Yesterday a Wellington man was shopping in Toyworld with his seven year old daughter. Beside the Lego backpack was a 'Deluxe Play Bunny Kit'. Nope, not a cute fluffy bunny, but a sexy-lady-Playboy-bunny-like bunny.
The first thing that struck me about this was the number of people that would have seen this costume before anyone thought to point out its inappropriateness in a children's toy shop. This costume would have arrived at this store, it was unpacked by someone, entered into their database, taken by someone to the shop floor, a space for it cleared among the other toys, then numerous staff and customers would have passed it throughout the following days, and NO ONE thought to question the appropriateness of it until yesterday?
I think that to a certain extent we are so steeped in a culture where sexualised stuff for kids is not seen as strange, that people have become somewhat blind to it.
Toyworld has claimed that stocking the costume was an error – and no one is debating that: sexy costumes in a kids toy shop can only ever be a huge error. However, I think it is a good opportunity for us to consider the mainstreaming of pornography. Playboy sell a huge range of products in New Zealand (for example, the Warehouse stocks 40 Playboy branded products). In this product diversification, what can easily be forgotten is Playboy's core business: pornography that exploits and objectifies women. Let's do all we can to ensure that our children don't have the opportunity to develop brand loyalty to such companies.
Toyworld have apologized "to anyone who was offended", and I was asked to comment on Radio New Zealand National this afternoon about the incident. If you would like to listen scroll through to 18:30:
NB: I am not anti-porn or anti-sex: I am anti-exploitation, and I am anti-the-sexualisation-of-children.
This is a guest post by New Zealand writer Sian Hannagan.
The title is ironic, I know what you do, you’re a scientist. Actually a brilliant scientist, doing amazing work in a field which is capturing global attention. I don’t think many people have missed the Rosetta Project and the big things coming from this. I mean, landing on a comet, awesome! The thing is, STEM field disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math, are all historically pretty male dominated spaces. They have an ongoing issue with being seen as exclusionary to women. This isn't your fault, and no one should blame you for decades of discrimination against women. But it is a thing and it is happening. We need to be aware of it.
Here’s the thing. I don’t hate your top. I wouldn't wear it myself, and if someone wore it around me, I might make a judgement about their character that may or may not be founded. But I support your right to wear that top and wear it with pride.
But, I also think you made a silly decision, which I think you know too. Because you apologised. You wore a top that you love, to an event you were excited about. You probably didn't think about it much. You dig the top, you feel good wearing it and it was a top you wanted to wear. So you wore it. It just happened that this event was a live televised event with journalists. There was a lot of scrutiny there, and you were there not just as yourself, but as someone representing your field.
So someone criticised your clothing, and that sucked. I get it. I really do, I mean, this kinda thing happens to women on a daily basis. They get told they are dressed dowdy, or unflattering or too sexy, or inappropriately. Everywhere a woman wears clothes, someone has something to say. And often those things don’t relate to her competence or her as a person. They relate solely to what she looks like. And that’s not okay. When you got criticised I bet you felt pretty crummy. I bet you felt like the work you did meant nothing in the face of that criticism, and that your essential value was being ignored in the face of what feels to you, to be superficial critique. Women deal with this every day. We get it. And we get these criticisms every day because the sexually idealised objectified image of the female form is ubiquitous: it is used through all aspects of life, to sell, to market and to be ogled. She appears everywhere, from advertising, to fashion…to men’s shirts.
Here’s the thing though, for those of us getting hot under the collar at this journalist for her apparent disregard for your scientific contributions - she didn't criticise your character or your previous work. She just pointed out that the top you wore, wasn't appropriate to the situation you wore it in. You were at your place of work, representing your chosen career, representing science to a wide audience that included women. It’s just when you’re publicly representing an industry known to be exclusionary to women, what you wear matters. A lot. Especially given a study conducted by Catalyst last month revealing 73 percent of women in tech-intensive industries felt like an outsider, compared to just 17 percent of men. I mentioned at the top of this article how this industry was perceived as being exclusionary to women, right? So, that. It would be like me wearing a top covered in penises to an erectile dysfunction conference. A bit on the nose.
So it came as no surprise that the top you wore – which is the textile equivalent of a sexy calendar, porn in the toilet or nude lady mug in the workplace, caught some criticism.
Here’s the awesome thing though. You totally saw what Rose Eveleth - Atlantic tech writer meant. You apologised and the world kept turning. Except it kinda didn’t.
What happened was a frenzied attack of the woman who made the comment, and feminism in general. I don’t know how many abusive threats Eveleth has received so far, but it’s a lot. And some of those include death wishes and sexist slurs. I mean, there is nothing like a sexist death wish to prove to women that they don’t need feminism anymore.
There are also some shitty memes going around, one comparing protest against rape to your shirt, and calling out feminists as hypocrites. Or the one that says sexism and objectification shouldn't count because SCIENCE (don’t get me started on how people in positions of power and subjective worth escape criticism and even prosecution because of their positions of power and subjective worth). I think it’s important to remember that this is only outrageous to the world at large because it’s a man (you) falling under scrutiny for fashion choices. This happens to women every day, in every career. You could say it happens to guys too (it probably does) but check out this guy.
I don’t hold you responsible for this; in fact I have sympathy that a lot of this vitriol is being spread in your name and in your defence. It must really suck to be associated with an attack on an individual woman and the movement which strives to stop these attacks from happening. Feminism wants to be standing right there with you, in awe at the song of a comet. So listen to us when we say, we see you for your worth, see us for ours – and wear your shirt on a different day.
Tags: Matt Taylor, Rosetta Project, clothing, sexism, feminism, Rose Eveleth
It is well-documented, and I am well aware of the fact that male sport receives far more coverage than female sport by our media. It is something that frustrates me, particularly because the disparity is so widely accepted by people. When the #everydaysexism in reaches ridiculous levels, I contact sports editors.
But even I was dumbfounded this morning when reading an article in one of our national newspapers reporting on the winners of the sportsperson of the year awards for college sport in Wellington. On first glance it appeared that it was an article only about the "Sportsman of the Year" - it was his him and his award named in the article title, and his achievements were listed first and dominated most of the article. I read through the article and I was surprised to realise that this was an article about BOTH the sportswoman and the sportsman awards.
Here is the article:
The journalist has relegated the female award to much lesser importance than the male award. This is despite the female winner being the ONLY person ever to win the award more than twice (a huge achievement in itself), having represented New Zealand in her sport, being awarded a USA University sports scholarship AND having an individual world ranking.
Both of these people should be hugely proud of their achievements and of winning these awards. It is likely that both of their families will cut out and save this newspaper article as a record of their achievement. Yet, for both families (and indeed everyone else reading it), this article gives a very clear message: The most important award of the evening was that won by the male. The sportswoman award is clearly secondary. On an individual level, this is disappointing. On a macro level such journalism has real flow-on effects to female sports participation in our communities.
I hate that my kids are STILL growing up in a world where female sporting achievements are STILL minimised. It is not that complex or difficult for sports journalists to take small steps in making a more equal and just world.
I often send emails to people when I am concerned about something that is happening, when I want to point something out that is not right, or feel that my words may make a difference in the world. I have decided that I am going to start publishing emails like this on my blog. This is in the hope that perhaps someone reading my blog may be in the same situation and me, and reading my words may help them make the time/energy available to send a similar letter. Small steps to social change!
(I am going through my archives, and this letter was sent to a Principal of a primary school following Robin Thicke's song 'Blurred Lines' being played at a junior school disco (children aged 5 - 7) last year.)
First of all, thanks so much to you and the teachers for spending your Friday night entertaining children! You time is really appreciated.
I just wanted to comment on some of the music played at the disco tonight. I realise it is an issue I am hyper-sensitive to, given my line of work, but I think it is an important issue that needs to be addressed. (The portrayal of sex and sexuality in music is one of the topics I speak about in seminars).
This week there has been quite a bit of media attention given to Robin Thicke’s song ‘Blurred Lines’, (and the parody of it done by the Auckland Law Review) and it has widely been described as a song supporting rape culture, sexist attitudes and as being overwhelmingly misogynistic. I was therefore very surprised when it was played at the junior school disco this evening. This is the song here.
Watching five year olds dance to the lines “I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two” left me feeling deeply uncomfortable.
Others will sum it up the issues in this song far more eloquently than me – in particular this article.
Children should not be exposed to music that they are not capable of critically deconstructing. We discuss many things in our home, but [my five year old son] is not ready for a discussion on rape culture. I know that some people will say “the kids don’t understand the lyrics anyway”. However if we send the message that this song is OK now, how do we then tell them it isn't right when they do understand?
I propose that for future events, all songs are thoroughly vetted before going on the playlist.
* The Principal responded immediately, agreeing with my concerns.
This is a guest post written by my dear friend Jules Hyde. I am posting it now in honour of World Milksharing Week.
Growing up as the daughter of farming parents on a sheep and beef farm, the idea of milk sharing and donor milk was nothing new. I learnt from a young age that lambs and calves who never received that all important first feed of colostrum had very poor outcomes. As I trained to become a midwife, the benefits of species- specific milk were cemented in my mind and I took very seriously my role of protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding.
When I had my own child, I had already stock piled colostrum in the freezer prior to labour by expressing it antenatally as an “insurance policy” in case baby and I were separated in those early days. I had also approached a friend who was still breastfeeding her child and asked how she felt about being able to provide donor milk in the event of requiring larger volumes of milk for my baby if required.
My own breastfeeding was fraught with ups and downs as we battled for nearly six months with the consequences of an undiagnosed tongue and lip tie. I remained resolute in my determination to breastfeed despite issues with supply, weight gain, fussing at the breast, nipple damage, spending three days in hospital with raging mastitis, a spilly baby who slept very little and fed ALL.THE.TIME. By four months, I was walking on the edge of postnatal depression, exacerbated by sheer exhaustion and sleep deprivation. At my absolute lowest, a caring family member suggested that “just one bottle of formula” was perhaps a good idea. The pervasive comments offering the perceived benefits of powdered cows milk designed for infants had been floated at me more times than I could count, and despite the effort and struggles I had until this point found the idea of formula for my baby laughable. But at my most vulnerable and tired and desperate hour, I agreed to trying “just one bottle', and I sobbed as a fed it to my own baby. Looking back, I realise that despite being educated, aware and passionate about “human milk for human babies”, I too was just as suggestible and vulnerable to the undermining that chips away at a woman's confidence to exclusively breastfeed her baby for the first six months or so. (That is, by definition, that the baby receives only breastmilk and has no additional food, water or other fluids, with the exception of medicine where needed.)
This was the one and only time my son had formula, but I am still sad that I found myself allowing it to happen. Of course formula has its place, and we are lucky to have access to such alternatives and safe drinking water to enable it to be an option, BUT too often it is reached for in moments of desperation while often the issues to support breastfeeding are brushed to the side.
I found out through trial and error that even with perfectly adequate supply, and despite all the tricks of heat, massage, and thinking loving thoughts as I gazed at my infant I simply do not “let down” efficiently to a pump or to hand expressing techniques. I felt very sad at this, as I had hoped that I would be able to a) stockpile a decent stash of frozen breastmilk for my own infant's needs, and b) to be able to donate milk to babies and mums who were for whatever reason requiring supplementary feeds.
I persevered with as much expressing as I could, and the only way it really ever happened was if my son was drinking at one breast, with a letdown happening, and I could hand express off the other side simultaneously. Needless to say it was a delicate balancing act, very fiddly and for the 30-40mL yield, often far more trouble than it was worth. Once my son started solids, and eventually got closer to a year of age, I decided that the couple of hundred mLs in the freezer were of better use to someone else who genuinely “needed” breastmilk. This is where my first experience as a Wet Nurse came in.
Through Piripoho Aotearoa and my friend Rachel Hansen (who had set up a local milk sharing group), I was aware of a mum who needed donor milk. I offered to drive the last of my frozen expressed offerings over to her as she lived out of town. While I was there, I commented that expressing was not a viable way of me continuing to provide volumes of milk for others, but (knowing other mums had wet nursed for her) that I was happy to feed her baby for her while I was there, if she wanted. She gladly accepted this offer, and in a very surreal moment, I took a stranger's baby and put him to my own breast. The mum and I both welled up a little as I asked her how it felt for her to have others feed her baby, and we talked about the feelings evoked by the situation. I still recall the emotion at the time of feeling like I was so privileged to be able and allowed to help in such a special and intimate way. My own son was very puzzled and slightly upset at this new arrangement, but consoled with a feed himself after the donor baby had had his fill.
After this point, I put my contact details down on the milk sharing group as someone who was unable to express but happy to wet nurse, and through this I became involved with another mum and baby. This time the mum had driven in to me from her rural locale, and despite having never previously met, I fed her child. Again I asked her how it felt for her relying on other mum's for milk, and she confessed that it was “weird, but also not weird” and accredited this to the ease at which she felt in my straightforwardness in approaching the situation, and then proceeded to tell me that this was actually the first time someone had been a wet nurse for her baby. This piece of information really threw me for a second, and again I was filled with a sense of awe and privilege at the trust and honour that went into a milk sharing relationship. I continued to wet nurse for this family over the course of a few days as their regular donor was out of town, and it enabled the mum to eke out her supply of frozen donor milk by me doing the odd feed here and there during the day.
While I remain more than willing to help any other families in such a way, I feel my inability to express limits my usefulness somewhat. I am still breastfeeding my son who is two, and feel pleased I have been able to help two families, in a small but meaningful way. I hope that milk sharing becomes de-stigmatised and a normal and first-line alternative to a mother-baby dyad when they may previously have seen their only other option as formula.
I was recently in a discussion where some women who had not breastfed their first child said they wanted to try to breastfeed their second child. This is a topic close to my heart as I didn't succeed in breastfeeding my eldest child, but am enjoying a great breastfeeding relationship with my second child who turned two last week. I want to pass on some of the things I learned in my journey).
Here is my TOP TEN to-do list for parents who want to succeed in breastfeeding their next baby:
Anyone else got any tips / ideas / anecdotes to pass on? I would love to hear them!
(As you may have guessed, I am passionate about helping women breastfeed. I completely understand that some women can't breastfeed exclusively: but for the small minority of women who don't produce enough/any milk, I want them to know that a breastfeeding relationship is still possible - breasts are way more than just milk! And I want for EVERY woman to have the option of choosing donor milk should they wish. I have written in more detail about my breastfeeding experience here.)
I often send emails to people when I am concerned about something that is happening, when I want to point something out that is not right, or feel that my words may make a difference in the world. I have decided that I am going to start publishing emails like this on my blog. This is in the hope that perhaps someone reading my blog may be in the same situation and me, and reading my words may help them make the time/energy available to send a similar letter. Small steps to social change!
This is an email I sent this evening to my son's school Principal after it was announced that the school was "adopting" a player from the local male rugby team.
It is great that Mr X is keen on promoting an active life etc through sport in his initiative to “adopt” a [player from the local male rugby team].
I was wondering if the school could also consider a similar relationship with a local female sportsperson?
The majority of the sport that we are exposed to is male sport. As a parent, it is usually quite hard to find examples of female sportspeople in the media for my children. I have loved having the Commonwealth Games on, because there have been female sportspeople featuring prominently. But usually the newspaper sport section is exclusively male. Ditto the sports news on TV. When sportswomen are mentioned in the news, it is in a different way to sportsmen are mentioned – often focusing on their personal lives and/or physical body. This is my experience, and is backed up by research. Society is already telling our kids that “men play sport” – let’s also make a real effort to show them that women do too.
Again, it’s a great initiative for all the right reasons – let’s just make sure it is not one that also serves to reinforce gender stereotypes.
(Note that if my words are being used in personal emails to make a positive change in the world, I am more than happy for them to be copy/pasted! Let's not waste time re-inventing the wheel! :) )
I was privileged to spend some time with some gorgeous girls in Samoa last year. As my blog posting has been sporadic-at-best as of late, this has sat in my 'drafts' way too long!
In 2013 I was planning a family holiday to Samoa. As someone passionate about social justice, I like to ‘give back’ to the communities I live in and visit. I had helped organised an aid package to go to Samoa Victim Support Group previously, and I thought I may be able to offer a workshop to the girls at their residential shelter. Wellington-based charity SpinningTop connected me to their President Lina and we organised for me to provide a workshop for them.
What I Did
When we arrived in Apia I met with Lina at the SVSG offices and she gave me more background on their organisation. We discussed what I would be teaching the girls and I gave Lina a couple of boxes of supplies I had brought with me – Air NZ had kindly agreed to transport these for free. The boxes contained some donated stationery items, disposable sanitary pads donated by Kotex, as well as re-usable packs from Days For Girls NZ (containing underwear, cloth pads, and a wash cloth).
I spent a morning with approximately 30 girls - the girls were fantastic and really engaged, and the staff were very supportive. The girls were gorgeous, so full of smiles and laughter. They are survivors for whom I have the utmost of respect for. Lina had told me some of their stories, and these girls have all been on traumatic and heartbreaking journeys. Most of them are with SVSG because they are survivors of sexual violence, for many of them this is incest. Many of them have been pregnant as a result of this violence. Tragically in many cases these girls have been disowned and blamed for bringing shame on the family. SVSG provides safety, education and a home for these girls. SVSG also manages the legal process to bring justice for these children.
The girls had lots of questions and I felt like we could have spent a lot more time together. The level of knowledge and understanding of how their bodies work was very low. Most knew very little about the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and childbirth - despite there being pregnant girls and girls who had already birthed in the group. My (then 10 month old) daughter Nina accompanied me and I found that having her there was a good ‘icebreaker’ with the girls. The girls enjoyed chatting and playing with Nina as they warmed up to me. As it turned out Nina ended up sleeping in my front-pack for most of the morning as I taught - it was more than 30 degrees in the classroom so we were rather sweaty by the end of it!
I was a little taken aback when TV cameras arrived just as we were starting. They filmed the introductory part of my session and then in the middle of the session I was called out for an interview. I was a little anxious about this as had had no warning and I wasn't sure what angle they were going to take, but I kept it very neutral and emphasised the importance of all people having a good understanding of their bodies and sexuality. It came across well on the news that night.
I left SVSG feeling like what I had done that day with the girls was but a drop in the ocean. I felt like I had empowered the the girls with knowledge of their bodies, but also knew there was so much information we didn't cover. SVSG were hugely grateful for the workshop, but I wanted to do more. These girls really touched my heart. There is a huge need for ongoing body/sexuality education as well as antenatal education for the pregnant girls. SVSG has been on my mind a lot since.
Earlier this year SpinningTop approached me to see if I would be interested in offering a more comprehensive programme for the girls at SVSG. With SpinningTop's support, I am returning to provide a one-week programme in August 2014. I am currently fundraising for supplies (food, baby formula, educational supplies) for SVSG and am hugely appreciative of any donations. For more details on this project, please click here.
I am sick and tired of victim blaming. I am sick and tired of seeing directives for women on how to "keep safe". I am sick and tired of seeing resources put into "keeping women safe" while the equivalent amount of energy is not directed towards educating their would-be attackers on not attacking.
Earlier this week I was dismayed to see my own town was jumping on the bandwagon when I read the headline "City angel' to keep eye on women". It caught my attention because it sounded a bit creepy. Women need to have an eye kept on them? (I guess we do if you subscribe to the patriarchal notion that we probably shouldn't be out and about by ourselves anyway because we will probably use our evil forces to tempt men to attack us. But I digress.)
The article states that "Young women out on the town in Palmerston North now have their very own "angel" to look out for them....in the hope of reducing harm and victimisation of young women as a result of excess alcohol consumption."
NO! Stop right there.
Victimisation is NEVER the RESULT of excess alcohol consumption! The only reason a young woman is victimised is because SOMEONE ELSE assaulted/raped her. End of story.
Being generous, I tried to interpret the initial sentence as meaning that the 'Angel' would help protect the women from other people (presumably men) who had consumed too much alcohol. But no, it wasn't anything to do with the men - the 'Angel' "would work with young women in particular to make them aware of the harm intoxication can bring, as well as how to stay safe in the city."
I absolutely agree that alcohol can cause harm to oneself. Heck, I have been there. But we need to be clear that alcohol never ever ever causes a woman to be victimised.
The council is putting money into making women change their behaviour, but ignoring the fact that the problem is actually the rapists. In doing this they are putting the blame squarely on the females. Furthermore, the big issue with this sort of "crime prevention" is that any behaviour change of potential victims simply displaces the crime. As a friend of mine commented, this approach simply says "Don't get drunk girls, stay sober and make sure another girl is victimised instead."
I am just so weary of the same-old same-old "watch out women you need to be more careful" line, when our leaders could equally be saying to men: "Hey, the vast majority of rapists are men - are you sure you are safe enough for us to let you out on the streets?".
I think the concept is excellent - someone helping out young people in town. Someone educating young people on the harm alcohol does. But to gender it, to solely focus on females, doesn't solve the bigger problem. The problem is that we have a rape culture that enables men to justify their actions and leaves women scared to walk through the Square at night. The follow-on effect this has is that victims are made to feel they didn't do enough to stop their attacker and the attackers can lean on our rape culture and point out all the things his victim did "wrong".
(To learn more about rape culture I highly recommend you visit this site)
I would feel far more at ease with this initiative if the same amount of energy was given to having consent conversations and education with the males in town. If this is happening already and I am unaware of it, then FABULOUS and I will eat my words and issue a hearty apology (whilst also pointing out that that story obviously wasn't worth newspaper headlines).
Come on Palmerston North City Council, where is the money and resources for consent education for males out on the town? Why must it start with changing the women? Why is it always about us, and our behaviour?
This is a guest post by Robin Atherton. My family was the grateful recipient of Robin's breastmilk when Nina was two weeks old and we will be forever grateful for this. This is Robin's story of receiving donor milk, and going on to donate milk to other families.
During my pregnancy, I remember someone asking me if I was going to breastfeed. I thought it a rather odd question. To me, breast + baby = milk. I had vague recollections of my mum and sister saying they had issues with breastfeeding, but I hadn't related either story in my head.
When I was born, my parents were in a particularly stressful living arrangement with my maternal grandparents. My grandma was sick with hyperthyroidism and money was tight. They were also planning to emigrate to South Africa. By my mum’s reckoning, I was four weeks overdue, but the official view was that I was born at 42 weeks. Mum’s labour was induced, and I was born two hours later. She went into shock, but not treated for it, as no one recognized the symptoms. Her milk supply didn't stand a chance, and, unbeknown to all of us until a year ago, I was born with a lip-tie and posterior tongue-tie. By six weeks Mum’s milk supply had dropped to almost nothing and she was only feeding me in the evening. A few days later, my parents moved us to Johannesburg. Mum told me I was raised on semi-skimmed milk, but I don’t know at what age this was introduced, or whether I was formula fed first and given cow’s milk later on.
My sister’s story was slightly different. She had a pretty standard labour in hospital and a vaginal birth after ~6 hours of active labour. Her son lost about 10% of his birth weight and this worried the midwives. They put her on a strict feeding regime, waking her and my nephew constantly throughout the night and monitoring them throughout the day, for the first five days in hospital. She discharged herself so she could go home and get some rest. My nephew soon gained heaps of weight and was thriving and he was breastfed for 14 months. My niece was born at home after a very short labour and took well to the breast and was breastfed for roughly the same amount of time as my nephew.
My son Kōpi was born posterior at home in very relaxed circumstances after a long pre-labour and an average active labour of ~7 hours. I had been so keen for him to breastcrawl, but the cord was very short, so this wasn't practical. He didn't take well to the breast and I hand-expressed colostrum and fed it to him on my finger. He would latch on and suckle and I thought that was it, easy peasy, except he was permanently latched on, or asleep. I assumed that’s what all babies did, so I didn't really worry.
My midwife was not concerned that he hadn't yet passed a stool since the last of the meconium, nor that he had urites in his nappies (a sign of dehydration). “Are you getting six good wet nappies a day?” I had no idea what a good wet nappy was, but I changed him six times a day, so I guessed so. After two weeks of continuous weight-loss (born 4kg, lost 560g) my midwife said she thought there was a problem and asked if I preferred a referral to a lactation consultant at the hospital or a paediatrician Thinking a lactation consultant would treat us more holistically, I asked to be referred to her. We got an immediate appointment, and saw her for the first time when Kōpi was two weeks old. She watched him feed and pumped my left breast with a hospital grade pump. In that ten minutes she’d collected 7ml. “You don’t have enough milk to feed your baby.” she said. I wish I had known then that how much you can pump is NO indication of how much milk you have. I was devastated, which way to turn now?
The lactation consultant suggested several ways to increase my milk supply: homoeopathics, herbs, pumping around the clock and switch-feeding (five minutes on each side twice). Then she suggested that on my way home I ought to go to the supermarket and buy two sachets of formula. “Your baby is starving and needs feeding.” I said I would not resort to formula and that I knew a large enough community of breastfeeding mothers to be able to supplement Kōpi with donated breast milk. She said she would not be able to endorse that, and gave me a leaflet about the risks of milk-sharing. I repeated my wish to use donated milk and she said Kōpi MUST put on 20g overnight or she would refer is to the paediatrician and Kōpi could end up being force-fed formula.
On my way home I stopped at my friend’s house. Our babies were due the same day, but her baby came earlier than his due date and was 17 days older than Kōpi. She invited me in, made me some dinner and offered to wet-nurse Kōpi. I burst into tears at such an amazing offer, and I didn't hesitate to agree. Kōpi latched on a gulped down all she had to offer. Immediately, he was a different baby. He fell into a deep and satisfying sleep, waking a few hours later to pass his first stools since birth. She then fed him again and we made an arrangement to do the same the next day before our appointment. At the weigh-in, Kōpi had gained 85g overnight, much to my immense relief. The lactation consultant was pleased, if not a little surprised. She said that my refusal to use formula had taken her a long way outside her comfort zone. She was still cautious, however, and said he needed to keep putting on weight and asked us to return the next day. I said we were going away and we would be back in four days (I wanted to buy us some time), so we made an appointment for four days time. In those four days, my friend wet-nursed him and I fed him constantly, expressing between feeds and topping him up with my own expressed breast milk.
Had I not kept a diary of these first weeks, I don’t think I would have been able to remember the sequence of events. I would spend 40-60 minutes feeding, 30 minutes pumping, 30 minutes dozing, and then start again, all day and all night. I didn't know where I was, what I was doing, I barely ate and I cannot remember sleeping for more than half an hour at a time. Eventually, for my sanity, I stopped pumping at night so I could get some rest.
I asked a couple of friends who were breastfeeding their babies and toddlers if they could express whatever they could for me. It was such a lovely feeling when my friend H turned up on my doorstep with a manual pump. While she showed me how to use it, I looked on in envy at the milk pouring from her breast, “Can I have that for Kōpi please?” She tipped it into a small bottle and gave me several bags of breast milk ice cubes, which I placed very carefully in the freezer. I started using my friend’s frozen stocks when Kōpi was 18 days old, about 20-25mls once or twice a day (I didn't want to run out, so I had to ration it a bit). When we returned to the lactation consultant the day before he was three weeks old, he’d gained another 150g. In the next few days, more milk came to my door from four more milky mamas, all of whom we will be indebted to forever. I believe those women saved my baby’s life! Small iceboxes with bottles of milk would appear on my doorstep with a bag of muffins, or a tub of soup or some other such yummy goodness. Four days later and Kōpi had gained another 300g. At around three and a half weeks, the lactation consultant signed us off.
I remember being engorged for the first time at four weeks and four days postpartum. What an amazing relief to have my milk in! Two days later I started exclusively breastfeeding him myself. At eight weeks old, I bumped into the lactation consultant at a breastfeeding meeting. She beamed from ear to ear. “I am very sorry I was so hard on you, but I needed you to know the severity of the situation. I am pleased you stuck to your guns and I am so proud of you. If I had been in your situation with any of my babies, I would have done the same thing.”
At eight week postpartum I donated some packets of milk. Kōpi had a dreadful cold and wasn't feeding much. Over the space of a week I had collected 950mls. My doula had another client in a similar situation and after we spoke on the phone, I sent the doula away with the milk and the herbal and homoeopathic remedies I’d been using. Shortly afterwards I started donating regularly to an adoptive mother in Wellington, and since then I have donated to eight women and wet-nursed two of their babies. It was such an amazing feeling to be able to pay such a gift forward..
Kōpi turned 27 months today (22nd September) and we are still breastfeeding. I have so many wonderful women to thank, especially Kōpi’s wet-nurse. We are still very close. Our boys are beautiful, healthy little toddlers. She calls Kōpi her ‘other son’. We will never forget each other.
My story is part of the Blog carnival organised by World Milksharing Week, to celebrate World Milksharing Week 2013. Click here to read more stories about milksharing. If you’d like to participate too, please visit this page.
When I was pregnant with my first child I learnt about how amazing breastmilk was. It’s pretty much liquid gold. I was determined to breastfeed. To my distress, things didn't go as planned. Due to many factors, my son Sol was given formula within 6 hours of birth, and although I did everything within my knowledge at the time Sol was fully formula-fed from six weeks. Failure to breastfeed long-term traumatised me on many levels. Many people didn't understand this – I was told by many “formula’s fine, he’ll be fine”, which of course it was, and he is. But this attitude undermined and invalidated my grief. Yes, formula’s “fine”, but it is not what babies were born to consume, and science indicates that the detrimental effects are numerous. (For example, it is estimated that the U.S. might save $13 billion in healthcare and other costs annually, and save over 900 babies a year if 90% if babies were exclusively breastfed for six months.) Breast isn't best, it's normal.
When I was pregnant with my daughter last year I devoured every book I could find on breastfeeding. I spent a lot of time researching, understanding and finding support in my community so that I knew I had done everything I could to breastfeed my next baby. I learnt about the many things that did and did not happen in Sol’s first few days and weeks that contributed to him not being a breastfed baby. During this time I also learnt about breastmilk sharing. The World Health Organisation and UNICEF support donor human milk as the first alternative where mother's milk is not available. I decided that should I need to supplement my milk, I would do my best to find my baby human milk.
Everything about Nina’s birth was wonderful (birth story here). She even did a breast crawl and latched herself on. I was in awe of her, my amazing beautiful baby. But after that first feed, I had a painful blister on my nipple. Luckily I had a fantastic midwife and she diagnosed a tongue-tie immediately. (I was later to find out Sol is also tongue-tied, which goes a long way in explaining why he never suckled and had trouble with a bottle). Thus began a journey that involved much blood (my nipples), travel (Wellington and Hamilton for Nina’s tongue laser surgery), many many sleepless nights as poor Nina tried to drink with severely restricted tongue mobility, and many many tears (hers and mine in equal parts!). By day 10 Nina had not gained enough weight and we were faced with the prospect of formula. In tears, I told my midwife that I wanted to try and find human milk for Nina. I knew the effects of non-human milk on an infant gut, and I wanted to do all I could to avoid that. My wonderful midwife fully supported this decision.
I posted a request for breast milk on my local parenting group Facebook page and within 20 minutes I had offers of milk from a number of women. At that point I sat on the couch crying at the sheer generosity and amazingness of people. My husband sat with me and was similarly amazed and overwhelmed at this community of mamas. Within two hours a very special woman arrived with over a litre of breastmilk. That was a really emotional moment for me, and in fact every time we had a delivery of frozen bags of milk I got teary with gratitude. I also reached out to the Eats on Feets Aotearoa community, who were similarly incredibly supportive. A wonderful side-effect of milk sharing are the beautiful connections I made with many women.
Throughout the time we were supplementing with donor milk I was worried about “nipple confusion” so I avoided using a bottle and fed Nina the donor milk through a supplementary nursing system. This had the added bonus of extra time at my breast, further stimulating my milk supply. It took 13 weeks, and my milk combined with five superstar milk-mamas until we got the tongue-tie sorted and I was able to exclusively breastfeed Nina. We’re still going strong at 11.5 months and she has still never had any formula. Going beyond the nutritional benefits of breastmilk, I feel just so grateful to have experienced the simplicity and beauty of a breastfeeding dyad. My body responding to Nina and her needs in the most simple and perfect way. Watching her eyes roll back in pure drunken happiness as the milk fills her belly is one of my life’s most beautiful moments. Now that she is older, I love her ways of communicating to me that she needs milk, and the delighted grin on her face afterwards as she toddles away. She looks round the room grinning delightedly at everyone who will look at her, as if to say “that was DELICIOUS!”
People have started to ask me when we are going to stop breastfeeding. I tell them to ask Nina. She is still a huge fan, so I don’t think it will be any time soon. The World Health Organisation recommends that children are breastfed for a minimum of two years. I am immensely proud that we have made it this far together and I love the idea of full-term breastfeeding and Nina choosing when she is ready to wean. (Oddly enough I still feel anxious putting that dream out there in to the universe, as it I still can't quite believe we have made it this far!)
When I was receiving donor milk for Nina, I imagined one day being able to donate my milk to other babies in need. I am not sure I ever believed that day would come. But it has, and I feel so emotional packaging up my precious packs of frozen gold, ready to nurture another baby.
I am thankful for the vocal and passionate supporters of breastfeeding and breastmilk sharing. I am thankful for the oodles of research readily available showing the detrimental effects of non-human milk on babies. Knowing this meant I was that much more determined to fight the fight for Nina. I wish I had known this much when Sol was first born. I am thankful for my family and friends for their breastfeeding wisdom, support and cheerleading. I am grateful to my wonderful midwives and lactation consultants who believed in Nina and I, even when I didn’t, and gave me so much knowledge, skill and support. And most of all I am so grateful to Nina’s five Milk-Mamas who selflessly gave up their time and energy to pump their precious milk to nurture Nina. It is hard to put into words how much this meant to us. We love you! Milk-sharing absolutely epitomises the saying “it takes a village to raise a child”, and I know that Nina is growing up in one awesome village.
A few people have emailed me to ask about donating milk and how to go about doing this. If you are in a position to do this, I highly encourage you to do so. It's hard to put into words how much the donated milk meant to us, it is such a beautiful gift to give. Here are some links to check out:
Sexuality education hit the headlines again yesterday. I usually cringe when I see sexuality education in the media, because the media tend to usually take a shock! horror! perspective, that is usually unjustified. (I have written about this before here for some background).
Yesterday's story in the Sunday Star Times arose out of a statement on a true/false quiz presented to students at an Auckland intermediate school - the statement read: "If a boy has no hair on his chest, he is homosexual."
Before we jump on the OUTRAGE! bandwagon, I think the story needs to be critically examined.
Sure, in isolation this statement looks an odd thing for a group of 11 year olds to be dealing with. But we need to consider this statement in its context: I imagine the quiz used was similar to this one recommended on the Ministry of Education’s website. The statement would have been part of an activity to get kids talking and to stimulate discussion of myths surrounding our bodies and sexuality. The students would have gone through the statements with the teacher and critically analysed each one, deciding whether there was any measure of ‘truth’ in them. Presumably, the statement in question would have been debunked by the teacher and a discussion could have ensued about how people’s bodies are very diverse, but sexual orientation has no bearing on physical characteristics. This is an important discussion to be had, as many students this age have absorbed a message that homosexual people are inherently different to heterosexual people in many ways other than simply preferring a particular gender/sex for their romantic partner.
Rather than the SHOCK! HORROR! response that intermediate students were exposed to the notion of ‘gay’, I think we need to focus on the secondary message contained in the article: that many New Zealand teachers are under resourced and undertrained to teach sexuality education. The Education Review Office 2007 report on sexuality education in New Zealand backs this up, stating that “The majority of school sexuality education programmes are not meeting students’ learning needs.” Many teachers have completed their teaching qualification with very little instruction on sexuality education (and sometimes none at all). Then they begin their teaching career and are expected to teach sexuality education, with no professional development offered. And, as this article points out, usually with very few resources. The Principal in this article stated that the reason they were using a Johnson & Johnson quiz was because there was a lack of resources from the Ministry of Education. What other subject in the curriculum needs to rely on a multinational corporation for teaching resources?
(Note that Family Planning do provide a number of quality resources and I would recommend teachers check these out before deciding to use commercial “free” resources)
As was also mentioned in the article, every school is required to consult with the community every two years about sexuality education, so parents are aware of what is being taught. A number of people I know have expressed surprise at this comment, as they have never been consulted by their children’s school. This consultation process is really important and it goes some way in avoiding panicked parents calling in the media. I really encourage parents to view their school’s sexuality education policy, and to participate in the consultation process when (if?!) it occurs. You can see what each school is required to do here.
Unfortunately, articles such as the Sunday Star Times' do nothing to increase teachers' confidence in their ability to teach sexuality education. (Which, it should be noted, is a compulsory part of the curriculum until Year 10). Many teachers find teaching sexuality education challenging anyway, the last thing they also need to be worrying about is the media jumping in and creating a moral panic about what is happening in their classroom. Schools need to work with their teachers and families to ensure that quality sexuality education is available to every child in New Zealand.
***I am really interested in learning about how different schools go about the sexuality education consultation process. I would love it if you could leave a comment or contact me regarding whether you are aware of a consultation process occurring at your school, and if so, how it is done. Many thanks!
Something I believe in strongly is changing the default dialogue around birthing. Perhaps it's our innate love of the dramatic, but when I was pregnant for the first time I kept hearing birth horror stories. We need to ensure that people are talking about positive birthing experiences as well.
We had a wonderful home birth recently and I want to share our story, as my little part of changing that dialogue.
When we learnt that I was pregnant with our much-awaited-for second child, we were ecstatic.
I had had a lovely hospital birth with my son Sol (now 4.5), but I hated the hospital environment post-partum. Before this pregnancy we had decided to have a home birth and I was already excited about the birth. My siblings and I were all born at home and I grew up in a world where birth was always discussed in positive ways. I remember Mum saying on numerous occaisions that the best three days of her life were the days we were born.
A close friend had attended ‘hypnobirthing’ classes and raved about them – I turned to Ms Google and what I heard sounded fascinating. Women using words such as ‘euphoric’, “pain-free” and “joyous”. These words were a far cry from the usual language associated with birth in our culture. Soon after, I was introduced to the amazing Aileen Devonshire of The Holistic Birth Company. She was happy to offer a course just for Leif and I. We spent five lovely evenings with Aileen discussing our thoughts on birthing, learning techniques for enjoying the birth and understanding what our roles were during labour and what we could do to prepare. In the latter stages of the pregnancy we set time aside to practice the relaxation and visualisation techniques.
I had brought Sol home from kindergarten and just felt really exhausted. I had been working on an article that was on deadline but exhaustion washed over me and I lay down to sleep on the couch for about an hour. When I awoke at 3.45pm I continued to lie there for a few moments and then I felt a ‘pop’ of my waters breaking. In one swift movement I grabbed a towelfrom the pile of laundry beside me, threw it in the floor and rolled off the couch and on to the towel. I was impressed with myself – the towel was soaked, but not a drop anywhere else! Sol looked at me oddly, but just nodded nonchalantly when I told him my waters had broken. He’d watched numerous birth videos with me so knew what this meant.
I called Leif who had just finished teaching for the day and also let my midwife Cheryl Benn know that things were underway. Sol’s birth had proceeded gradually throughout the day, so I thought I had hours to go before things really started. At this point I was having very mild contractions, spaced well apart. I was really excited but very calm, knowing everything was in place for our dream birth. I also was aware of the article I hadn't finished, so decided to get that done right away as knew that pretty soon I wouldn't have much spare time. I felt super-alert and was writing well, then all of a sudden it was like a part of my brain switched off. I decided that then was the time to email the draft to the editor and explain that was about as complete as it was going to get!
Leif arrived home and started getting the room prepared. We’d instructed our baby to be born at night, and it seemed like she was going to comply. We had the fire burning and Leif hung up fairy lights and lit candles. The birthing pool was by the fire. Both grandmothers called in on their way home from work, but I had decided I wanted one last dinner together with just the three of us.
After dinner I lounged over on the Swiss ball, and Sol stood beside me and rubbed my back (and occasionally climbed on me!). A really beautiful peaceful time. I realised my labour was progressing much faster than I had anticipated, so I asked Leif if he could put Sol to bed then, as I knew that pretty soon I would need all of Leif’s attention.
I stayed on the swiss ball, enjoying the peace and listening to Sol’s familiar bed routine and bedtime stories. I went to kiss Sol goodnight and to make sure he knew what was happening. He had been very involved in my pregnancy and knew the drill. A few weeks earlier he had told us that he wanted to be there when the baby was being born, but he didn’t want to see her head come out. Since my waters had broken he had reminded me of this numerous times! So I was reminded of this once more, and Sol knew that when the baby was nearly being born Leif would wake him up.
As soon as Sol was in bed it was like my body allowed my labour to progress. I continued to labour on the swiss ball while Leif started filling the pool as I felt like it wouldn’t be too long until I wanted to be weightless in the water.
I usually have an active mind that is hard to quieten – I have tried meditation a number of times, but always end up sitting there with a loud chatterbox in my head. I had been concerned that that would be the case whilst birthing, however I could feel myself slipping into a really deep relaxation and became only dimly aware of what was going on in the room. Love those birthing hormones! The room was warm and cosy and lit with candles, the light of the fire and fairy lights. I recall telling Leif that it would be impossible to be stressed out in that environment! It was blissful.
At about 7.30pm I got in to the pool and Mum, and my midwives Cheryl and Annie Kinloch arrived soon after. I was surprised at how fast my body was moving towards birthing and the contractions were lasting a long time and coming about every three minutes.
I had a relaxation birthing CD playing and the atmosphere was just beautiful. The contractions were intense but I felt so relaxed and wonderful. I could feel our baby moving and descending and I was so overwhelmed by how perfect it was that I started crying with happiness.
Notes from my midwives:
8.13pm “I can definitely feel her pushing down”
8.14pm “This is so lovely”. Rachel and Leif laughing together.
8.21pm Rachel verbalising the last contraction is beginning to give her a sense of breathing her baby out.
8.28pm Rachel moving in to a hands and knees position in birth pool.
Rachel looking beautiful and feeling relaxed on endorphins.
9pm Birth pool filled deeper. Rachel semi-reclined. CD finished and Rachel enjoying the quiet.
I was feeling the baby descending lower and every so often started feeling that the birth was not that far away. I continued to labour in the pool, but started feeling really exhausted. My body started feeling really heavy. My contractions had slowed a little and I decided to have Cheryl examine me. My cervix was 7cm dilated.
I said that I was really tired and that I wanted to have a sleep. At about the same point in Sol’s labour I felt exactly the same way, but I was in the hospital for his birth and I recall being told that it certainly wasn’t the time for a nap! I loved my midwives when they simply responded to my request by asking where I wanted to sleep. I wanted to rest on the couch, so my lovely helpers made a bed up for me and I snuggled in, Leif sitting right beside me. It was so peaceful and quiet, and it was as if Leif and I were the only people in the house. I quickly fell into a deep relaxation, whereby I was having big beautiful dreams, then I would come back to ‘real’ for each contraction, gripping Leif’s hand tightly. Immediately following each contraction I feel back in to dreamland. It was a beautiful rest. Like being on a boat in slow-motion, the peaks and troughs of the sea movement. I stayed in this zone for about 40 minutes, and then all of a sudden was ready to continue.
10.10pm Rachel needing to get up off the couch as contractions more intense.
10.14 Back in birth pool. Rachel still feeling baby move.
10.18 “She is doing lots of kicking”
10:20 Rachel groaning through a string contraction “It’s a big opening one”.
10.51 Rachel breathing through some very pushy contractions.
Rachel feeling baby moving down a bit further.
I was in a deeply relaxed state, just as we had discussed with Aileen, only vaguely aware of the people in the room and just so focused on my body and it opening up to allow our daughter to be born. As I laboured in the pool I was having beautiful dreams and my body felt so powerful but so relaxed.
During the classes with Aileen we had discussed the distinction between the analytical mind and the intuitive mind: with all the medical intervention in many births, we had moved so far from the intuitive mind being the dominant one in a labour.
All evening my analytical mind had been switched off. Yet at this point as I drifted between dreamland and contractions, suddenly my analytical mind popped up. It was very clearly like another voice, and it is the first time I have experienced such a dichotomy within my mind. Very clearly this other voice spoke over the dreamland that I was in:
“Oh my goodness Rachel, here you are, you are supposed to be having a baby, pushing a baby out, all these people are here, waiting for you to do something, and all you can do is laze about in this pool sleeping, for christs sake stop being so lazy and push this baby out!”
I listened to this other voice. What the hell was I doing?! A contraction hit and suddenly my body began pushing, an all-consuming effort to PUSH this baby out. I felt my whole body contract almost involuntarily and it was a scary, out-of-control feeling. I felt the baby descend a lot and I suddenly realised I could push this baby out right there and then. I panicked, because that was certainly not what I had planned, nor what I wanted. In that split second I knew that baby could arrive right then, and it would be a painful and fast entrance and I would likely tear. I cried out to Leif to calm me down – in my memory I was screaming this in panic, but having viewed the video it wasn’t as violent as it felt. Leif did one of the relaxation exercises we had practiced and the soothing words of the midwives put me back in control and I resumed breathing and found that calm place again.
10.58 Sol woken by Leif for the birth.
11.01 Rachel supported by Leif to breathe through intense contractions.
I was in a particularly deep sleep when a really intense contraction happened and I knew that our baby was nearly ready to be born.
11.07 “She is coming, I can feel her head moving down”
I knew I didn’t want to rush her out and just let my body and my baby take over and let them do what they needed to do. I just kept breathing through each contraction and felt no urge to push. In my mind I could almost “see” our baby making her way out, it was such a clear vision and it really felt like she was doing it rather than me. There was no searing pain when her head emerged as I had experienced with Sol’s birth. It was such an amazing feeling as I felt more of her making her way out. I started giggling – I could feel her legs kicking inside me as they made their way down. I felt absolutely euphoric.
11.13 Rachel birthed her baby so gently in water and was caught by Leif.
Leif guided baby between Rachel’s legs and Rachel lifted baby to her chest.
11.14 Baby cried. Cord loosened around neck.
11.16 Sol meeting his baby sister while being cuddled by Dad.
11.27 Baby so alert, gazing at Mum
These were just amazing moments, clearly etched in my mind forever. Our little girl in my arms, surrounded by peace and love. Sol meeting his little sister for the first time. We had already decided that we would leave the cord attached as long as possible, and certainly until I had naturally birthed the placenta.
11.28 Cord still pulsating strongly
11.29 Placenta birthed
11.32 Cord clamped by Leif and cut, watched by Sol
11.40 Rachel and baby assisted out of pool. Dried and covered with warm towels.
I had read about babies doing a ‘breast crawl’ immediately after birth, and wanted to give our baby that opportunity. Our little baby was placed on my chest and she immediately started snuffling round. I was mesmerised as she started inching her way to my right breast. It was so hard to resist the urge to guide her, but equally fascinating knowing she was capable of finding the nipple herself. In a very short space of time she had expertly found the nipple and started her first feast!
12.02am Baby sucking at breast after latching herself at 49 minutes old.
We were all hungry so the food was brought out and we all tucked into a midnight feast round the coffee table as we chatted about the evening. A perfect, relaxing way to finish off an amazing evening. As I sat there on the couch in the comfort of my own home, with my baby suckling at my breast I was so content. Our baby slept on my chest all night and I got very little sleep, gazing at my family all snuggled in our bed together. I awoke before them all and enjoyed some moments of peace, looking at wonder at what we had created and thinking I was the luckiest person in the world.
Once we had got to know her, we named our wee baby Nina Kowhai Hansen. The kowhai will always be blooming on her birthday.
This guest post is by Dannielle Miller. Dannielle is a highly respected and experienced educator, author and media commentator on issues affecting teenage girls. She is CEO of Enlighten Education and this post originally appeared on her blog.
I had a revealing conversation with a single parent of a 12-year-old girl the other day. His daughter had been feeling particularly moody, he said, as she was just about to menstruate. I asked if she had had this premenstrual phase of her cycle explained to her. “Yes, she knows all about her periods” was his response.
Yet I suspected after talking with him further that, as it is for many young girls who are given “the talk”, this conversation was reduced to an explanation of how to care for herself physically during her period. In its most simplistic form, it is often a chat about pads versus tampons, and tends to come with the dire warning that if they are not “careful” they could now fall pregnant.
The fact is, once our girls menstruate, we don’t tend to be very helpful in advising them beyond sanitation, abstinence and, if we are particularly switched on, contraception options. Rarely do we discuss how to deal with the fact that for many girls and women emotions may be heightened during the premenstrual phase and behaviour altered.
And even if we do allude to premenstrual tension (PMT), it tends to be in terms that promote and reinforce the archetypal “crazy lady” myth, which would have us reduce everything a woman expresses during this time to hysterical ramblings. It is particularly apt that women are often referred to as being “hysterical” during this stage in their cycle, as the term derives from the Greek word meaning “womb” (hence the term “hysterectomy”). Historically, society would have us believe some deep flaw within our wombs is literally making us insane!
"One day she is all smiles and gladness. A stranger in the house seeing her will sing her praise . . . But the next day she is dangerous to look at or approach: She is in a wild frenzy . . . savage to all alike, friend or foe . .." Semonides, Greek philosopher (c. 556–468 BC)
Premenstrual tension has been recognised as a medical condition since 1953 and has even controversially been used as a defence for murder—hence the headline to this post, which comes from a newspaper report chronicling a 1980s court case in London in which PMT was raised (unsuccessfully, I might add) as a defence for homicide.
Premenstrual tension may include physical symptoms such as leg cramps, bloating and headaches; emotional changes such as increased depression and anxiety and lower self-esteem; and behavioural changes including increased irritability, social isolation and being accident prone.
I have been known to suffer from particularly bad PMT at various points in my life. Leg cramps? Check. Bloating? Absolutely. Increased depression? I have been known to weep at the thought of making yet another school lunch. Irritability? My ex-husband used to always joke that I would threaten to divorce him once every month.
Despite knowing my feelings at this time are certainly heightened, I also believe they are valid. In fact, as I’ve gotten older I’ve learnt to be very attentive to them, as I can often more clearly see, for example, what is wrong in my relationships at this stage. Usually I tend to repress these darker feelings. In a sense, my inner voice stops whispering and starts screaming at me (okay, okay, and often at others) that week!
I am no longer so quick to silence my womb and my female intuition.
Rachel Hansen, a colleague and sexual health educator, offered me her insights:
"In my 20s, I used to dismiss PMT as that time of the month when I was particularly irrational, but I now think of this as a time when I actually allow myself to acknowledge and express the full range of my emotions. Talk about liberating! Menstruation has traditionally been associated with craziness and all things negative. I think that we women have to reclaim this time in our lives, to reclaim it as a particularly special, empowered time – heck, perhaps the closest we get to being Superwoman each month!"
A friend who is a mum to two girls explained to me how she supports her eldest daughter to not ignore, but rather manage, her mood swings:
"She would get so emotional and fiery, to the point where she was confused and didn’t know what was ‘wrong’ with her and why she kept arguing with us. I sat her down and explained that it’s very normal to feel the way she does and that her feelings are legitimate, but that in the midst of those more out-of-control moments around period time, we need a word to remind her, and us, as to why she’s struggling to articulate herself. I told her to choose a word that reminds her of something calm and happy that she could use, so that she can just say the word, and then that will be our signal to just stop and hug her, to show her that we care about her feelings, but that we need to pick up the conversation later. (Most of the time, what worried her so much is forgotten later anyway.) Her word is ‘unicorns’. This works really well for us and for her, and has made a huge difference."
Psychologist Jacqui Manning offered me the following really practical tips for girls (and women) to help them better understand and manage this stage:
Of course, it’s also important to distinguish the feelings that really are worth listening to during this period (pardon the pun) from those that are okay to merely let wash over us. A good friend offered me this when I asked for her thoughts on PMT last week:
"Danni, it’s all a bit too close to home for me today given that I’ve spent the morning in bed feeling bloated and crying for no clear reason at all. Based on the thought processes I was having, it has something to do with a letter that was sent about me in high school, a sad movie I once saw, and the fact that my boyfriend doesn’t have time to go out to lunch today. The TRIFECTA!"
Certainly our womb-words can seem somewhat confused and irrelevant, but they can also be deeply insightful. I’m choosing to embrace the journey and help my daughters embrace it too.
I have fond memories of my collection of childhood toys - wooden blocks, Big Ted, My Little Pony, the Cindy doll my parents bought me (instead of the Barbie I REALLY wanted), Lego, railway tracks... And nowadays I enjoy sometimes escaping into the imaginary world with my four-year-old boy and his collection of treasured toys. I read about the toys on offer for kids, I see kids playing with toys and the students I work with tell me about the toys that are and were important in their lives.
There is a lot of writing about the highly gendered and also sexualised nature of many childhood toys these days, but on Friday I suddenly realised that I could count on one hand the number of times I have been in a toy store since entering adulthood. Inspired by other writers, I decided it was time to hit the front-line. What was on offer for New Zealand children? Was it as bad as it was in the USA? (where much of the research I read comes from) And what are the 'good' options out there?
Armed with my camera, I entered our local toy store (one of a nationwide chain). And thus began an hour of walking up and down every aisle, taking note and photographing the good, the bad and the plain downright ridiculous.
Into 'GIRL ZONE'
Upon entering the store, the first thing I noticed was that there was an area labelled ‘Girl’s Zone’, but the only other zone to be labelled was 'Pre-school'. Is this because all the other toys in the store are designed for boys (the default ‘normal’), or is it that all the other toys are for both boys AND girls but this wee corner is for girls only?
I headed over to investigate further and was nearly blinded by the pink-ness.
First up, the Barbie display...
"Hmmm, who do I want to be today?"
I had high hopes for the Barbie 'I Can Be..." range. I recall as a child in the 1980s Barbie was a real 'girls can do anything' kinda gal, so I thought that surely by 2012, any remnants of that 1952 original passive doll would be well and truly banished. Unfortunately it seems that Barbie's career options in 2012 are very limited to what she can do whilst still wearing form-fitting lycra and/or heels. And the ubiquitous pink of course. There were five career options in the character dolls (see below) - I challenge anyone to find me any real-life professional woman whose wardrobe resembles any of these outfits?! And as someone who spent my teen years as a surf lifeguard, it sure as hell didn't resemble this Barbie scene. A friend was telling me recently that she had relented and had promised her daughter a Barbie as long as she could find one doing 'normal' things - such as snowboarder Barbie. There wasn't a snowboarder Barbie in this shop, but I can envisage her ensemble already...
And if you wanted to simply give your exisiting Barbie a new career, you had six different outfits to choose from. As you would never guess the occupations from their outfits, let me label them top to bottom, left to right:
Next to Barbie was the much criticised new line of Lego, designed especially for girls - the 'Friends' range. Their catch-phrase is "The Beauty of Building" - because we wouldn't want girls to forget for a moment that regardless of the activity, it always comes down to beauty, right?
Anyone for Disney Princess paraphernalia?
I personally dislike this range from Lego. I dislike the emphasis on beauty and I hate that the 'Friends' range have totally different bodies to the 'standard' range - they have boobs and makeup. There is no way one of the 'Friends' would EVER want to play with a standard Lego boy or girl! It's problematic that in creating a specific 'girls' range, by default the rest of the Lego range becomes a 'boys' range, thus limiting girls' options. And the narrow range of activities and colours offered to the girls drives me nuts. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to indicate that girls have a natural inclination towards pastel colours. Lego is just playing into the pinkification of girl-world that serves to further the gender gap amongst children and thus increase the profits of those marketing things to children.
Next up was the Disney Princess Zone. In a moment of marketing genius, this line was released in 2000 and now there are now more than 25,000 Disney Princess items and many other companies have jumped on board to create Princess-mania in girl world. Lyn Mikel Brown, co-author of Packaging Girlhood, is concerned by the the sheer dominance of princess culture: “When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice; it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”
As I continued to wander round 'Girl's Zone' I found more and more pink washing, and more and more toys with come-hither eyes and sexy poses. What really struck me was how much some of these toys had changed since I was a girl. In my day 'My Little Pony' was a sweet chubby thing with demure eyes. Her latest incarnation is decidedly sexy, curvy and oh, those eyes.
There were a few brands in 'Girl's Zone' that really stood out in a positive way:
Venturing out of 'Girl Zone', I headed towards the 'Pre-school' zone...
I was pleased to see the gender-neutral 'preschooler' sign, although interested in the offerings as many of the toys in the 'Girl's Zone' were aimed at the pre-school age group. This section gave the impression of being very gender-neutral, but upon closer inspection, many of the toys revealed themselves to be playing into tired gender stereotypes:
However, there were also some great non-gender-limiting options:
(No other 'zones' were labelled, so the following categories are ones that I have used)
Puzzles and games
Of all the different types of toys, I would have thought that this genre would have the least need to be gendered. Apparently not. I think the biggest issue with gendering things like this is that it strongly discourages cross-gender play. Unfortunately I feel that few four year old boys would want to play with the pinkified versions of these games. By then, for many boys the gender message has been well and truly absorbed.
A WINNER from Little Tikes! Gender neutral packaging PLUS an image of a boy and a girl playing together!
*calm down Rachel, keep in mind how ODD it is that this is so rare!*
Building and Science Sets
These were located in the area I think a child would describe as the 'Boys' Zone' (although there were no actual signs to indicate this). Alongside these sets seemed to be an overwhelming collection of toys based around themes of fighting and violence. As the mother of a little boy, I am disturbed by the messages these toys give him about what it means to be a man. I could not find a single toy in this area that depicted a boy or a man in a caring or nurturing role. Play is one way children learn about what it means to be an adult as they role-play with the toys provided to them. What are the consequences of raising a generation of boys whose understanding of manhood is based on ninjas, soldiers and Avengers?
My little adventure into the toy store was both depressing and comforting.
Depressing because of the overwhelming number of gender-limiting options out there. I imagined my four year old son Sol being let loose in that store to explore and admire the toys available to him. He would be confronted with SO MANY gender-limiting stereotypes. He would be presented with a very clear picture of what it is to be a girl, and what it is to be a boy. Both of these definitions are very narrow, and he would quickly realise it was high time he dumped all of his female friends.
I would label very few of the toys in this shop inherently "bad or "wrong", but it's the overwhelming message they present en masse, and also the stark reality of what is missing. I managed to find three images of girls and boys playing together IN THE WHOLE STORE. Research shows that cross-gender play in childhood increases the likelihood of more healthy romantic relationships in the teen years, yet it seems that marketers are doing all they can to prevent this.
Comforting because I realised that, if I searched hard enough I could find toys and games that were not gender-limiting. There are options out there for parents willing to take the time to find them. Some companies are still marketing their product to both genders, and although many had fallen into the highly-gendered trap, a number still offered a 'gender neutral' option alongside their gendered stuff. For this, I am heartened, and this quote comes to mind: "Don't tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I'll tell you what they are." - James W. Frick
Childhood lasts for such a precious short time, let's not shorten this further by placing limitations on who and what our children can be. Let's not allow the financial motivations of toy companies have any part in how our children define themselves. Let's give our children the time and the space to explore and experience their world without being limited to what pop culture dictates is "right" for their gender.
As soon as we found out that I was pregnant we told our three-year-old son Sol about the pregnancy and he has been involved in the midwife appointments and lots of excited talk about our new baby. He recently accompanied us to the 20-week ultrasound scan.
After the radiographer had done all the important measurements and observations, she got to the least important part – finding the vulva or the penis. While she was looking for that part of our baby’s body she said to me:
“Ouhhh, you’ll soon know if you’ll have to be buying a pink tutu!”
(I am sure my husband smothered a laugh at this point. I refrained from launching into a tirade about gender stereotyping and the findings of various neurological studies on babies and gender.)
As it turns out, we spotted a vulva.
And I realised that, at 20 weeks gestation this wee girl had already experienced her first gender stereotyping.
It isn’t that pink tutus violently offend me, it’s that there was an assumption that if my baby had a vulva, then a pink tutu would be the most important thing on my mind, and that her vulva would automatically predispose her to an uncontrollable urge to wear pink tutus.
Who knows, she could be an absolute ballet fanatic, in which case I am sure our house will be loaded with tutus of all description. Or she could be a soccer player, a hip-hop dancer, a chess-genius, a swimmer... - in which case we may have no pink tutus at all. Or maybe she’ll have stages of being all of the above, and our already-cluttered house will have a collection of all sorts of outfits in all sorts of colours.
All I know is that I will do everything in my Mama-Bear power to protect her from the tirade of gender-limiting stereotypes that I know will attempt to surround her from birth (and before!). All of a sudden I am deeply grateful on a personal level for the amazing work done to counter such attitude by individuals and organisations such as Enlighten Education, Pigtail Pals, Pink Stinks and 7Wonderlicious.
And I will leave you with the wisdom of little Riley, who articulates the craziness of all this stuff just so so well:
We recently had the excitement of having an ultrasound scan. I was twenty weeks pregnant and we had decided to find out the sex of our baby if he/she decided to reveal it to us.
As we walked into the room, our three-year-old son Sol announced: “I am going to see if there is a vulva or a penis!".
The radiographer seemed rather uncomfortable at his confidence. She giggled, and then said to him: “A Volvo! But a Volvo is a car!”, and it seemed that she was making this joke to cover up her embarrassment at Sol’s knowledge of basic anatomy.
Sol looked at her oddly, and calmly explained to her “No it’s not, it’s what girls have instead of a penis”.
As I lay there, I did a silent cheer for my boy.
As Sol provided a running commentary on what he believed he could see on the TV-screen of the scan, the radiographer commented to me that he had an impressive knowledge of anatomy. I thought about her comment, and I really don't think he does. I think she was actually referring to Sol's accurate labelling of sexual body parts, and I got the feeling this made her uncomfortable.
Isn't it odd that so many people are so uncomfortable with the correct labelling of body parts? For preschoolers, the word vulva has about as much meaning attached to it as nose, mouth and ears. It is just another body part.
Vulvas. There are billions of them out there, and they are a pretty diverse collection. I am no geneticist, but I would say there was as much diversity in vulvas as there is in fingerprints. And as long as women have had vulvas, in most cultures they have been covered in public hair. Until recently...
A few weeks ago I was visiting a Catholic all-girls’ high school. I had never been there before and I was meeting with the school counsellor and the Deputy Principal for the first time. They had come straight from the staffroom, where it sounded like a very lively discussion had been taking place. After we greeted each other the Deputy Principal said that before we started the meeting they would love my opinion on the topic the staff had been musing over during morning tea. Of course I said yes – very curious by this point!
“We are all trying to work out WHY none of our senior girls have pubic hair?”
(Apparently the topic had come up in a health class discussion).
And we are not talking about delayed puberty here. We’re talking about teen girls, and why it is the norm to have a vulva stripped of hair.
These days, many girls tell me about the immense pressure to look a particular way now extends to their vulva. It’s not enough to have perfect legs, a flat stomach and blemish-free skin – their vulva must also be bald.
Why indeed is a generation of teen girls finding themselves under immense pressure to wax or shave all their pubic hair? Because it certainly wasn’t like this 15 years ago when I was at high school. We’d shave our bikini line when necessary - just enough to ensure no stray hairs were visible when swimming. But if anyone had suggested getting rid of it all, I am sure we would have been appalled. In fact, I remember girls in my first year of high school proudly displaying their pubic hair growth – for us it was a sign of maturity, of leaving girlhood behind. Now it seems that as soon as pubic hair appears, girls are feeling the pressure to get rid of it so their vulvas resemble a prepubescent child.
I want to talk a little about pornography.
When I was at primary school, every so often we would hear the boys whispering about a Playboy magazine that one of them had found amongst their Dad’s secret stash. And one memorable day my friend and I were exploring and we came across a man stashing a whole pile of Penthouse magazines on the side of the road. We spied on him and after he left we grabbed them all, had a little giggle over the contents and handed them over to our parents. I am sure our parents would have preferred we hadn’t seen those magazines, but other than a fascinating glance at spread-eagled nude women, they were pretty unmemorable. A far-cry from the easily accessible plethora of porn available these day. This generation of youth are being exposed to explicit pornography in a way that generations before just were not. According to Big Porn Inc. "Pornography has become a global sex education handbook for many boys, with an estimated 70 per cent of boys in Australia having seen pornography by the age of 12 and 100 per cent by the age of 15." In one recent Canadian study of boys aged 13-14, more than a third viewed porn movies and DVDs “too many times to count”.
The impact of this early viewing of explicit porn on girls’ vulvas?
If boys are getting their primary sex education from pornography, their expectation is that vulva’s come in one model – hair-free. And if this is what the boys expect, many girls will comply. One teen girl commented that it wasn’t pressure from boys to wax - it was the pressure from her girlfriends. Teens are desperate to fit in – I know that should I have been a teen in this era, there would be no way I would have wanted to be the only girl in the changing rooms with pubic hair. Hair-free vulvas are now entirely the norm. In fact, a school that I used to teach in ran a full-page for Brazilian waxing in the school diary. This diary was distributed to all students, from Year 1 to Year 13. Imagine your five year old writing in their homework for the evening, right next to the “Home of the Brazilian” advertisement.
I have no problem with adult women doing whatever they want to their vulvas. Hey, if bejazzling your vajayjay is your thing, go for it. (Just don’t package it in terms of empowerment PLEASE!). My problem is also not with pornography - sexuality is to be celebrated and although 'ethical porn' is a pretty rare thing, it does exist.
The thing that really concerns me is that no part of a girls’ body now seems immune to the beauty pressure. The pressure starts so young and this is a ‘trend’ that is driven by a misogynistic porn culture seeping in to our everyday lives. It makes me sad to think of girls being so ashamed of their vulvas in their natural state.
I haven’t got a simple solution. Other than to talk talk talk with our children. They need to know that the pornography that they are likely to see (inadvertently or not) is not ‘real’. That is not what women look like, that is not how people experience loving relationships. Give girls the message that they are beautiful as they are, and teach both boys and girls the beauty in diversity.
Speaking of diversity, now it is possible to make your vagina whiter. Yep, vaginal bleaching. I have never really considered the colour of my genitals, but apparently it should be another thing to add to my list of "women's worries". This post by Moata reiterates my feelings well!
While I have had a very quiet few months on the blogging front, it has been a busy and fulfilling time on the personal front.
I have embarked on a very enjoyable aspect of 'professional development': helping my nearly four-year-old son understand that later on this year he will be sharing his Mama and Dadda with someone else. There have been many amusing conversations, and certainly some moments when I have thought "Now is NOT the best time to be asking me this!" :) I look forward to sharing some of these stories over the upcoming months. Now that I am well in to my second trimester my energy levels have returned and most days I feel like a firebomb of energy!
One of the issues that led me to the field of sexuality education was my own personal journey through the medical minefield of gynaecology, and my realisation that the standard sexuality education most of us receive leaves us totally unprepared to deal with anything 'out of the ordinary' with our own sexual/reproductive health. I have done an immense amount of learning and have had some amazing teachers over the past few years with regards to fertility and reproductive energy, so also look forward to sharing some of these insights.
I welcomed 2012 with a long-awaited-for positive pregnancy test. I look forward to welcoming in 2013 with two babes in my arms. And in the meantime I plan on harnessing some of this pregnancy energy and getting some writing done!
*PS My mother-come-editor has just pointed out that it sounds like I am having twins - just to clarify - by my 'two babes' I mean our new arrival and our four year old, who still co-sleeps with us. (And who would hate being referred to anything like a baby, but he is still a scrummy babe to me when sleeping peacefully at 3am :) )
This is the update of the Diva/Playboy situation from Suzanne Culph at Change.org. See my earlier blog post for some background on the issue.
"Huge news! Reports are coming in from supporters in Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide that Diva staff have been removing some Playboy products from display.
The campaign is working - but Diva management continue to dig in their heels and are refusing to withdraw Playboy nationwide.
Diva’s brand is taking a beating - both online and offline. They’re monitoring what their customers are saying about them online every moment. Taking a respectful message about why you signed the petition directly to Diva right now could tip the balance.
Click here to post a personal message on Diva’s Facebook page.
It’s important you speak from the heart about why this campaign matters - but if you need some help, here are some ideas on what to say:
• Why you’re personally against promoting a porn brand like Playboy to girls.
• As a parent and customer how it will influence your shopping decisions.
• The impact of the porn industry on women and perceptions of women.
The petition started by Collective Shout on Change.org has transformed into a movement of parents and shoppers, determined to hold Diva to account for pushing Playboy products on to young girls. And we’ve been phenomenally successful, some Playboy merchandise has been shoved under the counter “because of the controversy.”
Diva’s General Manager Bianca Ginns continues to say they’re just following a fashion trend. Let’s make sure Diva know that selling the porn industry to young girls will never be fashionable - click here to share with Diva why you support the petition by posting on their Facebook wall.
Thanks for all that you’re doing,
Suzanne, for the Change.org team."
Diva is a budget Australian jewellery company popular with young girls - their ranges include Winnie the Pooh charm bracelets, Disney Princess pendants and Cute Cupcakes Best Friends necklaces. Recently they launched a range of Playboy jewellery - necklaces, rings, bowties, earrings – all come adorned with the popular Playboy bunny symbol. Suddenly Diva’s shop windows were plastered with Hugh Heffner’s porn symbol .
Australian bloggers, activists, media commentators, TV and newspapers erupted in anger and controversy over Diva’s Playboy paraphernalia.
Collective Shout explains Playboy’s marketing strategy:
Playboy has succeeded in embedding its bunny logo on pencil cases, bed linen, cosmetics, jewellery, wallets, slippers and key chains, normalizing and sanitizing the Playboy insignia to children and young people. Playboy deliberately markets its brand to girls as cool fashion chic. Diva has become a willing participant in pimping the brand and its values to its young customers. Many of the Playboy products the company sells are decorated with sparkling diamantes or are in the shape of love hearts. There are ‘Playmate’ pendants and Playmate of the month necklaces (‘Miss January’, ‘Miss February’ etc), which invite girls to think of themselves as porn stars. One necklace depicts a Playboy bunny from her backside down. Her upper body, including her head, is missing.
No longer merely a ‘soft-porn’ magazine, Playboy is now a billion dollar global brand profiting from the exploitation and subordination of women. Playboy Enterprises pornographic film titles include “Cum Drinking Sluts”, “Barely 18 Anal Virgins”, “Fresh Juicy Lolitas”, “Double Entry”, “Wait your turn, bitch!” These films and others depict women enduring body punishing and violent sexual acts for men’s sexual pleasure. Diva pretends this doesn’t matter.
The Diva Facebook wall was overwhelmed with passionate arguments from both sides of the case. I want to share with you Dannielle Miller's case for what Playboy really means.
1. Playboy is not harmless, mainstream fun. It is not a cute little bunny.
2. Playboy is Hugh Hefner. He is 85. He lives in the Playboy mansion with his girlfriends, all at the same time. It’s not so much that he could be their father, more like their grandfather. Or great-grandfather. He ain’t that cool really, is he?
3. Playboy isn’t harmless or soft porn. As Collective Shout notes, some of Playboy’s films “depict women enduring body punishing and violent sexual acts for men’s sexual pleasure”. Some of their films have titles that are sickeningly degrading of teen girls and women... It is clear from the titles alone that this brand sells material that denigrates women and treats them as objects.
4. Criticism of Playboy isn’t a new thing. Writer and feminist Gloria Steinem exposed the truth of the Playboy Bunny’s life when she wrote a magazine article after going undercover to work at the Playboy Club almost 50 years ago. It wasn’t glamorous. It was badly paid, exploitative and denigrating. She pretended to the woman interviewing her for the bunny job that she had been a secretary. The interviewer looked at her and said, “Honey, if you can type, why would you want to work here?”
5. Playboy is not about women expressing their sexuality. It’s not about liberation. It’s about making money from women’s bodies. This marketing line on the Playboy site sums it up, really: “Get all these girls for 1 low price!”
I lent my support to the various Australian individuals and groups voicing outrage and I signed Collective Shout’s petition for Diva to remove their Playboy range. I visited Diva’s Facebook page and voiced my dismay. As far as I was aware, Diva was an Australian company selling products in Australia and I wanted to support my Australian colleagues in their protest. Not a word about Diva was mentioned in the New Zealand media, or by any New Zealand blogger or commentator.
Imagine my shock when walking down Wellington's Lambton Quay at lunchtime to be greeted by this sight:
Yes, Diva and their Playboy bling are alive and well in New Zealand with 21 stores across the country. These are some products from their New Zealand website:
It suddenly struck me: I had heard the Australian voices loud and clear – but where are the New Zealand voices standing up for New Zealand girls? Is it OK that Hugh Heffner’s failing porn company is being propped up by kiwi girls, some not even in their teens? What does a father say when their 10-year-old daughter delightedly shows them the new Playboy bowtie they bought at Diva with their pocket money? Do we want a company that exploits and degrades women to be developing brand loyalty in our little girls? I say no. Anyone else with me?
**NB: I am not anti-porn or anti-sex - I am anti-exploitation. I welcome comments and love to debate, but will cheerfully delete any comments that make personal attacks on anyone. Check out my comments policy if you need clarification.
With the media furore over school sexuality education over the past week, many parents have been asking what their expectations of their child’s school sexuality education should be... So here it is, Part One of the non-official Concise Guide to School Sexuality Education in NZ...
The sexuality education prescribed in the current curriculum is a far cry from the sex ed most parents would have received when they were at school. For many, this “education” now serves as a hilarious dinner party story, for others sex ed barely existed or was so terrible that all memories have been banished. Indeed, my own high school sex ed was taught by a very embarrassed science teacher who managed to get through the entire 'reproduction' unit without once mentioning the word ‘penis’ – he simply referred to that thing as a "John Thomas”. And we were told we must always make sure we put the Johnny Condom on the John Thomas. The standout memory from the ‘period talk’ at primary school was the horror of the “pad burner” - a raging inferno in the girls toilets with which we were instructed to put our used pads. I am not sure I ever raised the confidence to use that thing! (I am told they no longer have these at schools - phew!)
Today I want to address three main questions that I have been asked over the past week:
1. How much influence do I, as a parent, have on the sexuality education programme at my child’s school?
The most important thing for parents to keep in mind is that school sexuality education programmes are a partnership between the school and the community. As such, schools are obliged to consult with their community every two years on the content of their health education programme. According to Section 60B of the Education Act 1989, every school Board of Trustees is required to inform the school community about the content of the sexuality education programme and consult with members of the school community regarding the way in which the school should implement this education.
Following this consultation, a school sexuality education policy and programme are constructed. In reality, the definition of ‘consultation’ can be interpreted quite broadly. Some schools send out information in school newsletters, others organise information evenings. Some schools don’t do much consulting at all. This doesn’t mean they are ‘bad’ schools, it’s just that the reality for schools is that they are operating in a jam-packed curriculum in an environment focussed on literacy and numeracy. Sometimes sexuality lingers at the bottom of that ‘to do’ list. Some schools put a lot of effort in to the consultation, and many receive absolutely no feedback from their community.
2. What if I don’t want my child to participate in sexuality education?
There are many reasons why parents may consider withdrawing their child from the school sexuality education programme. Indeed, following the media frenzy last week over sex ed, I guess more parents will be considering this.
It’s been widely mis-reported in the media this week that parents need to sign a consent form for their children to participate in a school sexuality education programme. They don’t. Some schools choose to do this, but it is not required. Legally, every school is obliged to inform parents what the programme consists of and no contact from a parent conveys to the school that they are happy to have their child participate in sexuality education. There is provision under section 25AA of the Education Act 1989, for parents to write to the principal to request that their child be excluded from sexuality education. Note that this exclusion does not apply to other times during the school day when a teacher deals with a question raised by another student that relates to sexuality education.
3. But I don’t want my child learning about contraception!
If you feel this way, it’s important you discuss this with your Board of Trustees and Principal. If you do feel strongly about this issue you may decide to withdraw your child. However you need to know that the 1990 repeal of section 3 of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977 removed all restrictions on the advice and supply of contraceptives to those under 16 years of age. Young people of any age now have the right to access information about contraception and to be supplied with contraceptive products without parental consent. In reality, this means that if your child wants information about contraceptives, the school is able to provide this, regardless of parental consent.
Part two coming up later this week. It will answer the question: "What SHOULD my child be receiving as part of a quality sexuality education programme?"
**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.
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 are ignored.
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:
The 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.
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. — Sophie
Stock 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.
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.