Dicey Topics: former ACT chief minister Kate Carnell on sex, body image and death
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Dicey Topics: former ACT chief minister Kate Carnell on sex, body image and death

Each week, Benjamin Law asks public figures to discuss the subjects we're told to keep private. This week, Kate Carnell talks about sex, body image and death.

Raised in Brisbane, the former ACT chief minister and businesswoman is now the inaugural Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman.

SEX

We start with the most diabolical can of worms: sex.

Former ACT Chief Minister and businessperson Kate Carnell.

Former ACT Chief Minister and businessperson Kate Carnell.

Photo: James Brickwood

That's all right. Sex is fine. In fact, sex is really good!

Growing up, what were you taught about sex?

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I remember my mum saying to me around the age of 12, "Well, we should really have the birds and the bees conversation." And I said, "You mean sex, Mum?" She went, [wide-eyed expression] "Yeah …"

So you were already a few steps ahead.

Yards, perhaps. My mum had the birds and the bees discussion four years too late.

How had you taught yourself?

I remember my best friend and I – we were about 10 – hanging out, reading her eldest sister's nursing books.

A self-led education.

This is true. And obviously there's a bit at school: "Here are boys' bits; here are girls' bits; and then there are babies." But no one talked about what happens in between.

Tab A goes into Slot B!

That's the one!

What did your adult self wish you'd been told about sex?

I wish there had been the capacity to have real discussions about sex, about what you do to maximise pleasure – those sorts of things.

Pleasure is not spoken about, is it?

Yet it's why people usually have sex. Unless you're actually trying to produce babies – but that's a very small number of sexual events, isn't it? Mostly you're trying not to.

I imagine some people think, "If we tell young people it's pleasurable, they're going to have it. And therefore they'll be even more unsafe!"

Guess what? They're going to have it anyway. It's probably a good idea for them to be safe and happy.

BODIES

Have you always been comfortable in your body?

No, I had anorexia as a teenager. So this is a good topic for me.

Did you have the vocabulary for it then?

Anorexia and body dysmorphia – as you'd call it now – wasn't well-diagnosed or understood at the time. But it existed, fairly obviously. For me, around the age of 12, it was initially about losing weight, to be one of the skinny, cool girls. I wasn't ever fat, but I was probably curvy. Played a lot of tennis, so I was quite sporty and muscular.

Eating disorders aren't necessarily to do with physical presentation, right?

That's true. And positive feedback is a really interesting dilemma here. I went on a diet, lost some weight and initially my tennis improved because I was carrying less. Everyone said, "Fantastic, Kate! You're looking so great!" Unfortunately, my view was, "Well, if this is working, all I've got to do is more of it." Being a bit of a perfectionist, I decided that if a little bit was good, a lot must be really good. So I spent most of my teenage years with anorexia of various levels, including quite a lot of time in hospital.

What helped you get through it?

Quite a lot of psychotherapy, but also becoming comfortable in my own skin. That's why I've been involved in beyondblue [Carnell is a former CEO of the organisation and is now its deputy chair] and mental health policy for most of my working life. Having personal experience of mental illness improves your empathy for others.

You're 62. What have you learnt about handling things?

Through politics and a whole range of things where you get bashed up a lot and come out the other end, I've learnt how to put things in a box. People say nasty stuff and you've got two choices: dwell and stress on it, or shove it over there. I shove it over there. Sometimes I shove it over there and forget to get it out! [Laughs]

What do you like about your body now?

I'm fitter than I've been for a long time. I like feeling strong. But I still hate my flabby arms!

DEATH

What was your first encounter with death?

My best friend – whose sister's nursing books we checked out – went to a new school when she was 12. I didn't see her a lot, but she was killed in a car accident with her father at 14.

What does that do to how you see the world?

It brings it home that death can just happen. It shows you that death takes people who don't deserve it, and not at the right time

You studied and worked as a pharmacist. Did that give you a healthier attitude towards death?

Absolutely. It's why I'm dramatically in favour of appropriate voluntary euthanasia. I've seen so many bad deaths. It needn't be bad; I've seen good ones, too.

In an ideal world, how would you like to die?

Oh, get run over by a bus. Bang. Gone.

The most instantaneous death possible.

That's right. Quick and painless. Wouldn't everybody love that?

What do you think happens next?

I'm not here any more.

Or anywhere?

Or anywhere. That's why I believe our role is to leave this planet better than when we came into it. Everyone can do that.

diceytopics@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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