The Alliance of Girls’ Schools will hold its biennial staff conference this May in Melbourne, Australia. The organization has 140 member schools in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Africa, all of whom have been invited to come together to explore the conference theme, “Images of a Girl: Diversity, Dilemmas and Future Possibilities.” Slated to lead the discussion is Amy Smith, Managing Director of Jenny Craig Australia. That’s right. The head of a weight loss company will be addressing an audience full of educators who are on the front lines of combating the crisis of poor body image and disordered eating among girls. Can I get a WTF?
Now let me dial it down for a minute to stress, as Dannielle Miller also has in her excellent letter to the Alliance, that it is clear Smith has an impressive resume and she has put her talents and skills into some very positive initiatives throughout her career. But–and it’s a big but (not the kind that Jenny Craig can promise to melt away)–the fact remains that the core messages of her company are dangerous to girls.
Mariah Carey is Jenny’s newest brand ambassador here in the U.S. This is the same Mariah Carey who has a history of yo-yo dieting, who described her pregnant body as “rancid” and who says that it’s important for her to be able to “feel her bones.” Despite Jenny Craig’s claims that the company is about “lifestyle” not dieting, the sequin-filled, glamour-poserific Mariah videos on their website tell a different story. By giving Jenny Craig’s leader a platform, the Alliance is also giving a platform to the insidious but incredibly profitable lie that the magic remedy for body hatred is weight loss. And apparently Jenny’s brand of cheese curls will help too. As an added bonus, one of the women in their latest commercial says she loves the program because she doesn’t like the math of calorie counting. Girl power!
Is this really what we want to be telling a room of people who work with girls? These are people who are seeing low self-esteem and full-blown eating disorders affecting more school-aged girls than ever before. These are adults who are presumably working to build girls’ confidence, not stoke the flames of body insecurity.
But what about obesity? Shouldn’t we be addressing obesity? Like the eating disorders epidemic, obesity is a highly complex issue. It is linked to food access, education, genetics, mental health, advertising, marketing, and dieting. Yes, dieting. According to Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor of public health at the University of Minnesota, “longitudinal studies show that dieting predicts weight gain over time. Many overweight people have fallen into a lifelong cycle of short-term deprivation followed by overeating.” Companies like Jenny Craig want us to believe that by giving people tools to lose weight, they’re on Team Healthy. The research shows that they’re actually a big part of the problem. What they’re doing is setting people up to lose, then gain, and spend, spend, spend.
Girls need to learn that the pounds on the scale are not a measure of success, health, or happiness. They need adult role models who can teach them to be critical of that message, and of the messengers who peddle it.
On the upside, the conference program also includes Kaz Cooke, a prolific author and illustrator who wrote the very funny (and sadly now out-of-print) Real Gorgeous: The Truth About Body and Beauty. From Amazon:
Take it from Kaz Cooke: “There are millions of gorgeous body shapes. Yours is one of them. Dieting doesn’t work. Your thighs are pretty cute. Exercise should be fun not duty. Cheap cosmetics can be as good as expensive ones. Advertising lies. Plastic surgery sucks. Modeling can be miserable. You can recover from an eating disorder. You can read magazines and watch television critically. You can fight the Body Police.”
Hopefully Cooke will get a chance to chat with Smith. I’d like to be a fly on that wall.
Claire Mysko is an expert on body image, leadership and media literacy. She is the author of You’re Amazing! A No Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self, an award-winning self-esteem manual for girls, and Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby.