Originally created 06/20/06

Teens don't always like what they see in the mirror



By summer, the heavy layers of clothing have come off but the concern about body shape, size or weight still blankets many teens.

"I think about 70 percent are OK, and about 30 percent have a negative body image," said Caroline Cady, 18, a 2006 graduate from Greenbrier High School.

Though her calculations are far from scientific, Caroline said, she's heard again and again how her peers view themselves. The mirror doesn't reflect their state of minds, she added.

"They always say, 'Oh, I can't eat that,' or, 'I can't do this because I'm fat,'" she said.

It's not just the girls, either.

"I know boys who do it, too," Caroline said.

Body image is a lasting issue with teens, said Jennifer Dyl, a child psychologist in the adolescent unit at Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island.

"I think it's normal for teens to focus on their body, just to be self-conscious about it, because their body is changing," Dr. Dyl said.

The normal self-consciousness and self-awareness wouldn't be such a bad thing, but once young people begin sizing themselves up, they also start comparing themselves to others.

Having played sports since she was young, Amanda Wade, 17, said she remembers being ashamed of her physique.

"I'm a soccer player, so I have huge legs," the 2006 graduate of Lakeside High School said. "I thought they were huge and gross."

This fall she will be playing soccer for Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, and everything has changed.

"I've grown out of it (the self-consciousness)," she said. "I'm a college athlete and that kind of thing. I've always been big and muscular, now I'm proud of it. Getting older definitely has something to do with your image and I'm comfortable with myself now."

The passage of time doesn't let pop culture off the hook, Amanda said.

"I think the media (do) have a lot to do with it," she said. "You see all these beautiful actresses and actors out there and wonder why you can't be like them. I don't think it's a good environment."

Dr. Dyl agreed.

"Unfortunately, in our culture, the focus is on body image," she said. "Teens are exposed to a lot of media, it has them looking at models and celebrities in magazines all day long wondering why they don't look like them."

That's bound to have some affect, such as girls thinking they aren't thin enough, or boys who might feel they aren't muscular enough.

In a study published this month in the Journal of Child Psychiatry and Human Development, she and her colleagues found that taken too far, a negative body image can lead to more than just grimacing in the mirror or sporting a T-shirt to the pool.

"There is a substantial group of teens who are getting too focused on their body and it's causing a lot of stress, lots of impairment," Dr. Dyl said.

She said some teens find themselves preoccupied with a particular body part or their size or shape so much so that it interferes with their lives.

Some teens afflicted with the condition, known as body dysmorphic disorder, can spend hours a day bothered by their skin or the measure of their thighs.

Though her study looked at those who already were vulnerable to psychiatric problems such as depression or suicidal tendencies, Dr. Dyl said that having a negative body image can be more than a temporary growing pain for teens.

"People recognize eating disorders, there is more and more known about anorexics and bulimics," she said. "There has been focus on them but not these other types of body dysmorphic disorders. In mental health settings, you see (teen) patients coming in for suicide or suicidal tendencies and doctors don't think about body image being the reason why, when what (patients) are really saying is that body image is a reason why they want to kill themselves.

"That's the interesting part, that it's that severe," Dr. Dyl continued. "For some kids it can be less severe; for others it can take on a life of its own."

Those who have serious body image issues need to seek professional treatment, Dr. Dyl said.

It need not get to that level with everyone, though, and a good part of it is recognizing that there are things beyond appearance.

"Sometimes it gets this bad because they are so focused on body, because their world is so restrictive," Dr. Dyl said. "It could help to focus on other activities that can build self-esteem."

Though not a cure-all, expanding her sights beyond the mirror has helped Caroline keep a healthful body image.

"I don't try to be something I'm not," said the incoming freshman at the University of Georgia. "It's like, I know that I don't look like a model, but I realize that's unrealistic. I don't focus all my attention on how I look."

Instead, she looks to her job and art, and she offers this advice for those who struggle with how they look:

"I say not to worry about it because people aren't paying as much attention to them as they are themselves," Caroline said.

Amanda approaches it from a different angle.

"You've got to be comfortable with yourself," she said. "Confidence plays a big role in life. If you can't be confident and believe in yourself, who will?"

Reach Kamille Bostick at (706) 823-3223 or kamille.bostick@augustachronicle.com.