As boys and girls move from childhood into early adolescence, it is easy for them to find fault with their bodies. The developing adolescent undergoes more physical changes than at any other time in his or her life except during gestation in the womb. During puberty adolescents gain weight, the proportions of their bodies shift, muscle mass is gained, and secondary sex characteristics, like body hair, emerge. Often this shift in physicality translates to disappointment as the boy who was once comparable in height with his peers, now feels tall and gangly and the girl whose body has matured quickly thinks she is fat and bloated. An adolescent’s self-image is tied to his or her body image and the perceptions of others. Of course, social standards often set by the media play a huge role in the comparisons adolescents make as they view themselves in light of others.
Mainstream media promote images and behaviors that are not always healthy or appropriate. ‘Thin is in’ is the female body shape of choice these days. Television sitcoms and advertising coupled with print media advertising underscores the importance of being thin to be popular, pretty, and self-assured. It is no wonder that girls are vulnerable to developing poor body image during puberty. Boys are not immune, however. For them, societal pressure focuses upon body size and muscle mass like the male model with 6-pack abs that all the girls swoon over. Most at-risk are male athletes in sports such as wrestling and gymnastics where body size is linked to physical prowess. This preoccupation with body shape, size, and weight may cause adolescents of either gender to dabble with fad diets or even enter into the realm of eating disorders.
Teens with an eating disorder may lose up to a quarter of their body weight, or believe that they are fat even if they are actually underweight. An obsession with exercise to burn calories is also common. Also common is consuming large quantities of food in secret only to purge the massive caloric intake by inducing vomiting. Eating disorders are often a sign of poor self-esteem and may be associated with fears about growing up brought on by body changes in puberty.
If your teen is struggling with his or her body image, try using some of these strategies:
~Bolster your teen with praise and encouragement. Explain that no one is perfect, including you. Share some of your past physical insecurities and how you were able to overcome them or how you are still working through them.
~Provide education about the physical and emotional changes of adolescence and puberty. Establish an environment where your teen is comfortable talking with you about his or her physical changes. If that is simply not possible, then find someone (a close relative, a family friend, a trusted teacher, youth leader, or counselor) who your teen is comfortable with and who can provide the appropriate, accurate information in your place.
~Help your teen focus on the positive. If your daughter is small-chested, help her to appreciate her shapely legs. If your son who has not had his growth spurt, acknowledge his upper body strength.
~Focus on a healthy diet and sensible exercise regimen with teens that are dissatisfied with their body shape and want to slim down or contour certain muscles. Make sure to consult a physician during this process as weight training prior to complete bone development may cause problems later in life. Similarly, discuss the issues surrounding steroid usage as steroids can pose serious health risks as well as being illegal in many competitive sports.
See additional articles:
Adolescents and Bulimia Nervosa
Adolescents and Anorexia Nervosa