Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Feminist Sheros: Take Back Halloween

A year ago, in the Halloween Costume Challenge, I explored how to be creative and have fun with costumes that don't sexualize children or rely on racist or sexist stereotypes.

Today I attended a work event where we were encouraged to dress as our favourite Shero.  Costumes depicted a wide range of women who have gone before and led the way in sport, literature, medicine, science fiction, and music just to name a few.

My photography skills are limited and I only had a phone camera...  but this was such a perfect opportunity to capture a whole bunch of creative and empowering ideas for future halloween costumes. Please ignore the fuzzy photos and bad lighting and instead appreciate the evidence that it doesn't have to be a challenge to costume ourselves and our children as heros, sheros, role models and other powerful figures from history.

And just to keep this page smart as well as fun...  I've included links for more information on each of these Shero's, as needed!  

[Note... it turns out that the layout of all these photos & words isn't working well in mobile format so I hope you are reading it on a computer.]

Huge thanks to my colleagues who let me share their pictures here!!  

Starting with today's prize winner for best costume...   Clara Hughes

She is a six-time Olympian medalist, Officer of the Order of Canada and Member of the Order of Manitoba. As a spokesperson for mental health initiatives she has used her voice to reduce stigma and create positive social change.

 Two interpretations of  Rock 'n Roll icon 
Joan Jett; performing since the '70's she helped paved the way for women in rock music.

The most historical female of them all... 
Mother Nature

Annie Oakley (1860-1962), known for as a famous sharpshooter and performer in the Buffalo Wild West Show; She was also known for her philanthropy in the support of women's rights. 

This Shero doesn't need an explanation if you have daughters or were a child yourself sometime in the past 20 years!   Of course she is the beloved Paper Bag Princess from the story book by Robert Munsch. 

 Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) was first arrested for providing contraception to women in 1917 and arrested multiple times for speaking her mind.  She founded the organization that became Planned Parenthood.


 Tavi Gevinson is the 17 year old American writer who founded Rookie Magazine featuring topics that range from pop culture and fashion to social issues and feminism.  Unlike a few of our more historic Sheros, you can follow Tavi on Twitter

Velma Dinkley,  was the adorable brainiac part of the gang in the animated series Scooby Doo!

The iconic image of Rosie the Riveter shouldn't need an explanation, but there is a pretty fabulous collection of artifacts, stories and photos here of American women who served at the home front during the second world war.

Kathrine Switzer first ran the Boston Marathon in 1967 - five years before women were legally allowed to enter the race.  She tells her story here. 

Katherine was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2011 for creating a social revolution by empowering women around the world through running.

Fans of Battlestar Galactica won't need an introduction to Kara Thrace aka "Starbuck" one of television's most complex action (s)heros!
Perhaps she is a lesser known Shero to some... but here the management team pays tribute to our Executive Director, Joan Dawkins.  Well done team! 

Channelling Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this colleague arrived as her own Shero:  
Sharon the Patriarchy Slayer! 

Beloved Canadian author and feminist (and some hope... future Mayor of Toronto?)  Margaret Atwood

You can follow her on Twitter too! 

One ambitious colleague dressed to capture an entire genre... here she embodies Film Noir

I confess I couldn't find the Shero in the genre itself (femme fatale perhaps?) but I believe this costume was just an excuse to wear that stole and fabulous hat - and that is good enough for me! 

In case you aren't up on international punk rock protest groups, Pussy Riot is a  feminist Russian, guerrilla performance group. Two of it's members are currently in prison in Russia as a result of peaceful protests. Super fun costume but also a really serious issue! Please check out the link to learn more about these women and the organizations that are supporting their efforts to be released from jail:   Help Free Pussy Riot

And finally, the last Shero of the day... Athena, a goddess from Greek mythology. 

Athena is the Goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, just warfare, math, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts and skill. 

That pretty much sums up all the awesomeness of the women I spent my day with, numbering far more than those featured here. 

Have a safe, creative, empowered Halloween everyone!!    

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

International Day of the Girl 2013

Friday October 11th, 2013 marks the second annual International Day of the Girl.  

This campaign was initiated by Plan Canada, and the cause was taken up by thousands and thousands of supporters. Responding to advocacy efforts,  Canada proposed a resolution to the United Nations General Assembly. In December 2011, the UN declared that October 11th would be an annual international observance day in honour of the girl child.  You can read the full text of the resolution here.

Around the world girls face multiple barriers to education, and in many parts of the world they are at higher risk of poverty than their male counterparts.  Many are forced into early marriage and childbirth.  This day serves to shine a spotlight on these issues and to encourage action  all year round.

As stated by Plan Canada:
 ... when you invest in girls, the whole world benefits. If a girl has enough to eat, a safe environment, and an education, she’ll work to raise the standard of living for herself, her family and her community. And in time, she can even strengthen the economy of her entire country.  (The Girl Issue)
On October 11th, 2012, the very the first International Day of the Girl (IDOG), I was invited to facilitate a workshop and spend the day with several hundred girls from the Toronto District School Board's Young Women on the Move Program at an event hosted by Plan Canada and the Dove Self-Esteem Fund.

Participants had their awareness raised about the experiences of girls in developing countries, and many of them also brought their own knowledge and experience of having immigrated or been refugees from a country where their choices would be far more limited.  While systemic barriers to attending school and early marriage may not be an issue here in Canada, we talked about how our culture imposes barriers on girls as well.  Media pressures, lack of self-esteem or self-confidence and an over-focus on weight and body were issues that girls identified as getting in their way of achievement and healthy development. 

Throughout the day we had some fun with media awareness, learned about effective goal setting and practiced skills to overcome dis-empowering self-talk.  We discussed our responsibility to build up and support other girls as well as ourselves.  It was an honour and a privilege to share the day with such an amazing group including the  the fantastic, dedicated teachers that support them in this area of personal growth. 

This year, I'll spend October 11th at my counselling job... where I work with amazing & dedicated women providing support for other women who are working at eating disorder recovery.  Our work is a daily reminder that hunger (of the body and of the spirit) can also be a barrier to women's full achievement even in Western culture.

My contribution to IDOG this year is to use my blog as a platform for this remarkable event and invite you to support the important goals of International Day of the Girl.

Please consider donating your time or resources

I don't sell advertising to my blog and I don't earn any income from this writing but today I will ask this:     If you like what I write or if it has ever been helpful or raised your awareness about issues in the lives of girls and women... then please show your appreciation now by following the links below.   

You could donate money to help send a girl to school or discover other meaningful ways to help educate, empower and change the outcome for hundreds of thousands of girls around the world.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Help Your Daughter Navigate Social Cliques

Does your daughter want to hang out in the popular crowd at school but then act like she loathes them at the same time?

YA novels, TV shows and movies glamorize rather than stigmatize the idea of cliques. In fact, in these shows, the most popular girl may be the least likeable by grown-up standards. Years ago when my friend had a daughter in middle school, she noticed that the meaning of the word popular had changed over the decades since we were in school. Popular used to mean the girl that had a lot of real friends and that everyone liked. Today popular may mean something more like the most influential girl, or the most powerful girl in the group but she also may be the most feared, rather than the most likeable one.

Photo by Karin Vlietstra at zalouk webdeesign
The message to girls is that if they are not going to be in the popular group than they had better be vocal about hating the popular group and show that they are too cool to care. 

This isn't a new idea. Remember the distinct stereotypes played out in The Breakfast Club in 1985? While the boys admired and feared Claire (preppy, rich Molly Ringwald), the other female character, Allison (wounded, angry Ally Sheedy) went out of her way to be a little odder, a little angrier, a little more outrageous than she really was in order to make it clear she had no desire to be like Claire or to be her friend. However, the truth was that each character craved connection and friendship and each one was fraught with worry that he or she was the real outcast.

Real life is not a movie but maybe that is a good starting point to have a conversation with your daughter. You could have a retro movie night and discuss the ideas in the Breakfast Club or in the movie Mean Girls [PG alert: Common Sense Media suggests that themes in both movies aren't appropriate for those under 14].  A more modern and even more exaggerated version of school cliques is found in the TV show Glee.  H
elp her analyze where fiction and real life are similar and where they are different.

Discussion points:
  • What are the cliques she sees at her school? 
  • What roles do people play? 
  • What are the social rules from her perspective? 
  • Where does she fit in?
  • What does she wish was different?
Everyone needs friends. Having a group to hang with and feel a part of is something that most people enjoy.  Unfortunately too many girls are learning to build themselves up and bond over putting others down.  Help your daughter find a group to bond with over shared interests instead.  Drama club? Math club?  The soccer team?  All of these give the opportunity to become part of a group, learn communication skills and get to know new friends.

Talk to your daughter about real friendships and what they feel like.  Does she recall a time when she was friends with someone and it just felt right? These are usually the friendships where girls can say what they think, dress how they want and be completely themselves. 

At my house we frequently rely on books to help us address complicated issues. These are some of my favourites on this subject:

Elements of this blog post first appeared in my 
Ask Lisa column for the Dove Self-Esteem Fund 

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Dear Phys Ed Teacher...

My daughter is one of dozens of new middle school students just experiencing their first taste of a big new world beyond the elementary schools in their community. For my daughter it is the very first time she has to "dress" for gym. She has been excited to learn new skills and try sports that weren't available at her previous school. I'm so happy for her that she is still confident in her body and in it's abilities.

I was excited to hear all about her first gym class today until this is what I heard…

She told me how glad she was that she wasn't the one who jokingly got called a "loser" more than once during the class. She is certain that the boy involved "didn't mind" and that he was maybe "encouraging it" but she was just as happy that it wasn't her that was at the receiving end of that nickname from the teacher.

Then she told me how glad she was that it wasn't her that the teacher pointed to as an example of "what not to wear" for gym class. That girl "turned bright red" and "seemed really embarrassed" because the teacher pointed out that her bra straps were showing and used her outfit as an example of what is not appropriate to wear.  Next the teacher told all the girls that "you can't have your boobs hanging out because it is a distraction for the boys."

I don't know if those were the precise words used since I wasn't in the room...
 but those were the words my daughter heard and brought home to her parents.  She also noticed another girl who was more developed than all the rest in the room, start tugging her T-shirt higher at the neckline and look uncomfortable with the attention that had just been placed on all the "boobs" in the room.

This is what we talked about at home that night:
  • Sometimes bra straps show and it is not a crime or anything to be ashamed of. Showing them off shouldn't be the point of the outfit but if it happens - it isn't worth being stressed out over. 
  • Girl's are never ever responsible for boy's thoughts or behaviours - no matter how they dress.
  • Sometimes boys will be distracted by girls and sometimes girls will be distracted by boys.  Girl's bodies are not actually ever a "problem". 
  • Some girls are much more developed than others and it can be really hard to feel like all anyone notices about you is your breasts. It must be especially hard to be the girl whose breasts were the centre of attention and referred to as a "distraction" in front of both boys and girls.
  • Even if you hear an adult do it - it is never okay to call people losers or other demeaning names. 
Having worked as a counsellor with youth who often struggle with negative body image & self-esteem, I know that gym class is notorious for being a difficult experience for some kids. This is particularly true for those who don't feel skilled or athletic and those who feel uncomfortable in their bodies for a wide variety of reasons.

I'm certain that you want to make your classes body-friendly environments where girls and boys can have the confidence to try new things, take healthy risks in order to learn and grow and feel safe under your leadership. 
With that goal in mind, please consider addressing the subject of appropriate clothing for gym class in a different way.

Here are some suggestions:

  • You could tell the kids that gym clothes should be comfortable, not too tight and allow room for moving and breathing freely.
  • If you require their shorts to be a certain length or their neckline to reach a certain height - say so. You can do that without centering anyone out or telling anyone that his or her body is a problem in any way. 
  • If you have genuine concern about a girl not being dressed appropriately by school dress code standards - please speak to her privately.  It is possible to do this in a gentle constructive way and use the opportunity to build your relationship with her; she may be a girl who needs a reliable adult to talk to at some point. 
  • It would also be helpful to include your gym class dress code guidelines on the school supplies list that is provided to families weeks before school starts. Parents are still the ones supplying and/or approving the clothing worn by most 11 and 12 year old children.
  • Finally, please don't call children losers - even as a "joke" - even if they are playing along. You are a role model and you have the awesome opportunity to work with kids in ways that build their self-esteem and create a positive learning environment for everyone. Make the most of it! 
Sincerely, a concerned mom.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Pre-teens, Cell Phones & Planning for Success

I’ve been away from blogging for a few months.  While trying to figure out my priorities and better balance work,  family and leisure time,  I've been  wondering where blogging fits in.  Maybe it is the sheer volume of blogs in my own Facebook & Twitter feed but I sometimes think there are just too many blogs in the world!  Then I started questioning if  I really have anything fresh and original to say about anything.  Is there really one more thing to be written about the VMA's?

No,  probably not… but I enjoy the process of writing and it helps me to work through some of the parenting challenges I face every day.   So I’m giving this another shot.  Despite Miley and her recent soul-sucking performance and many other more important world issues, today I'm blogging about the three things dominating the conversations at my house this week:  new school, city buses and cell phones.

Next week my daughter heads off to a new school – taking three city buses each way.  It is actually a short drive but a crazy bus route in a city that has two rivers running through it and a transit system that was poorly designed.    These two facts (new school, city buses) have led us to get her a cell phone.   I’m the parent who always answered that particular plea with “when you are at least 16 and you make enough money to pay the bill”.    And then this summer we stepped back and said .." uh oh ... maybe we need her to have a cell phone..."   I haven’t spotted a single phone booth on that school route.  There are going to be missed connections.  Sometimes the temps reach -40C in the winter.  There will  be after school clubs and the need to find a way to pick her up after special events.   How will we manage to stay in touch without a cell phone?

Some of my readers will be rolling your eyes at my worries... your kids were sporting iPhones in second grade.  You may be thinking I worry too much or am just out of touch with youth culture.   And I’m going to guess that if you are judging me harshly that you probably didn’t grow up with a rotary dial phone that shared a phone line with your grandparents house next door! (Really... I knew that it was possible that Grandma could be listening in on every word!)

Photo Credit: Christopher Brown

Why would we be worried?   Recently a friend found “sexting” messages on her 13 year old daughter’s phone.  Another friend has a child whose ADHD and impulse control issues have been wildly exacerbated  over the years by her need to respond to every message the instant it arrives.  Families have faced hundreds of dollars in unexpected cell phone charges and one girl I know has plunged into both a  swimming pool and a hot tub while holding her cell phone – on two separate occasions.   Then there is the whole, well documented, issue of kids being incredibly short on sleep in this generation...  attributed primarily to computers and cell phones in their bedroom.

Our parental “need” to be in contact ultimately overruled the worries so I thought I would share a bit about the approach we took in order to make this a successful experience.

My daughter came to the store so that she could be a part of the process and see that signing a contract is serious business (and that there is more to owning a cell phone than friends, photos and hot pink phone cases!)   While we opted not to have a data plan at this time we opted in to an unlimited text plan.   It may be inconceivable to me that some teenagers send several thousand a month...  but I've seen the sticker shock on parent's faces who made the mistake of a limited text plan and then received the first bill.

At home we have a contract of our own.  It is two pages long and outlines her responsibilities as well as ours.  These agreements will be different for each family but I recommend putting something down on paper and being very clear who actually owns the phone (we do!) and who sets the boundaries for it’s use (we do!).   We have limits around time of day it can be used and it will never ever stay in her bedroom when it is time for lights out.  She is responsible to keep it charged and be available to us when we want to reach her. 

We've also been working on communication skills and what is appropriate to say or share on one's phone.  This includes actually practicing with us how to politely exit a difficult conversation.  She has been learning to take a deep breath and wait until seeing that friend “in person” before responding to what may have felt like a hurtful remark or insult.    We’ve discussed what kinds of photos are okay to take and send and what ones can ruin your life or that of someone else.   

She is also being billed by us once a month for a portion of her cell phone fees.  We hope that this will begin to teach her about those kinds of financial responsibilities and to treat her property with respect.

Am I still worried?   Yes but I’ve begun to see this like the bus route to her new school...  it is simply a new path to navigate.   Just as we have practiced the route, learned where to cross the roads and get the next connection and how to ask for help if needed …  we are also teaching her how to navigate in a world that is more and more dominated by texting and instant messaging.   This is one more growing-up path to navigate and hopefully we’ve provided the right map to help her do it safely and without too many bumps along the way.

Monday, May 06, 2013

International No Diet Day

I am on a short family trip to celebrate my mom's 90th birthday and enjoying the love and company of a huge extended family and friends. Needless to say .. there has been food. Luscious spinach salad, sweet fresh fruit, perfectly roasted chicken, rich creamy pasta. Delicious food is often a very special part of family celebrations - no matter one's culture.  I am grateful for what we have shared together over the past few days.

I woke up this morning happy to satisfy my craving for hot coffee laced with real cream (while blessing the family we were staying with for having real cream in their fridge!) and toasted homemade multi grain bread with nut butter and sliced bananas. Then I remembered that today is International No Diet Day. And I was grateful, once again, for having ditched dieting years ago and learning to pay attention to my hunger and fullness cues as well as learning what the body really needs to function at its best.  I am grateful to live in a country where I can choose to satisfy a craving for something sweet with fresh berries even in the middle of winter. Grateful to trust my body to take care of me if I nourish myself well with a wide variety of foods, enough sleep and joyful activity. 

In honour of International No Diet Day (INDD) I am sharing a blog post I wrote last year as a guest writer for the  National Eating Disorder Information Centre blog.  I hope this offers something for you and I encourage you to visit the NEDIC blog as well for many other thoughtful articles about food, bodies and health.  

International No Diet Day

I recently spotted a greeting card that said “I’m on two diets. There is simply not enough food on one”. Within the humorous message resides a very real truth… dieting means never eating enough. No matter how many new, creative ways that diets are re-packaged and marketed, the point is always to restrict nutritional intake and energy below what the body actually needs to sustain itself. While the multi-billion dollar diet industry promises a better body, better health and indeed a better life we now know that long term weight loss is not achievable for the vast majority of people. Dieting can lead to the development of an eating disorder and even when it doesn’t, dieting teaches us not to trust ourselves and keeps us in constant conflict with food and our bodies.

International No Diet Day  was first celebrated 20 years ago. It was sparked by the passion and frustration of Mary Evans Young, who had recovered from anorexia. She is the founder of a UK organization called Diet Breakers and is the author of Diet Breaking: Having It All Without Having to Diet. 

To learn more about the history and goals of INDD see NEDIC’s article here:

My healthy and peaceful relationship with food and body started when I declared a no-diet life. If this idea is new to you, here is an opportunity to practice this new way of living for just one day.

Ten ways to celebrate International No Diet Day

  • Be mindful of your body’s hunger and fullness cues today. Enjoy tastes, textures and smells. Take pleasure in what you choose to eat. 
  • Practice self-care. We experience our bodies differently when we take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
  • Make a list of things you like about yourself – considering your appearance, strength, achievements, skills and personality. Read it over as often as you can.
  • Send cards or emails to several friends or family members and let them know what you love and admire about them.
  • Take a critical look at every diet ad you see today. Read the fine print and take note of misleading images and words.
  • If the lunch time conversation at work focuses on dieting or weight, educate your coworkers about INDD. Better yet, ditch the diet talk all together … take your lunch to a park or treat yourself to a delicious meal in a local cafĂ©.
  • Take your life off of hold; whatever you are waiting to do once you have lost weight – do it now. Use the money you would have spent on diet products. Get a haircut. Go swimming. Sign up for an art class or walking club. Start a vacation savings account.
  • De-clutter your book shelf. Today is the day to toss your weight loss magazines and diet books into a recycling bin.
  • Educate yourself on the myths about dieting, weight and health. A good place to start is the Association for Size Diversity and Health 
  • Reach out for help if you are preoccupied with dieting and weight loss; you may need professional support if you have used exercise, food restriction, or compulsive eating to cope with difficult emotions or other problems. Dieting is not the answer. A compassionate counsellor or support group can help you heal and learn more effective coping strategies.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Facebook Decision

Recently our almost-12-year-old presented us with a beautifully written entreaty on why we should let her get a Facebook (FB) account. This isn’t the first time it has been discussed in our house but it was the first time that we were ready to take the request seriously. In the past we have said "not until high school," which is still a couple of years away.  This time we were ready to negotiate.  In part because of her well thought out discussion points and partly because of the kid she is.  Thus far she has stayed out of the girl drama that goes on with this age group. She has been responsible with email and  understands some of the risks that exist in cyberspace. Just this year many of her friends have started accounts and right now she is worried about maintaining contact when she changes schools in a few months time. 

While I had a mental list of pros and cons, I still took to the internet to get an idea of just how other parents were making this decision and what factors were being considered.  I found many excellent tips on internet safety and helping your kids be smarter about social networking but I found nothing about making that initial tough decision to set up a FB account for you child.  For that reason, I am sharing our experience and decision. 

Why we wanted to say yes: 

  • Social networking is a fun, everyday part of her parent's lives.
  • FB presents opportunities for connection with relatives and friends who are far away. Many of our friends and family have accounts including my daughter’s 90 year old grandmother. 
  • It makes it easy to share political ideas, news and humour with each other. 
  • I already post family pictures visible only to my (carefully chosen) FB friends. I've gotten over any angst I had a decade ago about sharing photos or personal information to a limited online audience. 
  • My daughter belongs to several respectable organizations that have their own FB pages including girl guides and youth group. 

Why we thought we should say no: 

  • Her social skills, including conflict resolution and problem solving, are still young and developing. These are skills that we want to see greatly strengthened before unleashing her in the wilds of social networking. 
  • She could become a victim of cyber bullying. Realistically she could also become a perpetrator. She is a well-intended kid but we can’t trust that she will always know how to handle herself when emotions get heated or someone zings her first. 

The decision finally came down to her age. 

All of those pros and cons will still need to be considered after she turns 13.  But for now, FB rules explicitly state that you must be 13 years or older to have an account. In fact, they provide direction on how to delete your under-age child's account or how to report an account of someone under 13.

I’m not a rule follower by nature.. more of a rule challenger actually. However as a parent I have always tried to take the approach that if we don’t think the rule is a good one or a fair one… then we need to challenge it through the appropriate channels, not just break it.

For several years now I have grappled with the idea that kids have to lie about their age to get a FB account before the age of 13. Often it is their parents lying as they help them to sign up. I’ve assumed though that those parents have rationalized that it is a stupid rule and who cares what Mark Zuckerberg thinks is appropriate anyway? Parents are in fact the expert on their own kids and should be able to decide if they think it is okay for their children to have an account. Right?

Yet I don't want my daughter to lie about her age.  Not now. Not when she is 16 and trying to buy beer. Not when she meets a cute older guy and wants him to think she is older too.

And yes, I was a teen and NEWSFLASH.... I lied sometimes! Probably about all of the above. No real harm came to me as a result. The vast majority of children won’t be harmed because they lied about their age to get a FB account. However, even when I lied as a teen… I was always secure in the knowledge that my parents would never have condoned it. There is safety in that boundary. While I hope I am raising a girl who will challenge injustice and advocate against rules that cause harm,   I don't want to be the parent who says it's okay just to ignore the rules and do what you want.

So I was grappling with this age rule.  I was curious about FB's rationale for not “allowing” children under 13 to have an account, at least in theory.  It is well known that as many as one third of FB accounts belonging to those 18 and younger actually belong to children under 13.

Here are a few recent stats from  Consumer Reports :
  • Of the 20 million minors who actively used FB in the past year, 7.5 million—or more than one-third—were younger than 13.
  • Among young users, more than 5 million were 10 and under, and their accounts were largely unsupervised by their parents.
  • One million children were harassed, threatened, or subjected to other forms of cyber bullying on the site in the past year.  (2011)
So then I concluded… Mark Zukerberg actually doesn’t care. In fact, it is clear that FB actually wants kids on line yet wants to give the appearance that they are protecting children.  That is why they provide this safety information for parents  and these instructions for reporting underage accounts.

Digging deeper… I realized that the rule is in place because of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act  (COPPA). This is a US law enforced by the Federal Trade Commission . COPPA is all about protecting children under 13 from specific advertising,  having their private information made public or accessible for exploitation by marketers.

According to this article written by Tim Banks in January 2013, Canada contains no equivalent to COPPA.  However, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) seems to be developing some child privacy guidelines for advertisers and for websites that use tracking technologies. 

So what does all this mean for me, the parent?

I want laws to protect my child on line. I support COPPA and I am pleased to know that that on July 1, 2013 even further rules are coming into place that protect children's privacy.   I realized that letting my daughter have a FB account before she turns 13 essentially indicates that I  am willing to help advertisers gain direct access to her despite the laws in place to prevent that. Since I believe our children need more protections on line, not less, this approach made no sense to me.

It is important to know that:

  • From a marketing perspective, FB wants your children to have accounts... and will target them with specific ads developed just for them.  You child under 13 will be have the privacy protections of any other minor between 13-17 but not the privacy protections developed for children younger than 13.
  • Between the ages of 13-17 FB limits access to accounts in order to protect the privacy of minors
  • Minors can not receive messages from strangers (unless they are “friends of friends”); unlike adult account holders, who can be messaged by anyone.
  • Minors' photos and status updates are only visible to “friends” and “friends of friends” if they choose to make their accounts “public”. Their posts and pictures are not visible to anyone else.
  • On the day that the account holder appears to turn 18 years old,  FB notifies the account holder that they are now considered an adult and their previous privacy restrictions will automatically change. Sounds good right?  But let’s imagine you set up a FB account for your 9 year old and you indicated that she was 13. Then on the day of her 14th birthday, FB will think she is 18. Everything on her page could become public and none of the safeguards in place to protect minors will apply to her account any longer. If she had previously allowed “friends of friends” to see her photos… those photos could be available to anyone in the world with a computer. She may not have the awareness to know she needs to change her settings or why that is important.

There are about a million big and little decisions we make as parents from the moment our kids are born or adopted into our lives. The Facebook Decision is just one and the answer that was right in our family may not be the right choice in yours, but I thought it might help to share some of the factors that we considered.

In the end, we didn't have to get in to a complicated explanation of privacy laws and ethics.  A few days after her proposal to us about FB... our daughter came home from school and shared that one of her classmates had her account "hacked" and a stranger had posted pornography on her pages. The same week there was a news report of a local 12-year-old girl facing criminal charges due to online bullying. Those incidents were enough to put the conversation at rest for a while.  

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Eating Disorder Awareness

Today, February 3,  2013 is the start of Eating Disorder Awareness Week here in Canada. The US version of this annual event begins February 24. So this seems like a good time to delve into the topic on my blog.

For the past three years my primary occupation has been counselling and group facilitation  in a community based ED treatment program with adult women and men. With the support of an amazing agency and management team and together with passionate and brilliant colleagues,  I've had the unique opportunity of helping to imagine and create this program from scratch.   Prior to that, I spent 17 years working with teen girls, mostly as a counsellor and sometimes in other roles.  It was inevitable that I worked with body image issues, weight preoccupation and disordered eating throughout my career... these issues are far too common among adolescent girls. I also spent five years coordinating a prevention program that involved training volunteers to do body image workshops in schools.

With this history, some might see me as an expert in this field. While I learn new things every day,  I agree that I am more aware than the average person when it comes to eating disorders. I am aware of the symptoms and the potential outcomes. I know first hand the distress and despair that eating disorders cause an individual and his or her family. I teach others what may be most and least helpful when they want to help.  I read the research and consult with colleagues.  I've worked with people of all ages and in all stages of recovery or resistance to recovery.  I've spoken with their families.  I've heard their stories. I've worked closely with a woman who lost her daughter to an eating disorder and who herself has continued to fight tirelessly for services and awareness, in memory of her beautiful girl.

And then one day not so long ago, a serious and devastating eating disorder swept through my world in a deeply personal way.  A young woman whom I have loved since birth became ill.   I'll call her B. I saw the signs for a while... but was I right? B seemed thinner. She was clearly unhappy.  She was skipping out on the activities that she had been passionate about and no longer bringing her friends home.  Yet the rocky world of an adolescent has so many potential pitfalls... was I seeing something that wasn't there because I was hyper aware?  

B's family is nourishing, supportive, and very conscious of and attentive to adolescent development and challenges. Yet, early in B's adolescence, she had already suffered  serious consequences of alcohol use, had experienced dramatic conflicts with her parents and seemed to have lost the confidence that the younger B had displayed. I think we were all waiting for her to grow out of it. I stepped up ... bringing my skills to the relationship ...  talking to her whenever possible about her relationships, sexual decision making and being safe, how to access local teen clinics or counselling, and why it might be a bad idea to engage in some of the activities that her peers were engaging in. I talked with her about body image and included her in every self-esteem building opportunity I could.

Her parents noticed the body and eating changes too, yet there were so many issues, it was difficult to know what to prioritize.  B was in counselling for a long time but a developing eating disorder was not flagged as a critical issue. By the time that they, and I, were fully aware that a serious  eating disorder had taken over B's body and psyche, she met clinical criteria for anorexia nervosa with purging behaviours. She was admitted to a hospital day treatment program very quickly after her initial medical assessment. In other words, with all my awareness and knowledge, I missed this one and no amount of experience could halt the devastation in this family that I love. 

We now know that B's eating disorder was developing slowly over several years, taking over her body and brain.    It has been fourteen months since that diagnosis and B struggles. She has been in and out of treatment.  Unhealthy, too thin, depressed and often withdrawn, she nevertheless is functioning in the world... making plans for after high school graduation, partying with her friends and maintaining a part time job.  Still,  I often look at her and think of the title of a 1999 film, Girl, Interrupted.  In personality and physicality,  B is a shadow of her former self. We all miss the vibrant, creative, curious, outgoing girl. The girl who was deeply connected to her family and loved family vacations more than anything. There are glimpses of the real girl from time to time but she is often hard to spot amid the endless circular drama of eating disorder, depression and a series of poor choices and painful consequences.

Statistics indicate that one in ten girls with anorexia will die within ten years of onset. Sometimes death is a result of malnutrition or heart failure. More often it is the result of suicide. While B's family does everything they can to help her get well, there is only so much control a family has and any family's ability to intervene diminishes significantly when young women reach their later adolescence or move into adult hood. Prevention and early intervention are the best defences against the ugliness of disordered eating. Some parents aren't aware of the the early signs, or choose to ignore them or don't realize it is important enough to take seriously. After all, isn't body despair an expected rite of passage for girls in this body-hating culture? Isn't it normal and even healthy to be concerned about your weight and to always be on a diet?

There are no easy explanations here. Eating disorders are not just a result of cultural pressures, advertising and the diet industry although I've never met someone with an eating disorder who didn't start out dieting.  These illnesses are more complex than that.  Some people are just more vulnerable than others. Personality traits such as perfectionism, all-or-nothing thinking, compulsive tendencies or poor impulse control are factors. Family environments that are chaotic or over controlling, a traumatic experience or even a death in the family can be a trigger for an eating disorder to take hold.

The theme for this year's Eating Disorder Awareness Week  in Canada is Talking Saves Lives.   

Would we have caught B's eating disorder earlier  if we had talked with her more about our concerns? Maybe... but then again B created a lot of chaos and distraction... giving her parents and other loved ones many other important issues to address.  What if her friends had been more aware and less entrenched in their own body dramas... would they have been able to help?  What if her therapist or her family doctor had known what to ask and what the red flags were?  

If you suspect disordered eating behaviours or thoughts are taking up residence in your home... start talking and listen hard.  Seek out medical help and counselling. If your child's doctor doesn't know about eating disorders or doesn't take your concerns seriously... find someone who will.  

For support, advice and referral information, use these toll free helplines:

Want to read more?

My latest magazine article was just published in alive magazine in the February 2013 issue. In Eating Disorders: Increasing Awareness, I explores signs and symptoms as well as causes and underlying issues.  I also explain some of the latest buzzwords in the media:  drunkorexia, pregorexia and orthorexia.  The current issue is available on line through this cool new interactive program or you can pick up alive at your local natural health store.

You can link here to an article I previously wrote for alive called Not Just About Food: Recovering from Eating Disorders that offers hope through one woman's story of recovery.

For further information on signs, symptoms and how to help, check out  Eating Disorder Information For Families from the Manitoba Healthy Living website.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Help Your Daughter Cope When She is Left Out

Next week my daughter returns to school to start the home stretch of finishing sixth grade. Where we live, this is the end of elementary school and she will transition to a junior high or middle school.

I know the next six months will fly by. She will be prepping for Softball Season - yes, this is an official season at our house - and she will be making plans for grade six camp in June. We have decisions to make about schools and applications to submit.  Before long, I will be standing in the mall vetoing potential “grad” outfits. In the meantime, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the girl dynamics, friendship groups, and cliques that are becoming a more visible part of my daughter’s life. I know that many changes are ahead.  She has had the privilege of having a consistent, reliable, local friendship group for many years but everything will be different next fall.

My friends talk about the girl drama that goes on among their daughter’s friends. Who is “in” or “out” seems to change week to week and parents find their daughter coming home in tears over some real or imagined exclusion that may not be easily resolved.

Most of us experienced the power and complexity of cliques in middle school or high school but it can be shocking to watch these same dramas unfolding for much younger girls today. Social networking also adds another layer to experiences of inclusion and exclusion.  

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography
 Creative Common License

Acceptance by a group is important to everyone, but some degree of exclusion is also normal at times; it is critical that children develop resilience and ways to cope with these exclusions . How girls handle these shifting group dynamics can be influenced by parents and other trusted adults. 
No matter how many friends she has, there will be a birthday party she is not invited to or a day when she feels all alone at school. I prepared some tips a few years back for my Dove Self-Esteem
Fund Ask Lisa Column… and they feel more timely than ever to me now so I’ve adapted and added to them here.

Tips to help her cope with exclusion

  • Acknowledge her sadness, disappointment and feelings of loss. Her feelings matter and her peer group is not a trivial part of her life.. some days it may feel like the most important part.  
  • Explain that friendships ebb and flow over time and that occasional rejection is a normal part of life. Perhaps you can share stories of friendships that changed for you over time. 
  • Help her notice her own growth and changing interests.  When kids are little they play with who is there... friends are whoever sits near them in the classroom, or the child next door.  However, as they grow they began to develop their own interests and attractions to specific personalities Just as some of her old friends may be making different friendship choices today, she too likely has been drawn to new people and that is a normal part of development that she may need help to recognize and appreciate.  
  • Exclusion from an event may have no meanness or ill intent attached to it... kids are generally given limits for numbers of friends to include or are starting to pay more attention to the group dynamic as a whole and issuing invitations that take that in to account rather than inviting everyone they think of as a friend.  Help your daughter remember when she had to make similar tough choices. 
  • If she is left out of a birthday party or other big group activity, help her make her own fun with a different friend who is also not included. This is an important act of self-care and helps her develop a coping skill for the future.  She certainly doesn't have to stay home alone feeling like she is missing out!
  • Diversify her friendship groups. This can offer a safety net so that one group is not “all or nothing” in her world. Her sense of belonging will increase through friendships formed at camps, church,  school clubs, sports teams or through her other interests such as Girl Guides or a local knitting or biking club. 
  • Teach your child to be a self-esteem role model. If she demonstrates empathy, respect and loyalty she may influence the dynamics of her social group. 
  • Be a good role model yourself. Gossip and put-downs are just as harmful when you're an adult, and children learn what is acceptable by observing your relationships with others.  They also notice if you know how to have fun on your own and can choose widely from different friends with different interests. 
  • If cliques or exclusion are a serious problem, become an advocate and work with other families and school personnel to initiate solutions.