The trouble with girls… and what to do about it


Today, on International Day of the Girl Child, freelance writer Catherine Shepherd and Sarah Squire (@SquireSarah) of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand (@GoodAdvocacy) examine the state of play for girls in Australia, drawing on research and parenting experiences. Reflecting on some key challenges for girls’ wellbeing, they outline policy levers and practical tips for raising ‘unscripted and unstoppable’ girls.


Since 2012, 11 October has been recognised by the United Nations as the International Day of the Girl Child. This year’s theme is ‘GirlForce: Unscripted and Unstoppable’. If only. While this annual day promotes girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights, clearly this theme is as much an aspiration as it is a reality for girls in Australia. While in a global context Australia is a wealthy country, gender inequality remains entrenched, with girls continuing to face many challenges and limitations. These are evident in the everyday conversations that mothers and daughters have with each other about bodies, dialogues which start at a young age.

Daughter, don’t hate your body…please?

Gender norms that conflate girls’ self-worth with their appearance and other forms of stereotyping can take hold of girls at very young ages.

This became obvious when Catherine’s then four-year-old ‘Little One’ asked: “Mummy, do I have a fat tummy?” A conversation about bodies ensued but in the absence of a handy tried-and-tested script a response was difficult. Saying “No, you don’t” might enforce fat stigma while falsifying the reality of her growing body. But what to say, and why was this conversation starting in the kinder years?

What’s troubling our girls?

Gender inequality affects girls from a very young age, beginning with stereotypes and reinforced through practices such as giving girls less pocket money than boys despite their greater share of household chores, as detailed in Growing Up Unequal. A staggering 98 per cent of 10-17 year old Australian girls surveyed by Plan International Australia said they did not receive equal treatment to boys. After inequality, the girls surveyed by Plan were most disturbed by being scrutinised for their appearance rather than appreciated for their abilities and talents.

Rigid gender stereotyping creates a cascade effect of experiences that compromise girls’ mental health and wellbeing. Perceptions of sexualised portrayals of girls can lead people to see them as lacking intelligence and moral worth. Close to half of Australian children between the ages of 9-16 surveyed in 2011 experienced regular exposure to sexual images. In one study, young girls who were depicted in a sexualised manner were perceived as more responsible for behaviour that harmed them; people also cared less about them when they were harmed and were less likely to offer assistance.

Girls’ bodies are increasingly sexualised within an ever-expanding visual tween culture, while the early sexualisation of girls has been identified as a factor negatively affecting girls in the middle (8-12) years. In Kinder and primary school, stereotypical gender, race and class imagery is rife. Eating disorders remain more prevalent among girls and young women, with sex ratio estimates ranging from 3:1 to 18:1, while the average onset for eating disorders is between the ages of 12 and 25 years. Girls are being targeted by weight loss companies at younger ages – a diet app was recently designed for children as young as 8. Girls aged 10-14 experience the highest rates of sexual violence in Australia. These and other factors mean that girls are particularly vulnerable to poor mental health from a young age.

Changing the script

What would it take for girls to break free from these constraints and truly become ‘unscripted and unstoppable’? 

What’s keeping girls from being unscripted and unstoppable? The International Day of the Girl Child provides space to look at the causes and effects of gender inequality, and make a commitment to create a world that is healthier for our girls. Photo by   Germán TR   from   Pexels

What’s keeping girls from being unscripted and unstoppable? The International Day of the Girl Child provides space to look at the causes and effects of gender inequality, and make a commitment to create a world that is healthier for our girls. Photo by Germán TR from Pexels

Intergenerational sexism is passed on through hostile and benevolent sexist beliefs, a finding that holds across several nations and cultures. To interrupt this transmission we need to create healthier environments for girls to develop a sense of self which is not tied to appearance – in our homes, schools and community settings. Policy levers which can assist include: stronger regulation of sexist advertising; greater investment in campaigns that profile active modes of being in the world, such as the VicHealth This Girl Can campaign; quality sex education that can act as a protective factor against the harms of online pornography; and school-based mental health promotion that incorporates gender analysis.  

At an individual and familial level we suggest the following strategies:

1.       The ‘Amazing Machine’

Focus on what your daughter’s body can do, not what it looks like. Celebrate all the wonderful things you and your child can do with the amazing body machine that can run, dance, lift, build, contort, hug, pat, and so on. Help her find joy in what she can do with her body. This can also go some way to close the physical activity gap that develops quickly once children start school.

2.       Model body comfort

Mums and dads are the biggest influence on a growing mind, so we have a great opportunity to model body comfort and acceptance. You don’t have to shake your soft bits in their face while shouting “I love my body!” But being mindful that they are always listening and learning, and avoiding negative body-talk in their earshot, can prevent the planting of dangerous seeds.

3.        Praise other traits

Girls are bombarded with messages that tell them they should be beautiful, cute, sexy and so on.  Let’s cut through that noise and focus on other attributes. Try to swap or supplement observations about physical beauty with remarks on other things that you see in your child and the people in their life, both real and on-screen. For example, comments like “I like how Barbie is kind to her little sisters”, or “Aunty Holly is really clever” sends the message that kindness and intelligence are praise-worthy traits.

4.       Content curation and critical dialogue

Catherine’s Little One isn’t old enough to be on social media but she still consumes storybooks, cartoons and YouTube videos which often contain the overt or subtle message ‘skinny and pretty is best’. Avoiding the worst negative or stereotypical representations helps, but it’s impossible to cut it all out. However, watching imperfect media together can be an opportunity to open up a dialogue that aids curiosity and critical engagement. For example, gently observing that the bodies in a book or show don’t look much like the ones we see in real life can start a child wondering why that is, starting them on the journey of being able to spot the ‘Great Lie’.

5.       Direct her towards alternative media

If you fill up on the good then there will be less room for the bad. Finding great shows and books can be a daunting task for a parent in the digital age, especially when so many of us are employees as well as parents. Catherine dreams of a bookstore where she can walk in and leaf through books for children and parents that a working group of qualified experts (e.g. librarians, child psychologists and parents) have purposely selected to help foster the healthy growth of a female mind. While this fabulous bookstore doesn’t exist in Catherine’s home city and probably not yours, there is a wonderful online bookstore which provides interesting stories and role models: A Mighty Girl

Australia’s 2.8 million girls might be facing an uphill battle, but adults can both imagine and realise a different future.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.