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Puberty and Preoccupation with Personal Appearance

Self-consiousness about looks often begins with puberty.

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

Puberty is a big deal.

Usually beginning during early to mid-adolescence (around ages 9 to 15), unfolding over a period of 1.5 to 3 years, puberty culminates in sexual maturity — the capacity to produce eggs or sperm. In addition, this hormonal process causes changing alterations in manly and womanly appearance as well.

Young people can feel anxious about bodily changes not in their control.

There is self-consciousness and worry about how their growing older body is turning out.

There is an increased need for physical privacy.

There is more time devoted to self-inspection and social preparation.

There is more peer attention paid to personal appearance to the good (admiration) and to the bad (teasing.)

There is more awkward social association with the other sex after childhood years spent mostly with same-sex friends.

There is an awakening of sexual interests and fantasies as more girls turn to romance fiction and more boys to pornography.

There are concerns about gender definition and how to express them.

There is an increased preoccupation with managing one’s looks because they can affect how one is identified, how one is treated, how one fits in, and how one belongs.

Adolescence is a psychological and social change that grows a young person from childhood to young adult independence and identity; puberty is a chemical and physiological change that leads to sexual maturity. Adolescent change often begins earlier than puberty; but when puberty coincides with the onset of adolescence, the adolescent process can become more emotionally intense.

While the child was comparatively unselfconscious of personal looks, with puberty and adolescence, physical appearance becomes a primary concern. How best to look, that is the pressing question? Now popular icons and models in the media and advertising market place provide a compelling answer in the forms of idealized models of sexual attractiveness and beauty which can turn out to have a lot of ugly consequences for young people.

Since ideal is rarely real, very few young people can measure up to these physical standards of womanly and manly physical appearance. Thus, comparing themselves to these ideals and coming up wanting, in some ways they end up feeling badly about their bodies more often than not. However, dissatisfaction with one’s looks doesn’t mean that efforts at changing appearance are not made. Thus, girls can be driven to become slimmer while boys can be driven to bulk up and get bigger.

Dressing according to fashion becomes more important to keep up with and fit in with friends. Thus when the teenager complains they have nothing to wear, and the parent complains about a closet full of clothes that fit just fine, the adult doesn’t understand that “fit” is not a physical issue, but a fashionable one. “I’d be laughed out of school if I showed up in that outfit. That’s so last year!”

Or consider the common case of the beloved blue jeans which are treated as the adolescent’s only pair. “What do you mean they’re in the wash? Now I’ve got nothing to wear!” But when the parent suggests a lot of other available pants, the teenager rejects them out of hand. “This is the only pair that I look good in!” Dressing for a secure, comfortable, confident physical appearance counts for a lot.

Puberty increases the severity of physical self-evaluation. Waking up in the morning, it can feel like an act of courage to confront one’s image in the mirror and behold the latest tragedy that has befallen their body over the night before. Where did this new facial blemish come from? Now they have to take it to school for the whole world to see! Or maybe last night, in a fit of boredom or desperate inspiration, the teenager took a pair of scissors to their hair. It looked great 10 hours ago, but in the light of a new day it feels horrifying. “I can’t go to school like this!”

Or there are problems created by social expectations and treatment based on one’s apparent physical maturity. If one is 14 and appears 12, looking so much younger can result in being discounted or even pushed around. Sometimes a young man will try to dress more grown up to pass for older. If one is 14 and appears 16, looking an advanced age can result in pressure to act that way. Sometimes a young woman will cloak herself in bulky clothes to conceal her maturing body because she is not ready for the attention this appearance change can bring.

It can be very hard for a mature looking adolescent to resist the attention of older peers who invite her or him to act their age. Viewed as old as you appear, peers and adults can make unrealistic assumptions about what you know and want and have experienced based on your looks. So when you start looking sexually mature, there can be a social expectation that you are inclined to act that way.

And now you can get a fast reputation you didn’t earn. So the eighth grade boy, muscular and large and lightly bearded, becomes a sexual threat in the eyes of some parents who warn their daughters away from the young man. Explain his parents: “He’s just a middle school kid in a young man’s body, but they’re treating him as some kind of predator.”

When looking mature, there can be an expectation to go with friends to the middle school dance, a social challenge that a young person may refuse because acting more grown up this way does not feel comfortable yet. Puberty can create an awkward social time.

How Parents Can Help

To offset the ill effects of puberty on issues of personal appearance, here are a few things parents might consider doing.

Explain physical changes that can come with puberty so the young person knows what alterations to normally expect.

Respect the importance of looks and how appearance now socially matters more.

Understand the fashionable look the young person is adopting and what it signifies.

Give adequate privacy for the young person to have the time it takes to get used to their changing body.

Never tease about looks because they are no laughing matter.

Never criticize looks because that attacks self-esteem.

Tolerate changes in self-presentation through appearance because that is part of individual experimentation.

Monitor bodily changes sought to improve personal appearance (like dieting) because in the extreme, damage can be done.

Nurture personal valuing separate and independent of looks because that creates other pillars of self-esteem.

Confront cruel self-depreciation based on looks because that constitutes mistreatment of self.

Encourage acceptance of physical imperfections because the ideal is not real.

Share your own history of issues with personal appearance so the adolescent knows the parent had this struggle too.

Finally, see if you can help your teenager avoid equating personal worth with physical looks. When appearance is given excessive importance, self-esteem tends to become more fragile, sinking perilously low when a young person resorts to harsh, even self-hurtful, measures to criticize or alter their current “packaging.”

So it can help to recognize where the young person has contentment based on enjoying her or his own company, interests, strengths, capacities, future goals, and relationships. In doing so, parents can encourage their teenagers to appreciate themselves in more robust and varied ways.

It’s a challenge. Not only does puberty change adolescent appearance, but it also amplifies the importance of physical looks in adolescent eyes, and not without cause. How one looks can affect how one is socially treated. To be a poster child for adolescent beauty that becomes key to popularity can entrap a young woman or man in undue self-preoccupation for years to come. Now the ideal of physical beauty can prove to be a pretty unattractive concept.

That’s one reason why puberty can be such a big deal.

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Four Skills of Self-Discipline

Carl Pickhardt is the author of Surviving Your Child's Adolescence.

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