Body image is a person's impressions, thoughts, feelings, and opinions about his or her body.
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"I'm fat." "I wish I had curly hair." "Why haven't I had a growth spurt yet?" "No one else in my class has diabetes." "Will I ever be strong enough to play on the football team?"
Most teenagers have similar questions and concerns about their bodies. They think a lot about their appearance, which seems in a constant state of change during adolescence. Everyone has an "image" of their body and appearance and how well it fits in with what they consider normal, acceptable, or attractive. For adolescents, body image is a big part of their total self-image.
Why Is Body Image So Important to Adolescents?
Teenagers' bodies are undergoing so many changes that it is easy to understand why they may be preoccupied with their appearance and their body image. Both boys and girls are experiencing growth spurts and sexual development. Girls' breasts and hips are enlarging, body hair is growing, and menstruation * is beginning. Boys' muscles are growing, their voices are getting deeper, and their testicles and penises are getting larger. Their features may be changing, and hormones may cause skin problems. It takes a while to get used to their new "image" or appearance.
Teenagers are very susceptible to criticism, teasing, or negative comments. Some teenagers lose confidence in their appearance if they receive negative or insulting comments about their looks, racial or ethnic features, physical abilities, or body changes associated with puberty * . With all of the focus on the body's appearance, teenagers may need to be reminded to give equal value to other important aspects of themselves, such as personality, inner strengths, mental aptitudes, and artistic and musical talents, which, along with body image, contribute to overall self-image.
What Leads to Body Image Problems?
Teenagers' body images are strongly affected by what they see on television and in the movies. Magazines are filled with pictures of thin and beautiful young women and lean and muscular young men. Teenagers are influenced by these images and may wish to look like their favorite models or stars. However, the degree of physical perfection that media images convey is largely an illusion created by makeup, hours of styling, special lighting, and photography. When people compare themselves to these perfect-looking images, they may become disappointed with their own appearance. Feeling the need to look perfect, or to have a perfect body, can lead to body image problems.
Body image problems affect both boys and girls, but they tend to bother girls more deeply than boys. One reason is that in American culture, girls' and women's worth and value traditionally have been linked closely to their physical attractiveness. Boys' appearance, while important, is not generally seen as their most important feature. Boys, however, often feel pressure to be tall, muscular, and strong.
* menstruation (men-stroo-AY-shun) is the discharge of the blood-enriched lining of the uterus. Menstruation normally occurs in females who are physically mature enough to bear children. Because it usually occurs at about four-week intervals, it is often called the "monthly period." Most girls have their first period between the age of 9 and 16.
* puberty (PU-ber-tee) is the period during which sexual maturity is attained.
What Does Perfect Mean?
Some girls are more influenced than others by the thinness craze. How much value a girl places on thinness may depend on how much value her cultural group gives it. One study of about 300 American eighth and ninth grade girls suggested that certain cultural differences might affect girls' body image ideals. The study compared the body image of girls of European ancestry with the body image of girls of African ancestry. Ninety percent of the girls of European ancestry in the study felt dissatisfied with their body weight and shape, whereas only thirty percent of the girls of African ancestry felt dissatisfied with their bodies! When asked to describe the "perfect girl," the descriptions by girls of European ancestry often focused on thinness as the key to popularity and happiness. For example, they described the perfect girl as someone who is 5′7″ and 100 to 110 pounds (a trim, healthy body weight for someone 5′7″ is about 125 pounds). Girls of African ancestry were more likely to emphasize the importance of personality and downplayed the importance of physical traits and thinness when theydescribed the perfect girl. They described the perfect girl as someone who is smart, fun, easy to talk to, not conceited, and funny. They were more likely to describe beauty as an inner quality; in fact, two-thirds of them described beauty as the "right attitude." Their descriptions of the body weight and dimensions that they would like to have were more in line with healthy weights. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that there is lower incidence of anorexia and bulimia among girls of African ancestry than among girls of European ancestry.
Some teenagers have illnesses or disabilities that they cannot change. These things may challenge their body image at first. Teenagers who focus on what the body can do, rather than on what it cannot, learn that even with physical limitations, it is possible to develop a strong positive body image. Sometimes, overcoming limitations caused by a disability can create an unexpected boost to body image. For example, Tyrie, who has used a wheelchair since age nine, began to race competitively as an adolescent. The upper body strength and physical endurance he has developed by training for races has given him new confidence in his body's capabilities. He is proud of his muscular arms and chest, not to mention his medals. Even though he does not walk, his friends see him as one of the strongest guys in the tenth grade.
When Are Body Image Problems a Sign
of Other Problems?
Some teenagers are satisfied with how they look and feel confident about their appearance. Others are more self-critical and always come up lacking when comparing their features with others. Extreme dissatisfaction with body image can lead to depression * , social isolation, or eating disorders * .
Sometimes body image can become distorted, and people may mistakenly believe themselves to be fat or ugly. These distorted or mistaken ideas can cause a person to feel extremely distressed, self-critical, and overly preoccupied with their physical imperfections. Someone who has a constant and distressing preoccupation with minor body "imperfections" may have a condition called body dysmorphic (dis-MORE-fik) disorder.
Some people develop a strong fear of gaining weight. They may begin to diet or exercise excessively, lose weight rapidly, and refuse to eat enough food to maintain a healthy weight, A person with this pattern may have an eating disorder called anorexia (an-o-REK-see-a). People with anorexia develop a distorted body image and see themselves as fat when they are not. Even though they may get dangerously underweight and malnourished, they continue to feel fat and refuse to eat.
Bulimia (bu-LEE-me-a) is another eating disorder that involves body image problems. People with bulimia have a distorted body image that causes them to be self-critical and to feel fat, and they place too much importance on weight and body shape. People with bulimia have episodes of out-of-control overeating, or binges, and then try to make up for them by making themselves vomit, by taking laxatives, or by exercising to excess to avoid gaining weight. People with excessive body image problems may need assistance from several mental health professionals including a physician, a psychotherapist * , and a nutritionist.
What Leads to a Good Body Image?
There are certain things that people cannot change about their appearance or physical capabilities, but having a good body image does not require a perfect body. People develop a healthy body image by taking care of their body, appreciating its capabilities, and accepting its imperfections. Positive body image is linked to positive self-image, self-confidence, and popularity.
* depression (de-PRESH-un) is a mental state characterized by feelings of sadness, despair, and discouragement.
* eating disorders are conditions in which a person's eating behaviors and food habits are so unbalanced that they cause physical and emotional problems.
* psychotherapist (sy-ko-THER-apist) is a mental health counselor who listens to people and helps them change thoughts, actions, or relationships that play a part in problems they may be experiencing.
Am I Too Fat?
Too much focus on physical appearance can create body image problems, especially for females. Even those of normal healthy body weight can feel fat when comparing themselves to super-thin models and stars. Studies have found that 80 percent of adolescent girls feel fat, and up to 70 percent of adolescent girls are on a diet at any given time. Four out of five American women are dissatisfied with their appearance, and half of American women are on a diet. These attitudes and behaviors are showing up at younger ages. One study found that half of the girls in grades three through six want to be thinner, and 33 percent of them have already tried to lose weight. Extreme self-criticism about weight, dissatisfaction with body image, and the quest for perfection can lead to feelings of failure, unhealthy dieting, and serious eating disorders.
Most teenagers can control their appearance to some extent; for example, they may choose haircuts or clothing that reflect how they see themselves. By doing so, they can create an outer image that pleases them. Eating healthy foods and getting plenty of exercise can help teenagers develop strong, fit bodies of which they can be proud. Cutting down on junk foods helps them stay trim, and physical activities help them develop strength, coordination, and new capabilities. Healthy behaviors contribute to attractive appearance on the outside and add to positive inner feelings about body image.
Shandler, Sara. Ophelia Speaks: Adolescent Girls Write about Their Search for Self New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Walker, Pamela. Everything You Need to Know about Body Dysmorphic Disorder: Dealing with a Distorted Body Image. Brookshire, TX: Rosen Publishing Group, 1999.
Nemours Center for Children's Health Media, Alfred I. duPont
Hospital for Children, 1600 Rockland Road, Wilmington, DE 19803. This
organization is dedicated to issues of children's health and
produces the KidsHealth website. Its website has articles about body
image and body dysmorphic disorder.
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