Challenges of Body Issues in Puberty

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In recent years there has been a significant increase in research associated with adolescence. The transition from childhood to adulthood is a daunting development period featuring pubertal changes, insecurities and scattered emotions. This process is undertaken by all children, therefore knowledge and understanding of the subject is imperative to make the transition easier. This essay will examine the issues and challenges adolescents face when going through maturation and puberty. Whilst there are many issues adolescents face, the main area of focus for the assignment will be ‘body image’.

This study will begin by providing an overview of developmental implications from a physical and psychosocial perspective. The role of the teacher within a school environment and the impact and strategies aiding adolescents through this transitional period will be discussed in depth, with an emphasis on developing self esteem, self confidence and educating and promoting a healthy lifestyle. When implementing such strategies there are always barriers and challenges that will undoubtedly prevent adolescents being comfortable with their own body image. Peer relationships, media, family, environment, school and many other issues affect how adolescents perceive their body image. These issues will be discussed throughout the paper, although the main focus will be the issues, challenges, strategies and implications facing adolescents regarding ‘body image’.

Developmental Implications


Body image refers to a persons, thoughts, feelings and perceptions of their own body, consisting of perceptual, cognitive, behavioural and affective traits (Cash, 2004; Ricciardelli & Yager, 2015). The adolescent stage in males produces qualities well regarded by the general public – height, speed, broadness and strength (Coon, 2005). Puberty in females conveys traits often perceived as less admirable, as girls generally increase body fat and obtain a rounder appearance (Alsaker, 1992). Early development for girls and late development for boys represent the biggest difficulties to body image. Early maturation for girls can increase the risk of depression, negative body image, eating disorders, substance use, delinquency, aggressive behaviour, problems at school and conflict with parents (Kaltiala-Heino, 2003). Early maturation can also result in greater attention and engagement with older boys and socialisation with older friends. Late maturing girls share few of the same challenges as girls who develop early and generally tend to have more favourable body image as a result of a generally leaner body mass (Benoit, Lacourse, & Claes, 2013).

In direct contrast to the experiences encountered by females, the effect of early development in males is generally more positive. Males tend to present a more favourable body image, become more popular with other boys and more attractive to girls (Ricciardelli & Yager, 2015). The increased muscle mass in males is desired as it is associated with power and confidence (Grogan & Richard, 2002), whereas less developed, late maturing males are frequently more dissatisfied with their body (Tiggemann, Martins, & Churchett, 2008).

Cultural messages, together with societal standards of appearance and attractiveness have an immense impact on body awareness and perceptions among adolescents (Jobsky, 2014). Given the overwhelming pervasiveness of photographs in westernised society featuring strong and muscular males and thin and lean females, body image concerns have expectedly become widespread among adolescents (Kindes, 2006), particularly females due to the unrealistic stereotype of lean, thinness for most females (Levine & Smolak, 1998; Silverstein, Perdue Wilcox & Laird, 2000).


Peer relationships play a significant role during the development stage of adolescence in terms of building positive self- esteem and body image, particularly in females (Davidson & McCabe, 2006). Healthy relationships with friends, family and teachers can heavily contribute to the self-worth of adolescents in a positive or negative way (Arnett, 2014). Furthermore, it is argued that during the adolescent stage, individuals can become preoccupied with their own appearance and assume that others are equally aware, which can further perpetuate their feelings or make them uncomfortable (Sebastian, Burnett & Blakemore, 2008; Davidson & McCabe, 2006).

Self-esteem and self-evaluation have the strongest influence on body image, greater than external observation by others (Buckworth & Dishman, 2002). An adolescent with a perceived negative body image struggles to develop social skills and relationships with other peers (Davidson & McCabe, 2006). Within adolescent female peer groups, beliefs and behaviours are often consist with their associates. Body weight management in order to lose weight is often addressed in female peer groups  (Field, Camargo, Taylor, Berkey, Roberts & Colditz, 2001).

Whilst many parents endeavour to teach their children to ‘be an individual’ the external influences can be overwhelming for adolescents, in particular for girls. Everywhere they turn, the message is reinforced that being thin and attractive is a prerequisite for popularity, peer acceptance and overall happiness. Achieving the perceived ideal body shape while going through these changes is near impossible. Adolescent females go to extreme lengths to achieve the desired outcome. The inability to achieve these results often leads lead to unhappiness, loneliness, low self esteem, anxiety (Eisenberg, 2006) and more potentially dangerous scenarios, from extreme dieting (Stice, Presnell, Gau, & Shaw, 2007), to suicidal thoughts and self harm (Brausch & Muehlenkamp, 2007; Crow, Eisenberg, Story, & Neumark-Sztainer, 2008).

The media and social networking is undoubtedly a necessity in modern times. Nowadays, young people are more exposed than ever to idealistic stereotypical images of the seamless body shape creating uncertainty and dissatisfaction of ones own body (Morrison, Kalin, and Morrison 2004; Dohnt and Tiggerman 2006). It is essential for parents and adolescents to analyse images in the media and understand that they may have been manipulated or edited to create a more appealing, yet unrealistic body shape.

Impact and Strategies – Schools

Children naturally learn from the people that play a big part in their life.  It is imperative that children have strong role models, reliable teachers and supportive influences to create a positive environment to learn essential skills required throughout school, extra curricula activities and roles in the future. Adolescent students require academic knowledge and critical thinking skills. However, life skills such as resilience, risk taking, identifying strengths / areas of weakness and the ability to develop positive working relationships are crucial when heading out into the wider world in later life.

Puberty brings about changes in physical appearance such as higher fat to muscle ratio for girls and acne, which does not fit with the ideal body image (Arnett, 2014).  Adolescents start to care more what others think, rendering this a period where parents and teachers need to be especially sensitive to students needs, to listen to their concerns, be positive role models and build resilience, whilst fostering a culture that celebrates diversity and values respect.  At this time it is imperative that teachers and parents should be particularly attentive to signs of depression, eating disorders and bullying (Brausch & Decker, 2013). A teacher should be aware of any abnormal behaviour, a decrease in confidence, performance or participation or lack of attendance are all signs of a unhappy student and additional support may be required.

Promoting physical activity and healthy eating should be a high priority for schools. Providing adolescents with information regarding a balanced diet and being active will give them the knowledge base required to improve or maintain a healthy lifestyle. It has been scientifically proven that exercising and eating well has numerous benefits including; weight management, improved blood and cholesterol levels, an increase in energy levels, improved sleeping and a reduction in stress, anxiety and depression (McArdle, Katch & Katch, 2006). Undertaking a healthy, active lifestyle as an adolescent will often continue into adulthood, thereby leading to a long and prosperous life.

A whole school approach is needed to promote healthy lifestyle, tolerance of diversity, and prevent bullying, eating disorders and body image uncertainty (O’ Dea, 2010). Consistancy with school policies and procedures will ensure equity and safety for the school and community. Parents often seek teachers and school staff for advice, suggestions and support.

Atypical Development and its Implications

The literature provided clearly reinforces the evidence that there are significant issues associated with adolescents during the pubertal stages of development. Whilst many of the issues can be controlled with the support of teachers and a stable home environment, one issue linked to body image, that teachers and parents must be aware of is eating disorders. Eating disorders, body dissatisfaction and health damaging weight control practices such as, fasting, laxative or steroid use, vomiting and excessive exercise are frequent among adolescents and young adults, particularly females. Bulimia Nervosa affects 3-5 per cent of girls and young women and anorexia nervosa affects 0.5 – 1 per cent of adolescent girls (Fisher, Golden, Katzman, Kreipe, Rees, Schebendach, Sigman, Ammerman,  Hoberman, 1995).

In a report conducted by Croll, Neumark-Sztainer, Story & Ireland (2002), an astounding 56% of 9th grade females and 28% of 9th grade males admitted undertaking disordered eating behaviours, including fasting, skipping meals to lose weight, using diet pills or laxatives, vomiting, smoking cigarettes and binge eating. Clearly body image concerns, weight loss behaviours and eating problems pose a serious and increasing threat to the short and long-term physical, psychological and social health of children and adolescents. Studies conducted before 1995, focused on an information-giving approach by providing adolescents with knowledge about eating disorders, nutrition information, analysis of the social construction of body ideals and cultural stereotypes of the perfect body (Paxton, 1993), however these early studies, despite increasing knowledge of eating disorders and weight control issues failed to address body image improvement or reduce eating disorder behaviours.  Nevertheless, these early studies paved the way for future researchers to design more successful interventions. Later studies emphasised a greater focus on behaviour modification for weight control and skills in media analysis and assertiveness, which resulted in a decrease in bulimic tendencies and improvement in eating patterns (Neumark-Sztainer, Butler & Palti, 1995).

More recent interventions, through increased knowledge, have produced moderate improvements in beliefs, attitudes and behaviours relating to body image, self-image, dieting and body dissatisfaction. Awareness of body image issues is key. It is therefore imperative that parents and teachers understand and offer support to adolescents enduring difficulties during puberty.

A study conducted by Muehlenkamp & Brausch (2009) found that body image dissatisfaction is associated with intentional self-injury. As a teacher, looking for abnormal behaviour and signs of self-harm, particularly on the wrist, is important for student welfare. Schools have welfare administrative teams that are well trained in these areas and they need to be contacted immediately if there is any fear of self harm as this can lead to more serious repercussions.


It is patently apparent that adolescence is a challenging period for individuals due to pubertal development, social role redefinitions, cognitive development, school transitions and the emergence of sexuality. These individuals have to deal with numerous psychosocial issues and physical changes to the body. In such cases it is paramount that society, particularly schools, create a positive environment for these individuals to feel comfortable with their body image. Teachers and schools can play a big role in the development of students throughout this phase by creating a culture that emphasises the importance of healthy lifestyle, providing support, knowledge and duty of care for the students, whilst also educating parents to create this lifestyle in school and outside of school. There are without doubt significant issues in society perpetuated by the media that teachers and schools can’t change or control, however, providing a balanced insight into the westernised societal culture and its anomalies can only assist adolescents make informed and educated decisions.

To conclude, adolescence is a genetic change experienced by all individuals and body image will alter as we develop and mature, however, the process of adolescent can be made easier with the support and understanding of teachers, peers and family members by creating a positive environment at home, in school and in local communities.


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