Teens and Body Image- Why we Don’t Always Like What we see in the Mirror

Body dysmorphic disorder is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a type of chronic mental illness where you can’t stop thinking about a flaw in your appearance — a flaw that is either minor or imagined. But to you, your appearance seems so shameful that you don’t want to be seen by anyone. So, let me say that again in teen language. You think some part of your body is so hideous that you need to hide it constantly, obsess about it, and stare at it all the time.

Don’t get me wrong, all teens are concerned with the way they look. That’s just part of being a teen. Now, don’t confuse being a “typical” teen with having body dysmorphia. When a teen struggles with body dysmorphia, s/he focuses in on one or two particular parts of their body and obsesses over that area specifically on a constant basis. Like, “My nose is so crooked, I can’t go out in public!” Or, “My feet are huge, I could never wear those shoes!”  Usually, in these cases your friends will not understand what you are talking about because they don’t see it.  This can cause you to feel even more alone because no one sees what you see when they look in the mirror.

I’ve encountered many teens who have shared with me stories of their own body dysmorphia. For example, some can rationally identify that their present weight isn’t considered clinically overweight; however, their brains still tell them that they are obese. Some will honestly look in the mirror and still see that young girl who was overweight, or had braces, bad acne or glasses (usually in 4th, 5th or sixth-grade.)

One factor that always seems to go along with body dysmorphia is name-calling or teasing.  You were probably sensitive to your weight, the braces or being taller than the rest of the class and a bullied honed in on that.  The experience was traumatizing and you were never able to let it go. Being so young, you wouldn’t have the tools to deal with those feelings and most kids don’t tell their parents either, which is a huge mistake. Parents can help you process the experience and give you advice or tools to deal with the teasing and to let it go. Unfortunately, many teens carry the painful scars from being teased into high school.  Although in present-day, they know that they are not overweight, those nicknames still stick in their heads. The trauma from being teased doesn’t just go away and when they look in the mirror they still see their overweight self from a painful time.

I’ve never agreed with the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” I’ve seen the opposite. Damaging name-calling that carries over to the teenage years.  Names that teens can’t get out of their heads and hear over and over like a broken record.  Some start to believe the name-calling and see themselves in a negative light.  Many teens have told me, that although they’ve lost the weight and the name-calling was years ago, they are still waiting for it to happen again. They walk down the halls in high school feeling like a fraud.  Scared that those names will come back to haunt them because maybe they deserve it. To me, that’s much more painful than breaking a bone because when you break a bone, you set it and it heals. For some of these teens, since the scars aren’t visible, no one else sees the pain, and they didn’t know how to release it to heal.  One thing is clear, if they don’t deal with the root of the problem the pain will remain and they will continue to be challenged every time they look in the mirror.

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Teens Discover Self-Empowerment and Heart Centered Leadership Through Yoga

Guest Blog

For three years, I have taught a weekly yoga class to under-resourced teens. It is the happiest hour of my workweek. Both male and female students ranging in age from 13 to 18 participate. Like most teens, my students are navigating foreign and awkward territory. They experience hormonal changes, school stress, peer pressure and trying to become comfortable in their skin. However, my youth also encounter violence, hunger, and unstable home environments. As a result, they can checkout, have low self-esteem, difficulty focusing, act up or be in a constant state of fight or flight. Due to the trauma they face, some suffer from high levels of stress and depression. This all has a long term impact on physical and mental health, academic performance, forming stable and secure relationships, positive goal setting and accomplishment.

Class participants start in a circle. Each youth says a word or phrase that captures how they are feeling in the moment. It’s common to hear a mix of words like, happy, mellow, neutral, stressed, tired and sad. The students complete a reflection exercise and then move to a Hatha or Restorative yoga practice. Each week, the yoga and reflection activities are designed to build upon one another. Through yoga, participants learn to be healthy, engaged, relaxed and empowered; tools which enable them to pursue their dreams and live as leaders. They become comfortable and connected to their bodies and emotions, learn how to self-regulate through deep breathing, practice mindfulness, focus and connect to their hearts. Class ends with students sitting in a closing circle to share their moods. A shift often occurs, and words like relaxed, happy, great and flexible flow out of the teens’ mouths. What are the long-term impacts? One of my students said it best, “When life is stressful, relax. Yoga has taught me that if I stay focused, I can do anything.”

Shannon LeCompte has her M.Ed in Higher Education and is a Director at a national non-profit that empowers youth to attend and graduate from college. She is also a certified yoga instructor and teaches Restorative and Vinyasa yoga to adults and teens in the San Francisco Bay Area. She can be reached at  lecompte.shannon@gmail.com

One Teen’s Struggle with Perfectionism and Bulimia (Narrative)

I am a six or seven out of 10 on the scale of self-esteem.

I am not some teenage girl on the Disney Channel who writes in a diary and cries about a boy who doesn’t like her. No, that’s not deep enough. That downgrades my issues.

I don’t have a diary.

I don’t write, “Dear diary, so-and-so doesn’t like me back.”

No – when I have a bad day, I scream, punch pillows, and listen to angry music at the highest volume until everything else fades away.

Or I smoke weed.

Or, I used to throw up until I passed out.

Have you ever seen that on the Disney Channel?

I am a six or seven, but this wasn’t always the case. There is one thing I need you to clearly understand about me before you walk away: I HATE who I was a year ago. Who I am today, right now, is not who I was even a couple months ago.

I have struggled with bulimia since the fourth grade.

I’ve always kind of had people make fun of me for my weight. I’m not fat but I’m not thin. Boys especially like to point this out every chance they get. Like recently a guy told my friend that I was a chunky girl. He said that only black guys would ever like me because they’re the only ones who could handle my “thickness.”

What? Excuse me? 

I would usually take a comment like that to heart, but this time I didn’t let it affect me. This time, I confronted him… well, yelled at him actually. I’ve come a long way.

But the main source of my bulimia doesn’t stem from cruel comments about my weight.

It all started in the third grade when my dad moved away. My mom was kind of unstable. Sometimes she was more than kind of unstable; she was CRAZY. Other times she would just come home from work, go to her bedroom, and shut her door for the night. About a year ago, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But at the time I had no idea. No idea at all what was going on with her.

So I raised my sister and me. Even though she is older, I helped her with her homework and did her laundry. She’s kind of a princess. I was always the one making meals, doing the chores… all that stuff. It got to be too much. A fourth grader shouldn’t be cooking dinner every night and making lunches every morning, you know?

I felt like I was losing control of my life. I had to put myself and my energy into something.

So I put them into throwing up.

Later I discovered that one of my friends had anorexia. I didn’t know at first because I was too trapped in my own head to focus on other people’s problems. When I found out, our relationship changed. We were both obsessed with our eating disorders and would root each other on.

She’d call and say, “Did you eat lunch today?”

I’d say no.

She’d say, “Good. Don’t. And here’s why you shouldn’t eat dinner either.”

It was not a healthy friendship at all, and I can see that. Now, anyway.

My relationship with boys wasn’t healthy either. In middle school, I got a bad reputation for being a slut. I craved attention. The feeling of having someone who “wanted” me took over. When a guy noticed me, I would think, Oh my God! A guy actually WANTS me? I would do anything then, you know? And guys turned into huge assholes, using me all the time.

Between boys and bulimia, I was a mess. When I started coughing up blood and passing out, my mom and dad decided to take action. They sent me to a hospital and from there I went into residential treatment.

My anorexic “friend” would call me while I was in rehab. She’d be like, “Oh my God. Are they making you fat? I bet they’re making you SO fat.”

But they weren’t making me fat; they were making me myself again. An amazing thing happened there: I found tools. Things I liked. I got back into horseback riding and played volleyball. I quit cheerleading. THANK GOD. Cheerleading was so incredibly negative.

I had to just kind of get to know myself again, you know? Find out what I liked because I had NO idea. After trying to please my parents and boys for so long, I didn’t know how to make myself happy.

I was completely absorbed with attaining perfection.

I forgot who I was.

Now I know: I love volleyball and horseback riding. I like feeling completely out of mind, not consumed by any thoughts. I like having something to put my energy into other than throwing up, something to strive for, something to focus on. I like having healthy and reasonable goals.

Before rehab, my goal would be something like: Okay, if only I can lose five pounds and get down to 110. Then it would change to: Okay, now if only I can lose five more, you know? Not good. Now I can set goals like moving up to the next level in horseback riding or achieving first place in my next volleyball competition. Much better.

I’ve found myself in a lot of ways, but I still feel that nagging pressure to please people. Like my parents. I’m always afraid of letting them down. When I’m really depressed, I won’t go to my mom and say, “Hey, I’ve been feeling really down lately.” I don’t want her to worry, you know? I’ll tell her almost anything, but not the emotional stuff. I don’t want to disappoint, scare, or upset her.

I want both of my parents to be proud. Proud to call me their daughter. I want them to tell their friends, “Yeah, my daughter, she gets straight As.” As opposed to like, “Oh… my daughter? She likes to drink and she is failing all her classes.”

Pressure to please my parents keeps me on track. To a point. I want them to help me control the things I can’t on my own. Like homework. I don’t do it or turn it in unless someone is breathing down my neck. I’ve just never been motivated.

But other times my parents are too controlling. They can’t tell me to clean my room. I get really pissed off. That’s MY area. They definitely can’t take away anything in my bathroom. Especially my makeup. One time they took it as punishment and their plan backfired.

I kicked a hole in the wall.

Other times they tell me what to do or who to hang out with. That’s when I act rebellious and go out drinking on Friday night, things like that. I mean, it’s understandable they don’t want me to drink and do drugs. I don’t take it to heart, but I do understand.

Don’t get me wrong though. I don’t want to fuck up my future, you know? I want good grades. I want to go to college. I just want to have fun along the way. Party on the weekend, study on the weekdays.

Then there’s that other group I aim to please: BOYS.

Basically, if I know I’m going to see a guy during or after school or whatever, I either straighten my hair and put on makeup or hide my face. I feel so much pressure. Even if we’re just friends, even if I’m not into him or he’s not cute, I want to impress him.

I just get so nervous. I get nervous they talk about me the way they talk about other girls to me. They are SO brutal. Like when this guy was getting with this really, REALLY pretty girl. She was so beautiful and he was sitting there like, “Oh my God. She is such a troll. She’s so disgusting. Her face is disgusting.”

What? Well you’re the one hooking up with her. 

It makes me wonder what they say that I don’t know about. I would never have the heart to tell another girl, “Well so-and-so said this about you,” you know? I don’t think people would want to tell me either. The whole idea just makes me uncomfortable.

Regardless, I have had an on-and-off boyfriend for five months or so. He is really, really incredible and treats me well. For the first time ever a boy treats me well! But no matter how sweet he is or how much he tells me I’m beautiful, he can’t see me with curly hair or frumpy clothes. I feel like I have to look perfect. I know he doesn’t care, but I’m uncomfortable still and won’t change soon.

He is a guy after all.

I don’t trust guys.

I’ve been fucked over too many times.

Thankfully, I do have two people in my life I trust completely. I can tell my big sister – the princess – anything. 100%. She’s my best friend. My older cousin too. She’s been through a lot of the things I have and she’s on the other side now. She always has a solution for me.

While you’re not my sister or my cousin, I will still trust you with one embarrassing fact: I watch reality TV. Maybe Disney doesn’t go deep enough, but reality TV takes it too far. It teaches you everything that can possibly ruin you and glorifies everything that should not be held high.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Bridalplasty? It’s a reality show where all these women compete for plastic surgery before their weddings – bigger boobs, nose jobs, stuff like that. But the thing is, these women are already beautiful. So beautiful just the way they are.

It is the worst show self-esteem-wise but my favorite to watch. I think because watching it makes me feel like I’m not alone. Everyone, even these perfectly beautiful women, find things wrong with them. So I started thinking, Maybe I’m in their position. Maybe I’m beautiful but just can’t see it because I find all these things wrong with myself.  This crazy show made me realize everyone has their issues and no one is completely happy with who they are.

I’m not, but I’m getting closer. Today I am in the best place I’ve been in a long time.  I’m a six or seven out of 10. I am upper middleclass. I am Caucasian. I am 14. I am a freshman.

How could I also be 10 out of 10 on the scale of self-esteem? I would have to drop every unreasonable expectation for myself.  Perfect skin. Perfect hair. Cute outfits all the time.

If you ask me if I think I can reach 10 out of 10 someday, I will answer softly that I think I can. And if you ask me if I want to reach 10 out of 10, I will answer even more softly that I do.

Maybe someday I will want it enough to speak in more than just a whisper.

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