Body image and self-esteem

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Body Image and Self-Esteem

I'm fat. I'm too skinny. I'd be happy if I were taller, shorter, had curly hair, straight hair, a smaller nose, bigger muscles, longer legs.

Is there something wrong with me?

Do any of these statements sound familiar? Are you used to putting yourself down? If so, you're not alone. As a teen, you're going through a ton of changes in your body, and as your body changes, so does your image of yourself. Read on to learn more about how your body image affects your self-esteem and how you can develop a healthy body image.

Why Are Self-Esteem and Body Image Important?
You may have heard the term self-esteem on talk shows or seen it in your favorite magazine. But what does it mean? Self-esteem involves how much a person values herself, and appreciates her own worth. Self-esteem is important because when you feel good about yourself, you enjoy life more.

Although self-esteem applies to every aspect of how you see yourself, it is often mentioned in terms of appearance or body image. Body image is how you see and feel about your physical appearance. We tend to relate self-esteem to body image for several reasons. First of all, most people care about how other people see them. Unfortunately, many people judge others by things like the clothes they wear, the shape of their body, or the way they wear their hair. If a person feels like he or she looks different than others, then body image and self-esteem may be affected negatively.

Teens with a poor body image may think negative thoughts like, "I'm fat, I'm not pretty enough, I'm not strong enough."

What Shapes Self-Esteem?

The Effects of Puberty
Some teens struggle with their self-esteem when they begin puberty. That's because the body undergoes many changes when puberty starts. These rapid changes and the desire for acceptance make it difficult for teens to judge whether they are "normal" when they look at other teens around them. And many people worry about what's normal during puberty. But puberty doesn't proceed at the same pace for everyone.

Puberty usually begins with a growth spurt. Usually, this happens to girls first but guys tend to catch up with their own spurts around the ages of 13 or 14. In general, puberty for both sexes takes between 2 to 5 years to complete but every teen has her own genetic timetable for the changes of puberty.

The sexual development of girls typically starts around age 9 to 10 with the appearance of budding breasts, pubic hair, and later the start of menstruation. Other changes include wider hips, buttocks and thighs, and a greater proportion of body fat. These changes can make a girl feel self-conscious about her body. She may feel like her maturing body draws attention to her, and feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. Or she may feel as though her body is weird and different than her friends' bodies. Unhealthy "crash" dieting or eating disorders can result.

Meanwhile, guys will begin to notice their shoulders getting wider, muscles developing, voices deepening, testicles getting larger, and penises growing longer and wider. Guys who are dissatisfied with their development may become obsessed with weight training and may take steroids or other drugs to help boost their physiques and athletic performance.

The Effects of Culture
Media images from TV, movies, and advertising may affect self-esteem. Girls may struggle with media images of teen girls and women who are unrealistically thin. Many women and teen girls in magazines, the news, or on TV are unusually thin, which may lead girls who are not thin to believe that something is wrong with them. It's important to realize that self-worth should not be determined by body size. It's more important to lead a healthy lifestyle by exercising regularly and eating nutritiously than to try to change your body to fit an unrealistic ideal.

Guys can also have body image problems. Although girls may feel pressured to be smaller, guys may feel pressured to become larger and look stronger. Sports and other guys may put pressure on guys to gain muscle mass quickly, which can lead them to feel unhappy or dissatisfied with their bodies.

Sometimes low self-esteem is too much to bear. Instead of getting help, some teens may drink or do drugs to help themselves feel better, especially in social situations.

The Effects of Home and School
Your home or school life may also affect your self-esteem. Some parents spend more time criticizing than praising their children. Sometimes this criticism reduces a teen's ability to have a positive body image - the teen may model her own "inner voice" after that of a parent, and learn to think negative thoughts about herself.

It's hard to succeed at school when the situation at home is tense, so sometimes teens who suffer from abuse at home may have problems in school, both of which contribute to poor self-esteem.

Teens may also experience negative comments and hurtful teasing or bullying from classmates and peers. This can definitely affect a person's self-esteem, but it's important to remember that the people who are being hurtful probably have low self-esteem as well, and putting others down may make them feel better about themselves.

Sometimes racial and ethnic prejudice is the source of hurtful comments. These comments come from ignorance on the part of the person who makes them, but sometimes they can negatively affect a person's body image and self-esteem.

Checking Your Own Self-Esteem and Body Image
If you have a positive body image, you probably like the way you look and accept yourself the way you are. This is a healthy attitude that allows you to explore other aspects of growing up, such as increasing independence from your parents, enhanced intellectual and physical abilities, and an interest in dating.

When you believe in yourself, you're much less likely to let your own mistakes get you down. You are better able to recognize your errors, learn your lessons, and move on. The same goes for the way you treat others. Teens who feel good about themselves and have good self-esteem are less likely to use putdowns to hurt themselves or anyone else.

A positive, optimistic attitude can help you develop better self-esteem. For example, saying, "Hey, I'm human," instead of "Wow, I'm such a loser," when you've made a mistake. Or avoiding blaming others when things don't go as expected.

Knowing what makes you happy and how to meet your goals can make you feel capable, strong, and in control of your life. A positive attitude and a healthy lifestyle are a great combination for developing good self-esteem.

Tips for Boosting Your Self-Esteem
Some teens think they need to change how they look or act to feel good about themselves. But if you can train yourself to reprogram the way you look at your body, you can defend yourself from negative comments - both those that come from others and those that come from you. Remember: when others criticize your body, it's usually because they are insecure about the changes happening to themselves.

The first thing to do is recognize that your body is your own, no matter what shape, size, or color it comes in. If you are very worried about your weight or size, you can check with your doctor to verify that things are OK. But remember that it is no one's business but your own what your body is like - ultimately, you have to be happy with yourself.

Remember, too, that there are things about yourself you can't change - such as your height and shoe size - and you should accept and love these things about yourself. But if there are things about yourself that you do want to change, make goals for yourself. For example, if you want to lose weight, commit yourself to exercising three to four times a week and eating nutritiously. Accomplishing the goals you set for yourself can help to improve your self-esteem.

When you hear negative comments coming from within, tell yourself to stop. Your inner critic can be retrained. Try exercises like giving yourself three compliments every day. While you're at it, every evening list three things in your day that really gave you pleasure. It can be anything from the way the sun felt on your face, the sound of your favorite band, or the way someone laughed at your jokes. By focusing on the good things you do and the positive aspects of your life, you can change how you feel about yourself.

Where Can I Go if I Need Help?
Sometimes low self-esteem and body image problems are too much to handle alone. Some teens may become depressed, and lose interest in activities or friends. Talk to a parent, coach, religious leader, guidance counselor, therapist, or an adult friend. An adult can help you put your body image in perspective and give you positive feedback about your body, your skills, and your abilities.

If you can't turn to anyone you know, call a teen crisis hotline (check the yellow pages under social services). The most important thing is to get help if you feel like your body image and low self-esteem are affecting your life.

Updated and reviewed by: Kim Rutherford, MD
Date reviewed: October 2001
Originally reviewed by: Jonathan Schneider, DO



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