Sticks and stones

Last week, I did a post sharing media I have been doing aimed at encouraging schools to be more proactive in dealing with sexual harassment. I received a comment from one of my blog readers that at first shocked me . . . and then got me thinking about another issue that affects all women and girls: the tendency in our culture to demean women for their looks rather than to engage with what they have to say. The comment was short, and cutting:

We’ve seen your talks at schools. If you’re so keen to set a good example then don’t turn up to school looking like mutton dressed as lamb. — Kim

I wondered exactly what it was about me that came across that way to her. When I do my self-esteem and skills-building workshops with girls, I wear an Enlighten Education uniform of sorts. We are often up and jumping around with the girls, so skirts and high heels are definitely out. It’s jeans or tights in winter, or mid-length shorts in summer, and then a black T-shirt embroidered with our butterfly logo. 
Then I realised that the comment had drawn my attention away from the real issue: too often, when women raise their voices, they are criticised not for what they say but how they look.

Even now, in 2010, is that the currency of a woman or a girl  her looks? Is a female’s Achilles heel still her appearance? If you strike her there, do you take away her only power?

It isn’t the first time I’ve spoken out about sexual harassment or a women’s issue and been criticised not for my arguments but for the way I look. I have been helpfully informed that I seemed to have put on weight. I was sent an e-mail telling me that I couldn’t be a feminist because I have blonde hair. During the 2009 scandal involving Matthew Johns and teammates having sex with a 19-year-old girl, I wrote an article in defence of the young woman, who was being blamed and insulted in the media and on the internet. A reader commented that I was just jealous because I was wasn’t desirable enough to get a football player of my own.

I’m in good company. The woman whose writing had the most profound effect on me when I was young, Naomi Wolf, received a torrent of criticism for being too pretty to be a real feminist. On the other side of the coin, Germaine Greer has long been attacked for all sorts of supposed flaws in her appearance and femininity. Earlier this year, Louis Nowra described her in The Monthly as “a befuddled and exhausted old woman” who reminded him of his “demented grandmother”. It should be noted that Greer herself is no stranger to flinging looks-based insults, famously describing a fellow writer as having “hair bird’s-nested all over the place, ****-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage”.

Comments that target a woman for how she looks, rather than her ideas, are designed to do one thing and one thing only: to shut her up.

Yet it only spurs me on. The same can be said for other Australian writers and commentators I spoke to who also regularly receive such criticism. When I discussed this phenomenon with Emily Maguire, author of Princesses & Porn Stars and a regular writer on gender and culture, she told me:

There’s no way you can present yourself that won’t attract criticism from the kind of people who think that criticism of a woman’s looks will hurt more than criticism of her ideas . . . It only makes me more sure that this stuff is worth speaking out about. — Emily Maguire

Melinda Tankard Reist is an author and commentator who often appears in the media to speak out against the sexualisation of girls and women. She publicly commented on the decision of former Hi-5 performer Kellie Crawford to pose for a lingerie shoot in Ralph in order to “find the woman in me” after so many years as a children’s entertainer. Melinda asked people to question why the Wiggles didn’t need to “prove their manhood by stripping down to their jocks”. Much of the criticism she received afterwards didn’t address that question but told her that she was “a bitter ugly woman”, “sad, old and dog-ugly” and that she had “saggy breasts and a droopy arse”.

Old, saggy, mutton dressed as lamb — age is a common theme to this type of criticism. Rather than seeming to gain wisdom, experience and authority — as is virtually expected of men — women are often deemed of decreasing value with each year they move beyond their 30s. We see it throughout our culture. How many good roles are there for actresses over 40? How many women newsreaders have career longevity without resorting to Botox? It is as if once women have passed a certain age, it is time for them to step off the stage. It’s no wonder that many women are angsting and trying to achieve the body of a 20-year-old — an impossible and time-wasting task. Zoe Krupka put it perfectly in a post on the website New Matilda:

How are we meant to do our work in the world and develop wisdom if we are still focused on the size of our butts? — Zoe Krupka

One would hope that the situation was improving, but in fact, it seems to be getting worse. And it is often women who use the strategy of attacking a woman’s looks. Dr Karen Brooks, social commentator and author of Consuming Innocence: Popular Culture and Our Children, told me:

I have had my appearance criticised ALL the time . . . This has been happening to me for 13 years and it’s getting worse . . . I should add that most of the negative comments are from women. — Karen Brooks

Perhaps there is an element of fear of change that drives women to this type of criticism. Perhaps this technique just comes all too naturally to women who have spent their whole lives learning how to play the “compare and despair” game. Perhaps the ultimate sin for women is to show confidence and to love themselves, so critics feel that outspoken women need to brought down a peg or two.

Whatever it is that drives looks-based criticism, the thing that hurt me the most about the comment I received on my blog was that this woman claimed she had seen me present to girls. At every school Enlighten Education has worked in, the girls line up afterwards to ask for a hug, a kiss and to tell us they love us. They tell us that it changed their lives. So it made me sad to think that in the presence of all the joy and positivity and love that bursts out of these girls, for at least one woman the lasting impression was my looks, something that the girls never notice or comment on.

Imagine the change we all women and men could make in the world if we took personal attacks out of public debate. Imagine if we all engaged in the debate, made respectful counterarguments, added our own ideas into the mix. Imagine if we all pledged to stop trying to silence one another. I have the greatest respect for the women thinkers and activists I have mentioned here. Do I agree with them on every single issue? Of course not. But I pledge to always argue my case while according them the respect they deserve. It will always be their ideas that I engage with, because ideas — not physical appearances — live on forever.

A comment I received from another woman sums it all up:

Common sense, dignity, rights, respect, responsibility — these basic human values should be blind to looks, age, gender. — Paola Yevenes

Danni with students

17 thoughts on “Sticks and stones

  1. Stacey says:

    Fabulous post from a woman I knew at high school to be a highly intelligent, passionate teacher and whom I have recently had the pleasure of watching present. You are the epitome of ‘It aint what a woman wears, its what she knows’. Danielle, you are beautyFULL inside and out…keep up the FABULOUS work…this just reaffirms WHY it is SO NEEDED!

  2. Jane says:

    Absolutely brilliant post Danni – am going to save. As an interesting aside, on Wednesday, Federal MP Julie Bishop made an embarrassing gaffe referring to the Australian government faking passports. Yesterday, this provoked a huge page 4 article in the Sydney Morning Herald, but guess what the article was all about? Her bright orange jacket. The journalist was female. It made me want to rip my paper into confetti.

  3. Susan says:

    Wonderful Post Dannielle! Made me stop and think – I have often been guilty of “looking” at the presenter rather than ‘listening’ to what they have been saying. Your post has made me promise myself not to do that in future. Keep up your great work – as a mother of 4 girls I think you do a wonderful job and admire you immensely.

  4. Melinda Tankard Reist says:

    Hi Danni,

    Commendations for exposing this attack on womenin the public domain who dare to express an opinion. In my experience, those who engage in abuse, denigration and labelling, rarely if ever engage the arguments. Labelling a woman as ugly or desperate is cheap and easy (like the person who told me I was ‘as ugly as a hat full of arses’ and another who said my face would ‘break a 60-inch plasma television’, as I mention in Getting Real). I think it’s good for us to remember that we are not alone in attracted the abuse. And also I think it means we must be making a mark. Paul Keating once said ‘The dogs may bark but the caravan rolls on’. We have to keep perspective and continue to have at the forefront of our minds girls who are being cheated and ripped off by a culture of objectification and sexualisation and do what we can to help them rise above it. Keep up the great work Danni, your support continues to mean alot. Melinda

  5. Nikki says:

    Keep doing what you do Danni. Through your workshops so many girls hear and believe for the first time that they are beautiful for who they are not what they look like. It’s priceless!

  6. Collett Smart says:

    Hi Danni
    Your honesty is so refreshing!! I will be adding a link to your blog on my website if that is ok. I run various seminars around Australia on the effects of ‘technological’ relationships on real life relationships. I am passionate about the way that pornography and its various attachments affect and contribute to societies view of women and the sadly lucrative human trafficking trade! Not to mention its effect on altering brain development!

    In my research, people tend to be far more brazen and cutting online than they would ever be face to face. Good on you for taking this comment and using it for good!!


  7. Collett Smart says:

    Hi Danni
    Your honesty is so refreshing!! I will be adding a link to your blog on my website if that is ok. I run various seminars around Australia on the effects of ‘technological’ relationships on real life relationships. I am passionate about the way that pornography and its various attachments affect and contribute to societies view of women and the sadly lucrative human trafficking trade! Not to mention its effect on altering brain development!

    In my research, people tend to be far more brazen and cutting online than they would ever be face to face. Good on you for taking this comment and using it for good!!

    Life Smart Solutions

  8. Francesca Kaoutal says:

    So true Danni. It is terribly frustrating that as women we are often judged on our looks. I beleive our value is in what we say, how we treat others and even ourselves. We are so much more than our bodies; we have a mind, a soul. I was once told that the true beauty of any person unfolds only once they speak.

  9. Penny says:

    Thanks Danni, for once again being the voice of reason in an image-obsessed world.
    For the record, I think you dress appropriately for your role and always look great. I am often criticised for dressing ‘too old’ in my profession as a teacher. Apparently at 25, I should be buying into raunch culture and ‘acting my age’ by ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to define me by my body. As a response to current fashions aimed at my demographic, I make a lot of my own clothes (and have students who comment and admire me for this).
    I really think it’s valuable that girls see women who are comfortable with their bodies and wear things that suit them without being overtly provocative. I really don’t see how age comes into it. If it suits you, and you’re comfortable, where’s the issue?
    Don’t let ignorant comments like that one make you stop at the wardrobe in the morning. The work you do is beyond value, and this criticism is just a sign that you threatened someone’s perception of their own worth. Enlightenment is in their future!
    Thanks again, especially on behalf of every gorgeous girl I teach – we need you, just the way you are!

  10. Jane Higgins says:

    After having the privilege of working with 2 schools here in Adelaide this week, I saw first hand the devastating effects focussing on our looks over our real selves is having with young girls. One comment from a year 9 girls was “I learnt to be positive, I am who I am and that is fine, be yourself, be happy and be strong!” Another girl added “It doesn’t matter what you look like – I AM BEAUTIFUL! and everyone is special” How on earth can these girls commit to this if all they are worrying about is how they look. Wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age! Loving our work.

  11. Jane Sullivan says:

    It is a very real shame to have to write a post like this Danni. The largest step we need to take toward settling a great many issues in modern feminism globally, requires women to kindly and empathetically embrace other women in full understanding of how they want themselves and their daughters to be treated. Engaging in a blitzkrieg of barbed comments denigrating how other women look (especially when the woman in question is helping young women to feel good about themselves and see themselves as valuable!) is simply unintelligent and destructive.

    Even men get that the answer to “does my bum look big in this?” is always no! It is a cheap way to bring someone down and women are very quick to use this piece of their armoury.

    We do not need to engage in this level of banal stupidity and should not have to suffer it either. “What does a feminist look like?” is not an answerable question save for this response. A feminist looks like the woman who will hold your hand with compassion when you are beset with the difficulties we all face as women. She looks like the person that sits in your corner clapping and cheering you on when you need support. She looks like refuge. She looks like love.

  12. Carly-Jay Metcalfe says:

    If I could add more to support your stance, Danni, I most certainly would. Thank you for this post and thank you also to the comments of support. My beautiful friend Jane Sullivan said it all, but I will say this – what you are doing is incredible work and what’s more, it is ESSENTIAL. You are the person every woman (and man) wants in their corner. Bless you 🙂

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  14. Storm Greenhill-Brown says:

    So well written Danni. Smart, sharp and so relevant. You are bold and brilliant. On and up i say!!

  15. Sandy Kumskov says:

    Danni, great post. The more work I do in this field, the more I realise that we women are the harshest critics of other women. It’s like we have to compete to be the best so we can – what? I can see how in earlier generations with access to the resources for survival legally locked in male hands, women DID have to compete to get a man – but now? There’s plenty of research to tell us things like men are attracted to all sizes and shapes of women, and most don’t notice things like cellulite and stretch marks, and if they notice they don’t much care. So what are we competing about with one another? I love your work, it’s so needed! I’ll link over here.


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