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Discuss the relationship between physical change and development of identity during adolescence

Physical changes in adolescence

Physical maturation and adult reproductive functioning are controlled by the endocrine system that operates through the hypothalamus-pituitary-gonadal system. During the prenatal period, hormones called androgens organize the reproductive system but these hormones are suppressed after birth. They are reactivated in early childhood (around the age of eight for girls and six for boys) and this starts the puberty process with gradual maturation of the body and the reproductive system. All individuals experience the same bodily changes during puberty but the sequence of changes may vary.

  • Until puberty, boys and girls produce roughly the same amount of “male hormones” (e.g. testosterone) and “female hormones” (e.g. estrogens). At the start of puberty, the pituitary gland causes an upsurge of sex hormones so that girls now produce more estrogen and boys more testosterone.
  • The physical “growth spurt” is characterized by an increase in the distribution of body fat and muscle tissue. The body grows taller and heavier and gradually becomes more adult-like. The adolescent has to become familiar with this new body and integrate a revised body image.
  • Girls experience physical changes two to three years before boys (between the ages of 10 and 13). The most important changes are the development of breasts and a widening of the hips. The gain in body fat and rapid weight gain may be seen as a problem for some girls because it clashes with the Western ideal of a slim female figure.

·         Boys experience the growth spurt as a broadening of the shoulders and an increase in muscle strength. Having a masculine body is welcomed because it brings boys closer to their body ideal. Boys whose bodies do not appear masculine may experience identity problems.

Relationship between physical change and development of identity

Sexual identity

  • The physical changes of the adolescent body are related to changes in identity including an emerging sexuality. This includes learning to handle sexual desires and sexual attitudes and values, and integrating all this with feelings and experiences into a new self-image.
  • Social and cultural norms determine the extent to which adolescents can explore their sexuality. In some cultures, adolescent sexual activity is seen as inappropriate whereas in others it is seen as normal and healthy.
  • The entry into sexual maturity may increase girls’ concerns about sexual attractiveness as well as awareness that they may become the targets of sexual violence.

Body image and identity

  • The cultural ideal hypothesis by Simmons and Blyth (1987) suggests that puberty brings boys closer to their ideal body while girls move further away from theirs. A cultural ideal is that a male body should be big and strong. The ideal female body in Western culture is a slim body.
  • The cultural ideal hypothesis predicts that, since the cultural ideal for the female body is being slim, adolescent girls should be more likely to express body dissatisfaction and resort to dieting than boys. This is supported by research.
  • Caufmann and Steinberg (1996) found that girls in Western cultures are more concerned about their appearance and express more worry about how other people will respond to them than in other cultures. Teenage girls want to be seen as attractive. If their body is far from the dominant cultural ideal of slimness, they may develop a negative body image and low self-esteem.
  • The objectification theory suggested by Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) holds that Western girls are socialized to constantly think of whether their bodies and physical appearances are pleasing to others. A chronic state of anxiety may be generated by their concerns about maintaining a satisfactory appearance.
  • Stice and Withenton (2002) found body image dissatisfaction to be a strong predictor of depression, eating disorders, exercise dependence, and steroid use among young people in the USA.

Study to use:  Ferron (1997)