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Reclaiming The Power of Pretty

17 July 2017 at 8:35 am
Wendy Williams
Merissa Forsyth is the founder and director of new not for profit Pretty Foundation which aims to build body resilience in girls aged two to six years. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 17 July 2017 at 8:35 am


Reclaiming The Power of Pretty
17 July 2017 at 8:35 am

Merissa Forsyth is the founder and director of new not for profit Pretty Foundation which aims to build body resilience in girls aged two to six years. She is this week’s Changemaker.

According to recent research as many as 38 per cent of four-year-old girls want a different body size.

It was this and other statistics that prompted Forsyth to launch the Pretty Foundation.

The not for profit has developed a new campaign that includes a range of initiatives that seek to educate and equip parents with the language, tools and confidence to build resilience in their daughters.

Pretty Powerful, which will launch in August, will be a one-month challenge whereby parents are encouraged to speak a body image mantra out loud with their girls. Each week, the new phrase will be explored in its meaning and supported by activities for parents to do with their girls.

Forsyth, a marketing contractor who previously founded the Makeup Free Me movement, says they will be focusing their efforts on girls aged 2 to 6 as research showed the foundations for body image are laid in early childhood.

She said the first initiative was about the power of words.

“We want to drive awareness of the power of words on girls’ body image and provide parents with the tools and resources on the type of language we should use with little girls,” she says.

“Words are powerful, particularly when we speak them about ourselves and others and they can really have a significant impact on body image.”

In this week’s Changemaker Forsyth talks about reclaiming the power of pretty, why she is passionate about seeing girls and women live their lives to their full potential and how Captain Planet inspired her to tackle the issue in a new way.

Merissa Forsyth headshotWhat led you to start the Pretty Foundation?

Quite a few years ago, I quit my job and started a campaign called Makeup Free Me and that campaign was aimed at girls, more sorts of teens and adult women, to basically go makeup free for a day and get their family and friends to sponsor them and to really start to think about where they find their value. All of the funds from that went to our beneficiary partner, The Butterfly Foundation. So we were just a campaign that we basically ran on behalf of Butterfly and ran it for a few years. All the funds went into the schools programs for body image, to high schools and that was great for the first couple of years. And then as we started to really dig into the research and speak to experts, we found that the issue doesn’t start at teens, but it starts a whole lot earlier.

So from two to six years old that’s where the foundation is really laid for children. By three years old, 37 per cent of children want to change their body type and for me that was really shocking. I was like I don’t even remember thinking about any of that stuff as a kid, I just wanted to play and get out and have adventures and have fun. So it was quite a shock when we started seeing this. And it wasn’t one stat it was several stats and several pieces of research that we have seen in Australia and elsewhere. So I thought ok maybe it is actually time that we do something about this and we start a whole lot earlier. Because no one is actually really focusing on this really young space, like early education.

So I pulled together a board and a project team and set it up as a proper charity and we just launched a few weeks ago. Basically our program, in the early years, we are going to target two- to six-year-old girls and their parents, and as we grow then we move into primary school and then high school and continue from there.

You are launching the Pretty Powerful campaign in August. What is the aim of the campaign?

So the Pretty Powerful campaign is all around the power of words and how parents, and adults in general who have children around them, whether it be neices or whatever, can have such an impact on their daughter’s body image through the things that they say. And even if it is not direct, things they say in front of their daughters that they are just absorbing at such a young age.

So we are launching in August and basically it is around educating parents and adults around what they say. So we are going to have hints and tips, and things written by body image experts in our team, around things to minimise saying and also things that we should be saying like positive things. Because often we can say “oh I better not say that in front of my child” but what can we be saying that it is actually going to help them develop a healthy body image. So that will be a guide that we launch in August, then each week in August we are going to be launching a phrase that we want our little girls to start saying about themselves and to learn and understand the meaning behind it. And we’re going to have activities around it.

So there are four key areas that we look at. One is around that we are all different in the way we look and that uniqueness is actually great. So one key area is we want to teach our little girls that it is not about looking a certain way but it is this uniqueness, we are all actually different and to accept diversity. The other one is really about the whole thing about inner beauty, so teaching them about character and how that’s actually valuable rather than appearance. Another one, which is really strong, is teaching our little girls about what their bodies can do rather than what they look like. So what they can achieve with their bodies. Then the last piece we want to teach are girls is that self-efficacy piece around giving things a go and being bold and confident in their abilities. So they are the four areas we want to focus on.

Where did the name “Pretty Foundation” come from?

It was actually one of our directors that said: “I think we should reclaim the power of ‘pretty’.” It is often used in a superficial context and there is nothing wrong with saying “she is pretty” or anything like that. But let’s actually start to use it more in a context of pretty what? She is pretty inspirational. She is pretty brave. She is pretty talented. Because that is actually where the true value comes from, is what we can contribute to society and all of that rather than just the superficial which is what we always get boxed into as women and girls.

You mentioned before you don’t remember being aware of this as a child. Is this a new issue or something that girls have always faced?

It certainly was existent back then and that’s for sure but I don’t remember thinking about these things until the teen years. I think often, as children, you’re not so much aware of it as a child [but] you become more aware as a teen.

I had a family friend’s daughter say to me the other day: “You can do this because you are skinny”. And she was three years old. And I was like wow, the fact that she is associating an activity, which has nothing to be based on fitness or anything, and she also is a little slim girl, this is just incredible, but she isn’t thinking of those body issues, she is only three years old. So I think generally speaking we only see these things really start to come out in teen years.

But to your point, I think there is more of an ability for young girls to see a lot more messages through social media. Teens are on social these days, primary kids are on social even though they are not meant to be, and that sort of scares me. And the fact they can see a whole range of stuff on there so I think we still really need to protect our kids from that sort of stuff.

You mentioned Pretty Foundation is the only not-for-profit to be addressing these issues at such a young age, why hasn’t it been done before?

It is not to say other charities don’t have anything in this space to speak to parents or anything like that, they certainly do but what we’re trying to do is actually create activities and things directly for the child as well. There are bits and pieces for parents but no one is directly focused on this bracket. They’re like”we’re speaking to parents, we’re speaking to adults, we’re representing everybody” and there’s not programs that are just focusing on two to six. And I think it is because as well, a lot of the issues come out as a teen, so it’s kind of “let’s deal with this because these are some big issues that are coming out”. And obviously with the negative body image it can lead to eating disorders, it can lead to depression and anxiety, it can lead to these sorts of things even suicide, and you want to stop that when it is happening , so people tend to jump on the issue when it is an issue rather than preventing the issue.

Who are you targeting with the campaign?

The first campaign we are sort of talking to parents and people who have daughters or nieces or goddaughters or the like in their lives, really any adult that has an influence over a young girl, we’re trying to speak to.

Obviously the first step is parents because they have a lot more control over what they do and hear and they are kind of a gatekeeper in many ways, especially for young girls from two years old. As a parent, straight away that would be a big influence, and then it is about spreading that to family members and friends, teachers, kindergarten teachers, and society in general, they are all extended steps that we need to take but it does start in the home.

What response have you been getting so far?

It is early days but we’ve been getting a lot of response, calls of “how can we help”, “what can I do”, “I love this, this is fantastic” as well as “I can’t believe that you are telling me these stats are actually real”.

When I speak at occassions and I bring up some of the stats, that girls as early as five years old have been discovered to have an eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, and it’s like are you for real? It is hard to actually fathom that. So it is a bit of a shock, but it is also a wake up call that we can be doing something to build resilience so we don’t have these issues and they don’t develop into even bigger issues as a teen. So it is kind of this “wow, shock, great, I’m on board and I want to help because I want to stop this from happening”.

What motivates you?

I am just passionate about the issue. A lot of people say to me: “Oh so did you have big bodiment issues when you were growing up?” Or “did you have anyone close to you with an eating disorder?” And I say “no, not really”. I didn’t have anyone that was struggling through these issues. I was personally bullied in year eight for my skin colour but it wasn’t that that has driven me to do this. I have just seen such a big gap and I’m just passionate about seeing girls and women live their lives to their full potential. It just excites me. Often you hear women say things like oh I just can’t do that or i’m not really good at that, it is so encouraging when you hear women go yeah actually that’s one of my strengths. I love that.

Our accountant, the other day I was speaking to him about his daughter. No one wanted to do the javelin in their athletics and the teacher was like, who is going to do it, someone has to represent, so she puts her hand up and says I’ll do it. Then she goes back later in the day and goes what is a javelin, how do you play javelin? She googled it. I go I love that, giving things a go.

So this sort of stuff excites me. To see women and girls giving it a go and really living their lives to their full potential.

The initiative has progressed quite a lot from the Makeup Free Campaign. What does the future hold for the Pretty Foundation?

Makeup Free was just a campaign, now we’re an official charity, Pretty Foundation. And we’re going to continue to launch campaigns like Pretty Powerful, there is going to be different things that we continue to launch. So August is Pretty Powerful, in October we’re actually going to be launching a children’s book.

I don’t know if you remember it but I loved Captain Planet when I was younger, and I used to role play the characters with my cousins and really it is education that is seeping through. The entertainment is just what the kids eat. So we were like why don’t we just break through the usual barriers of going to schools and speaking and doing this sort of stuff and actually create programs and things that they can watch or see that is just pure entertainment for them but actually messages are seeping through every episode.

So we’re actually creating an animated series and also a children’s book prior to, with a character who we want little girls to aspire to be. Because she is confident, she gives things a go, she is far from perfect, she is not the typical skinny little girl with big eyes. So this is all in the works at the moment and it is really exciting because there are things that aren’t usual with how to break through these issues.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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