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Body Image in the Teenage Years

It’s unavoidable… The awkward process of growing into one’s adult body is a visible transformation. Unfortunately, this transformation becomes the subject matter of comments about teen girls.

Some classics:

“You’re growing into a beautiful young lady.”

“She’s going to be trouble for her parents.”

“How will you find a date who’s taller than you?”

“Looks like you got the curves in the family.”

Who’s getting braces, growing taller, wearing makeup, and not changing at all—this kind of talk seems commonplace in the adolescent years. If you’re already feeling uncomfortable reading this post, maybe you’re a woman who heard comments about her body in adolescence (or yesterday).

Maybe you’ve said something analogous to the above statements without thinking twice. Chances are, everyone has, myself included. The cultural practice of scrutinizing the female body lingers in the midst of progress towards more holistic interactions with women.

In the teen years, it seems someone always knows how to point out the thing you’re most embarrassed about. Girls who hit puberty earlier or later than peers can be teased by peers and adults alike. There are moments of wanting to hide or crawl out of one’s new skin.

“Teens who are involved in activities that promote awareness of their physical capabilities are more likely to have positive body image.”

A friend of mine (really, a friend, not me) remembers her bra being tossed around the pre-teen ballet class like a hot potato after no one stepped forward to identify themselves as the only bra-wearing member of the group. Absolutely horrifying.

Internalizing the External

More than just inducing embarrassment, the types of comments above, in the context of an appearance-conscious culture, convey that physical appearance is a woman’s most defining feature. They can also be loaded with beauty standards and communicate which body types are valued over others. Enter the double-bind: your body defines your worth, but society defines the worth of your body.

These messages can leave teen girls feeling conflicted, even ashamed, about changes in their bodies. They want to grow up, but not into the world in which they’re objectified. Teen girls instinctively pick up on the attention given to physical appearance and the evaluative language used to describe bodies in Western cultures.

They start to compare themselves to others, entering the game of body criticism perpetuated throughout the female life cycle—captured perfectly in the classic mirror scene in Mean Girls.

This now extends beyond the mirror into the worlds of Instagram and Snapchat, with the possibility for infinite comparison, comments, and snap-judgments made on looks alone.

“Changing how we talk about the body takes place in the context of changing cultural standards for body ideals.”

It’s normal for teens to focus more on the body in adolescence due to the very fact that their bodies are changing, but how the body is talked about (or not talked about) during these years is critical.

While girls view messages about their bodies as soon as they can interact with screens and glance at magazine covers in check-out lines, adolescence is a time when values are internalized or challenged in the process of identity development.

One comment, ever so small, can burrow deep into a woman’s self-concept, growing into a stubborn weed that takes years to uproot. Even a compliment can become a descriptor she then needs to maintain and hold on to, hearing that is why she stands out.

We all have a desire for belonging and acceptance. Since society communicates that looking a certain way is the means of gaining this acceptance, girls can become hungry for reassurance of their physical beauty. There’s more to a selfie than meets the eye.

Changing the Conversation

Due to individual differences in risk factors and protective factors, no two teens have the same experience growing up. Most will encounter the struggle, to a differing degree, to process messages they hear about appearance and find confidence in a self-concept that transcends appearance.

While this season undoubtedly brings the discomfort of physical change, we can communicate a different message about the type of world teen girls is entering.

For the Teenage Girls Struggling with Body Image

Ditch Commentary About Bodily Changes

I cringe every time I see the scene in Sixteen Candles when Sam’s grandparents confront her about her new curves. She’s humiliated.

“We all have a desire for belonging and acceptance.”

It’s important for teen girls to be educated about the changes occurring in their bodies during this season. It’s not important or necessary for them to hear these changes narrated for them in real time. If it’s not a critical teaching moment—like helping her find a comfortably fitting bra—let’s not add to the noise.

Instead of offering evaluations and observations about physical changes taking place, try open-ended questions, encouraging her to verbalize her own experiences of her body (ex. “How have things changed for you during this time?”).

Shift the Focus to What Her Body Can Do

Teens who are involved in activities that promote awareness of their physical capabilities are more likely to have positive body image (Choate, 2005). Body image is a holistic construct, involving both internal and external experiences of the body such as physical attributes, abilities, and sensations.

Draw attention to other aspects of the body outside of external appearance, and help her tune in to how she physically feels on a daily basis. When we focus too much on external appearance, we can miss the internal, physical cues in the body about our emotions and overall well-being.

A word of caution when talking about physical fitness and ability: the word “healthy” can be risky territory given cultural standards of what health looks like. Try alternatives like “strong,” “capable” or “energized.”

Help Her Appreciate Her Mind, Body, and Spirit

Many other aspects of the self-care changing rapidly in the teen years as teens test out different versions of themselves. Initiate conversations about her new interests and activities.

Acknowledge when you see her working towards her goals, building valuable life-skills, and growing in character. Encourage her to express who she is outside of appearance and social media. Creative exercises such as journaling or collaging can help teens tap into strengths and knowledge of self.

Remove Weight and Appearance as a Qualifier for Engaging in Life

Teens are watching when we opt out of activities because we don’t like how we look, emphasizing the message that appearance matters. New conversations are starting about body neutrality—a practice of disengaging from the struggle to maintain a positive body image (which can be an exhausting battle).

“When we focus too much on external appearance, we can miss the internal, physical cues in the body about our emotions and overall well-being.”

Instead, we can choose to live a life committed to our values—which means we engage in meaningful experiences even though our relationships with our bodies remain in flux. Realistically, we feel differently in our bodies every day, because they’re always changing.

Yet, we can still choose to live out our values and do what’s matters most to us. Through body neutrality, we can model to teens that our bodies are vessels for our life experiences, not qualifiers for worth.

Model Critical Evaluation of Cultural Standards

Changing how we talk about the body takes place in the context of changing cultural standards for body ideals. We hear certain phrases and see certain images so often that we can fail to give them a second thought.

A classic Cognitive Behavior Theory (CBT) technique is to seek out the evidence for and challenge thoughts and assumptions that get us stuck. Talk with the teen girls in your life about the images they see and comments they hear.

Discuss what’s real, and what’s photoshopped and unattainable. Help them uncover the facts, understand what’s normal for the adolescent body, and challenge cultural opinions.

Reexamining and retraining the way we talk about the body is an ongoing journey in overturning cultural habits and biases. Each step we take to point teen girls inward leads them to the most important voice they hear—their own.

Reference: Choate, L. H. (2005). Toward a theoretical model of women’s body image resilience. Journal of Counseling & Development, 83, 320-330.

Click here for more content by Elise Howell, LPCA!

Elise Howell, LPCA
Elise's passion is to collaborate with teen girls and their families in navigating the unpredictable years of adolescence, and supporting women in cultivating healthy relationships with their whole selves. She engages with clients' strengths to help clients process their stories, build skills to move them towards their goals, and reconnect with what’s most important to them in life. When she is not watching classic romantic comedies, Elise enjoys kayaking, hiking, and beach days with her husband. She loves all things Harry Potter and musical theater.


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