Help! Is This My Body?

Reviewed by D'Arcy Lyness, PhD

Has this ever happened to you? You're dressing for a date and when you pull on your favorite jeans, you can no longer button them. Or you're running down the football field when you notice that your legs rub together in a way they never did before. Maybe when you look in the mirror it seems like your pores are taking over your face.

If you've ever felt out of step with your body, you're not alone.

Growing Up and Out (or Not) Most of us are prepared to deal with the obvious physical changes of growing up. Girls expect their breasts to grow and guys expect to become more muscular. But the body often goes through other changes before, during, and after puberty - and sometimes these changes can be very different from the ones we expect to happen. For example, both girls and guys may notice themselves growing in unfamiliar places, such as the butt or belly. Or they may grow taller and skinnier.

Some people get a temporary layer of fat to prepare the body for a growth spurt. Others fill out permanently. Some people eat healthy foods and work out but still gain weight. Others chow down on everything in sight and still stay skinny.

Eventually it all balances out and most people adjust to how their "new" body moves and works. But it can take some getting used to. What happens to people physically during puberty can influence how they feel about their bodies and themselves for a long time to come.

Take Nikki, for example. She was an accomplished dancer with her heart set on following her mother's career in ballet. But at 13, Nikki grew several inches taller and developed the kind of figure most girls long for - unless they're dancers. Nikki's friends envied her curves, but Nikki felt heavy and awkward. Now 19, Nikki says it took her longer to get over the false perception of herself as a fat girl than it did to let go of her dreams of being a dancer.

Adjusting to a New Body We become more aware of looks right around the time our bodies begin changing. This can make physical changes difficult to deal with emotionally.

Adjusting to a changing body is about more than just looks, though. Lots of teens base their self-image on how their bodies feel and perform. Until a year ago, Wes, 15, was a lean, fast sprinter who could always be relied on to win the race for his track team. Wes has ADHD, and some days it seemed like running was the only thing he could do well. So when he started developing a stockier, more muscular physique and his sprint times got longer, Wes' confidence took a serious bruising.

Changes in our bodies' appearance, performance - even such minor details as the way they smell - are all perfectly normal parts of growing up. So what can you do to help yourself adjust physically and emotionally? Here are some ideas.

Beware - don't compare! It's natural to look at our friends for comparison. But it's not a good idea. Comparing ourselves with others is problematic because everyone develops differently and at different times. If you go through a growth spurt early, you may feel too tall. Yet your friend may be thinking that he or she is too small. It's usually hardest for the people who develop first or last.

It's also a bad idea to compare ourselves to celebrities and models. In reality, most people don't look like the limited body types shown in the media. (Actually, the models often don't look like that either: Many of those "perfect" bodies got that way through photo editing, not nature.)

Forget magazine ads - check out family snapshots instead. Ads sell fantasy, not reality. It's easy to dream about becoming an Abercrombie model, but allowing hopes and expectations to get out of hand can only let a person down.

People vary in terms of size, height, and shape, and how the body develops is in large part due to genetics. Your body is programmed to do pretty much what your parents' (or grandparents') bodies did. Nikki, for example, realized that, although she shared her mom's love of dance, she'd inherited her physique from her father's side of the family.

Before you look at your folks and freak out, consider that they're no longer teens. People's bodies change as they grow older. Ask to see pictures of your parents, aunts, and uncles when they were your age. This will give you a chance to talk to them about their own development.

Another thing to remember is that people had different lifestyles when your parents were growing up. If you're more involved in sports than your parents were, you're going to look fitter and more muscular. And, of course, the reverse is true for people who are less active than their parents were.

Treat your body well. Making educated choices about food and exercise is part of developing a mind and life of your own. Healthy eating and exercise can also give you some control over how your body turns out. Plus, exercise is a mood booster. If your changing body has you feeling sad or confused, it may help to go for a walk, play with your dog, or throw a Frisbee with your friends.

About three quarters of all teens quit sports around the time their bodies develop. Often it's because the changes in their bodies influence which sports they compete in. Although you can still do any activity if you really are interested in it, some people prefer to switch to another activity. Wes put his strength and running skills to use playing football. And Nikki was able to combine her great figure with her love of dance when she discovered belly dancing in college.

Sometimes people quit playing organized sports in high school because schoolwork becomes more demanding, or because they have a more active social life that fills their time. Now is definitely not the time to stop exercising completely, though. Use this time of change to explore how your body feels doing different activities. Taking yoga, martial arts classes, or other activities that involve focusing on how the body stretches and moves can help you become familiar with your body.

Befriend your bod. Feeling like you don't know your body any more? Just like a friendship that grows and evolves, keeping in touch with our bodies takes time. Like friends, our bodies can let us down at times. But with a little work and understanding, it's possible to bounce back.

Just like we know our friends' secrets, we know stuff about our own bodies that other people don't. For example, you may think your stomach sticks out because you spend hours focusing on it in the mirror. But the truth is, other people won't notice it like you do.

Walk tall - even if you're not! What people do notice is how you project your feelings about yourself. If you think you're too tall, it will be more noticeable if you slump over and try to look smaller. If you're self-conscious about your pimples, hiding behind your hair may cover the zit on your cheek - but you'll look awkward and uncomfortable.

As your body changes, it can help to work on good posture and walk with a sense of confidence. After doing this for a while, you'll probably become more confident too.

There's not much you can do about your height or development, but you can focus on the things that you really like about yourself. Maybe it's your curly hair or the dimple you get when you smile. Maybe it's that you are a really thoughtful person or you are good at making people laugh. Ultimately, when you think of the people in your life that you care about the most, what they look like probably has very little to do with how much you like them.

More Curves Ahead Just as you get used to your new shape, it will probably change again. The later teens and early 20s are (yet again) a time when the body and mind take another step in maturing and changing. For both girls and guys, this means filling out a little more so that they look more like adults and less like teens.

This is another time when it's important to summon the powers of exercise and healthy eating: You've probably heard of the "freshman 15," when girls and guys go off to college and are in charge of feeding themselves for the first time. Many people who are on their own for the first time start by eating anything they want - usually junk food and high-fat snacks. Of course, most of them gain weight because they spend more time sitting and studying and less time being active. If you've already started focusing on what you eat and how you exercise, this will be less likely to happen to you.

If our bodies had owners' manuals, they'd tell us to keep them clean, provide them with fuel, and offer them some stimulating activity. But our bodies are people too, and they do best when they're loved.

Learning to accept and appreciate ourselves helps build resilience. People who are resilient are better able to deal with problems and bounce back from disappointment than people who are not. Resilient people usually make good decisions and choices. Accept and appreciate your body, no matter what it looks like right now, and - just like a good friend - it can do a lot for you in return!