The trouble with raising girls in a Barbie world

In what is the most marketed-to generation, teenage girls, more than ever, are under enormous pressure to conform to the media's portrayal of beauty.

The gap is narrowing as to what that is, but being super-skinny, wearing brand names and being free of body hair is a given. There is now only one size, one shape, one colour and if you don't fit the mould, tough luck - you've dipped out on the genetic lottery of life.

The average young person is exposed to between 400 and 600 commercial messages a day, add to that social media sites where young people themselves are constantly supporting these images with "likes" and comments that can drive a knife through the self-esteem of any vulnerable teenage girl.

In the United States one girl attempted suicide after her name was added to an Instagram "ugly site".

Dannielle Miller and her team at Enlighten Education work with 20,000 girls a year in Australia, Singapore and New Zealand to help young girls reclaim their power and cast a critical eye over the media's unrealistic representation of women.

Childhood is shrinking, says Miller. Issues facing mid-teens are now beginning in the tween years with girls as young as 10 and 11 suffering low self-esteem and anxiety over body image issues.

"The pressure that these unrealistic images cause these girls is relentless," explains Miller. "It increases stress levels and adds to the girls' insecurities about fitting in and conforming. What makes me angry is that they're not even attainable images, they're airbrushed and photoshopped. This is happening at a time when girls are experiencing huge shifts in body development and are trying to form an adult identity. But all these images do is tell them that they need to be less to be more. There's nothing nurturing about it."

It's not just the bombardment of beauty images and the sexing-up of young girls that concerns Miller, but also the constant dumbing down of girls.

Messages like "Born to shop" and "Daddy is my ATM" reduce young girls to clueless stereotypes.

Miller says these stereotypes are damaging, with teenage girls constantly told that they're difficult, fickle and temperamental. Labels such as Little Miss Cynical, Little Miss Surly, Little Miss Stupid, Little Miss Slut, Little Miss Diva and Little Miss Queen Bee are disparaging.

"I don't view girls through rose-coloured glasses," the former high school teacher says. "I know girls can be challenging. But I wonder if they slip into these modes because they feel it's expected of them. Girls are not just one-dimensional. Girlworld is made up of a multitude of identities, personalities, talents, skills and ideas. Of course they may have their 'Little Miss' moments of acting cynical, surly or spoilt, but they are so much more than that. To see a group of teen girlfriends together is a beautiful thing. I wonder if we envy their unbridled enthusiasm for each other and the intimacy of their relationships with their BFFs."

Zoe Oliveira and her friends Zinta Moore and Ella Mathews O'Brien are in their first year of high school. The 12-year-olds laugh at each other's jokes. Their banter is effortless and their friendship seems rock-solid as they open up about some of the issues facing young girls.

"There are a lot of girls going boy crazy at the moment," says Zoe. "There's a lot of pressure to be pretty, skinny and have a boyfriend. There's also a lot of pressure from magazines, television and celebrities to look perfect. The media makes them all look like models, but most of them are just photoshopped. They show us these flawless, beautiful, skinny women, but it's all fake. I'd rather have a brain then be so focused on the way I look."

Ella agrees but adds that she would like to be taller.

"I'm so short and small that I would like to be tall," she says. "But a lot of celebrities wear these really tall high heels, are skinny and have a lot of make-up on. Their hair is always straight. If your hair's not straight, you're not perfect. Or so it seems. It's just ridiculous."

Social media also plays a role in making girls feel bad about themselves as they constantly check how many "likes" or "friends" they've acquired.

"People who get more views on Instagram and Facebook are those who are good looking," says Zinta.

"They'll take a 'selfie' [photograph] of themselves and make it look good and then they'll seek comments. They'll say 'rate me out of 10'. It's not good. They'll even post photos of 'beach babes' on their site and say that they want to be like that when they're older. Like it's their inspiration in life.

"Girls feel so pressured to be perfect that they get anorexic. They think they're fat when they're not. But I'll take personality and a healthy body over looks any day. There's also a lot of pressure to wear surf brand clothes. I mean who cares what you wear. I know my friends are real friends. They are people who care about me. They don't care where I buy my clothes from."

Carol Berry, Illawarra Women's Health Centre chief executive, says there is anecdotal evidence of an increase in risk-taking behaviour among young girls in the Illawarra, caused she believes by the media's fake representation of beauty and women.

"I find images of young girls in the media quite disturbing, actually," Berry says. "It undermines their self-esteem and the social commentary and pressures placed on these girls manifests in a culture of binge drinking and sexualisation. We don't want to come from a position of moral panic, but these images are pervasive and damaging."

The Women's Health Centre has funded Miller to conduct workshops for 550 year 8 girls in selected Illawarra schools. The girls will be encouraged to think critically about the media's fake portrayal of women.

Two free workshops will be held for parents titled: Helping Our Daughters Move Beyond Bratz, Britney and Bacardi Breezers.

"What we want to ensure is that girls are given ways to feel good about who they are and to feel enthusiastic about life and their place in it," says Berry. "It's difficult enough as an adult to navigate this plastic version of women. We are supposed to live up to this incredible, overachieving, beautiful image and it's completely ridiculous and unreachable for any of us.

"For young women it's intensified because their minds are so impressionable. Helping girls navigate their way through the commodification of women in the media is a really powerful tool so that they can start their life feeling good about themselves."

Miller is spearheading a movement which engages girls to think critically about the media's messages. Too often she argues girls are told that their power is their looks, weight and purse.

"They are presented with images of artificial beauty and bodies that look nothing like their own bodies," Miller says.

"Forget terrorism, there's a war out there on body hair and for a pubescent girl that's really confronting. It's insanity."

Miller says the statistics around body image and young girls is staggering. About 25 per cent of girls want to change everything about themselves, 94 per cent want to be more beautiful and more than 70 per cent are already on a diet. One in 10 will feel so bad about themselves that they will resort to self-harm.

"We can't bury our heads in the sand and think our girls will emerge healthy, whole women. We need to support them to do that," says Miller.

A big issue for girls is how they treat one another and Miller has devised a 10-step plan which helps girls create more productive and positive methods of conflict resolution.

"Girls really do know how to be cruel to each other," she says. "When young girls fight with a friend at school, nothing else matters. It can be chaos in their world. For them it's all about being connected. Most of them though haven't been taught how to solve conflicts. We need to capture their minds with strategic based information, use humour and share our own stories about what happened to us when we were young. But we need to do it in a way that's non-judgmental."

In her workshops, Miller aims to create a sense of sisterhood among participants, particularly within peers at school.

"As parents when they were little and learning new skills we helped them but they still need our help now even though they are older. If they make mistakes along the way, we need to stop condemning them. All that does is encourage secrets and secrets are currency in a teenage girl's world. We need to acknowledge that it's pretty tough growing up and they are not going to always get it right."

10 steps to conflict resolution with a friend

• Plan ahead – Don’t say something you’ll regret or leave a point out you want to express.

• Don’t put on a show – A one-on-one conversation is better.

• Hone in on how you feel – Use  ‘‘I’’ language.

• Admit your mistakes and apologise – Even if you are only partly at fault.

• Be specific – Don’t exaggerate or dig up old wounds.

• Offer time – Your friend also needs time to think about her feelings.

• Be calm – Breathing exercises will help you stay chilled.

• Assert yourself – Speak firmly and clearly, but choose your words carefully.

• Expect to be heard – It is reasonable to ask your friend for their full attention.

• End on a positive – If you both decide not to be friends, that’s OK – you can still be friendly.

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