Media images vs girl talk

No doubt you've seen the Dove 'Onslaught' video on YouTube or some other blog (and read the comments about Unilever, which owns the Dove brand, being hypocritical in the messages it sends out), but today I was checking out the Bust magazine website, on which the comments went nuts over the Dove clip, and it prompted me to think:

Which media images had the most effect on my perception of beauty and femininity growing up and are my memories of them positive or negative?

A list of movies, models, film clips and magazine shoots ran through my head (in no specific order)...

- She's Out of Control, the 1989 movie about a 15-year-old girl (Katie) who gets a makeover (braces are removed, glasses are replaced with contact, new clothes are bought) and becomes the most popular girl in town – I distinctly remember the opening scene where Katie is madly exercising in her bedroom listening to crazy 80s music on her headphones.
- Tanned, tall, blonde surfer girls in ads for Billabong and Rip Curl.
- Krissy and Niki Taylor in my Dolly and Girlfriend magazines. Blonde, tall, toned, smiley, lush-lipped, big white teeth – they were perfection personified (till Krissy passed away that is).
- Alicia Silverstone in Clueless.
- A bikini shoot in either Dolly or Girlfriend magazine where the model was pictured sitting under a palm tree. I distinctly remember her long, curly brown hair, light tan, ample boobs and the curves of her hips – they were the most beautiful curves I'd ever seen. I wanted curves!
- Pamela Anderson and Yasmine Bleeth in Baywatch – how 'bout them curves!
- Mariah Carey dancing amongst the daises in tiny denim shorts and pigtails in the
"Dreamlover" film clip (Jessica Simpson, eat your heart out).
- The supermodels, in all their (relatively) full-bodied, catwalking glory: Helena, Naomi, Cindy, Linda, Christy...
- Linda Kozlowski in Crocodile Dundee.
- Christina Applegate in Don't Tell Mum the Babysitter's Dead.
- Letitia Casta in ads for Guess? jeans.
- a very young Katherine Heigl in My Father the Hero playing Gerard Depardieu's daughter (can you believe that was her?)

Mostly these girls had curves and smiles on their faces – and no police records. They were healthy-beautiful, not emaciated-skinny. They made me want to look like a woman, not a 10-year-old. And I still got messed up about food!

Seventeen magazine is the latest to jump on the love-your-body bandwagon (arguably started by Mia Freedman way back in the 90s – '97, I believe, as this year Cosmo celebrates 10 years of 'Body Love'), launching a campaign with Dove called "Body Peace Project", which is designed to help girls appreciate their shapes and "stop stressing over the beauty industry's preferred standards."

As a writer for a teen mag who's spent a good deal of time talking up 'Self Respect', I find myself at a crossroads. There is an obesity epidemic in this country, while around 2 per cent of women are suffering eating disorders. To what extent should teen and tween girls be made aware of how to maintain a healthy weight and to what extent should they be told to love their bodies just the way they are? What is the happy medium?

When I packed on the puppy fat aged 15/16, after ditching ballet class for boozey parties and Maccas meals, the only people who really mentioned the weight gain were an aunt (who poked my stomach), a ballet mistress (typical!) and my mum (something about looking "stocky" as a tried on bikinis). But when I lost the weight in my final year of school (I can't remember if I was on a diet, per se), all the girls at school came out and said how great I looked, which left me thinking, "Thanks, I didn't realise I looked so crap before!" In my head, weight loss then became associated with girl-approval. I don't remember any specific media images that affected me as much as comments made by those around me.

On some magazines, this high-school like culture of complimenting women on their weight loss is rife. A colleague told me today that on one women's mag, "You look so ano!" is one of the highest compliments one can be paid. A couple of years ago, the same could be said of the magazine I work on (compliments always focused on how thin you were looking – and self-deprecation verbalised in terms of how fat you were feeling was common) but 12 months ago we decided to practise what we preach by stamping out such body-talk in the office (which is not to say we don't talk obsessively about food; in a 'give me a slice of that cake!' way). This may sound a little Stepford Wives, but the office has become a really wonderful place to work, free from the scent of guilt and negativity. We still go crazy-stupid when someone shows up wearing a new Sass & Bide skirt or sporting a funky new fringe, but the image-related compliments aren't weight or body specific. Coz there's more to all of us than what the scales reflect. I wonder if the team at Seventeen will follow suit?

Comments on Dove, health education versus positive reinforcement via 'body love' concepts, the influence of media versus your immediate friends/family on your self-image, and girl culture that encourages weight loss, if you have the time/inkling. Thanks!

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel

P.S. I'm making my way through Madison, UK Elle and Women's Health at the moment – expect reviews over the next few days.

P.P.S. Still can't believe that was the gorgeous Katherine Heigl who played the bitchy Nicole in My Father the Hero – must rent it out this weekend!

Busy bees need crutches

Oh, the sweet taste of irony.

On Sunday I read 'Put your feet up' by Paul Connolly in Sunday Life magazine, and today I found myself, once again, reluctantly putting my feet (okay, foot) up. After spraining my ankle in 'The Skipping Rope Incident' of Monday night, I took a trip-and-turn for the worst last night and wound up on crutches today. I have never had an injury of this kind (though I did always covet the casts and crutches of kids in primary school who were lucky enough to actually break something) – and I'm none to happy about being laid up.

Back to the irony part... the Sunday Life story examined the guilt we feel when we're not working or achieving something or being 'busy', as we all say, and why said guilt is hindering our ability to kick up our feet, enjoy the stillness, relax, smell the roses and find happiness.

"We've fallen victim to a culture of busy-ness, where people feel there's something wrong if they aren't busy. Consequently, many of us find it hard to relax in the first place," Paul Shepanski of Relationships Forum Australia told Connolly. "We're trapped in a cycle of making money and spending it."

Ah-ha, says Connolly: "If our working hours don't cut into our 'free time' significantly enough, consider, too, the long commute; the BlackBerry that beeps on weekends; the mobile phones that are always done; and the chores that need doing around the house."

Connolly goes on to reference Tom Hodgkinson, the British author of How To be Idle and How To Be Free, French economist (we all know the French love their free time) Corinne Maire, who wrote Hello Laziness: Why Hard Work Doesn't Pay, and Canadian writer Carl Honore, author of In Praise of Slow, who all promote idleness as a way of life. Hodgkinson says it's "only conditioning that makes us feel guilty when we sleep in; when we linger over a lunch eaten away from our desks; or when we slip out of the office early (or on time)."

Conditioning coupled with society and employer expectations, I think. Many of us find it hard to wind down from work weeks run on the adrenaline of pressure and expectation. Though employers have been championing 'work/life balance' practises through their HR departments for years, in some companies, and industries, ambition and dedication, as signified by consistently working overtime, are entrenched.

This is rife in the magazine industry, which is dominated by women. One Australian magazine editor is very well known for her past indiscretions relating to employees who were so bold as to leave on time (these young women would chuck their handbags across the floor and crawl past her office lest they be detected). Elsewhere in the industry, young writers, editors and designers slave away at their desks till well after sundown, on relatively pitiful pay packets, to meet tight deadlines and attract the approval of their seniors. Which is not to say all editors are Miranda Priestly-type characters who put the fear of God in their underlings – most of the Aussie editors I know, or have known, are driven and hard working but nice as pie. And many of the women who work in the industry are perfectionists who'd rather stay late, or come in while suffering head colds and gastro, than hand in sub-standard work, thus imposing impossibly high standards, requiring hours of dedicated work, on themselves. Working like a dog can also be highly addictive – if we're not buzzing about, we feel lost. We are loathe to give ourselves a break.

But how do we unwind on weekends? When does the work stop? After hours our diaries are crammed with social engagements (beauty editors are known to spend at least three weeknights at industry functions) and plans to exercise, while our weekends are full of the same, in addition to household chores and family commitments. Even 'mental health days', encouraged by some Aussie employers, are often spent madly running errands. Busy, busy, busy!

Is it not crazy that we've no time to chill out? Do we even know how? I honestly can't remember the last time I spent a day relaxing that didn't involve some kind of activity, like reading, writing or shopping. Is the only option to book a week in Bali to get away from it all? Or to quit work and move to Byron?

I think busyness, and work-guilt, is definitely conditioned, and it's unhealthy. I have always felt hugely guilty whenever sickness or plain old fatigue has prevented me from missing work (I've been known to take a morning off, then dose up with pain killers and trudge into the office to appease said guilt). And though I attend church most Sundays, they're far from the days of rest the Bible prescribes – there are social pages to be read, friends to be met, loads of washing to throw on...

I can't even imagine what being a working woman with a family would be like!

Methinks the whole ankle twisting event (not least 'cause it's happened twice in one week) is a clear sign from God that I should spend less time frittering my life away being 'busy' – 'cause 'busy' isn't necessarily 'good' or productive. In fact, sometimes I find myself cramming my days just to escape some of the big-picture questions looming over my life (i.e. Where to next? What does God want me to do with my life? Am I really happy?).

Now I've been forced into period of relaxation and introspection, I'm finally going to give myself a break. Plenty of time to contemplate life's bigger questions, and think over how I want to spend my days (more time with Husband, etc.) and live my life! As a very wise magazine journo said in an email to me today: "Manifest your ideal working conditions so that the universe can commence its magic." Ahh, busy is in the eye of the beholder.

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel

P.S. It is so typical that there are No New Magazines at my newsagent to read while I'm laid up like a drunken soldier! I am on a mission to hunt down the new Nylon...

Yes, ladies, we owe something to women's magazines

Did you ever read 'Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus?', the choke-me-up-like-a-funeral reply from New York Sun editor Francis Pharcellus Church to Virginia O'Hanlon's question of Saint Nick's validity? Well, for some reason (possibly because there are Christmas decorations on display at my supermarket... in October), this piece in today's Daily Mail, about the new book, Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenna Bailey, reminded me a little of that letter.

The book is essentially about how a group of women driven to lives of domesticity in the 40s and 50s, formed a correspondence club out of boredom and isolation, which gave them a creative outlet for articulate writing, validated their right to an opinion and helped them form an identity outside their often unhappy marriages. The letter that got the ball rolling, addressed to Nursery World magazine, read:

"Can any mother help me? I live a very lonely life, as I have no near neighbours, I cannot afford to buy a wireless. I adore reading, but with no library am very limited with books... I have had a rotten time, and been cruelly hurt, both physically and mentally, but I know it is bad to brood and breed hard thoughts and resentments. Can any reader suggest an occupation that will intrigue me and exclude "thinking" and cost nothing! A hard problem, I admit."

From this letter, the Cooperative Correspondence Club (CCC), edited by 'Ad Astra' (all the contributors used pen names) was born, which the Guardian describes as "somewhere between a round-robin newsletter and a fully fledged magazine". The printed material was circulated on a fortnightly basis, rather like a zine – its "handwritten articles sewn together and slipped between homemade decorative linen covers." The secret publication allowed the women to share recipes, indulge in sex talk, disclose marriage troubles, voice opinions about the war and encourage each other. Some of the quotes in the book, of the women's struggles, resonate even today: "I had never cooked a meal or ironed a shirt in my life when I got married..." (me too!).

Sometimes we are harsh on women's magazines because they fail to make us feel good about our credit card debt/complicated love lives/wobbly thighs (sigh, Jane made us feel okay about all those things) and sell their readers to advertisers to make money, but we forget that they have been a sort of secret sorority for women-kind, where no man dare venture, where we can indulge our love of frivolous things, such as $500 shoes, stationery to match our office space and risotto recipes, express our opinions (if only in the letters pages), vent, read news and reviews relevant to our lives, keep informed about wordly issues and share stories of battles with illness, post-natal depression, lost loved ones and affairs. They aim to relate to us, educate us and inspire us. And, despite their penchant for over-exposed celebrities and dieting stories, they are still very much a part of the modern female discourse (and, heck, this blog would be a little light on content if they weren't utterly fascinating to read).

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel