In part 2 of Susan Johnson’s excellent investigative piece on teens and body image that I introduced here last week, she looks at the effects of the unprecedented pressure on girls to wax and to see dieting as an essential part of being a woman. I am pleased to have contributed my voice to those of the experts quoted in this part of her must-read feature!
If anxiety over body size has long been recognised as part of the territory for teenage girls, now a new pressure has been added: being free of body hair, as if perpetually pre-pubescent. Once common only to Middle Eastern cultures, bodybuilding, gay culture and pornography, body hair removal has permeated mainstream culture, making its greatest impact on young women. Fashionista Victoria Beckham’s wish (“I love Brazilians – they ought to be compulsory at 15, don’t you think?”) looks as if it may be granted.
Since the late 1990s – when television show Sex and the City popularised the “Brazilian”, a hair removal practice that originated with the G-string bikinis of Rio – waxing or shaving the pubic area has become increasingly common. One American study estimated that 20 per cent of American and Australian women now remove their pubic hair, the largest group being women under 25.
Exact statistics do not exist in Australia to quantify the proportion of teenagers denuding themselves of body hair, but the anecdotal evidence is telling: at a Brisbane high school Year 12 formal last year, talk among those who attended revealed there was only one girl in the Year 12 class who went to the dance with body hair. The rest came sans leg hair, underarm hair and pubic hair.
The recent proliferation of waxing clinics throughout Queensland, together with the increase in waxing injuries seen in doctors’ surgeries and hospitals, suggests body hair removal is undergoing a popularity boom. An inner-city doctor told Qweekend she had seen a marked increase in her practice of burns and infections as a result of hot wax accidents. In Victoria, the Monash University Accident Research Centre’s Victorian Injury Surveillance Unit estimated about 90 people a year were admitted to hospital with waxing injuries.
One of Queensland’s biggest chains of waxing salons, Brazilian Beauty, is owned by Francesca Webster, 39, and her partner Andrew Bryant, 41. They opened a store in inner Brisbane’s New Farm in 2004 and now have 14 salons throughout Queensland and interstate, many of them franchised, with an annual turnover of $10 million. Although it is company policy not to treat anyone under 18 for Brazilian waxes, Webster says they sometimes see mothers bringing in daughters for bikini-line waxing before swimming carnivals.
Dannielle Miller, a Sydney author and CEO of Enlighten Education, which specialises in girls and body image, is not surprised that young women are now facing yet another pressure regarding body image. In her work lecturing in schools, she sees some 20,000 young women annually and says she is “staggered” by the overwhelming number of teenage girls unhappy with their own bodies. “Almost 99 per cent of young girls will say they are overweight, or not beautiful enough, or that they need to be changed in some way,” Miller says. “In our desperation to combat obesity, which may or may not be valid, there is now such a fear of fat in our culture that one of the results is girls doubting their bodies and thinking that their value is measured in the numbers on the scales.”
Miller says an overwhelming number of young girls have mothers who are on a perpetual diet. “Girls see dieting as a rite of passage and part of what it means to be a young woman in our culture: to be a female is to be on a diet. Girls learn very early that they need to take up less space … the ultimate glass ceiling for girls seems to be the bathroom mirror.”
According to Miller’s data, seven out of ten 15-year-old girls are on a diet, with 8 per cent “severely dieting”. She says that 94 per cent of teenage girls “wish that they were more beautiful” and 25 per cent say they would like to change “everything physical” about themselves.
Boys appear to be catching up with girls in potentially dangerous dieting practices, including starvation, purging or vomiting: 16 per cent of girls have engaged in such practices and 7 per cent of boys. “Pressures on young males are definitely on the increase,” says Miller.
A mother of a 10-year-old son, plus two daughters aged 17 and 13, Miller says that “parents are deeply concerned about this stuff”. She argues that magazines with airbrushed and photographed images, combined with television reality programs such as The Biggest Loser, have created a culture of hysteria about fat. “I’m not by any means pro-fat; of course not, I’m pro-health, and if you’ve got a child who isn’t healthy, then absolutely focus on health as a priority. But I think it’s an urban myth that Australia is a country with an obesity problem. When you speak to health professionals it’s clear that a definition of obesity depends on the criteria used to define obesity. The BMI [Body Mass Index] is actually a very antiquated and one-dimensional measurement … sometimes it’s the definition itself that causes the problem.”
Miller argues that the definition of health should be broader. The narrow focus on body weight and dieting among adult Australians is negatively affecting our young people. “Statistics show that 95 per cent of people on a formal diet will have regained and added some extra weight within the next five years. Formal diets don’t work … it’s a bad example for our children and we are setting them up for a long-term dysfunctional relationship with food.”
This is an excerpt from Susan Johnson’s article “Generation Cleanskin”, which appeared in the Courier-Mail’s QWeekend. Check in next week for the final instalment, when teen girls and boys talk candidly about their attitudes to — and angst about — body image.