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Comic Launch: Celebrate Every Body! (Online Version)

Women receive messages on how their bodies should and should not look like throughout their lives. Messages from the media and even our peers and family constantly pressure women to aspire to unrealistic standards of beauty or to “improve” their bodies through practices, like hair removal, wearing makeup and dieting. It is not uncommon to hear people say things like:

“You would look so much better if you lost all that weight!”

“Wah! You still want to eat so much!”

“She shouldn’t be wearing that – she’s too fat.”

“You’re so skinny, you look like a bamboo pole.” 

While seemingly harmless on the surface and sometimes in the garb of well-meaning statements, messages that women have to “improve” their bodies or meet a certain “ideal” standard can lead to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders in women and girls. It is important that we shift our societal attitudes to be inclusive of the diversity of bodies and reject the culture of body shaming.

As part of this effort, AWARE Youth and Rock The Naked Truth (RTNT) collaborated on a series of body positive comics with the affirmation that no one should ever have to prove that they are healthy enough, pretty enough or muscular enough to deserve respect. These comics acknowledge the painful reality that not all bodies are accepted or viewed equally in society. The comics explore three different aspects of body image issues. One comic discusses the issue of body shaming and how problematic it can be when individuals are judged or made fun of because they don’t meet certain “ideal” standards. Another comic touches on the topic of eating disorders and the importance of seeking help. It also emphasises supporting friends and family members who are going through them. Even though the pressure to fit a certain ideal of beauty impacts girls and women more, one of the comics also depicts the unique experiences of men and boys who are not immune to body image issues.

On 28 October, printed copies of the comic were distributed at AWARE’s Free Market. Here, we are proud to present to you the online version of the comics. Please take some time to view the hard work that has gone into the production of this comic, and do feel free to provide feedback on our Facebook pages (AWARE Youth and RTNT)! We hope you enjoy the comic as much as we did creating it!

AWARE Youth is a newly formed group comprising of youths who are passionate about gender equality. They aim to provide a space for youths to share their experience and provide a platform for them to bring their ideas to life. Their first chapter focuses on the issue of body image.

RTNT is a body image movement to inspire others to find confidence in their bodies, as well as to encourage them to take care of their body well.

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Social Media, Fad Diets and Body Image

By Akhwinder Kaur Chahal

I was 20 when I first came across the hashtags ‘#fitspo’ and ‘#fitspiration’ on Instagram. Usually, they were accompanied by images of toned, skinny social media celebrities in Lululemon leggings, Adidas sports bras and Nike Roshes posing with their meticulously crafted acai bowls. Upon checking the follower lists of these social media celebrities, I realised they had large followings of youth, particularly teenaged girls. Even now, when I come across such images or messages on social media, I feel sadness and a twinge of anger. I’ve seen my sister weigh almonds for dinner. I’ve had my best friend call me at 2 in the morning because she was unhappy with her body. Both disguised their eating disorders with eating clean and exercising regularly.

At what point do we draw the line between a healthy lifestyle and an unhealthy obsession? Seeing my loved ones being slaves to their bodies and their minds made me feel helpless, but realising that there were thousands of impressionable teenagers who were in the same situation made me angry. The convergence of social media and the health and fitness industry has normalised and supported an unhealthy lifestyle, raising serious questions over the seemingly beneficial influence of a healthy lifestyle on youths’ body image and well-being.

With 71% of teenagers using more than one social media platform, these websites have revolutionised the manner in which we construct and articulate our identities. On social media sites, the ‘eating clean’ movement has become synonymous with adopting a highly restrictive vegan and gluten free diet free of processed food. While substituting processed foods with fresh fruit and vegetables is undoubtedly healthy for the body, issues arise where skinny and fit social media celebrities without proper backgrounds in nutrition carve out entire careers for themselves by supporting and profiting off pseudo-science fad diets at the expense of their audience.

 

Freelee the Banana Girl is one such social media celebrity. She has over 200,000 followers on Facebook, and at her peak had over 500,000 followers on Instagram. She claims that a raw vegan diet, similar to the diet prescribed in the food pyramid she created (as shown above), has cured her of depression, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, and has aided in her weight loss. On her website, rawtill4diet.com, she sells her ebook where, living up to her moniker, she advocates eating up to 30 bananas daily. In a YouTube video garnering more than 1,000,000 views, Freelee eats 51 bananas within a day. However, medical experts have linked the ingestion of large amounts of potassium found in bananas to heart ailments such as irregular heart rhythms and cardiac arrest, and have denounced this diet.

Interestingly, Freelee herself has openly admitted to her battle with anorexia and has attributed overcoming her eating disorder to her vegan diet. That being said, fad diets such as this have not only been used by those with eating disorders who mask their unhealthy eating habits under the guise of ‘eating clean’, but have also triggered eating disorders in previously healthy individuals. According to Steven Bratman, M.D., M.P.H., raw food vegans in particular have a high potential of developing Orthorexia Nervosa, an eating disorder where individuals adopt a highly obsessive and restrictive diet free from ‘unhealthy’ foods. While motivated by health, poor self-esteem and the desire to be thin also underpin this eating disorder.

About the Author: Akhwinder is is a caffeine-fuelled sociology major from the Nanyang Technological University. She dreams of a world without walls, where everyone is treated equally. Until then, she will continue to challenge gender stereotypes.

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The Tyranny of Villainy: How Animated Villains Reaffirm Our Ideas of Ugliness

By: Clare-Marie Koh

Growing up, I have always enjoyed watching animated films. Their catchy soundtracks, enchanting plots, and heartwarming characters were all appealing to the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed consumer. It is no wonder that both children and adults alike, are drawn to these films which frequently deliver the message that good always defeats evil.

However, where there is praise, there is criticism lurking in the corner. Every image portrays a message, and these messages are neither transparent nor neutral. These visual images and verbal texts are projected onto us, leading us to categorise them as good or bad, right or wrong. Most of these messages we internalise happen at the subconscious level, and call on our feelings, fears, desires, and loyalties – emotions that we do not really take the time to question.

This interaction between consumers and texts is not a one-way street; messages that the media convey do not exist in a vacuum and are not hermetic. Societal culture, too, influences the signs and symbols that appear in visual cues, where the personalities of animated characters reflect the norms and beliefs that reside in contemporary society. As a result, the representation of animated characters either reaffirms certain beliefs and norms that currently exist, and/or influence the way we perceive the world around us, including the way we see ourselves and beauty.

There is plenty of literature that explores the relationship between the visual personalities of animated protagonists and perceptions of body image. However, in my mind, visual personalities of the antagonists have a larger influence on our perceptions because it is easier to internalise what not to be rather than what to be.

via GIPHY

Antagonists from animated films often embody visual cues that are visibly different compared to the other characters. Their morphed bodily features mark them as isolated from the rest of the cast. These visual cues are subtle yet impactful in making the distinction between good and bad. Hence, viewers tend to associate bad personalities with the physical attributes that villains embody, and eventually internalise these physical traits as undesirable. This is most prominent in the visual representations of antagonists from animated films because creators have the freedom to come up with the worst possible aesthetic that matches the villain’s evil personality, thereby reaffirming our ideas of undesirable traits.

Of all the evil villains in animated films, there is none that embodies the typical idea of a villain more than Ursula from The Little Mermaid. The half-human, half octopus evil sea witch from the animated film embodies everything that is not socially acceptable in terms of one’s body image – purple and blobby.

via GIPHY

Ursula’s most noticeable feature is her skin colour. Unlike the rest of the characters who have the likeness of Caucasian skin tones, Ursala is abnormally purple. This immediately sets her apart from the other characters, helping viewers identify the villain very quickly. The difference in skin tone highlights the strangeness and exoticness of skin tones that differ from societal norms. This sets the stage for labelling Caucasian skin tones as good and attractive and others as bad and unattractive, thereby feeding into the idea that certain people with conventional skin tones are viewed as good and conventionally attractive while others are shunned from the communities they live in.

This use of skin colour as a distinction between good and evil is not solely limited to the tentacle-legged villain. Villains such as Cruella De Vil from The Hundred and One Dalmations and Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove, among many others, are coloured in with non-humanistic hues that are distinctly different from their protagonist counterparts. It is for this reason that even though these protagonists have recognisably humanistic features, they are put in a position that delivers the message that some skin tones are kinder, more attractive and thus superior than others, reaffirming classical ideologies of race and human worth.

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Another mechanism that is often used in differentiating antagonists in animated films is the size of their bodies. While abnormal skin colour alludes to idea of racial inferiority, the grotesque and manipulated figure implies that there exist certain body shapes that are not ideal in contemporary society. In fact, villains are often either overweight like Ursula or rail thin like Cruella. These extreme body figures are often given personalities that are viewed as unacceptable, undesirable, unhealthy and troubled.

Cruella, the fur-hunting, dog-kidnapping nutjob, is the size of half a chopstick and is portrayed as evidently troubled. Other villains that share the likes of beanpoles include but are not limited to Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. Pudginess is the other extreme that makes villains easily identifiable, as seen in Ursula who is so fleshy to the point that her character is amorphous. The half-octopus evil sea witch has fat folds spilling out of her bustier and tentacles for legs, which seem to move around in a disorderly manner. This sets her apart from the other streamlined, sleek and slender characters, which isolates her from the society she exists in.

via GIPHY

According to a study that analysed animated films for 9 decades, characters that are given goth and bully roles are more likely to be portrayed as having body figures that do not belong to the lean and slender ideal. Overweight characters were also more likely to be characterised as less smart and less competent. These visual cues not only reaffirm certain ideas of what an ideal body shape should look like, but also bring across the image of a non-ideal body type. Both bony and overstuffed figures are deemed undesired, thereby fostering unhealthy body policing practices such as fat shaming.

Villains are also often illustrated as older women with white or greying hair, as seen in Cruella and Ursula. Wrinkles are also another physical trait that are given to villains such as the old evil witch in Snow White and Yzma. While there have been positive representations of the elderly, these representations seem to solely pertain to characters who are not villains. King Triton, for instance, is an elderly but is depicted as conventionally attractive despite his white hair. The image of King Triton’s fit body points at the favourability towards youthfulness and the maintenance of one’s body through leading an active lifestyle. Hence, this reinforces the notion that fit and young is good but wrinkly and old is bad. It is no wonder that women growing old seems like a “moral disease,” as if growing old is the same as catching the flu rather than a natural process, compared to men, as Susan Sontag pointed out in The Double Standard of Aging.

via GIPHY

Animated films may be seen as harmless entertainment, but it is important to reiterate that images are neither transparent nor neutral because of how culture is constantly shaped and reshaped by its characters and cultural context. In decoding the visual elements of antagonists in animated films, it is evident that the portrayal of cultural beauty norms is linked with characteristics of evil. Whether these visual elements are influenced by culture or vice versa, it is important that designers and producers start questioning their shared responsibility in how they influence the way society views itself and its people.

About the Author: Clare is a conflicted media enthusiast. She enjoys food, yoga and art (in that order). Her skills include biting off more than she can chew, making tea and falling asleep within 90 seconds (not in that order).

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Is ‘Casual’ Racism Really Casual?

By Natasha Sadiq & Tan Jing Min

“How long does it take for an Indian woman to pass motion?”

“How long?”

“9 months”

Cackles of laughter ensue. I look around the group of friends encircling me. I seem to be the only person who didn’t find the joke funny.

I’m going to go out on a limb here (I might be completely wrong) and guess that it’s because I’m the only person of Indian descent. I tried hard to conceal the indignation coalescing on my face.

I failed. I suppose they couldn’t miss my suddenly darkened face.

“But it’s just a joke, don’t be so sensitive la.”

And they were right: it was just a joke. But the jokes we tell speak volumes about our subliminal racial biases and standards of beauty. Colour is the subject of much banter among youths and even some circles of adults especially in multiracial Singapore, but the light-hearted irreverence belies more insidious undertones: body shaming and body image issues.

Body shaming is the practice of making mortifying and demeaning remarks about a person’s body size, weight, or appearance. The prevalence of body shaming in societies should not be trivialised – anxieties about one’s beauty and appearance are rising exponentially.

According to the Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report, Dove’s largest-ever study on women’s perceptions of beauty, research shows that women’s level of body confidence is at an all-time low. The study, which involved interviews with 10,500 women across 13 different countries, showed that a large majority of women struggle with body image issues.

The study also showed that body image issues are not confined to a mere lack of confidence and physical insecurities. These issues do pose consequences on a much broader and larger scale. For example, the study showed that about 85 per cent of all women and 79 per cent of girls admitted that they choose to absent themselves from important life events when they do not feel confident about their appearance. Additionally, 9 out of 10 women skip meals and compromise their health when they feel insecure about their bodies.

The problem of body shaming can also manifest in tangible third-party harm: a study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that bullying in Singapore is worryingly high compared to other countries – the third highest, to be exact. 18.3 per cent of students experience ridicule a few times a month. Spreading of rumours, being left out, and having things taken away from them were among the other forms of bullying cited by students.

This is telling of a mindset internalised from early childhood: we are entitled to judge others, and ostracise others if they fail to meet the mark.

In Singapore, casual racist remarks about one’s appearances may also constitute body shaming. One can even argue that these remarks are more damaging to a person’s self-esteem because changing one’s race or skin colour would be arguably more difficult than altering one’s weight. Here, body shaming is a reality not merely for girls and women, but for boys and men as well.

Indeed, body shaming and racial stereotypes share a symbiotic relationship. Racial stereotypes and colourism contribute to a culture of body shaming (and vice versa) when people associate a certain race with certain physical characteristics, and then conceive of a narrow standard of beauty based on certain “undesirable” traits found in one’s race or physical appearance.

One example of this is when we attribute certain physical traits like fatness, darker skin tones and even unkempt hair to certain races, consequently branding them “lazy” or  “unprofessional”.

What we need to be more aware of is the fact that individualised instances of casual racism have the potential to affect how we perceive broader social groups and communities. Here, something as personalised and singular as casual racism helps build the foundation for larger issues of social prejudice.

Because skin colour can be such a visceral reminder of how one individual differs from another, it is especially important that we take heed of our latent biases. The issue of race regularly arises in national discourse for good reason–from racial politics to majority privilege, it is clear that while Singapore embraces diversity, it also poses a constant potential source of tension.

Whether we are concerned with seemingly superficial issues like physical appearances or those that entail greater social implications like race, we need to understand that they are all connected by threads of influence. The seemingly light-hearted jokes about race we pass around as pleasantries carry more poison in its arsenal than we think.

 

About the authors: 

Natasha graduated from NUS with a degree in Political Science and dislikes empty niceties. She is currently looking for her job. Please inform her if you find it.

Jing Min is waiting to begin reading Law at Cambridge University, but looks like she could be starting primary school. She tries to use this to her advantage (with little success).

 

Featured image by Natalie Nourigat.

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Paint me like one of your Instagram girls

By Tricia Ferdinandt

I remember when I was younger and in primary school, we started to learn about puberty in Health Education and how girls and boys alike would see changes in their bodies as they grow up. I did not really think much of it and instead, I welcomed these changes as they made me feel like a woman and not a little girl anymore. I started getting these changes when I was 9; I remember that not many of my classmates caught on as early as I did. I wore a singlet under my clothes, but I didn’t look into it much. I still went about my gymnastic and ballet classes all the same.

Over time, as I transitioned into secondary school, I was not as lean and skinny as I used to be. I weighed steadily at 55 kg pretty much throughout secondary school, which was acceptable for my height. I never really gained or lost weight. We ran a lot during P.E. classes to train for our 2.4 km run. Other than that, I did not really look after my diet or health. That would go on to be something that I regret.

Members of my family would joke about my weight and observed if I had lost or gained weight at practically every family gathering. I did not look to them for their approval nor did I understand why they were policing the way my body looked as if it were of any concern to them since it was my body. I would understand their genuine health concerns for me as they advised me to take less sugary drinks and eat less junk food. Other remarks like how my hips would get more round in the future once I had kids of my own just fell upon my deaf ears. Honestly, I loved my hips. I had a small waist and I loved the way my rounder hips would complement my figure. Of course, that’s a different story now that I gained almost 30 kg in the last 4 years.

I have been struggling with depression and anxiety over the course of my adolescent years. I have difficulty coping with my emotions, leading me to sometimes harm myself and others. There have been many low points in my life, some of which I brought upon myself. Others habits include horrible eating habits, a disruptive sleeping pattern, and a non-existent exercise routine. Looking after myself was not important to me at all. As the number on the scales kept increasing, I chose to avoid it and run away, like I always do with my problems.

The comments from family, friends, and even partners kept coming. They were mostly hurtful words stitched together with good intentions. I would think a lot about what people said after, about the “burger going down to my butt” or oil creating more “moon craters” on my face. Not only did I struggle with my weight, I hated my acne-scarred skin. The acne on my cheeks, forehead, and even my back could be connected with a pen to create constellations. I was extremely sensitive about my body, weight, and the way I looked. Something as simple as someone staring at me too long could send me into a frenzy. I remember my boyfriend staring at my protruding stomach when I asked if we could have our lunch at my favourite American fast-food chain. Although he had no ill intentions and did not mean it in the way I interpreted, it scarred me.

I wished with all my heart that I could just be like the girls of Instagram, with the killer figure and perfect skin. Beautiful, stunning, but not realistic. While praying hard to look like someone else, I learnt the hard lesson of acceptance and self-love. We are all beautiful and unique in our own special ways. Ironically, it might seem like the grass is greener on the other side, but I can assure you that everyone has their own insecurities. People who pick on others’ flaws and faults and take joy in bringing someone pain are battling demons of their own. That is why instead of getting upset with a classmate of mine who made a rude comment about my weight or appearance, I prayed for him. He can make 1000 comments to bring me down, but I will not give him the permission to hurt me. These people in your life are nothing to you and one should never give them the power to make you upset in any way, shape, or form.

My goal in this journey is not about the numbers or seeking a thumbs up from  others. If I do this to seek approval from others, then I will never be happy. I am doing this for myself, to be the best version of myself. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have flat abs or a bubble butt. Girls on the covers on magazines have their bodies photoshopped and retouched. Love your love handles, muffin tops, and thunder thighs. Treat your body right and it will treat you right too.

Author’s Bio: Tricia Ferdinandt is your resident brown baby. Her hobbies include adding memes to her album collection and binge-watching makeup tutorials. When she’s not stuDYING in school, she’s probably at Starbucks trying to convince the barista she has 60 stars to redeem a free drink.

Featured image by Colleen Clark.

 

 

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Winning the Impossible Fight

By Deborah Wee

“Life must be easy when you look that way.”

This thought used to cross my mind while watching the willowy, impossibly stunning bombshells of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show strutting across the runway and swaying their hips with confidence.

Model Cameron Russell in Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show 2012 Source: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images North America

I was aware that it was physically impossible for the vast majority of women to ever achieve that tall, hourglass frame. But I had always assumed that the 5 per cent who were blessed with the type of body glorified by the media would have nothing to be insecure about.

Little did I know how wrong I was.

According to a 2007 study by the City University in London, it turns out that fashion models are more likely to have lower self-esteem than people who are not models.

American model Cameron Russell made a similar revelation on TED Talks in 2013, when she confessed to being insecure about her body. “I’m insecure because I have to think about what I look like everyday,” she revealed, adding that models are possibly the most physically insecure women on the planet.

I used to think that women like Russell never worried about looking “inadequate” because they already had that “ideal” image.

But it seems as if even the most conventionally beautiful women in society are not spared the intense scrutiny that women often face about their looks, and dealing with this scrutiny is a never-ending battle that chips away at their self-confidence. The message seemed clear: when it comes to women’s bodies, “perfect” isn’t perfect enough. There is always some “flaw” that everyone else is eager to point out.  

In other cases, body types perceived as “ideal” or “desirable” still end up becoming associated with negative stereotypes. Last month, American actress Ariel Winter spoke out on Refinery29 against body shaming after enduring a long history of social media backlash for – you guessed it – her body. Running a quick Google Image search, I quickly concluded that the Modern Family star fulfilled mainstream standards of physical attractiveness – she’s voluptuous, shapely and simply sexy. Didn’t society favour that kind of body, epitomised by the iconic fictional character Jessica Rabbit, whose desirability is consistently highlighted in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Ariel Winter for Refinery29, May 2017 Source: Danielle Levitt

Yet, it seems that society still finds ways to shame women who have been encouraged by the media to show off their curves. That was the case for Winter, who does not shy away from posting pictures of herself in bikinis and small dresses. “When I first got my curves I was so excited, but then people on the internet made me feel bad about it,” she told Us Weekly last October. Her large bust size has continued to draw negative attention – when Winter wore the same bathing suit alongside a thinner and lankier friend, she was still singled out and branded a “slut”.

It is already problematic that women are pressured to conform to narrow standards of physical attractiveness. I barely need to illustrate what such beauty standards do to the majority of women who cannot attain them. In fact, it has been found that women with normal body mass indexes and overweight women have lower self-esteem after looking at comparatively thinner models.

But what is baffling is that for the women who do meet such standards, “sexy” is still considered “slutty”, and willowy models are still judged for the smallest imperfection every time they step out in public.

The pursuit of the “ideal” female body is an impossible fight.

Feminist scholar Sandra Lee Bartky pointed this out in 1990 when she argued that prescribed and “ideal” standards of femininity are a “set-up” in which every woman will fail in some way. She argues that this is because the bodily transformations women must go through to achieve the “ideal” female body are too “radical and extensive”.

But, it seems that failure is also inevitable because it has long been determined that a woman’s body will never be free of criticism. When it comes to beauty standards, women can never win. The only way we can triumph is to reject such beauty standards and scrutiny altogether.

I understand that this is easier said than done; the peer pressure to conform to such standards is high, even without the media shoving them down our throats. But I realised not long ago that attempting to battle an unwinnable fight is just not worth it.

In the past, when someone commented on a physical “flaw” that I needed to cover up with cosmetics, I did as I was told. But when I returned with my supposedly “improved” self, they would quickly point out another flaw. Approval never came, and I’ve realised that it never will. So, I decided that I would no longer alter myself for someone else’s approval, and I’ve been happier since.

There is, of course, the grander and more onerous project of changing the general attitude that women’s bodies are eternally flawed and deserving of criticism. But until then, if society is always determined to find physical “flaws” in us, then why not just reject their criticisms and learn to see the beauty in who we are? If you no longer see your individual physical attributes as inadequacies, then you cannot lose.

About the author: Deborah is a popular culture-obsessed political science major who swoons over 1990s boy bands and holds solo jam sessions covering pre-2012 Taylor Swift songs. She is an advocate for gender equality and wants to promote a world where no one is or feels limited by their gender. She also gets a tad bit over-excited when given a keyboard and a blank Microsoft Word document, or when asked to share her opinion on, well, anything.

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Body Shaming: “Harmless” Teasing

By Jasmine Loo

When I was 12, I used to tease my best friend about her larger than average breasts. My nickname for her included adding the title “Big Boobs” at the back of her actual name. She’d tell me to stop, but I didn’t really think much of it – after all, it was just harmless teasing.

Back then, there was also a plump girl in my class. She was teased by everyone who called her mean names like “fatty”, “whale”, “fat girl”, amongst others. At that age, we viewed it as harmless fun… But was it really just that?

When I was 13, I started getting really bad breakouts. People started noticing and pointing it out. At first, I wasn’t really bothered by their comments. However, I started getting really upset when they constantly commented on my pimples. It made me feel very self conscious and uncomfortable in my own skin. I started getting pretty annoyed when people told me that I should “wash my face” or that I shouldn’t “eat peanuts or drink milk” because those food cause acne. Despite trying almost everything, my skin was still the same – disgusting, bumpy and damaged.

I really envied my classmates who had clear, blemish-free skin. I hated my own pimply and bumpy face.

Now, I’m 19 years old and still uncomfortable in my own skin. But, I’m learning how to love and accept it. I may not have clear skin, but it will not stop me from going out without make-up. The fact that I don’t have clear skin does not define who I am.

In retrospect, I should not have joined in on the “harmless teasing”. I should not have teased my best friend for having big breasts and making her less confident. However, I cannot change what has happened. The most I can do is to try and stop myself from making other people feel bad about themselves. I will strive to use my words to encourage others to embrace their flaws and be confident from here on out.

About the Author: Jasmine is an awkward teenager who wants to make a difference.