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.

Overcoming Bullying: One Teen’s Story of Bullying and Survival

I believe being comfortable with myself will make me happy regardless of my situation.

This belief could come from the fact that I was bullied during the fifth and sixth grade. I had been friends with a girl for maybe two or three years, but then I decided to hang out with my other friend more than her. She felt betrayed, but I didn’t really notice what I was doing to her and she never brought it up. Then the bullying started. I figured that eventually she’d get over it or she’d get tired and stop. But she didn’t.

My former friend would pull my hair, punch me, and kick me…she even stabbed me with a pen once and broke my skin. I think my other friends tried to intervene as much as they could without getting anyone in trouble. It just wasn’t enough. I try to analyze why I never said anything and I guess it’s because I didn’t want anyone to get in trouble either. Even though she clearly was not acting like a friend anymore, I still felt loyalty to her from our past history. I also thought that if I didn’t acknowledge the situation, then it wouldn’t actually be real. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. The situation got to a point where it was really unsafe. I don’t know what would have happened if my mom hadn’t finally found out.

I guess she had noticed these marks on my body, but I’ve always kind of been prone to bruising so she didn’t think anything of them. Then one day she was walking me to school – which she rarely did – and she saw my friend pull my hair. She forced me to tell her about the bullying, and I broke down crying. She told me to talk to my teacher – which I did – and then the principal got involved too.

It was really awkward for me because we were a small class of about 30 and my former friend and I ran in the same clique of only five girls. I was nervous about what would happen to the friends I did like. Would they get angry at me for snitching on someone or would they stand by me? Surprisingly, the whole clique continued to hang out even though it was really awkward. My former friend and I just avoided each other completely. I’m not sure how we did that considering our group was so small…I guess that’s what made it so awkward.

On the positive side, I finished that year with a better sense of who I was. I learned from the experience.  I’m not going to ever let it happen to me – or anyone else – again. I swore that to myself. Since I was able to beat my problem and grow from it, now I know that I can handle anything.

Perfectionism and Protection- A Teen’s Story of Addiction and Control

 She’s a petite 17-year-old girl, with little makeup and a kind smile. She is an only child. She has good relationships with her friends and loves to talk with them about boys, school stress, and gossip. She would never talk specifically about struggle she’s dealing with at home, but she will hint about them indirectly with her friends. She doesn’t talk to any of her friends about serious issues that she’s dealing with nor does she talk to her parents. I innocently asked, who’s there for you?  Her response,“that’s why I now have a therapist.”  She explained how when she was 16 years old she had everything bottled up inside her and struggled with depression, extreme mood swings and sought solace in drugs and alcohol. She talked about how her depression hit an all-time low at one point and she overdosed. Her drug of choice ecstasy and alcohol of choice vodka. Once this happened she had to come clean to her parents and tell them about the depression and obviously the drugs and alcohol. She was extremely scared because she had never opened up to them about “anything” before. When she told her parents about the drug issue her mom cried and her dad was sad. She was surprised by how open and comforting they were about her situation and sent her to rehab. The thing she feels the worse about is that by coming clean to her parents, she’s basically admitting to them that they don’t know her. She’s been lying to them. Lying about who she is and what she does. This truly bothered her the most. She said that time heals all when talking about going into treatment for her drug and alcohol issues. She then tells me that on top of the drug and alcohol issues and the depression, she also had an eating disorder. She had become anorexic for a period of time as a form of control over her life. She felt hiding the eating disorder was very easy to do. She stressed to me that it had nothing to do with body image at all, it was all about control.