No more stressing over selfies

Snapping selfies may seem like an innocuous activity of today’s youth, but the anxiety that comes with choosing the perfect image could have harmful effects. A recent study out of the University of Arizona found that teen girls who fret over which photo of themselves to post on social media or who heavily use photo editing apps are more likely to self-objectify than those who don’t.

Interestingly, it isn’t the act of taking selfies that brings excessive anxiety about appearance but, rather, the overanalysis of those selfies that can lead teens to be more critical of their appearance.

Published in the Journal of Children and Media, the study examined the selfie-editing processes of 278 girls, ages 14 to 17. Apps like Facetune can brighten teeth, change the sizes of lips and noses and remove blemishes in just a few taps. Researchers found that the time and effort put into such apps by teen girls correlates with feeling more shameful and anxious about their appearance.

To help parents of teens spot the signs of appearance anxiety and employ ways to help improve their teen’s body image, we sat down with Rachel Coleman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Mission Viejo. She has more than 12 years of experience treating eating disorders and is the co-host of “Mom Genes The Podcast.” (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

OC Family: Why do you think so many teens are fretting over selfies and editing their images?

Coleman: Our culture rewards attractiveness, glamorizes sexuality and celebrates weight loss. This messaging trickles down to the high schools and allows the students with more physical attractiveness (usually in thinner, fitter bodies wearing more revealing clothing) to become more powerful in the high school hierarchy. Editing photos, taking multiple shots, posting the “perfect” photo is a teen’s way of attempting to gain control of their social standing and increase power over their social status.

OCF: What are some general signs that a teen is struggling with body image and shame issues?

Coleman: Teens may engage in obsessive thinking, as evidenced by increased time taking photos, editing and then deleting them in frustration, disgust over appearance in photos, refusal to take family photos at the holidays and anxiety over their outfits at school dances or social gatherings that lead to indecision on which outfit to wear or refusal to attend the event.

OCF: What are some other body shame behaviors parents should look out for?

Coleman: Mirror “body checking” — looking at their body from multiple angles, pinching and scrutinizing body parts, hiding their body in looser fitting clothing, refusing to wear bathing suits, isolating in their room, attempting elimination diets in the name of weight loss, increasing exercise that is a compensation for food eaten, or eating larger amounts of food than usual while isolating are all behaviors to look out for.

OCF: What are some of the self-image and body shaming risks associated with social media use?

Coleman: Inappropriate emphasis placed on the teen’s appearance and body size is the key risk in social media use. Visual tools such as editing software or filters only add to this risk because it is giving the teen the subtle message that their organic, photographed self is not good enough.

OCF: How can parents open and continue a conversation about body image with their teens?

Coleman: Supporting your teen through this phase can include the balanced guidance of listening and coaching, having a safe space for the teen to talk by decreasing your judgment and withholding your lectures, and sharing your own struggles from the past or present to find a sense of self. A teen will struggle to find body peace if the parent has not found the same body peace.

OCF: What are some effective strategies parents and teens can employ to help improve their body image?

Coleman: Helping teens develop value and belief systems and visualize their future (unless it induces anxiety) can help with improving body image. Some concrete ways families can create safe spaces include eating meals together as much as possible, covering closet mirrors with posters of adventure places or positive quotes for daily reminders or reduction of body obsession and setting a vibe of body positivity in the home.

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When a pregnancy fails, surrogacy is a second chance

Get married, have children, raise them and send them to college. For Zulma Vega, thosewere all stages of a full life.

She had done the first, marrying Leonel, in 2003. But the second step of having children was proving difficult. So, in 2017, she undertook in vitro fertility treatment, and her doctor transferred one of four embryos to her wombthat May. Months later, the pregnancy ended in a loss due to cervix incompetence, which poses a severe riskof premature birth.

After the failed pregnancy, one of Vega’s four sisters, who are all close, spoke to Vega’s doctor and offered herself as a surrogate. Vega didn’t know it at the time — and didn’t even know that surrogacy was an option.

“We had no clue about surrogacy up to that point,” said Vega, who is now 42 and lives in San Juan Capistrano. “I think it’s one of the things that people don’t talk about, or they’re afraid to talk about their fertility issues.”

The sister who had made the offer, Marisol Cervantes, already had three children with her husband and wasn’t planning to grow her own family more when she stepped forward to return Vega’s generosity and help give her the family she had dreamed of.

When Vega lost the baby, “that was heartbreaking for everybody,” said Cervantes, 37, who lives in Mission Viejo. “She’s a really good person. For all our baby showers, me and my sisters, she’s there for us all the time. She’s just that person.”

At a family gathering soon after losing her baby, Vega announced that one of her sisters had offered to be a surrogate.

“I never planned to do something like this. I never really thought about it until I knew my sister couldn’t have kids, and then I jumped in to help her,” Cervantes said. “It’s such a rewarding thing to do for somebody else, especiallyif you know their story and how bad they want a family.”

That step was just the beginning.

Vega and her husband visited a therapist who confirmed they would be capable parents. Cervantes, like all surrogates, went through both a medical screening to ensure her body could handle pregnancy and a psychological evaluation. Following standard protocol for surrogacies, the two sisters hired separate lawyers for the legal contract, which they each signed along with their husbands.

Cervantes took hormone medications for two months to prepare her body to receive one of the embryos Vega had already created. On the first attempt, she became pregnant.

Women from all walks of life turn to surrogacy when they are unable to have children themselves, says Dr. Jane Frederick, reproductive endocrinologist at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center, who also is Vega’s fertility specialist. Some have previous pregnancies that ended poorly. Cancer forces some to have hysterectomies, while others are born with eggs and ovaries but no uterus.

Surrogates have their own reasons for offering to carry another family’s baby, and many have altruistic motives, Frederick says, adding that some ask to work with gay couples in particular. Prospective parents should work with an agency to find a surrogate, and not search for one online.

“It’s always about how comfortable the intended parents feel and how comfortable is the surrogate working with that couple?” Frederick said.

When Frederick started working on fertility issues 30 years ago, there weren’t good techniques for in vitro fertilization or developing embryos in the laboratory, so doctors used the surrogate’s own egg and performed artificial insemination. But improving technology made it possible to use eggs from the prospective mother.

“That helped to alleviate any legal issues down the road because the genetic link is to the intended parents,” Frederick said. “So, it’s less likely the surrogate will change her mind and say that’s my baby since she’snot genetically related to the baby.”

In vitro fertilization methods have grown more advanced as well, making the process much safer. In the past, women undergoing in vitro treatment were more likely to have a high-risk pregnancy with two, three or even four babies. Today, doctors can select one embryo for transfer.

The whole process can cost prospective parents $100,000 to $150,000, including legal fees, psychological evaluation fees, in vitro fertilization treatment and the stipend for the surrogate, Frederick says. The surrogate may receive $25,000 to $30,000.

Women choose to become surrogates for their own combination of reasons, including altruism and the monetary compensation, according to Dr. Rachael Lopez, an OBGYN at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center, who also is Cervantes’ doctor. But the realities of surrogacy — getting paid to carry someone else’s baby for nine months — mean that hired surrogates often come from a lower socio-economic background, Lopez says. Pregnancy always comes with medical risks, and even a small chance of dying.

“If you were a career woman with your own children and a two-parent working family, I’m not sure how easily that would fit into your lifestyle to be pregnant and care for someone else’s baby,” Lopez said, adding that it’s common for military wives to be surrogates. “It’s not entirely without risk. For a lot of families, you would have to ask, ‘Is this dollar amount worth the risk?’ ”

Tales of surrogates refusing to give away the baby are less common than people might believe, Lopez says. Counseling prepares them and they know their role in the process.

“I would imagine the mom has to wall herself off a little bit. Growing a baby is such an intimate and personal experience, feeling those movements. You feel a relationship with that baby that no one else has. You have to put a little wall around your heart,” she added.

Parents choose surrogacy for a variety of reasons, usually related to health and often because of severe health problems affecting fertility, according to Lopez. Maybe it’s no longer safe for the woman to have higher hormone levels. Maybe she has a chronic disease or auto-immune issues, or blood clotting-related disorders. Maybe surgery or an emergency operation affected the woman’s fertility, or a prior pregnancy caused health problems.

For Cervantes, the purpose for her surrogacy was clear.

“A lot of people think that you’re going to walk out thinking it’s your child,” Cervantes said. “If you’re doing it for the right reasons, to help somebody have a family, it just feels really good to do something like that.”

Vega’s daughter was born in December 2018, and Vega named her Marisol after her sister. Vega also made Cervantes the baby’s godmother.

Today, Cervantes is pregnant with Vega’s second child, who is due in September. She plans to carry a third child for her sister as long as everything goes as well as expected.

“It’s a unique thing that somebody’s willing to do it for you three times — not just once, not just twice,but three times,” Vega said. “I want people to know that there are options because it’s so painful to go through infertility issues ourselves, as a couple, as a woman, because we have so much love to give.”

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