Why do some adolescents handle stress in such unhealthy ways?
Despite the many natural and healthy ways to feel and look more attractive, we may do many harmful things to “improve” our looks. For example, not too long ago people considered having a tan an essential part of looking athletic and attractive. People spent hours in the sun or tanning salons, absorbing harmful ultraviolet radiation. High doses of this harmful radiation caused wrinkles and skin cancer. Although we now know how harmful the sun and artificial tanning methods can be, some people continue to pursue this ideal of attractiveness.
“I don't need people putting me on a pedestal. It's more just this pressure of having to be what everybody wants me to be. My parents and all.”
-Children of the River
Currently, being thin has become another ideal of attractiveness, especially for women. With so much focus placed on thinness, people can become very concerned with their weight and adopt extreme behaviors to stay or become thin. Part of the adolescent growth spurt is a normal and healthy gain in weight. Yet, adolescents may become overly concerned with their changing weight. With the “ideal” body in mind, some teens, especially girls, may develop unhealthy eating habits. These habits can lead to eating disorders.
When is dieting healthy and when is it unhealthy?
The idea of an ideal body weight can be very misleading to people. They look at a chart and worry that they weigh too much, without considering the more important question, “What is their body composition?” Body composition refers to how much of your body is made up of fat, and how much is not. Less fat is better than more fat. For men, the ideal percentage of body fat to have is 12-20%, but many athletes may have as low as 5% body fat. For women, the average is a little higher, at 20-30% body fat. Female athletes commonly have 16% or less.
Have you ever dieted? Do you know someone else who has dieted? How do you know when you are “finished” with your diet?
People can lower their body-fat ratio through exercise and nutrition. Sometimes body composition will change on its own, through inactivity or the aging process (which tends to add fat to the body).
Understanding body composition is more meaningful to people seeking healthy bodies. Dieting can result in weight reduction, but also a loss in muscle mass and little or no loss in fat. Teenagers worried about weight gain that is normal in puberty must be careful to approach weight control in healthy ways. This is especially true in girls since their actions may affect the onset of menarche or normal menstruation.
How Can You Get Your Friends to Eat Healthily, Too? A lot of teen social events focus on food-going out for ice cream, pizza, meeting for a hamburger, and so on. These outings make it difficult to maintain a healthy diet. Come up with three new ideas for social events with friends that encourage healthy eating.
A very serious, although rare, eating disorder is called anorexia, which involves severe dieting and weight loss. People with anorexia think they are overweight when they actually are not. They have distorted images of their bodies. They severely restrict the food they eat and often exercise to an extreme degree. As a result, they become extremely thin, losing muscle and fat. In its worst case, anorexia may lead to severe illness or even death due to malnutrition and an imbalance of nutrients.
Anorexia most often affects young women, typically between the ages of 10 and 20. Because it is a complex disorder, involving issues of self-image, self-esteem, and sexuality, there is no easy “cure.” Counseling from a health-care professional is the only available and effective treatment right now. In order to detect anorexia early, it is important to look for some of the key “symptoms” of anorexia. They include
- Rapid weight loss for no apparent reason
- Loss of menstrual cycles in females
- Excessive exercising or physical activity
Symptoms that some individuals may develop later include
- Excessive water consumption
- Appearance of fine, pale hair in areas previously free of hair (arms, face)
- Continued weight control despite already severe weight loss.
- Inability to recognize or admit a change in weight and/or eating patterns
- Preoccupation with food and eating with unusual eating habits, such as hoarding, standing while eating, or not letting the food touch the lips
- Total weight loss of 25% or 15% below average range for age and height
Suppose that you know a friend at school who seems to be losing weight very, very quickly and also seems to be exercising at every opportunity-jogging to and from school, as well as exercising during lunch and after school. What other symptoms might you look for if you suspect anorexia? What would you do if you suspected this person had anorexia? What resources are available for help? If you don't know, how could you find out?
Bulimia literally means “ox appetite.”
Another eating disorder is bulimia, which is characterized by periods of uncontrolled overeating usually followed by vomiting or the use of laxatives to avoid gaining weight. Bulimia is more common in late adolescence and early adulthood. Although rarely fatal, it has serious consequences, including stomach problems. People with bulimia, unlike anorexia, often do not experience an excessive or even noticeable weight loss.
One of the common behaviors of bulimics is “bingeing,” which means eating an excessive amount of food (like two cakes and three packages of cookies, or several servings of ice cream and a pizza) in one sitting. The foods chosen are typically high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods. Shortly after the bingeing, bulimics will purge, or rid themselves of the food by either vomiting or using laxatives. The idea of purging is to get the food that was just eaten out of the body before any of the calories are absorbed. Bingeing and purging is typically done secretively, or in private.
Unlike anorexics, bulimics are not nearly as focused on exercise, but there are other lifestyle changes that may give clues to this eating disorder. For example, bulimics often steal money or food in order to support their habit of bingeing. Because his or her physical appearance does not drastically change, it is difficult to identify someone with bulimia. Instead, you must focus on some of the surrounding behaviors, such as eating in private and stealing. Like anorexia, the only treatment for bulimia is counseling by a health-care professional.
Although no one knows exactly what causes these two eating disorders, the important contributing factor is a negative self-image-feeling unhappy about oneself. In addition to the physical dangers of eating disorders, there is the danger of dependency. Anorexics and bulimics become addicted to their unhealthy behaviors of exercising, dieting, or bingeing and purging-the “reward” of losing one pound or looking thinner keeps the person motivated to pursue the obsession of thinness. These eating disorders are examples of unhealthy or harmful ways of changing your body in an effort to match what is supposed to be the “ideal” look.
What do you think creates the unrealistic and often unhealthy body image that is so popular these days?
Another dangerous or harmful way of changing your body is steroid use. In this case, it is mostly boys and men who are involved. Androgens like testosterone help muscles grow, especially when they are exercised regularly. This normal function of testosterone can be abused and exaggerated with the use of synthetic androgens called anabolic steroids (anabolic means building up of tissue). Testosterone has now found its way into the illegal drug market, where some athletes buy it for its muscle-building properties, typically exposing the body to 100 times the levels of natural testosterone normally found in the body. The vast majority of abusers are male, but some females involved in sports may also turn to these steroids.
Why do some teenagers use steroids? They want to build up their muscles and strength. Rather than using strenuous exercise, some athletes look to drugs as a short cut to building muscles. In addition, the media creates “ideal” body images through “heroes” on television and in the movies. About a third of steroid users are not athletes-they just want to look muscular to impress their peers.
Steroid use is dangerous to the body's health. Official athletic organizations have banned steroid use by athletes. Although the medical community does not yet know all of the side effects of steroid use, health professionals know that massive doses affect the muscles, sex organs, and the nervous system, including the brain. For males, steroids cause severe acne, early balding, yellowing of the skin and eyes, development of female-like breasts, and shrinking of the testicles, with the possibility of sterility. Female users develop a permanent deepening of the voice, shrinking of the uterus, irregular menstrual cycles, balding, and the growth of facial and body hair. Even more serious for both sexes, taking anabolic steroids greatly increases the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, kidney damage, and psychological disturbances (depression, mental illness, and extreme aggression). In addition, since steroids are taken by injection, users run the risk of being infected with HIV or hepatitis from contaminated needles. Teenagers on steroids run the risk of stunting their growth, because steroids arrest bone growth. So the boy who uses steroids because he is in a hurry to grow large and strong can end up being much shorter! Over half the teens who use steroids start before the age of 16. Some people start as early as age 10.
“But not everybody was John Carter, president of the Vigils, All-Star Guard on the football team, and president of the Boxing Club. How Brian Cochran would love to be like John Cartel; with muscles instead of glasses, quick with boxing gloves instead of figures.”
-The Chocolate War
Not only do steroid users experience harmful physical effects, but they also risk steroid addiction. Like anorexics, steroid users are never quite satisfied with their physiques. When they look in the mirror they don't see a realistic image of themselves. Instead, because of their obsession for weight gain and muscle development, they look in the mirror and can think only that they're not big enough. They may increase their drug intake and the resulting weight gain and muscle development gives positive reinforcement to continue increasing the drug use. Steroids are supposed to be taken in cycles-a specific number of weeks of use are supposed to be followed by weeks of “breaks” or no steroid use. But during these periods people lose weight or muscle definition and typically become so panicked or disappointed that they go right back on steroids, often in higher doses. In addition, without steroids in their system, users experience depression. Steroids return the user to a feeling of euphoria or invincibility, but simultaneously bring unpredictable aggression or anger. This can build to huge proportions, resulting in mental disturbance and violence.
Complicating the medical problems is the illegal distribution of the drug on the black market. Unless you receive steroids from a doctor, there is no way to ensure quality. To make more money, the black market dilutes pure steroids by mixing in or substituting a salt solution, other drugs, or bacteria-lad en oils. All of these substitutes can be even more dangerous than the steroids themselves.
Boys use steroids for some of the same reasons that girls become anorexic. They want to achieve the media's, and hence society's, image of attractiveness. Eating disorders and drug abuse can create a never ending cycle in which the real problem never has a chance to surface: developing a positive self-image. As discussed in the previous section, there are many healthy alternatives to improving self-image.
How do people get to the point of abusing their bodies in such unhealthy ways? What causes us to hurt ourselves-overeating, drinking, drugs, violence? Are these problems of the individual or of society as a whole? What should society do to help people avoid choosing these destructive paths?
Where do you go for help?
Don't put off getting some help for yourself or a friend. Parents, school health professionals, teachers, or other adults whom you trust can be good sources of support. Other places to try:
- Look in the blue pages of your phone book for your county Department of Social Services. Most list hotline numbers.
- Call local teen clinics, doctors, or hospitals for referrals.
- Call Overeaters Anonymous (OA). Look in the phone book for a local listing.
- Look in the Yellow Pages under Drug Abuse.
Activity 7-1: What Is Attractiveness?
Young children are usually not very concerned about how they look, but most adolescents definitely are. As you grow, you become more aware of how you and the others around you look. How you look and dress and appear to others becomes more important. Most people want to be attractive to others. But what does it mean to be attractive? In this activity you decide what it is about a person that makes him or her appealing to others.
Step 1 A dictionary definition of attractiveness is
- Having the power to attract
- Pleasing to the eye or mind-appealing
- Personally engaging-charming
Is that what you thought the word meant? People often confuse the word attractive with sexy, but they are not the same things. Being attractive has more to do with personality and with attitude than with looks alone.
Step 2 Your class will be divided into four groups. Each group will be given a different issue to discuss. You will then appoint a spokesperson to report your conclusions back to the whole class. After each group presents, the other groups will have a chance to respond. Remember to keep your responses positive and neutral.
Step 3 After the whole-class discussion, go back to your small group. Ask for a volunteer from your group to act out what it means to behave in an attractive way. Then ask for a volunteer to act out what it means to behave in an unattractive way. Notice that the emphasis is on behavior, not looks.
Step 4 Take turns having each group present its version of attractive and unattractive behavior.
What are some physical traits about yourself that you think arc nice (hair, eyes, hands, skin . . .)? Remember, they don't have to be perfect! What are the behavior traits that you think help to make you an attractive person? What things do you like to be valued for? Try to write an objective and positive paragraph about yourself. This isn't bragging, and it doesn't mean that there might not be some things you'd like to change . . . it's just focusing on what is already good.
- Create a Venn diagram of the similarities and differences between anorexics and bulimics.
- What are five possible harmful side effects of steroid use?
- What are three things that eating disorders and steroid use have in common?
- What does negative self-image mean, and how does it relate to the topics discussed in this chapter?
- Where do you go for help if you or someone you know needs help?