I was browsing through ninemsn this afternoon, and came across an A Current Affair story that aired last week. It made me so sad and so angry. I read the story and then watched the video of it, all the while shaking my head in disbelief.
It was called "What Teens Really Think of Their Bodies". I am the first to admit that I tend to switch off when I see these stories. I don't like hearing about it - I'm no scavenger of human misery, and it's all too common a story these days. Heck, I went through it myself, I don't need reminding. I'm so sick of these half-starved female celebrities gazing at me with hollow eyes from magazine covers, but at least I'm now grown up enough to be able to see these people for what they really are, not so vulnerable and torn up with self loathing that I long to look like that myself.
But this story really tore me up. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing. Are self acceptance and self esteem such outdated concepts? In this story there were four girls, all of whom looked perfectly healthy and beautiful to me - none of them were even bordering overweight. Yet all of them talked about wanting to be a size 10, wanting to drop at least seven kilograms, describing how they skipped meals. One of them said, "on a Saturday night, nobody eats dinner." Can you believe that? The four also described their so called "friends" at school who judged everyone in the group based on what they ate. Even if they ate salad, they were chastised for being anorexic. It made me want to be sick. What is society doing to these impressionable, vulnerable young people? And there are thousands more out there, just like them, which is even more terrifying. What does it say about our society that this kind of behaviour and thinking is acceptable, even desirable?
Not a lot has changed since I was a teenager. I remember the hideousness of adolescence very well. There are times when you honestly feel like there is no one in the world who understands you, when you feel so cut off from your family that you're convinced that you were swapped with another baby at the hospital, and the pressure to fit in is enormous. Absolutely enormous. Because if you don't fit in, if you don't graze around with the rest of the sheep, you are crucified.
I went to an all girls school from kindergarten to Year 10. It was a perfectly nice school until about half way through Year 5. That was when I realised that life wasn't fair. That it didn't matter how hard you worked or what you believed in, that the pretty girls would always be the favourites and would always get what they wanted. There's a marvellous line from a Missy Higgins song, "The River" - there is a little girl with "so heavy a heart for someone barely ten years old". That was me.
Things were never helped by our PE teacher making us weigh ourselves in class. In Year 9 I remember I refused to get on the scales. I don't recall if there were any repercussions, but I just recall adamantly refusing, one of the few times I asserted myself in my teenage years. I just couldn't bear getting on there, having someone else know my monstrous weight, that horrible number that determined how I felt about myself. It was made worse by having these skinny air-headed bitches in my class dancing about in feint agony screaming "Oh, I'm 60 kilos, I'm so fat!". I wanted to pick up the scales and throw them at them. Most of all I just wanted to hide away somewhere, where I'd never have to be seen by human eyes again. But I was never the trouble maker, never the pot stirrer, never the rebel. I ate my misery instead.
What I would have loved and what I needed back then, more than anything, was for someone to tell me that it was okay for me to be the way I was. I didn't need to be a size 10. It was ok for me to be around the 70kg mark because that was a healthy weight for my height. As long as I exercised and ate well, there was no need for all this obsessiveness.
The story that inspired these reflections wasn't exactly great journalism but it got the point across. However, I was very disappointed that it didn't reach a satisfactory conclusion - it ended with the attitude that "oh well, this is going to keep happening, but at least we can sleep at night knowing that we've brought it to people's attention". It featured the obligatory psychologist and Gender Studies professor, but no real advice or solution that people could take away from it. The psychologist just said that "parents should be concerned if they notice obsessive behaviour in their children, if they're skipping meals, etc" - well, DUH!
So I've decided to throw something of my own into the plethora of information out there. I know I have a few teenage readers, so I wrote the following for you. But even if you're no longer a teenager, I think the advice can be applied to anyone of any age who is worried about their weight, whether it's justified or not. If you're the parent of a teenager, you might get someting out of it too. I'm not claiming I'm some kind of guru or an expert, but I have certainly walked the walk. And rather than complain that there is no decent, common sense advice out there for girls and guys who have low self esteem when it comes to their bodies, I decided to put my money where my mouth is. My hope is that it is helpful:
- STARVING YOURSELF DOES NOT WORK. It won't make you lose weight. You will just end up absolutely miserable, not to mention hungry! Guys aren't attracted to unhappy girls, and vice versa, no matter how thin they are.
- If you are in fact overweight by healthy standards and aren't happy with yourself, then by all means do something about it - and good on you. But do it sensibly. Enlist the help of someone you trust - your mum or dad, big sister, etc - and work out a plan. Weight Watchers is a very sensible programme, as no food is forbidden and they encourage healthy eating habits, regular exercise and paying attention to your feelings, particularly those that make you overeat.
- Don't read these celebrity bullshit magazines. Without the air brushing, makeup and studio lights, Mary-Kate, Ashley, Paris, Lindsay and all the rest look like a bunch of mangy, under-fed battery hens. Why would you want to look like that? Boycott any magazine that says "Latest celebrity diet". Read things that will improve your mind, not insult your intelligence.
- A size 14 is healthy and beautiful. It is not obese! Have you ever noticed that you may fit into a size 12 somewhere, but be struggling to do up a 14 in Sportsgirl or Supre? The problem is lack of standardisation of sizes within the fashion industry - it has nothing to do with your body. Buy clothes that you like and make you look and feel good wearing them. Remember, the only way anyone will know what size you're wearing is if you tell them!
- Have a group of good, supportive friends who genuinely care about you. In turn, take care of your friends, and look out for each other. Talk about things other than diets - it's so boring! If you have a friend who is getting you down, have it out with them. Ditch people who aren't kind to you, who don't genuinely care. Real friends don't ignore or make light of problems and issues that really matter to you.
- While we're on that subject, if you're the subject of belittlement or bullying because of your weight, or what you look like, or for any reason (often bullies don't have a reason, they are just f**ked up people) then take action! Tell someone you trust - be it a teacher, your parents, a good friend. Ask their advice. Don't be afraid of causing trouble, or of inciting their wrath even more. Show them that you won't be pushed around. Bullying is always wrong, and you don't ever have to put up with it. Ever.
- If anyone makes derogatory comments about you or your appearance, don't listen to them and tell them where to go! Even if it's someone a lot older than you. Don't worry about appearing rude. Even if what they've said holds even the smallest grain of truth, at least you aren't as tactless as they are.
- Enjoy food! Remember you're still growing, so eat fresh foods, eat things that you like, don't skimp on essential food groups like carbohydrates and dairy. Learn to cook - it's so much fun! Try to avoid eating fatty, over-processed food like McDonalds, KFC, etc, though it's fine as a treat every now and then. Try to have something fresh and delicious when you're out somewhere. Personally, I avoid McDonalds and its various cousins more for political reasons, not just the fact that I don't like the food, but I don't force my beliefs on others. That's an important part of growing up - learning tolerance.
- Exercise for the joy of it. Get out into the fresh air and sunshine. Revel in your youth, your good health, your vitality. A power walk at the end of the day with your mum, sister or friend can be very relaxing and unwinding. A yoga DVD can help you de-stress during exams. Indulge in a game of backyard cricket, soccer or badminton with your friends - great for a laugh! A dancing class is a great way to meet people, not to mention an absolute blast!
- There is no such thing as "normal". We all come in different shapes and sizes. Everyone's body is different. If both of your parents are tall, well built people, then chances are, that's what you are too - and you must accept that. But the only thing that really matters is what you think of yourself. If you feel that your value as a human being lies only in what you look like, then eventually you'll find yourself believing that there is nothing more to you than meets the eye. You don't want to live a shallow and superficial life. We grow older, we change, and we aren't young forever. What time does not take away, however, are your inner qualities. You know what those are - and those who love you should tell you often what they are. Be it your sense of humour, your kindness, your strong work ethic, your intellect - these are the things that you should cherish about yourself. Any friend or boy/girlfriend worth your time will see all those things before they see looks.