Looks do not define us: Adolescence and body image

Adolescence can be one of the most exciting times, full of adventure and new friends. It also can be incredibly hard. You're encountering so many new things, but you don't have the experience to know that most problems will work out fine in the end.

Though some of the challenges adolescent girls face today are the same ones their mothers and grandmothers dealt with, other problems are unique.

Developing a healthy body image has never been more difficult than it is today. Body image is how you perceive and judge your physical appearance. It is developed through messages you get from your parents and other adults, from peers, and from society.

If your siblings or peers pick on you because of your size, you might feel that it's not acceptable to be the size you are. If you repeatedly see advertisements glorifying young women who look nothing like you, then you may conclude you're unattractive.

These kinds of messages are so pervasive that they may be barely noticeable. But they're powerful.

Messages that tell you that you should be on a diet, that you should be thinner, that you could be prettier and that you should be concerned about the size of your thighs also tell you it's normal to be dissatisfied with yourself. You'll even think that it's normal to be preoccupied with what you're eating and how you look. You might even think that it's normal to starve yourself or throw up after eating because you see others do it.

But excessive focus on bodies is a relatively new phenomenon when you take the long view of history. Even today, out of the billions of people in the world, most of them don't focus much on their bodies. Or if they do, they judge them by an entirely different set of standards.

This phenomenon of poor body image is a product of developed countries where eating disorders are commonplace and where dieting is a profitable business.

Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, which focuses on improving the health of children, includes helping them establish positive body images.

"I don't want our children to be weight-obsessed," she says. "I want them to be focused on 'What do I have to do, in this body ... to be the healthiest that I can be?' "

This is what's normal. The health of your body and its ability to serve you well is more important than whether it meets an arbitrary standard for appearance. Humans come in all shapes, sizes and looks. They always have and they always will. Just because someone comes along and says that you should look a particular way doesn't mean that it's true. Nor is it even possible. Thinking it might be only leads to heartache and pain.

When health and enjoyment in life is your focus, you treat your body well by feeding it good stuff and being more active. Your body will be strong, lean and look its best.

Beyond that, you're wasting time being miserable when you could be having a good time. So, the next time you hear friends whining and moaning about their looks, just remind yourself, "That's not normal and I'm not buying into it. I have more important things to do."

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