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Girls now the sum of their body parts

By Melinda Tankard Reist - posted Monday, 24 December 2007

The girl stood at the edge of the pool, hesitating. Her family encouraged her to join them. What was wrong? She usually loved the water. But this time it was different. She was wearing a dressing gown over her bathers. She didn’t want to take it off.

“Why don’t you want to go in, Lily?” her mother asked.

”Because everyone will laugh at my body and say I’m fat,” the girl replied.


My friend’s daughter Lily is six. A bigger build than girls her age, but fit and healthy, leaving others behind in school races, she was denying herself the pleasures of a swim as she thought her body would be judged.

So do many others.

A Mission Australia national survey of 29,000 young people aged 11 to 24 released this month has found body image is the most important issue for them. The annual survey, asking young people to rank 14 issues in order of concern, puts body image ahead of family conflict, stress, bullying, alcohol and drugs and suicide. The results are disturbing, but not really surprising.

Many girls feel disgusted by their bodies, engaged in constant self-surveillance and self-criticism. Their bodies have become an all-consuming project. One in 100 Australian girls suffers anorexia nervosa. Some estimates put the rate of bulimia at as high as one in five. Children as young as eight are being hospitalised with eating disorders. Some hospitals report there are not enough beds to cope with the numbers.

A recent report found one in five 12-year-old girls regularly used fasting and vomiting to lose weight. One in four Australian girls want to get plastic surgery.

Women’s Forum Australia recently produced a YouTube film clip about our new magazine-style research paper Faking It. In it, a 10-year-old girl says women’s magazines make her want to be thin. She planned to go on a raw fish diet.


According to Lisa Berzins, author of Dying To Be Thin, young girls are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of cancer, nuclear war or losing their parents. Too many girls are trying to imitate half-starved celebrities and airbrushed models in a quest to be hot and sexy.

We have allowed the objectification and sexualisation of girls in a culture that is becoming increasingly pornographic. The embedding of sexualised images of women in society has become so mainstream, it is hardly noticed.

Everywhere a girl looks, she sees sexualised images of her gender. She’s expected to be a walking billboard for the brands of the global sex industry. Playboy makeup, porn star T-shirts, padded bras and pole dancing for little girls: they’re being groomed to turn tricks in their stripper chic.

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First published in The Australian on December 6. 2007.

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About the Author

Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator and advocate with a special interest in issues affecting women and girls. Melinda is author of Giving Sorrow Words: Women's Stories of Grief after Abortion (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2000), Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (Spinifex Press, 2006) and editor of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, 2009). Melinda is a founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation ( Melinda blogs at

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