Part 1

Skinny GirlBony is not beautiful. In fact, bony as an adjective finds company with lanky, skinny, angular, awkward, and gangly. I can’t say that as a teenager I found any comfort in phrases like, “She’s lanky like her dad” or “You need to get some meat on you.” My teenage years predated the era of Kate Moss and the cavernous, if precious waif look that was hip years some years back on fashion runways and cover pages. I might have found some sense of cultural validation otherwise. Instead, I felt profoundly self-conscious as a teenage girl. I never needed a bra. How thrilled I would have been with the modern innovations of intimate wear, with padded and push-up bras – if only to soften my frame! (Of course, my adult side hates the objectification of young women in the lingerie posters, ads and clothing labels: cute butt sweatpants, anyone?)

Being 5’6 and 93 lbs during my high school years put me in a body mass index of 15.5, or the “underweight” category according to our teen BMI calculator (BMI 4 Teens – soon in iTunes). That means 98% of girls the same age (17) were heavier than me. I was an outlier in the two percent sliver on a normal statistical curve – right where anorexic teenage girls fit.
I was shy, too, with a popular and beautiful sister just one year younger than me.  The cool crowd would always seem a vague distance away. But I threw myself into academics, dance, and was kind and friendly enough to negotiate several peer groups. By the time I was in 11th grade I even had an older boyfriend – the ultimate badge of acceptance and conformity.

A recent post on the BodiMojo fan page about how it “sucks to be a skinny girl” really brought those years back for me. The girl’s comment also reinforced for me the timeless issues teenagers face, especially girls, when it comes to their bodies, the lack of confidence, the quiet shame, and desire to just be like everyone else. I think every teen contends with body image concerns – no matter what size or shape or physical appearance. Some social scientists call this “normative discontent” – that is to say we all go through feeling self-conscious; it’s a common issue; and we’re not alone.  But the term says nothing about the needling affect on self-esteem than can last a very long time. Our cultural standards for attractiveness are so confining and narrow that body image concerns trail women over the lifespan.

In my senior year, the principal of my high school called me to his office. Having never caused a stir whatsoever to draw attention to myself, the request was truly mortifying.  Sitting in his office he sincerely asked how I was doing. Fine, I told him. He then shared his concern that I might have an eating disorder. I was stunned beyond words. There was a long silence. Then I laughed.  Was he serious? I was struggling with how to gain five pounds for the last four years – extreme dieting was hardly the problem. In fact, I didn’t know what an eating disorder really was – and wouldn’t know until I met a roommate in college who had one. It was only years later when I became I psychologist that I truly appreciated the principal’s concern and his foresight; he was the only adult who reached out to a skinny girl to check in.

People remark that we end up in work or profession to heal ourselves, to accomplish a childhood dream, or master a goal, or rise out of difficult circumstances. Maybe that is part of my journey in creating motivational health tools for teenagers. So it is my hope that BodiMojo’s new My Confidential girls-only dashboard can serve as a resource and community for teen girls, to help them consider all their personal qualities, talents and interests – not just their physical appearance or weight – to gain confidence and inspiration as they become young women.

Next post: Nutrition tips for skinny girls.

Tara Cousineau, Ph.D., is BodiMojo founder, clinical psychologist, and is a working mom and expert in e-Health and behavioral medicine.

Read more about body image on BodiMojo and at My Confidential, just for girls.

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