SENATOR DEBORAH O'NEILL: 'On IWD, let's stop judging each other for how we look.'

CONTENT WARNING: This post contains mentions of eating disorders and may be triggering to some readers.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #BalanceforBetter. We are all asked to do what we can to build a gender balanced world.

Each year on this day I take the time to reflect on the work we have remaining to truly achieve gender equity. A huge part of this must be centred on breaking the unrealistic standards we place on women.

We judge women for how they speak, work, emote, parent and, of course, how they look.

Are they thin enough?

Are they curvy enough?

Are they toned enough?

From Spanx to street harassment, this is what it would look like if a man lived like a woman for day.

Video by MMC

I am sure you have asked these questions about other women. And, I am sure you have asked these questions to yourself.

These types of questions, societal expectations and attitudes about women’s bodies are stopping us from living in a gender balanced world. That’s why this International Women’s Day I want to talk about eating disorders and body dissatisfaction.

To borrow a quote from Naomi Wolf’s classic The Beauty Myth:

“Our society does reward beauty on the outside over health on the inside … if public discourse were really concerned with women’s health, it would turn angrily upon this aspect of the beauty myth.”

It is important to note that eating disorders know no boundaries.

Eating disorders are experienced by all gender identities and age groups. They are not exclusively experienced by women – and anything to the contrary further stigmatises all others who live with eating disorders.

But according to research by Orygen identifying as a female is the most commonly recognised risk factor for the development of an eating disorder.


That’s right, read that again … one’s gender identity.

unrealistic bodies banned from ads
"Our society does reward beauty on the outside over health on the inside … if public discourse were really concerned with women's health, it would turn angrily upon this aspect of the beauty myth,” writes Naomi Wolf.

Around 15 per cent of Australian women experience an eating disorder during their lifetime. This is likely an under-representation due to significant misdiagnosis and under-reporting. In fact, only 1 in 4 Australians experiencing an eating disorder are actually known to the health system.

Young people, particularly young women, remain those at the highest risk of being diagnosed with an eating disorder.

Another known risk factor for the development of an eating disorder is body dissatisfaction – and arguably the primary modifiable risk factor.

We know that body image is consistently listed as a major concern for young people, particularly young women.

Each year, Mission Australia conducts a survey of young people to figure out what their concerns are. Yet again, the 2018 Annual Youth Survey followed a pattern similar to what we have come to expect with around 41.5 per cent of young women surveyed concerned about body image, compared to 15.4 per cent of young men.

We need to do better.

Not only at treating eating disorders – but at preventing eating disorders and understanding them, with body image a central component of this.

Australia needs a national strategy to prevent eating disorders. The absence of a national strategy to tackle this all important issue in a coordinated way is seriously concerning.


Last year, Bill Shorten wrote to the Prime Minister urging that we work together to make this a mission of Parliament to develop and implement a National Plan for Eating Disorders. Part of this must be changing embedded cultural attitudes in society that are all too often gendered.

This is where you can play a part.

Today, when you look in the mirror I urge you not to ask yourself those usual harmful questions.

Am I thin enough?

Am I curvy enough?

Am I toned enough?

Instead, take the time today to have a conversation around body image that is focused on appreciating what your body does for you – not just how it looks.

Let’s work together to change social and cultural norms that plague girls and women, and prevent them from living their best, healthiest, most prosperous lives. It is only by doing this that way we can finally build the gender balanced world we are all striving for.

** Anyone needing support with eating disorders or body image issues is encouraged to contact Butterfly’s National Helpline on 1800 ED HOPE (33 4673). For urgent support, call Lifeline 13 11 14 **

Senator Deborah O’Neill is a Labor Senator for NSW, Shadow Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Shadow Assistant Minister for Innovation.

Want to have your voice heard? Plus have the chance to win $100? Take our survey now.