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.)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most women have a very vivid memory of where they were when they got their first period, what they were doing and how they felt. I was 12 and very reluctant to grow up – life was good as a little girl! On the day my period started I was playing make-believe games with my little brother and sister in our garden and I noticed blood on my undies. I cried and cried and cried. I sat by the window for the rest of the day, watching my siblings play, having decided with great sadness that now I had my period I was too old to play those games. I felt a real sense of loss, and also despair that I was no longer in control of my body.
My experience was very different to my colleague Danni Miller's:
I didn’t get my first period until I was 15 years old. I was the last within my circle of friends, and by then, even my younger sister was a veteran (oh the indignity). You’ve never seen a teen girl more prepared for this milestone than I was. I had been carrying tampons in my school bag for so long I think they may well have past their use-by date! I had even had practice in breaking the news to parents as my best friend had been too embarrassed to tell her mother when she started her period and I had broken this news for her : “Mrs Manton, our Janelle has become a woman…” The main feeling I recall when I started menstruating was that of relief. Finally, I was in the “big girls” club! I was so elated I ran into my school assembly and screamed out “I have my period!” to my friends- not realising the teachers were already present and waiting to start. My Year Advisor was very gracious and began the assembly by congratulating me.
Research indicates that this moment is happening at increasingly younger ages than in previous generations. Over the past 20 years, the average onset of menstruation has dropped from 13 years to 12 years, seven months, and indications are it will continue to drop. As the average age has dropped by five months, it means that those girls at the lower end of the bell curve are also starting earlier. So nowadays it is increasingly common for girls to start menstruating as early as 8 and 9 years old. Researchers have found that 15 percent of American girls now begin puberty by age 7 (measured by the girls’ level of breast development). This is twice the rate seen in a 1997 study, and the findings are likely to be similar in New Zealand and Australia.
Why are girls reaching puberty earlier?
Some of the more widely supported theories about why this is happening are:
Traditionally, puberty has marked the transition from childhood to adolescence or adulthood. Many girls absorb the message that beginning menstruation means that they are a woman. Just as I did, some girls who get their periods early can experience a sense of grief and loss, as they don’t feel ready to leave childhood.
For many girls, puberty marks the moment that they start to define their self-worth by the way they see themselves in the mirror. And all too often the girls don’t like what they see. Such a response is understandable: at the same time as girls are experiencing an increase in body fat and a widening of their hips, they are bombarded with messages from the media that suggest the perfect beautiful body resembles a prepubescent male or has proportions that can only be achieved through disordered eating or extreme Photoshopping.
Ella: I was so embarrassed by my body when I was younger that I couldn’t tell my mum I’d started my period, when I was 13. I lost it for 2 years thereafter as my weight plummeted, so I didn’t really have to deal with it and when it came back I was so angry. It meant a) that I had to deal with this THING happening to my body and b) I wasn’t a ‘good enough’ anorexic. My mum tried to talk to me about it, but I’d just slam doors and refuse to talk about it, or hide under my bed.
I found the changes in my body very distressing. I remember when I started growing breasts, initially at 12–13 and then again when I’d gained weight at 16–17 and I’d make deals with God that if I didn’t eat/was nice to my brothers/did all my homework/didn’t shout at my parents/etc., etc., that these things would go away. They didn’t. Now I’m kind of glad of that.
It is particularly concerning that evidence suggests that girls who reach puberty earlier have a more negative body image than girls who reach puberty when older.
Some girls eagerly anticipate their first period because they believe it will propel them into a world of sexual desirability and adult experiences. For girls at both ends of the spectrum, we need to be quite clear that getting your period does not equate to womanhood. Becoming a woman is far more than our bodies changing. We need to be careful about the symbolism we use surrounding menstruation and the expectations we place on girls.
Experiencing puberty at a younger age means that girls’ childhoods are being compressed and often their minds are not ready to deal with the changes that their body is going through. Many struggle to understand and cope with hormone-influenced emotions and sexual impulses, and are not ready to deal with sexual interest from males. Physical maturity often doesn’t reflect girls’ cognitive and emotional development.
In their study of the evolution of puberty, New Zealand researchers Gluckman and Hanson concluded that for the first time in human history we are maturing physically much earlier than we are maturing psychologically and socially. Meanwhile, our education system and our expectations as parents are grounded in the 19th century, when there was a closer match between physical and psychosocial maturity. “There will have to be adjustment to educational and other societal structures to accommodate this new biological reality,” they write.
The effect of this “new biological reality” is compounded by our consumer culture’s relentless march to shorten childhood. Prior to the late 1990s, marketers had not discovered the concept of tween, a phenomenon that now has girls wearing makeup and high-heels and their parents taking them to beauty salons or to get waxed. And the target market gets younger and younger, as we’ve seen with child beauty pageants. Earlier physical maturity, coupled with a highly sexualised society where girls are bombarded with the notion that sexual desirability is of utmost importance is a toxic combination – which is why it’s more important than ever to keep talking with our kids and showing them we love them for who they are, not for what they look like.
This is part one of a three-part series. In next week’s post, I will look at what parents can do to best support girls through puberty. I am seeking personal stories about experiences with school sexuality education. Please email me your stories!
A couple of months ago Universal Royalty announced that they were heading to Australia. That's right, the company of 'Toddlers and Tiaras' fame decided that Australia needed to glitz up their kids, and they were the people to help!
But there was a strong voice of opposition in Australia, and many voiced outrage at the proposal. Catherine Manning founded Pull The Pin and rallies were held all around Australia to draw attention to the pageants and the the harm they cause. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists have backed calls for child beauty pageants to be banned, saying they encourage the sexualisation of children and can cause developmental harm. The chair of the college stated "We're giving these kids messages that how they appear, how they perform and standards about what they're to come up to is actually more important than what they're like inside."
Catherine is an Enlighten Education colleague of mine, and last week when Universal Royalty announced they were also New Zealand-bound, Catherine asked me to coordinate the Pull The Pin campaign in New Zealand. I felt honoured to be asked, and set up the Pull The Pin NZ facebook page.
We are campaigning to end all child beauty pageants in New Zealand. It is our view that pitting young girls against each other in a competition based on physical beauty is potentially harmful to their development, and can lead to lowered self esteem and other conditions including eating disorders and depression. We are also concerned with the adultification and sometimes sexualisation of pageant entrants, and their engagement in adult cosmetic treatments such as waxing and spray tanning. We are calling on the government to legislate to stop parents and pageant organisers from exploiting children by enforcing age restrictions on beauty pageants and adult cosmetic procedures (unless for medical reasons).
We will be co-ordinating public rallies once we have more information on when and where these pageants will be held.
It's been fantastic receiving so much support on this issue - it is definitely a topic that many New Zealanders feel strongly about!
New Zealand media coverage over the last couple of days:
Enlighten Education's CEO Danielle Miller was interviewed this morning about the sexualisation of girls and the effect that child beauty pageants have:
And if you needed any more convincing that these pageants are NOT something we want to become a part of kiwi culture, check out this video featuring Universal Royalty's Eden Wood:
In 2009 I was in a yoga class with the wonderful Nat from Zing. My mind was wandering to this seemingly far-off, unattainable goal of being a freelance educator - creating and delivering inspiring and empowering programmes that change people's lives. In a lightbulb moment I suddenly realised that I needed to start on that goal - NOW. There was never going to be a better time. By the time I got home from that class there was a plan in place. On reflection, I had been in great need of some destuckification and something about Nat's class got me on-track. (Thanks Nat!)
It's been quite a journey. I let go of the ridiculous notion that I would be a neglectful mother if my son spent time in a daycare (I compromised on two days a week and became a night owl. I also cried in the classroom the first morning I had to leave him). I created my own website on a $50 budget (yes, this one - it's nothing fancy, but don't think you need oodles of cash to get a website). I started writing again, and discovered I love it, and I started reading reading reading. And then I made sure I told the people who were writing the amazing stuff how great I thought it was. Most importantly I started to get out and about in the world telling people who I am and what I do. It took a fair amount of courage, because I don't think we live in a society where it's seen as admirable to 'think big'.
I was clear in my mission: To empower youth to build positive relationships based on respect, love and healthy choices. I knew how I was going to do this. But I was stuck on a name. What do I call what I do? I got myself a Facebook Page and connected with some amazing people, but I didn't want to just brand myself as 'me'. It's going to be bigger than that. I got a little stuck again, trying to define what it was that I was going to be doing.
Then I made a great decision: I would have this clarified by the end of these school holidays. The thing I love about deadlines is that it prompts me to action. I am one of those sorts of people who never reads the instruction manuals, but just jumps right in. It's not always a great result, and I admit I do break a LOT of stuff, but I am definitely a woman of action rather than contemplation. So, having set my deadline, I was ready to jump right in and could barely focus on anything else. (Warning: Hanging out with me can get monotonous if I am in a 'stuck on an idea' frame of mind).
Last night I told my mother that I wanted this name to incorporate the idea that I wanted to encourage people to start having conversations, to be authentic and real and honest - to encourage "good talks". And then I suddenly realised I had it - "Good Talks".
I couldn't sleep last night because I was too excited. This thing is launched already - I would love you to come and join the conversation.
On Saturday I got a text message from a friend tasking me for advice on car seats for their baby. Car seat safety is an issue I am very passionate about and I believe it is something that needs to be talked about MORE. So I decided that today I would post an email I sent to many of my friends this time last year, after being in a car accident.
6th April, 2010
Sol and I were recently in a car accident and this made me totally reassess his carseat situation. (We were fine, but both cars are written off). The shock at how easily a lovely sunny day could have turned so awful scared me. I spent a lot of time researching a replacement car seat. Frankly, I was horrified at what I discovered.
The current popular practice in NZ, Australia & the USA is that children rear-face until they are a year old. In following this ‘rule’, it was a lovely milestone for us when Sol started forward-facing at a year. I had no idea that in doing so, he was 75% more likely to be injured or killed if we were in an accident. Why? – mainly because the weight of the head in comparison to the body is so much higher in young children, and in a head-on collision children who are forward facing are likely to suffer from 'internal decapitation' of the head. In contrast, when a child is rear-facing, the whole body — head, neck, and torso — is cradled by the back of the safety seat in a frontal crash. The odds of severe injury to a forward-facing child are five times greater than a child in a rear-facing seat.
Our child restraint laws and recommendations are woefully inadequate. In Scandinavia many children are rear-facing until they start school. After researching this issue, I had no option but to get a seat that allowed Sol to rear-face as long as possible, hopefully until he is 4 years old.
The main comment I have got from people is “Oh, my child would HATE to go back to rear-facing” – I said exactly the same. As have most other parents I have spoken to about it. The funny thing is, I have not heard of one child who cared at all! I got Sol a big mirror, he was chuffed and couldn’t care less whether he faced forward or backward.
There has been quite a lot of media coverage in NZ regarding child safety restraints, after some horrific accidents over Easter. Campbell Live featured this issue this evening. The other important message from this is that car seat belts do not fit properly until children are 148cm tall – this means some 75% of nine and ten year olds still need to be in booster seats.
All young children should be rear-facing - if you need any more convincing, I highly recommend you view the videos of these crash test dummies (the crash test dummies part is at about 1min28). And here and here for information from NZ sites.
All I hope is that this email may make some people consider having their child rear-facing for longer. And that this in turn may save an injury/death. I would love you to forward this message to anyone you know with young children.
With love, Rachel
- Last month I was delighted to hear that the USA has revised their child car seat restraint guidelines so that children should now rear-face until they are two years old, children should be in boosters until they are 8 - 12 years and no children should sit in the front seat until they are 13 years old. This news clip is an excellent overview of these guideline changes and the reasons behind them.
- One year on, Sol turns three later this month and is still happily rear-facing...
- This article about a New Zealand two-year old in an car accident has a compelling comment at the end regarding rear-facing.
I am fascinated by the way media portrays gender. Particularly gender as it applies to children. The images, the colours, the words.
As the mother of an almost-three-year-old boy, I am becoming increasingly aware of the gender-limiting stereotypes he is surrounded by.
Many of my son's favourite past-times are what toy companies would tell me is "typical boy behaviour" - any random stick becomes a gun, he loves nothing more than rolling on the floor wrestling with his Dad, he is fearless of heights and water, and he is fiercely competitive. But what all toy marketers seem to ignore is that my boy also loves cooking, "helping" fold laundry, wearing jewellery, vaccuming, dressing up and painting his nails.
Yesterday I discovered that Canadian Chrystal Smith had created a word cloud comprising of the words used in television advertising for children's toys. Two word clouds were created - one for toys aimed at boys, and one for toys aimed at girls:
I stared at these two images for ages.
I love that 'fun', 'magic' and 'love' are the top words used for girls. I don't love it that these are closely followed by a whole lot of words pertaining to beauty and fashion.
I don't mind that 'battle' and 'power' dominate the words used for boy's toys - I enjoyed many hours immersed in imaginary wars as a child. But it really concerns me that I can't see any words relating to caring, nurturing or relationships.
I haven't stopped wondering since I saw these - will the TV advertisements in NZ show a similar picture? This is my homework this weekend. Watch this space!
The words we use create our reality and shape our perceptions. Today's children are the most marketed-to generation of all time and the words they hear have a huge impact on their values and beliefs. Looking at the words used to market prized possessions to them makes me very angry about the reality we are creating for our kids.
I have had a number of conversations with parents this week on the expectations society puts on children and teens. I often blame the influence of raunchy music videos, inappropriate toys and the dreadful role modelling by Hollywood starlets. These conversations made me think about this photo I took a few months ago in the 'children's' section of a local bookstore:
Another mid-30s friend reminisced about reading various Judy Blume titles as a 12-year old. Notably 'Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret', and 'Forever'. and questioned whether these novels were in a similar vein. The former followed a girl's anxious progression through puberty, including her pleas to God to give her some breasts. The latter was a tale about first love - and the couple's foray into physical intimacy and eventially, sex. Prior to this happening, the couple is in a committed loving relationship, they discuss their feelings thoroughly and visit a family planning clinic for contraception. The language used in the book titles in the photo - 'sex god' and 'full frontal snogging' just don't seen quite as respectful and loving?!
I have not read the books in the photo - they may well be excellent literature. I just don't think they should be in the children's section of a bookstore.
Image from www.childmatters.org.nz
This morning my 2 year old son:
Lead story: "A 24-year-old man has appeared in court on a charge of assault after the body of a five-year-old girl was found in her Napier home early this morning."
Another story: "Child advocacy organisations are calling on those that turned a blind eye to the systematic abuse of a nine-year-old Waitakere girl to be held accountable."
More statistics to add to New Zealand's appalling child abuse record.
After a morning delighting in the happiness of my toddler, this shocked me back to reality.
Far too many kiwi kids are not spending their Christmas holidays filled with care and love. Too many children have days full of fear and pain.
I am sick of reading about the deaths of innocent children, and subsequently of the individuals that turned a blind eye to the abuse. A number of people have already admitted that they knew about the horrifying situation the 9 year old girl in Waitakere had been enduring for two years. I am sure that right now there will be many people wrestling with the guilt of not saying anything that could have saved the life of the 5 year old girl in Napier.
I wish that every child in our community could enjoy a Christmas free of violence and anger. But domestic violence surges over the festive season. So I know I will read about more violence and possibly more deaths before this festive season is over.
We all need to take responsibility for this epidemic. People are working hard, very hard to address the problem. Child Matters is one such organisation. Visit this website, read the material, support their work. And in the midst of your Christmas celebrating, do think about the many kids in our communities for whom Christmas means a very different thing than the Disney fairytale.
Maybe we all need to consider what we each can do to help in the fight against this epidemic when we are pondering our 2011 resolutions.
Dressed in a slinky red evening gown with long blonde hair, lengthy dark eye-lashes, sultry eyes and immaculate make up, Sasha Bennington looks every bit the glamour model ready to strut down the catwalk or pose for a fashion magazine cover. But Sasha is eleven; strip away the makeup and the sexy clothes, she is a little girl lost.
Following on from Tuesday's 'Baby Beauty Queens' on 60 Minutes, last night 20/20 featured young Sasha and her family (from Manchester, UK). They were interviewed about Sasha’s “career” and their aspirations for her. It was a disturbing episode. With hundreds of dollars spent on her beauty regime every month, Sasha’s mother dreams of her daughter's future celebrity status – “I want Sasha to get every opportunity she can”. She seems to pay her daughter the ultimate compliment as she describes her looking “like one of those little Cindy dolls you play with”.
After Sasha's mother described her daughter as confident and talented, when asked to describe herself, Sasha says “Three words to describe myself? – pretty, blonde, dumb... I am stupid”, followed by inane laughing of mother and daughter. Sasha later points out that “I don’t need a brain”.
I acknowledge that such “current events” TV shows do often highlight the freaks and absurdities in our society, and I predict that the overwhelming majority of people who viewed this in NZ last night would share my views. Examples such as Sasha Bennington are the extreme: However, for many girls and young women growing up today, there is a similar pressure to achieve the looks and body of the models that surround us in magazines, TVs and billboards.
It seems in many circles, the backlash against beauty contests, begun by the feminists in the 70s has well and truly turned full-circle. With our society obsessed with reality TV shows, offering the average punter their chance of “fame” and “making it”, is it any wonder that we are now seeing a resurgence in the popularity of beauty contests? For parents, they are the ideal training ground for such shows as Next Top Model, Idol etc. Sasha's take on it: “Like, 20 years ago, people cared about careers and stuff, but now it’s what you look like”.
Such child beauty contests have not made it to NZ (that I am aware of), but a part of me thinks it is only a matter of time. I hope I am wrong.
In the words of Kahlil Gibran, “beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart”. Child beauty pageants and all that surround them kill that light in the heart.
Last week a group of 9 & 10 year old girls gyrating their way through a sexy dance performance horrified many, me included.
The girls are obviously talented dancers, but the sexy skimpy black lacy outfits combined with the provacative dance moves amount to a degrading and totally inappropriate performance.
Facing widespread criticism, the girls parents have defended their daughters' performance:
"The costumes are designed for movement and to show bodylines..."
This interview makes the whole episode that much sadder for me. The parents seem to have missed the point entirely. As Danielle Miller, in the clip below points out, these girls are actually more scantily clad than Beyonce was in the original music video.
I think one issue that this interview with the parents raises is how public our lives have become. Whereever your children are, whatever they are doing, there is a chance that their activities are being videoed and that this video could end up on the world wide web.
If these girls had performed this dance a few years ago, it's highly unlikely anyone except the attendees would ever have seen it. However, it's 2010 and someone videoed the performance, put on YouTube and it went viral - it's now been viewed over 2 million times. The saturation of technology in our lives and the ease at which information can be spread across the world means that as parents we have to be ever more vigilant about protecting our children against exploitation.
Everyone's lives seem to be so busy. I sometimes fall in to bed at night wondering what even happened that morning - the days are so full of lovely friends, inspiring work, and of course the mundane stuff such as washing the clothes, the dishes...
Today I realised the ability that children have to help one forget about all the concerns and deadlines in the world and focus on the 'real stuff'. This morning my son and I danced in the beautiful autumn leaves for the first time together. It was such bliss to run through a carpet of crunchy orange leaves and throw them up in the air and feel them falling on our heads. Moments like that I will treasure for ever. Although it did make me realise: that was the first time I had done that since I was a child.
This morning my friend Alice shared a true story with me and it made me stop and think about how busy and rushed so many of us are, and how in the busy-ness of everything we can so easily forget about beauty and 'life'. I wanted to share it with more people. (Thanks Alice!)
In Washington , DC , at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities.
This experiment raised several questions:
(The full story, with video clips, can be viewed here.)
The part of this that really touched me was the image of the mother hurrying her child along. I have been that mother! I am going to try and remember this story whenever I have the urge to hurry my child along. I need to appreciate and love that children don't follow deadlines, and this is the beauty of childhood.
Some people claim to have bad memories. But asked if there is one memory that sticks right there as vividly as it were yesterday, many people define it as that moment they learnt about sex. It's interesting asking adults about the moment they learnt what sex was. Everyone’s experience is so different and more often than not, it is a memory tinged with laughter and nostalgia. Unfortunately for others, it is surrounded by shame and secrecy. For me, I am lucky it is the former. And here is my story.
I grew up in the country and attended a wonderful little village school that was like an extended family. These were such happy days and the presence of media and advertising rarely penetrated. Multi-coloured king-fu shoes were about the height of fashion awareness: functional clothes ruled. We gained status from how fast we could run and how long we could reign champion at four square or padder tennis. My parents had grown up in the city and were determined to experience all manner of menagerie on our 3 acre block – chickens, donkeys, goats, sheep, calves, ducks... and we kids were witness to mating, births, deaths and even vet students castrating our pet donkey (the operation photographed in graphic detail by my Dad and placed in the family photo album). In light of this, my naivety around sex was astonishing.
When I was nine my parents casually gave me the seminal tome “Where Did I Come From?” and I duly opened the pages. The book is filled with pictures of a nude couple who bath and then hop into bed together. The text tells you that sex is a really tight hug that makes you wiggle. Then something happens that feels like a sneeze, "but much better." I was horrified. People do THAT with each other? I just couldn’t believe that this was how babies were made!. Even worse, I had a younger brother and sister, so my parents had done this THREE TIMES!
Later my parents and I sat down in the lounge to expand on the conversation. They were open and keen to chat, but I was gob-smacked: All I could express was disgust. I think my Dad found my horror amusing and possibly a bit over the top and must have attributed this to the fact that I actually knew all along what was happening. He kept telling me it was OK if I had known already – as I sat there shaking my head in horror. Dad even asked me what I thought was happening when we took our lady goats to the man goat every autumn – I replied that I just thought they loved to jump round with new goats for fun.
Not long after this discussion with my parents, the topic came up amongst my group of girlfriends at school. We had all recently found out about the ‘facts of life’, and im hushed tones we were discussing it amongst ourselves ior the first time. My main memory of this conversation was how we all agreed how awful the concept of sex was. Then one friend realised in horror: Oh but I want to have children but I could never ever ever do THAT! We all nodded in agreement, the weight of the world on our shoulders. With heavy hearts we all made a pact that we would all have to adopt. I am still in contact with many of these friends and luckily I think we have all since broken that pact!
I would love to hear your story!
I love playing dress-ups; putting on a costume and becoming someone else for a while. As a girl, I remember finding great delight stomping round the house in Mum’s high-heels, her flowery skirts billowing up under my arms and beads trailing on the floor. Sometimes we’d pull on her old swimsuits and sarongs and pretend to be ladies at the beach. We were playing: we knew that those clothes weren’t little girls’ clothes.
But the line between women’s fashion and girls fashion is blurred these days as the fashion industry has realised that young children are ripe targets for their marketing. The ‘girls’ fashion’ industry has boomed and has resulted in girls’ fashion simply being smaller sized versions of what teenagers and women are wearing. At face value, this doesn’t seem something we need to be concerned about. However when this means that lacy lingerie, sexy jeans and high heels are now seen in the ‘girls’ clothes section, I feel horrified.
Yesterday, UK clothing chain store Primark withdrew from sale its range of padded bikini tops for girls as young as seven, following widespread criticism and outrage. The $4 bikini sets have been available in candy pink with gold stars and black with white polka dots. (Side note: Why do pre-pubescent girls need to wear bikinis anyway? In Europe I noticed most girls in similar swimming attire as boys until puberty – this made sense to me).
Primark has apologised to customers for "causing offence" and said it would donate profits to a children's charity. The company refused to discuss the bikini's padding but an anonymous source “familiar with the product said the extra fabric was designed to preserve a girl's modesty and prevent any signs of a developing breast from showing through”. ‘Preserve a girl’s modesty’!!! What an oxymoron. By tying a padded bra on them? Need I say more. Even more saddening, this comment furthers the attitude that somehow girls developing bodies are somehow shameful.
A number of UK politicians have condemned Primark for stocking such a bikini and several people have referred to the bikini as the “paedo-bikini.” But this phrase seems to be implicating girls for the behaviour of paedophiles, which in turn minimises the blame on the perpetrator. Girls and the clothes they wear are not to blame for paedophilia: paedophiles are to blame for paedophilia.
As the American Psychological Association (2007) report on the sexualisation of girls stated, "If girls purchase - or ask their parents to purchase - products and clothes designed to make them look physically appealing and sexy, and if they style their identities after the sexy celebrities who populate their cultural landscape, they are, in effect, sexualising themselves."
Mumsnet (UK) have launched a Let Girls Be Girls campaign. This campaign asks retailers to pledge not to sell products that prematurely sexualise children. They have an excellent list of reasons why we all should be worried about the sexualisation of girls clothing:
The upside to the Primark bikini debacle is that the media outrage has been universal. No one is suggesting that on any level are these bikinis acceptable. Let's take this opportunity to take a stand against the companies marketing sexualised clothing. On a personal level let's ensure that we all consciously clothe our children: they are children and they don't deserve to be sexualised.
To be an effective educator, I need to be constantly learning, so an important part of ‘what I do’ is reading. People often ask me for book recommendations, and I like to be able to help out here – we are all busy people, if I can help people short-cut the path to some fabulous resources, then that makes me happy.
I have recently read an wonderful book by an inspiring Australian woman, Danielle Miller. Miller’s passion is “to empower girls to grow into the bright, shiny adults they have the potential to be”. She is the founder of Enlighten Education, an organisation that offers workshops to girls in New Zealand and Australia promoting self-awareness, esteem, communication and acceptance.
So much media attention is directed towards the downfall of youth today and the pressures and dangers present in the lives of our children. In moments of rage directed at soul-destroying music or childhood-ruining marketing, I have been heard to announce, “Right, that’s it. We’re running away to an isolated commune with no access to all this!”. But I don’t run away: I fight. (In the most positive non-aggressive way of fighting!). These moments of rage are why I am doing what I am doing. But I know that as a parent, it is easy to become despondent. And that’s exactly why I love Miller’s new book, 'The Butterfly Effect'. It brings me back to how we can all make a stand against the sexualised, commercialised, celebrity-focussed, fake barrage of images and noise thrust at our children.
‘The Butterfly Effect’ is a captivating book, offering a positive approach to raising girls. The challenges and pressures faced by girls and their parents are explained and backed up with research as well as Miller’s own extensive experience. But far from adopting an ‘end of the world’ approach, Miller breaks down the different aspects of raising girls, and provides realistic solutions and advice. The book emphasises the impact of women as role models – particularly with regards to body image and diet. With the prevalence of eating disorders amongst our girls increasing at a disturbing rate, this is something that all women need to consider. How can your daughters/nieces/granddaughters learn to accept their bodies when the women in their lives are constantly dieting and are so critical of their own?
Miller’s approach to raising happy and empowered girls is based on forging deeper, more loving relationships – in Miller’s words: “When working with teenagers, it is important to engage them emotionally; if you can capture their hearts, their minds will follow.”
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, a book that kept me up far too late at night because I didn’t want to put it down. If you have girls, this is a book you simply must read.
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.