Friday, June 24, 2005

Kids and Teens

Smile at a Kid Today

I come in contact with a lot of kids every week with all the school articles I write and with other activities in my life, and I have noticed that most kids, be they in elementary school, middle school or high school, are all looking for signs of approval that they really are okay.

In elementary school, kids look up to us adults like we are absolutely amazing people with cool jobs and fun lives, and they just want to be a part of the excitement for a while.

In middle school, kids are really struggling with who they are and where they fit in life. They go from acting like little kids one minute to dealing with very grown-up issues the next and are looking for some sign that they are doing a good job getting through the mire.

In high school, kids think they have it all figured out, and they act cool, but they are itching for some sign that they are actually getting it right by adult standards.

What is the common ground between all ages of kids is that they all *glow* when we take the time to tell them something good about themselves. It can be anything from, “You look nice today” to “You’re very well spoken” to “What a cool binder!”

What I have found that kids appreciate the most is compliments that have to do with who they are as people. Kids of all ages are secretly so unsure of themselves and live in such a superficial society that a comment made requiring thought and going beyond that superficial layer really resonates with them. Every child I have given a thoughtful compliment to literally has visibly brightened.

Kids are constantly wondering if they are good enough – not good enough at sports or schoolwork, necessarily, although those are issues of their own - but good enough as people. They truly wonder if they are “all right” in comparison to other kids and other people: “Do other people think like I do?” “Do other people have the same fears I do?” “Do people really like me?”

And because kids are so insecure about their own selves, they are not ready emotionally to give any substantial compliments to their peers. Children know they are accepted only when they are included, but even that is really more taking away a punishment (being excluded) than the giving of a reward (a compliment.) Because of this, kids really only have one source of real, genuine, deep compliments – adults. Guess what? That’s us!

Think back to when you were a kid. When I was young and I got a compliment on something important to me, I would feed off of it for days, running it through my head over and over again. A compliment on something I was insecure about could make my entire day, sometimes even my entire week, and it would actually affect the way I felt about myself for even longer.

That’s why it is so important – kids think of themselves what people tell them. If we tell them they are creative and intelligent and funny, they will start to believe it. If we tell them bad things, they will start to believe them. If we don’t tell them anything, they really won’t have a clue. Kids need to hear good things about themselves – often – and repeatedly.

We all come in contact with kids even if we don’t have any of our own. Be it your kid, the neighbor’s kid, a kid you teach, or a kid you see out in public, take the time and make the extra effort to make a positive impact on that child’s life.

Smile, say something nice and look at them with acceptance. You never know how much of a difference you might make in that child’s life. Until then … Caroline.

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Girls in Crisis

Somewhere right now a girl is cutting herself, causing herself physical pain so she can avoid the emotional pain inside of her.

A phenomenon that is just now gaining attention, self-injury, or “cutting” in its most common form, is a coping mechanism that girls across the United States and within this community are using to deal with the traumas and anxieties that fill their daily lives. Often hidden by the perpetrators and avoided by the public, this addiction is causing lifelong damage to girls’ bodies and emotional health.

Getting to know the youth of our area, I have realized the great unmet need for knowledge about this issue and many others that middle school and high school girls face. Not only have I learned firsthand of many of the problems, I have also been approached by members of the community asking for my help. The things I am learning are breaking my heart.

While I am certainly not trained to deal with these issues on my own, the tools I do have at my disposal are my writing and the audience that supports it. To try to garner greater attention for these unmet needs, I will be working over the next several weeks with therapists, other professionals, and people affected by these issues to bring this knowledge and hopefully, understanding, to a greater audience through a “Girls in Crisis” series.

I encourage all of you to read the series beginning this week, and I encourage you to provide this information to anyone you think would benefit from it. I hope to explain these issues in a way that will get the community thinking about how they can help prevent and fix these problems and how they can promote positive change.

First, the series will discuss what is commonly known as “cutting,” a self-injury mainly involving girls (although boys do it, also) where they cause themselves physical injury and pain to avoid dealing with what they consider an overwhelming emotional pain. I will provide the basics of it in this issue and then personalize it with actual stories.

Then, the series will focus on self esteem issues among girls, especially issues with body image and eating. It will explain the reasons behind the decline in self esteem among females of this age group and what can be done to help promote healthy self esteem and body image. The series will wrap up on a positive note, focusing on the empowerment of girls and young women and what tools they can be given to feel more confident in themselves and their abilities.

These issues have become so very important to me, and I hope that through reading this series you will learn their importance, also. I truly hope that our entire community will take an interest in these issues so that we can keep the girls of our area strong and vibrant and ready to grow in to successful women. As always, I welcome any input from my readers, and I trust that this much needed information will find its way to exactly where it needs to be. Until then … Caroline.

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Girls in Crisis Series Ends, Problems Remain

This week marks the end of the Girls in Crisis series, and while the series may be ending, the problems still remain. I hope this focus on self injury, eating disorders, low self esteem, and the empowerment of young girls will propel people in to action with those around them.

I believe that almost all of the problems our girls face today at least in part stem from low self esteem. When girls don’t feel good about themselves, they are going to be self-destructive, they are going to act out, and they are going to make bad decisions. While adults may also have problems with low self esteem, they at least have the maturity to know that their world is larger than the halls of their middle school or high school. Girls don’t have that – they are still trying to find how they fit in the world, and their world is only in the faces they see every day in the hallway.

And, let’s face it, why wouldn’t girls have low self esteem? It’s no wonder there is a destructive culture of gossip and lies and being friends one day and not the next. All they see on television and in magazines is the picture perfect girl with no body fat, no pimples, gorgeous hair and every talent imaginable. They think they need to be that girl, and if they don’t think they are (which none of them do), then they are going to do all they can to make themselves feel better, and unfortunately, that involves tearing down those around them.

I know many, many girls of this age, and I love them all to death, but what they do to each other is horrible. These are nice girls doing mean things, and when they realize they have done something mean, it makes them feel even worse about themselves, which causes them to be even more destructive. The cycle is vicious. We have got to help them break this cycle. We must find a way to empower our girls and make them feel good about themselves and make them LOVE themselves.

We need to seriously evaluate the images that we allow our girls to be exposed to regularly. Parents: take a look at the magazine you are letting your daughter read. Get beyond the cover, and read it. Chances are, it is crap. We can never keep girls away from the world, nor should we want to, but they will not be able to explore the positive side of being a girl if they are inundated with negative images.

I believe that one crucial part of helping all children appreciate their value is varying their peer groups. Having only school peers to relate to is like a pressure cooker waiting to explode. If kids have their school group, plus their after school sport group or their church group, or they spend time with kids from their extended family or other schools, it allows them to see themselves as different parts of a group.

While they may feel like a nerd at school, they may be cool with the neighborhood kids, or the good swimmer with the swim team, or the clever one in the club. Allowing them to experience these different parts of themselves helps them understand that they are more than a one-dimensional term.

We as a society need to keep a better eye on our girls and make sure that we are showing them that it is okay to be simply normal, that no one really is perfect and that we all have abilities and gifts of which we can be proud. Not every one can win first place, not everyone can be the most popular or the most beautiful, but we are each unique.

What is it about each and every girl that is special? That is what we need to teach them. Until then … Caroline.

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Back to School Shopping Budget

When I was in high school, my best friend had a yearly clothing allowance, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever! Probably (as she wasn’t allowed to discuss it) it wasn’t any more money than my parents spent on my clothes during the year, but what made it seem so neat to me was that it was something she could control herself. It seemed very empowering.

Many kids don’t understand the concept of money. Ever watch “King of the Hill?” Hank asks his twelve-year-old son Bobby how much he thinks his cotton shorts cost, the kind Target sells for about eight bucks. Bobby answers, “These are nice shorts, I’d say probably $100.” Hopefully, most kids have a better concept of money than Bobby, but chances are they have plenty of room for learning more.

One way parents can help their kids understand the concept of money is to allow them a back to school clothing allowance, instead of the parents spending indiscriminately or working within a budget in their own minds. Giving your kids a figure to work off of and bounce around in their minds will help them understand what it means to work within a budget, a good lesson to start learning at any age.

They will be forced to make judgments – Do I buy all these cool t-shirts with slogans, or do I buy pants, which I really need? They will be forced to be practical – Do I want these $70 designer jeans, or do I want the $35 jeans, a $20 dress shirt, and a $15 t-shirt? They will have to think about the future – Do I buy all short sleeve shirts, or should I buy something long sleeved for the fall?

Some kids can be dropped off at the mall with a few guidelines as to what must be purchased. Most cannot. But so much more than budgeting is learned from shopping. It’s a good chance for parents to get to know what kind of culture their kids are being exposed to and a good time for the kids to learn from you about proper fit and fabrics and coordination. Besides, use what you’ve got - as kids get older, sometimes the only time they’ll be seen with their parents is when they have the money!

Be realistic. You know what your child needs, and you know what you have available to spend. Allowing a child less money than is practical will automatically make your child fail. This of course, could make your child give up on the idea of ever making a budget work. Set it up so that your expectations are reasonable and can be achieved.

Be firm. If they grow up thinking they can always squeeze a little bit more out of you, they will learn to squeeze more out of their own budgets, and most of us in the credit card generation understand the problems that can bring.

Do your best to allow your child to show her or his personality while staying within the guidelines of what your family considers appropriate attire. This is about asserting their independence and critical thinking skills, but that doesn’t mean you can’t influence their decisions or even disallow a purchase if necessary.

Kids need clear choices; they will not automatically “get” it. You can help them learn by reminding them of the overall “project” status. For example, “Okay, you have this much money left, you’ve bought this and this, and you still need this and this. How should we handle it?”

Is this the easy way to do it? Of course not. It’s much easier to hand over the credit card and say, “Try not to spend too much.” But parenting is about sharing knowledge and allowing kids to grow their own. As much as they may complain that you’re out of touch or so un-cool, remain patient and supportive - they are absorbing way more than you think. Until then … Caroline.

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Reduce Back to School Stress

I had a conversation with my mom recently about the pressures kids face. Like many kids, I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and set high standards for myself academically, and I have often wondered how I didn’t ever crack under all the strain.

My mom revealed to me some of the things she did to help me along my path, and I think her strategies, in addition to others I have added, may be useful to parents as this new school year begins.

A brand new school year brings back a flood of stressors for kids. While we do want kids to grow in to independent and self-sufficient adults, they are not adults yet, and they need help to get there. Particularly at this time it is important for parents to show their kids that they support them, and it is important for parents to make their home environment a safe and peaceful place where kids can decompress from their day.

Here are some suggestions:

If you pick up or drop off your kids at school, try to have at least five minutes before you drop them off and five minutes after you pick them up designated as a phone-free time. In other words, be present for your kids. They may hardly acknowledge your, “Have a good day!” or only answer, “Fine” when you ask them how their day went, but the fact that you are present in the moment and interested only in them will be noticed and, more importantly, felt by them.

Make an effort to connect a reminder of home life to your child’s day. For example, my mom would sometimes write a positive message on my napkin in my lunch sack. All the way in to high school, I would get these, and it always felt good. School can be rough, and it was nice to have a little reminder of being loved. You also could do this in other ways, such as writing on a sheet of paper in your child’s notebook or putting a card in your child’s backpack.

The first week of school tends to be a big stressor for the entire family, not just the students, but every effort should be made to keep the mood “light” in the evening, maybe by making an effort to be in a joking around mood or allowing a little extra play than normal or by playing a board game over dinner. Giving kids of all ages a few hours of relaxed, playful time will help them compartmentalize their past school day and prepare emotionally for the next so that they can handle it successfully, too.

When your child is having a particularly rough week emotionally, socially or academically, do something nice for them that will relieve some of the strain they feel. For example, many weeknights in high school I would get to school at 7 a.m. and not get home until 7 p.m. with hours of homework left to complete and additional curricular and extracurricular obligations looming for the majority of the upcoming weekend.

On weeks when the schedule took its toll, I would be surprised to come home and find my mom had straightened my room or cleaned my bathroom or left a little surprise gift for me on my bed. These were very little things, but they took me out of my “mode,” so to speak, and allowed me to feel relaxed momentarily. My mom described it as relieving some of my home pressures so that I could focus on the other pressures I needed to experience to grow as a person. Of course, there is a difference between doing too much for kids and helping them out here and there, but parents know their kids and what they can handle successfully and what will be considered a gift of caring as opposed to an obligation.

Here’s to a successful new school year for everyone! Until then … Caroline.

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“The Wonder of Girls”

I recently read an interesting book by Michael Gurian titled, “The Wonder of Girls,” which detailed the biological nature of females and how that affects their lives, attitudes, and behaviors.

What struck me about this book is that it goes against the “traditional” feminist view that drops in self esteem among young girls are caused by societal pressures. Not only does Gurian say that society is mostly not at fault, he argues that drops in self esteem are healthy for girls because they represent them expanding their horizons and following a learning curve. He also argues that females accept bullying, the silent treatment, and gossip from their friends because it is part of their biological nature to seek inclusion. He believes that girls view this treatment as a far better fate than being ostracized and so they tolerate it and even want it.

This flies in the face of many popular books, such as “Reviving Ophelia” and “Odd Girl Out,” and I am not sure I completely buy all of his conclusions, but through his extensive explanations I believe he does make some interesting points, one of which is that much of today’s feminist literature completely ignores the fact that women’s brains are different from men’s brains. It is such a simple fact, and yet it is never discussed. It seems as though in the fight for equal rights, feminists have wanted to ignore the fact that women are NOT men, and yet this biological fact must affect our behavior – how could it not?

Some interesting biological statements from Gurian:

Because of greater mass, variety, and speed of neurotransmission in the female cerebral cortex, there is more going on more quickly with more variety in more parts of the female brain than the male, including a 15 percent greater blood flow.

By 16 or 17, the female corpus callosum, which connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain, is 25 percent larger than a male corpus callosum, resulting in more cross talk between the hemispheres. This allows females to listen with both sides of their brains, makes the verbalization of emotions more possible, and allows more ability to multitask.

The occipital lobe allows females to read emotions more accurately than males. Also, females think everything out, tend to catch more of what is said to them, catch inflections more completely, and take things more personally.

The hippocampus, in charge of memory storage, is larger in females, and the number and speed of neuron transmissions is higher.

The female brain secretes more serotonin than males, resulting in greater impulse control. The female frontal lobes are generally more active, causing females to think out consequences more fully and use more words. The female thalamus, which regulates emotional life and sense of physical safety, processes data more quickly, likely explaining why females are less likely to put themselves in harm’s way and why they process emotional information faster than males.

The female brain secretes more oxytocin, which relates to play with dolls or care objects. Females enjoy longer physical contact and feel pain more fully than males, and females have 60 percent more prolactin than males, creating larger tear duct glands and allowing females to process more sadness through tears.

I found this information very enlightening, and it definitely provoked a lot of reflection on my part. While my judgment on his conclusions is still somewhat in the evolutionary process, I think I am probably somewhere in between his view and most feminist literature views.

I like his idea of being a “womanist” instead of being a feminist because I think some feminists have gotten a little off track with what should be their mission. But, even if females are biologically wired to seek inclusion, I have a hard time jumping from that premise to the conclusion that females must tolerate harmful behavior from their friends. Regardless, it was a highly interesting book that I strongly recommend to parents and also to any people interested in learning more about female behavior.

Gurian also wrote “The Wonder of Boys,” which I have not read yet, but that I am sure will point out some interesting biological facts about males. Until then … Caroline.

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Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia

This column could be dangerous. In fact, I held off writing this column for about six months because I was worried about a teen reading it and acting on it in a negative way. But, now that the national media has begun to pick up on the story, I feel it is time to address the issue locally.

Anorexia. Bulimia. Bad things, right?

Not so, according to the hundreds of Pro-Ana (Pro-Anorexia) and Pro-Mia (Pro-Bulimia) websites, with names like “Starving for Perfection,” that have infiltrated the Internet.

Looking for “thinspiration,” viewers, mostly teen girls, post messages daily looking for reinforcement of their anorexia or bulimia. They offer each other tips on how not to eat, how to purge, and how to keep their methods hidden from their families. They post sickly looking pictures of themselves and models, pointing out and admiring how much their ribs and their collarbones stick out.

You see, somehow, they have gotten it in to their heads that anorexia and bulimia are “lifestyle choices” - not diseases, not unhealthy for the body (not to mention the spirit), not something that needs to be fixed - but rather a choice they make to attain their vision of “beautiful.”

With names like, “dying_2be_thin,” “neverthinenough,” “dying 4 perfection,” and “take_me_away_until 100,” here are some of the things girls on the sites are saying:

“Trying to be a good anorexic. Want to lose my period and another 20 lbs. And as for my eating I’m staying under 100 cals a day. Really trying to be thin ... as thin as I can, so thin that I don't feel anything but my bones.”

“wonder how many days I can go without food (my record is 4... laugh if you want...) So... I've set a goal of 2 1/2 weeks (17 days).”

“As much pain as ANA brings me, I listen to her every word, I obey all her commands. No, I don't want to be ‘saved.’ I'd rather be so small no one could see me. That way when you ignore me, I would know why.”

“My bones count my successes and failures.”

Obviously, these sites are not ones you would want anyone you care about to be caught up in, but one reason these websites do so well is because teens are able to form an underground circle of friends - a support group - amidst a background of anonymity. They don’t want to broadcast to people they know that they have an eating disorder because they fear they might be forced to stop.

However, they do want the support of anyone on the same quest. This is why they developed bracelets. Yes, bracelets. They are red and can be purchased on the Internet or made at home. Girls are told if they see someone with one on, they should smile at her and point to their own bracelet. If she smiles back and points to hers, she’s one of them.

The reason I am bringing this public locally is I think many parents probably don’t have a clue this is happening, and I absolutely promise you there are girls (and boys and adults) in our community who right now consider themselves part of this twisted network.

If you spot some warning signs of an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorders Screening Program suggests asking your child (eating disorders are beginning under age ten) the following questions:

“Are you terrified about being overweight?” “Have you gone on eating binges where you feel you may not be able to stop?” “Do you feel extremely guilty after eating?” “Do you vomit or have the impulse to vomit after meals?” “Do you feel that food controls your life?”

From there, it could be a lot of work, with insane sites like these standing in your path. “dying_2be_thin” is no joke. Until then … Caroline.

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Chick Lit

I wrote an article for this week’s paper on a “Chick Lit” book club, and I have to say I am tickled that a club like that exists. How I would have loved a club like that when I was in school!

I have always loved books with female characters, starting from my very first Nancy Drew book in the third grade. I still remember my mom taking me to the school library and showing me the series. It wasn’t long before I had read just about every Nancy Drew book in existence, and that series began a lifelong affair for me with books, mostly mysteries.

I must say, though, now that this whole Chick Lit genre has popped up, I absolutely love it. For those of you who aren’t familiar with adult Chick Lit, it basically involves a young-ish woman character, her take on life, some outlandish humor, and a few unsatisfied romantic urges.

The Bridget Jones books would fall in to this category, and I would list Janet Evanovich’s series about the bounty hunting, afraid to use a gun, in love with two men, propensity to have her car blown up Stephanie Plum in the Chick Lit category.

Always light and many times coy, reading Chick Lit is an endearing experience for modern females (although I hear a lot of men like to read it, too.) It is so refreshing to love characters not in spite of their flaws but because of them. After all, isn’t it our quirks that make us so adorable?

Reading Chick Lit books is like “Chick Therapy” - it’s a whole lot cheaper than a shrink, it won’t make you gain weight, and you’ll feel great the next morning.

I did have some trouble with the “chick” label at first. My instincts told me that somehow that label seemed demeaning or dismissive. Like, when guys describe something as a “chick flick,” it pretty much means they have no interest in it whatsoever. And I’m not sure I would like being called a chick either.

However, I got over myself. I mean, it’s a catchy name, and it describes a fun genre. Plus, one thing the Chick Lit books consistently show women my age is that we don’t need to take ourselves quite so seriously. Yes, we’re equal (or better); yes, we’re smart (or smarter); yes, we can take on (and conquer) the corporate world, but we’ll be darned if a shoe shopping spree, some good gossip with girlfriends, and a box of chocolates can’t cure any problem we have.

I think this genre was born because my generation doesn’t feel we have to prove our worth in comparison to men. The generation before me did have to do that, and this kind of literature, had it come out then, would have been seen as blatant anti-feminism. But, I have never - ever - felt like I was judged down because of my gender; it’s not and never has been an issue.

My generation doesn’t have to hide our feminine attributes. We can accept flattery without feeling threatened or seeing it as an affront to our abilities. We know expressing our emotions doesn’t make us less capable of exceptional work and leadership. We can revel in our feminine side, instead of hiding it to “fit in” to the “male world,” and this is expressed and demonstrated in Chick Lit.

I think my generation is lucky that we are comfortable being women. We can be ourselves, and we don’t have to shun everything “girly” to prove we’re not. Thank goodness! Can you imagine giving up fuzzy slippers and bubble baths? Until then … Caroline.

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Summertime Reading

One of my fondest memories of summertime as a child was taking trips to the “big” two-story city library. I would wander around all the different sections deeply engrossed in thought and marveling at all the choices the library had to offer. It was amazing to me as a child that there was so much out there in the world to learn about and that there were so many imaginary worlds I could create for myself through books.

My mom would allow my younger brother and me to check out as many books as we wanted, and for me, this usually meant huge stacks of books that I could hardly carry. For a child used to living frugally and accustomed to saving her allowance devotedly, it always would feel like the biggest splurge in the world to be able to get absolutely as much of something as I wanted.

After finding all the books I could possibly read before our next visit, I would be so excited to get home and start reading. I remember each time struggling with the question, “Which book should I read first?” Even that decision was a delightful treat, a teasing of my mind with the back covers revealing just enough about each book to hook me.

On those hot, summer days, I would be able to escape the doldrums of summertime and place myself in someone else’s world, which by all accounts, was much more exciting than mine. One of my favorites when I was younger was the Nancy Drew series - the original editions, the Case Files, anything Nancy Drew. She decidedly had a much cooler life than, not only me, but also anyone I knew.

I also loved to read the Babysitters’ Club, Sweet Valley Twins, and then, later, Sweet Valley High. I also loved Christopher Pike books and V.C Andrews’ books because they were so twisted and crazy.

That was something else I loved about books: With movies and television, I was highly supervised, but with books, I was allowed to go anywhere I wanted to go (within age appropriate reason.) It was a part of my gradual entry in to a world that was much larger than my family and school, and I believe reading so many types of books formed a big part of my understanding of human nature.

As I continued to grow up, my reading choices changed. I progressed to adult mysteries and adult fiction. I even read Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” one summer early in high school. But, on the flip side, I can just as much enjoy a good romance novel, too!

My reading experiences as a child led to a lifelong love affair with reading. Even if all the educational benefits (and there are many) are discounted, what remains when a child is engrossed in a book is a happy, peaceful child. And a happy, peaceful child is a very good thing.

To that end, I would like to suggest that you be on the lookout for the reading lists I will be publishing soon for summertime. I have been working with area librarians and students to come up with lists that are fun and engrossing and that will have way more appeal than the standard “read it and analyze it” school fare. The reading lists will be tailored for elementary age kids, middle school age kids, and high school age kids, with some specific suggestions for girls and boys.

I do hope that you will keep an eye out for the lists and that many area kids will get to develop the same love of reading I did those many years ago in the summertime. Until then … Caroline.

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2 comments:

mamaVISION said...

Hi Caroline: I came across your blog today since I just wrote about the Ana & Mia sites. I see you discovered this trend a while back, unbelieveable isn't it.

As a mother of two, I intend to do as much as I can to bring awareness to this issue and other issues facing young girls today. And we thought it was bad when we were young!

Keep blogging! Take care,
http://mamaVISION.wordpress.com

Anonymous said...

Teens aren't the only ones suffering.

http://www.mentalhealth.com/mag1/p5m-et01.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/trisha-gura/not-just-for-teens_b_57416.html

http://health.ivillage.com/mindbody/mbnews/0,,bzmt4ndl,00.html

I am a Mom of 2 and just recently developed anorexic tendencies b/c of no money for food and the simple fact that I'm tired of being a fat, fat ass.

I have hypo thyroid, so it takes more extremes for me. I eat, just not as much as I used to, I like to keep it at 500 cals a day.