International Women’s Day

Dannielle Miller

The Battle Within

Dannielle Miller writes on

A young English girl who calls herself ‘Mememolly’ started a phenomenon on YouTube when she posted ‘something of an apologetic love letter’ to her body in 2007. She listed parts of her body – her feet, arms, ears, eyes – and talked about why she appreciated them. A flood of people responded by posting their own video responses in which they told the world how they feel about their bodies.

Inspired by them, on the morning that I turned 38, I sat down and wrote my own letter of thanks to my body:

Dear body,
I am really happy with the way we are growing old together.

Thanks, feet, for being so pretty. I love the way your nails look when they are painted. I haven’t always treated you so well, though. I have stopped wearing killer heels quite so often, but hey, we both know the damage is done.

Thanks, legs. You are fabulous; you’re so long and you rarely change shape, even when I eat loads of junky foods. You have made me feel glamorous on many occasions.

Belly – what can I say? You are a podgy, bloated little thing, aren’t you? I have tried exercising you, sucking you in and constraining you in special ‘Bridget Jones’ style bloomers – but you just will not be denied.

Breasts – you will not be denied, either, but you are lovely. You make me feel so feminine. And you fed both my children; that was truly amazing. I will be forever grateful.

Arms. My special body parts. Lefty – you are a bit of a non-event really, aren’t you? I don’t write with you and you are quite nondescript. But righty – yes, you have tales to tell. I love your burn scars now. Really. I do. You make me strong, unique and show the world I am a girl with a history of bravery. I am sorry that I hid you for so many years when I was young, but I just hadn’t learnt how to deal with something so large. We both had to grow into the tight, twisted and melted flesh.

Face – you are just fine. Elegantly shaped eyebrows, a few wrinkles that show I have lived, laughed and worried.

Hair – I am sorry I bleach you. You do well to hang in there – but I do treat you to great shampoos and head rubs from my girlfriends.

Thanks, body, for getting me this far. You are so resilient and so strong. You rarely get sick and you can withstand great pain. You are an Amazon’s body.

Happy Birthday. xxxx

Scarred and scared

When I was two years old, I was badly burnt. I received third-degree burns all down my right arm and neck. As is often the case with burn victims, I also suffered two major secondary infections, German measles and the potentially life-threatening golden staph.

My great-grandmother burnt me; she poured hot cooking oil down on me as I sat watching breakfast being prepared. As a small girl, I was always told this was an accident, yet I questioned why no one ever spoke of this woman again, let alone saw her. Why hadn’t we forgiven her? I wondered. After all, accidents do happen. It was only when I was older that the truth emerged. Great Grandma had been unstable and had shown signs of violence towards my beloved grandmother when she was a small girl, too. Everyone felt instinctively that she had burnt me deliberately.

I don’t remember whether it was done to me deliberately; and ultimately, as it cannot be undone, I have chosen not to focus on that question. It happened.

What do I remember? I remember my grandmother’s face as she came through the doorway in response to my screams. I recall thinking I must be very badly hurt as she looked stricken. I remember my doctor, too. As I was hospitalised for almost six months, he became a central figure in my life. He was kind, gentle and doting. I was his special girl. Heaven help any nurse who dared keep me waiting! I remember gifts, in particular books. Perhaps this was the start of my love affair with words. I loved being read to. I escaped pain and boredom through tales of princesses with power and adventures of other little girls who faced great dangers and emerged triumphant.

I soothed myself with words, too. I could not yet read, of course, but I would talk to myself when frightened, repeating over and over the mantra ‘You’ll be okay, you’ll be all right.’ It was my secret spell and I would cast it to give me strength.

How fortunate that these are my memories: of being loved, spoilt, protected and strong.

For my family, other, darker memories remain as well. Memories of me writhing in pain as my dressings were changed, of being told that my arm would need to be amputated, of being advised that I would need yet another skin graft, of being told time and time again that I would not live.

But live I did. And I kept my arm. With its red, raised, twisted flesh, it looked different to the arms of my friends. There was a flap of skin near my elbow that was taut when my arm was stretched out and hung loose when my arm was bent. Yet as a small child these differences did not concern me – I was so much more than my body!

I was a busy, bossy little girl. I had a younger sister to organise, lollies to eat, Barbies to collect and, once school started, more books to devour. In childhood, my body was merely an instrument to carry me from one adventure to the next. When I wanted to join my friends at the beach, I just had Mum cut the toes out of one of my father’s socks and popped that on to protect my arm from the sun. Problem solved!

Around the time I turned ten, things definitely changed. I started noticing boys. And I started noticing the girls the boys noticed. At school, the boys preferred the alpha girls: popular, pretty, often good at sport. I was a pretty enough girl and had a few close friends, but as I was more interested in reading than netball, I was definitely not alpha material. It wasn’t just at school that I received messages about what defined beauty and sexual attractiveness. My Barbies, Charlie’s Angels, ABBA – all of them taught me that to be a desired woman, I would need to be thin, beautiful and immaculately groomed. No scars allowed.

I entered adolescence and, like most girls, began a new internal conversation. I was no longer casting spells to heal myself. Instead, I was engaging in darker, self-destructive thoughts and telling myself that I was not enough. Not pretty enough, not thin enough, not popular enough. My feelings of inadequacy due to my scarring became quite overwhelming; I was still bright and ambitious but my main preoccupation was how best I could hide my scars from the world.

I hid. I hid my arm. I wore skivvies underneath my summer uniform, wore jumpers all year round. I avoided pools and beaches. My arm no longer seemed small; it seemed enormous. A huge, horrible, disfigured limb I would be forced to drag through what had been my oh-so-promising life.

Yes, teenage girls are good at drama.

I vividly recall my daydreams at age 15 about what my life would be like if I had not been burnt. I was tall and had very long legs, so I fancied that I could have been a bikini model if it had not been for my arm. How telling: as an adolescent, my dream job was to be a bikini model! For many adolescents it is not the actual job of being a model that appeals; it is the kudos, the knowledge that one’s body has been declared special. Worthy of attention. ‘If I looked that way, then they would love me . . .’

At school, I hid my scars not only with the sleeves of my jumper but also by seeming self-assured. I knew that if I appeared vulnerable, I would be targeted. So I spent my free time joining in with my peers rating one another. I went to an all-girls school and at lunchtime it was as if the magazines we read, which told us what clothes were in and whether a celebrity was hot or not, had sprung to life. We may not have been able to control many elements of our lives, but we could definitely control one another through ridicule. The ratings we gave one another might not have been held up like scores in a talent show, but they were branded on our psyches.

The rules in girls’ rating games, then and now, are not difficult to follow. Be considered hot by your peers, in particular by boys, and you score points. Getting a highly desired boyfriend means an instant advance to the top of the club. I was lucky enough to land the school ‘spunk’ from the boys’ school next door and was elevated from classroom ‘brainiac’ to the girl everyone wanted to know, almost overnight. He dumped me a year later for a girl considered hotter. At just 14, she was a fashion model appearing in women’s magazines and parading in labels sold only to rich 30-somethings. My dream run at the top of the charts was over. I had all my deepest fears confirmed. The prettiest girl did win. In my mind, the breakup was all about me not being beautiful enough. It seemed all the more tragic because I had elevated him to godlike status for loving me despite my scars.

Looking back, I see how ridiculous this all was. I was funny, bright, passionately in love with him. He was not doing me any favours by being with me! It seems strange to me now that at no stage did I stop and think that perhaps my relationship with this boy had broken down for reasons other than my appearance. Possibly it had been the pressure of us getting too serious too soon (the reason my boyfriend gave me at the time), or maybe we were just growing apart. He may have just been a jerk. And the truth is, while the new girl certainly was beautiful, she may have been so much more than just her looks, too.

It was only in my adult years, as a teacher, that I finally explored ways in which I might come to terms with my burns. If I could not accept myself, how could I possibly ask my students to accept themselves?

I searched once again for soothing words, and found them in the writing of women such as Naomi Wolf, who wrote in The Beauty Myth: ‘We don’t need to change our bodies, we need to change the rules.’ In women such as Sofia Loren: ‘Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than the belief that she is beautiful.’ And in the words of the young women I now taught: ‘I love how you wear your scars, Miss, you don’t let them wear you.’ Words healed me. And my self-talk once more became focused on my strengths rather than my perceived weaknesses. I was okay. It would be all right.

And everything was okay. And it was more than just all right. Life without self-doubt was magnificent. I loved and I was loved. As a confident 20-something, I shone. I have a picture of me taken back then, when I went to the Amazon, in South America, for my honeymoon. It captures the authentic me. I look strong, fit. I am wearing a singlet top and grinning from ear to ear. I had been trekking in the jungle with my new husband and we had stumbled upon a village. When the local children saw my burn scars they ran and hid from me. Our guide explained that they feared I would die soon as they were not used to seeing large scars. In the Amazon, as there is no running water or electricity, if you get a major injury you will most likely die from infection. I assured our guide that he should tell the children I was fine. And one by one, they came across and touched my arm, played with my hair, and started telling me in the local language that I was a strong, brave girl. A warrior girl.

Yes. I am an Amazon warrior. I am more than my body. It is such a small part of the entire Dannielle Miller story that it has again been relegated to a co-starring role. I have managed to move from hating my body to not just accepting it but loving it, scars and all. I don’t think it is perfect, but I am okay with that. This is me.

When I choose to indulge in the trappings of conventional beauty – heels and hair dye – I do so knowing that these things may be fun, and they may make me feel pampered or be just what my outfit calls for on a special occasion, but they do not make me worth more or ensure I will be loved. I feel equally as valuable when I’m at home wearing my ugg boots and track pants, with my hair pulled back in an unbrushed mop. And though I may get occasionally frustrated with my tummy, I cannot bring myself to hate it for a moment. It is part of me. My body is like a dear friend: not perfect, yet lovable and comforting, quirks and all. Despite the advertising rhetoric, diets, surgery and cosmetics do not have some mystical power that will bring us eternal happiness. I know this.

How liberating! And, unfortunately, how rare. Many girls will not grow to be women who love their bodies. They will believe that if they just had the right-shaped breasts, or a flatter tummy, or a smaller nose, their life would be complete. They will bare scars of their own for many years – it’s just that their scars may not be quite as obvious as mine.

At war with the body

Many girls are enslaved to their bodies. Their supposed imperfections – be they scars, weight or bust size – take on monstrous proportions. This deprives them of finding that Amazon power within. Statistics tell the story bluntly: 94 per cent of teenage girls wish, some of the time, that they were more beautiful. A quarter of teenage girls want to change everything physically about themselves.

The problem with statistics is that it is easy for us to be emotionally detached and for the numbers to become somewhat meaningless. But each number is a real girl. A girl who wakes up hungry and chooses to stay that way all day. A girl who is deeply sad. A girl who feels that she is unloved and unlovable. A girl who limps through her days hiding, through actual physical withdrawal, or by assuming an ‘I am sooo fine’ facade, or by ridiculing others to deflect attention away from herself. Living with a sense of inadequacy hurts; occasionally this girl will take the ache from within her own chest and throw it at other girls, allowing herself just that little bit of breathing space. This teen girl might tease and belittle others, because it deflects attention away from her own perceived flaws.

I have cried for, and with, many of the girls I have worked with, as they shared with me the pain of being at war with their own bodies.

I have struggled since I was six with weight and body image . . . I haven’t eaten for a week in an attempt to be beautiful.
Katia, 15

My whole life, I have been called just ‘that fat kid’.
Lucy, 14

I think I am not as pretty as other girls. I hate the way I look, as it means I can’t make friends.
Samantha, 12

I don’t like to look in mirrors or get my photo taken, ’cause I am not beautiful. None of the girls I see in magazines look like me, because my skin is really dark. I wish I could make it whiter.
Stephanie, 13

Often, I do not cry out of sadness. My workshops are incredibly joyful. I cry tears of joy and gratitude, too. I try to help heal and soothe and show girls that there is another way. Girls can silence their inner critic and begin a new conversation within, a conversation that is affirming rather than destroying.

For this to happen, girls need new, positive messages, delivered with authenticity and passion. Girls need to see women who realise that they are so much more than just their bodies.

This blog post is an extract from Dannielle’s book The Butterfly Effect, Random House, 2009

About the Author

Dannielle Miller

Dannielle Miller is a major innovator and expert in the field of education and student welfare. Dannielle is the CEO and co-founder of Enlighten Education, which provides girls with training and support to stand up to limiting media and social messages.

In 2009, as part of its Next 100 series, The Weekend Australian newspaper named Dannielle as Australia’s no 1 Emerging Leader in Learning. She works with thousands of girls across Australia each year and makes regular media appearances to advise on teen issues. Author of teen parenting book The Butterfly Effect (Random House Australia, September 2009), she is also an avid blogger. She is featured in education journals, her articles have appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, and she is a popular speaker at youth and education conferences and forums.

See Dannielle’s latest interview on the Kerri-Anne Show: Should You Tell Your Daughter She Is Fat?


Emma — 16 February, 2011 at 10:33 am

When I think about the times I have been happiest with my body, it’s when it is doing something for me – climbing a sheer rockface, or running a long distance. Using my body doesn’t just feel good because of the endorphins, it feels good because it’s about more than just how it looks. It’s nice to feel that my body has a purpose – it means I have a purpose too. It’s much harder when I am trying to get my body to do something and it is failing. That’s when I need to change my inner talk from being angry and disappointed with my body (and myself) to accepting that perhaps there are limits to what my body can do for me, or that if I want my body to go beyond those limits then I need to be better prepared before I start.

Kate — 16 February, 2011 at 06:03 pm

Thanks for a beautiful post Danielle. Whenever I read stories like this it makes me proud of my own body and what it is capable of – something that is sometimes all too easy to forget when you’re in front of a mirror! I might just go home and write my own love letter to my body…

Garmisch — 16 February, 2011 at 06:48 pm

I totally agree!

I went to Japan last year and visited an onsen for the first time. It was the real deal, with the hot spring being pumped up from deep underground, and you had a bath with 50 odd other women, in, well, nothing. It was a very odd feeling and I didn’t know where to look! After a few minutes of standing in the room, trying to take it in, without being too obvious and touristy, I’m like okay, no one knows me here, it’ll be fine.

I sat in one of the “shower areas” and was struggling with the tap when this lovely older lady next to me smiled, and pointed at what I had to do. Her patient smile and nod reassured me that no one actually cares who you are, what you look like, all that matters is how you feel. Everyone was there for themselves, no one was judging, no one was staring. Everyone was genuinely having a good, relaxing time. I grinned in my head, stepped into the really hot bath and just sat there, thinking. There were women there ranging from 3 (with her mum) to my grandmothers age. It was pretty cool being surrounded by so much wisdom, history and culture, and everyone was just chilling. There were women gossiping, naked and feeling totally okay with themselves and their bodies. It was a nice and liberating feeling, everyone in a state of calm and peace, either chatting softly with a friend or absorbed in their own thoughts. It made me realise, I’m actually okay with my body, I’m okay with how I look, shortness and all. I sat there for awhile and realised damn! I look good and that was enough for me.

Kate — 18 February, 2011 at 11:05 am

Garmisch, i had exactly the same experience! And i felt the same way, being surrounded by women and knowing that it wasn’t what i looked like on the outside that mattered. The best thing about my onsen experience was that i was in Japan with my partner and his daughter, who was ten at the time and just at the onset of puberty. She was very unsure about the whole onsen thing, and didn’t know how she would go being naked around a bunch of strangers. We took her swimmers so she could wear them if she felt too uncomfortable – her body is just beginning to change and she does feel a bit awkward about it all. We walked into the change room and it was full of Japanese women, of all ages, just walking around with nothing on – and nobody was looking at each other, or judging, just all being together in the same comfortable, friendly space. Gorgeous ten year old just looked around, soaked it up, saw that nobody was going to stare at her or snicker behind their hands at what her body looked like, and said ‘oh, this is great!’. Never looked back. It was a beautiful experience :)

Amanda — 21 February, 2011 at 11:31 am

That post was truely inspiring…to hear other people stories and hear the struggles they go through and overcome is just so amazing. I can remeber being in school and it was very much about comparing myself to other girls, why didnt i look like them…but as i grew up and became more aware about positive self body image I realise…I may not look like every other girl out there but I am sure proud to be me!!!Once i stopped worrying about the pressure to have like the ‘Perfect Body’ I started realise all the other potential I had and started to build my life around what I wanted to get out of it!!!
Thanks for the post Danielle it was truely inspirring to hear!! :)