in the photo below - don't you think?). But I was so angry at the world, having spent the afternoon dealing with abusive people and deleting explicit photos off the Facebook page, that I couldn't enjoy the evening. I was grumpy and preoccupied.
So I turned off my computer and went on a lovely walk with my wonderful sister.
I raged about it all, and then I realised, over the past six days this campaign had consumed me. I had not been fully present with my little boy or husband, my garden is overflowing with needed-to-be-picked-yesterday produce and I have neglected my writing and positive work with teens and parents. I learned that neglecting these things I love makes me miserable.So I decided to step down from moderating the Facebook page. (Of course I remain an passionate supporter). And I will not publish comments from others on this blog attacking my stance on the 'Win a Wife' competition. I have had every 'argument' (and more!) thrown at me about this issue and remain strong in my conviction. I have a HUGE amount of respect, gratitude and admiration for people who are continually standing up for injustice and inequality (Catherine Manning, Melinda Tankard Reist, Sue Bradford... the list could go on)
. I am not sure I could ever do what you do - I would certainly need thicker skin! And for all those wonderful people who are writing the letters and emails and generally spreading the word that it's not OK to treat anyone as second class citizens - you guys are awesome.
Beautiful boy who wants his mama back!