Teens, Body Image, and Self-esteem
By Barbara Rickard
People's body image strongly affects how they feel about themselves. In teens, the connection between body image and self-esteem is particularly pronounced because of intense peer pressure and a strong need to fit in.
Why Is a Positive Body Image So Important?
Children with a positive body image usually like most things about themselves. Since they don't dwell on their looks, they can put their energy into their friendships, their relationship with their family, and school challenges. Teenagers who feel good about themselves make friends easily, take pride in their personal accomplishments, and are usually fairly cheerful. This attitude carries over into their general attitude towards others (including their parents).
What Affects Teens' Body Image?
- Puberty-Kids experience a storm of changes in their bodies during puberty. Some teens gain extra fat, which may or may not be temporary, right before a growth spurt; others grow taller and skinnier. With acne, mood swings, emerging sexuality, and all the other changes it brings, puberty isn't for sissies.
- Peers-Their friends have a lot of influence over how teens feel about themselves. Friends may not realize how damaging their teasing and negative comments can be, but sometimes a friend's comments can be the most hurtful of all influences.
- Our culture-Teens are greatly influenced by the media. Everywhere they turn, unrealistic images of beauty confront them.
- Self-identity-When teenagers try out new hairstyles and clothes, they are making a statement about themselves. This is one way they discover what they're interested in and what they value. Fashion statements are also a safe way to practice independence.
Do Boys Have Body Image Issues, Too?
Girls aren't the only ones who obsess about their appearance. Boys may not talk about their appearance as much as girls do, but they worry just as much. Boys' bodies develop at such varied rates that it's almost impossible for them not to compare themselves to others. Differences in body size can make any young boy feel insecure with his looks. A teen boy may be afraid to take off his shirt in the locker room or at the beach for fear of looking underdeveloped.
It's not just body shape that boys worry about-changes in voice and facial features cause them stress as well. As your son reaches his teen years, you may notice him spending more time getting ready in the morning, trying new hairstyles or colognes, and deciding whether or not he needs to shave.
What Teenage Behavior Is Normal?
As teens get older, it's common for them to become more interested in, if not even a little obsessed with, their appearance. They may start commenting on their friends' appearance, too. Does your teen shower three times a day? Is your teen constantly unhappy with his or her looks and accomplishments? Does your teen feel as though he or she never measures up to friends or celebrities? Does your teen change his or her "look" frequently? Although these actions may seem ridiculous to adults, most often they are normal teenage behavior.
What's Not Normal?
Most teens work through self-esteem and body image problems and outgrow them fairly quickly. However, some teens have prolonged and deep difficulties with these issues. The result can be eating disorders, substance abuse, anxiety, and depression. Kidshealth.org reports that one or two out of every one hundred teens will struggle with an eating disorder during the teen years. That's a pretty scary statistic, but it helps to know what you're looking for if you think your teen may have a serious problem.
When Should I Become Concerned?
If your teenage daughter or son exhibits one or more of the following behaviors, she or he may need help from a professional:
- Eats less and less over time
- Purges (vomits) after meals
- Is of normal weight but is afraid of becoming fat or thinks he or she is fat
- Weighs food or counts every calorie before eating
- Diets constantly
- Exercises several hours a day, seven days a week
- Is so self critical that it interferes with daily life
- Loses interest in friends and/or outside activities (a sign of depression)
- Shows signs of physical harm to him- or herself (look for marks on arms or legs)
- Begins to use drugs or alcohol
Where Can My Teen Find Help?
If you are concerned, encourage your son or daughter to open up to you, and discuss the changes you have noticed. If he or she seems reluctant, suggest reaching out to a favorite teacher, friend, religious leader, school counselor, team coach, or relative you both trust. By all means, if you think your child is in immediate danger (showing suicidal tendencies, prolonged vomiting, or extreme weight issues), contact your child's doctor immediately for an emergency appointment.
Barbara Rickard holds a B.S. from Michigan Technological University and is the mother of three children. She has volunteered in the public schools for more than ten years, including four as a PTA board member.