Puberty and Body Image


By Shelly Russell-Mayhew, PhD, C.Psych

During puberty, many "tweens" feel out of control with the changes. At this stage, they are neither children nor teenagers and keeping up with the transition can be a challenge. This is not surprising given that more developmental changes occur during puberty than in any other life stage, other than the beginnings of life. And puberty starts earlier now than ever before.

What's Happening to My Body?

It can help tremendously to know about and understand these changes before they occur. It is also vital to recognize that no two people are exactly alike and, therefore, puberty comes at different rates and times for everyone.

For girls, it can start as early as 9 or as late as 16. There is an average increase in height of 10 inches and a corresponding weight gain averaging 40-50 pounds. Menstruation begins and the body shape changes with development of breasts and hips. For boys, puberty can start as early as 10 or as late as 18. There is an average increase in height of 12 inches and a corresponding average weight gain of 50-60 pounds. Body shape changes include an increase in muscle mass and development of broader shoulders.

For both boys and girls, weight gain consists of fat, muscle, bone, and organs. It is important to recognize that weight gain often happens before height. This can be referred to as a "weight spurt" just as people label "growth spurt" for increases in height.

In females, the increase in fat plays a vital role in menstruation. Menarche, or the first menstrual cycle, is closely related to achieving a healthy body weight. In terms of body composition, fat is fundamental to both trigger and maintain menstruation. Girls especially should realize that these growth and weight spurts are necessary and normal for their development.

Who Am I?

At this time, the desire for acceptance of others leads to comparisons and judgments about what is "normal." Adolescent girls often feel pressure to be smaller and take up less space in the world, while boys feel they must gain muscle mass and take up more space. It is not uncommon for body image to become an issue since all of these changes are a lot to manage.

Since elementary school is where children develop their individual identities, the classroom is an important place for body image education. In some schools, discussion of body image is nonexistent or limited to academic teaching from physical education or health teachers. While this approach provides basic facts, it does not allow children to express their thoughts, concerns, and fears about the transition.

Involving students in discussions about puberty helps them feel prepared for the changes in their bodies. A comprehensive initiative launched in Alberta, Canada, addresses these issues by providing interactive activities, lesson plans, videos, and games. This hands-on approach guides teachers and parents to deliver the message that there are many different body types and that all of them are beautiful and healthy. Key areas addressed in the interactive kits are puberty changes, bullying or discrimination based on appearance, healthy behaviors and self-acceptance, and media awareness and influences on body image.

For example, the Grade 4-6 kit includes many objects that can spark a discussion about critical issues for tweens:

*A remote control can lead to a conversation about the influence of targeted advertisements such as commercials during cartoons.

*Tweens who are preoccupied with body changes may have obsessive thoughts about their bodies and trouble with self-expression. To discuss feelings or changing moods, a teddy bear can encourage walls to come down.

*Dolls or action figures can be used to talk about female and male beauty ideals. Some dolls give the message that appearance is the most important quality for girls, while action figures can pressure boys to conform to a standard of masculinity that is action-oriented and focuses on physical ability.

Making the connection between puberty and a changing body is a critical step in helping children make a smoother transition into adolescence. With discussion that normalizes bodily changes and experiential learning activities, tweens can feel comfortable about their body changes, not betwixt.