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Body Image in Adolescents

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Oct 3, 2022.

What is body image?

Body image is the way you feel about your body and physical appearance. You may not like the way you look or the shape of your body. You may like some things about your body but not others. Your thoughts and feelings may change over time. Body image problems can be mild or severe. A severe body image problem can lead to long-term problems such as anorexia. A healthy body image is an important part of self-esteem (thinking you are valuable).

What increases my risk for body image problems?

  • A parent who is overly concerned about his or her own body image
  • A parent who makes negative comments about your appearance
  • Pressure from friends or classmates to look a certain way
  • Being teased about your appearance
  • A desire to fit in with members of a certain group
  • TV, Internet, or magazine images of people you think you should look like
  • Physical signs of development happen in friends before they happen to you
  • Changes from puberty, such as acne, extra fat, or a growth spurt that make you feel self-conscious
  • Your gender identity is different from your birth sex

What are the signs and symptoms of a body image problem?

Some parts of your appearance will change over time. This may make negative thoughts temporary. Signs and symptoms that continue or become worse may be a sign of a more serious body image problem. Any of the following can become a long-term problem:

  • Critical thoughts about your body or appearance
  • A need to ask other people about how you look
  • Not believing someone who compliments how you look
  • A need to look in the mirror often, or not wanting to look in the mirror at all
  • Spending long periods of time getting dressed or working on hair or makeup but still not being satisfied
  • Seeing something in the mirror that is different from what people tell you they see
  • Thoughts of something you want to change, such as your weight, that happen constantly
  • Not wanting to be seen in public because you think others have negative thoughts of your appearance
  • A need to eat very little or to count every calorie you eat
  • Use of diet pills, smoking cigarettes, or exercising too much to increase weight loss

What can I do to develop a healthy body image?

  • Think of everything you like about yourself. Focus on qualities that are separate from your appearance. For example, you may be a talented artist or musician. You may like that you make friends easily or that you are always kind to people.
  • Do not compare yourself with anyone. You may have family members or friends you think are more attractive than you. Do not focus on differences or try to make yourself look like someone else. You are unique and can develop an appreciation for all of your own physical qualities.
  • Talk to someone you trust. A parent, friend, or school counselor can help you talk about how you feel about your body. Ask for more information on gender identity if this is creating body image problems.
  • Remember that puberty affects your appearance. You may gain weight and grow quickly during puberty. You may think your arms or legs are too long or your nose is too big. These are normal changes that will become balanced when puberty ends. You may start having acne from hormone changes. Your healthcare provider may be able to suggest ways to control acne or other problems during puberty.

What can I do to develop a strong, healthy body?

  • Do not focus on changes you think you need to make. For example, your healthcare provider can tell you if your weight is in a healthy range. Ask him to help you create a nutrition and exercise plan. Do not exercise too much or eat too little. Focus on eating healthy foods and exercising as part of a healthy lifestyle. A number on the scale or a clothing size should not be your goal.
  • Do not go on a diet. You need a variety of foods every day to get the nutrition you need. Do not get upset with yourself if you eat something that is not healthy. Just get back to the plan. Fad or crash diets are very dangerous, and you may gain back any weight lost. Aim for slow, steady weight loss with a goal of reaching a healthy weight.
  • Get more activity. Limit TV, computer, or video game time to less than 2 hours per day. Aim for at least 1 hour of physical activity each day. Find activities you enjoy so you will want to continue. Ask your family or friends to do activities with you. This can help you establish a routine and may make activity more fun.
  • Do not smoke. Cigarettes contain nicotine. Nicotine is harmful to your health and can cause long-term health problems. E-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products also contain nicotine and should not be used. Talk to your parents or someone you trust if you feel pressured to use a tobacco product, or if you need help quitting. Nicotine will not help you control your weight or fit in with members of a group. Remember your goals of building self-esteem and a strong, healthy body.

Call 911 if:

  • You have thoughts of harming yourself, or you did something to harm yourself.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your heart is beating fast.
  • You fainted.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

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