BODY CONFIDENCE (OR LACK OF IT)
When I was 14, I had to go with my parents and my brother to the Brisbane Exhibition. Four years earlier, was the last time I'd been, and I spent the next day with an attack of gastro, only to, three days later, have to go with the school and endure the stench of bovine excrement, the buzzing of flies attracted to it, people talking loudly, Dagwood Dogs cooking in oil, people milling about, and the whirring of rides and shouts of kids. I developed an aversion that I still carry today. This particular time, my parents hadn't wanted me to be at home alone, so I was dragged into it, and my brother was taken by a display by a building society that allowed you to measure your height and weight. My mother sent me in, too, and I was over 180cms tall but in the 50’s with my weight, to which the person who gave me the printout said, "You're a bit on the skinny side." I had to fight an urge to say, "But I'm only 14." I was tall for my age, and still had some adolescent acne (eventually treated with Roaccutane) and my self-confidence was non-existent from being bullied.
I can remember, when I was in Grade 8, and was only 12 years old, and had developed some stretch marks on my back, which looked like I'd endured the cat o' nine tails* at Pentridge Prison. My father came home with some exercise equipment and said, "And you, my boy, are going to use this."
That was in the year that I also had frequent bouts of asthma and had to go on cortisone to bring it under control (I was on it for five days, then had to taper off over another five). I can remember, the year before, being skinny and my mother said to my father, "Look, you can see all your son's ribs when he breathes in." As you can imagine, my body confidence was non-existent and I was even wearing jumpers in spring and autumn to mask it. Unfortunately, nobody had said to my parents, "Look, he's in the growth spurt, he's eating a lot, but he can't grow upwards and fill out simultaneously!"
Then, when I was 16, I started to develop nausea and would vomit. My mother thought I had anorexia nervosa, but I had the double whammy. I didn't feel well, but I couldn't speak up, because doing so would have meant a trip to the doctor. Okay, taking a sick teenager to the doctor is something that any responsible parent would do, but when your preference for a particular doctor is disregarded, you can't talk to anyone about it. (The GP I like was still at medical school when I was in high school and I would rather have had a young medical intern of the same mould as my GP check with a supervisor and have to do the basics, than have a doctor I didn't like do an exam and make a judgement based upon experience). I did write a creative story around it, whereby the young student (me) went to see the school nurse, where the nurse informed the student, at 16, had the right to confidentiality when it cam to the doctor and had some rights. This particular doctor broke confidentiality when I was 16, and okay, it might have been over a tetanus vaccination, but what would he have done if it had have been because I wanted advice over safe sex?! (The correct procedure, to me, would have been to make a note on my file to check at the next visit, and, have said to my mother, "Peter is 16, so I can't discuss his records with you, unless I have his permission. I've made a note on his file, and that's all I can tell you. As it was, my mother asked something about my brother at 17, and another doctor there said, "You'll have to ask him, I can't tell you.")
It was not until I learnt, at 31, that I am gluten intolerant, that I could then eat things without feeling nauseous. And it took some years after that to be able to put on some weight. With increased weight, I finally began to get some body confidence.
My advice to parents is, body confidence is something you need to focus. I'm not saying that you should say to your kids, "Look, it's okay to eat donuts and be unhealthy," but to promote a healthy body image. Just like if you've only had one driving lesson and go for your test, you won't pass, body confidence won't come magically, and for underweight people, weight will come when it's ready, not before you force it. If you teenager is eating and eating well, that's all you have to worry about. They may be thinner than you'd like them to be, but provided they aren't bingeing and purging or secretly using laxatives or self-induced vomiting, and they haven't developed a greyish tinge to their skin, don't worry too much. Your skinny teenager may be growing, but they'll fill out once they stop growing taller. And above all else, encouragement of a healthy body image is what teenagers need. Your son doesn't have to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger did when he was 23, and your daughter doesn't have to look like Linda Evangelista, what they need is for you to be encouraging and understanding, and for you to love them as they are. Body confidence will come. They may not want to wear tiny swimsuits, or be body-builders, but let them be themselves.