Body Image & Adolescent Girls: A Functional Approach

Multiethnic Group of Teenagers in the LGBTQ community

We all know that being a teenager is hard. Body image and adolescent girls do not mix well during this period of growth.

Your body and mind are changing faster than you can keep up and so is everything around you, with friends experiencing the same changes, school becoming harder, the stakes of achievement getting higher, and adults expecting more and more out of you.

The social aspects of adolescence are written and discussed often, but our behaviors and interactions with others are dictated by what is going on within us mentally and emotionally, and these aspects of adolescence are essential to explore, as well.

What is a Functional Approach?

Let’s start here, as you may have read the title for this article and thought, “the first part sounds important…I don’t know what the rest means.”

The concept was developed by William James, who believed the mental act of consciousness to be an important biological function as well as believing it was the job of psychologists to understand these functions to learn about the mental process.

Girl looking into mirror concerned with Body image and adolescent girlsBasically, the question we are asking with this article is: what mental processes are occurring in adolescent girls and their experience of body image and what function does this serve?

Mental Processes

There are numerous mental processes that research has discussed about how adolescent girls experience their own body image.

One is that adolescent girls adopt “societal appearance ideals as a personal goal and standard [1]” in order to fit in.

Another process, known as Social Comparison Theory, emphasizes that people, adolescents especially, engage in an “evaluative process that involves both seeking information and making judgments about the self relative to others [1].”


The big question is, why all this pressure to “fit in?”

The solution takes us back thousands of years when it was a survival mechanism to look to the strongest in the group and do what they were doing because they must have been doing something right to be thriving as they were. It was also evolutionarily important to appear desirable in order to procreate.

One article noted, “women who display traits indicating health and fertility will be perceived as attractive to men [2]” and went on to further emphasize that physical characteristics were looked at to determine these aspects.

These thought processes still come into play today and are a massive part of why we strive so hard to appear attractive to others.

It makes sense that, as girls begin to develop in adolescence, how they appear to peers takes on a new meaning. Despite the young age at which this occurs these days, the hormones causing this development are for reproduction, and that impacts our self-view and worldview.

You might say, “but humanity has advanced enough that we know all bodies are different and don’t have to all do the same things to survive.”

The unfortunate truth is, despite the advancements of our society, research still shows that most people view others through an “attractiveness stereotype,” where attractive individuals are viewed as nicer, more trustworthy, more put-together, and more capable than those that do not appear to fit the cultural ideal [3].

Two young girls bullying other young girl outdoorsIt is crucial for all of us to fight this stereotype in order to de-emphasize the untrue societal ideal that attractiveness defines personal worth.

This message is not only discriminatory and harmful but evolutionarily untrue.

Teaching adolescent girls about this might lead to body image not being defined by the cultural ideal or comparison to others, but by the relationship with the incredible machine that is the human body.


[1] Jones, D. C. (2004). Body image among adolescent girls and boys: a longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 40:5, 823-835.

[2] Winegard, B. M. (2011). Who is the fairest one of all? How evolution guides peer and media influences on female body dissatisfaction. Review of General Psychology, 15:1, 11-28.

[3] Feingold, A. (1992). Good-looking people are not what we think. Psychological Bulletin, 111:2, 304-341.

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.About the Author: 

Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published July 16, 2019, on
Reviewed & Approved on July 16, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

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