Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about self-image.
By that I mean how a teenager might view themselves, their skills and assets, their physical features, their shortcomings, their insecurities. Mostly, I think often on how I, a youth worker from Belfast, can help a group of teenagers to feel confident and fulfilled in a world that constantly tells them that they aren’t.
How often do we see adverts of celebrities who have the perfect body? Or watch football matches, where some players are paid £200,000 per game? Or read in the news about the latest celebrity scandal?
In such a media controlled world, it can be difficult to reassure anyone that their life has value and meaning, and that each person is beautiful, successful and amazing in their own way. Yet when we examine teenage years, it doesn’t take long to realise why the job becomes substantially more difficult, and why the pressures of the media can be crucial in the development of their self-image.
My own story
To give you some context as to why I think this issue is so important to those who work with youth, I’m going to share some of my own story. In my early teenage years, I was quite overweight. As we all aware of how cruel kids can be, I don’t need to tell you twice that it was not a good time in life to be overweight. I became so aware of this, that the word ‘fat’ became my identity. It was all I thought about, to the point where I struggled to leave the house. I was so aware at what others thought of me, that being ‘fat’, was all that I was. The fact that I did well in school, or had a few good friends, or played on the rugby team, mattered not one bit. I didn’t see success when I looked in the mirror, only failure.
When I was 13, I started on fad diets, when I was 16, I started going to the gym every day. However, the natural weight loss wasn’t enough, I saw those around me who were in much better shape than I, I saw Cristiano Ronaldo with his perfect six pack and Brad Pitt with his carved out cheekbones… I wanted more, and faster. When I was 17 I started to starve myself, and by the time I was 18, I was bulimic. My mind was so warped to the point that when people told me that I looked too thin, or sick, I would take it as a compliment. It wasn’t until I was forced to see a therapist and almost let go from my job due to medical concerns that I realised how dire my situation had become.
My story is nothing spectacular, eating disorders are so common in our society that we almost overlook them, body dysmorphia is still viewed as just a theory, and mental illness is seen as something that you ‘just need to get over’.
Is there any hope?
How can a youth worker like myself hope to compete with a world that tells young people that primarily, they aren’t good enough and they need to better themselves?
I don’t know all the answers, not by any means, but I can tell you, the support of loving and caring peers is utterly invaluable. To surround oneself with those who seek the best for you, in every aspect of your life: mentally, physically, intellectually, spiritually, and socially, is the best way to grow and flourish and thrive.
We all know someone who struggles, perhaps it is our mission to ease that struggling, even by simply being an ear to listen, and a voice to help offer support, each of us can be the person that helps the youth in our society become exactly who they were created to be.
Our motto at Dreamscheme is: “Young people can do wonderful things” and I believe it is our calling to ensure that we help them do just that.
Stephen McCombe, Youth Worker @ Dreamscheme