You already know that clothing and grooming are huge issues in the life of your teenager. Maybe you have a daughter who seems obsessed with trying to make herself more attractive or a son who has dyed his hair black and pierced an ear. You and your teenager might quarrel about appearance as often as you fight about the use of their phone or car. However, these arguments can be avoided.
It will help if you think of the way your teenager chooses to look as a form of communication. Steinberg and Levine state in You and Your Adolescent, “Our decisions about what to wear, what kind of car to drive, where to go on vacation, and even what we eat are based in part on our desire to send a message to others about our values, attitudes, and status—about who we are.”
Adolescents are very concerned about the impression they make on others, even if it doesn’t seem that way to you. A teenager who wears ripped-up jeans and doesn't comb his hair when he goes to school is doing the same thing you do when you wear a conservative, pinstripe suit to work. He is trying to fit in. You are both saying, “This is who I am.”
If your teenager is a girl, you have probably noticed that she is concerned with her own looks. Before adolescence, your daughter probably cared a lot about how she looked. She wanted to be sure to be accepted by the other girls her age. However, now that she is a teenager, she has an even greater need for the approval of her peers. In addition, the new sexual feelings she is having make “how I look” take on incredible importance.
At home with their families, teenagers can look like anything and know that you will still love them. However, leaving home and going to school—where everyone is looking at them—can be totally overwhelming. Your daughter may think other girls will talk about her if she wears the same sweater twice in one week. They will say, “Wow, didn’t Maya wear that on Tuesday? Is her family poor?” Or if your son has one pimple on his face, he will be sure that everyone in the school will notice and comment on it.
Teenage girls are amazingly self-conscious about the way they look. And most of them think they are ugly, at least every other day. There are two main reasons for this. First, female sexuality has an inward focus. Their sexual confidence comes more from how they feel about themselves than from the attention of boys. Male sexuality is in direct contrast—they focus on the female. The second reason is cultural. Girls in the United States are exposed from a very early age to a world that teaches it is good to be beautiful. Consider all fairy tales where the most beautiful girl marries the Prince. In The Wizard of Oz, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, teaches Dorothy that “only bad witches are ugly.” Your daughter is also constantly exposed to television, movies, and fashion magazines that outline exactly what beautiful is.
Your teenage daughter knows what she is supposed to look like. If she is not tall, thin, well-developed, with regular features, clear skin, and bouncy hair, she will know that she falls short of the “ideal.” Don’t be surprised if she gets up two hours before she needs to leave for school just to have enough time to get herself to “look right.” So what can you do? Nothing parents say seems to help.
You have to accept at some point that the only thing that matters to her is what her peers think. Try to remember that your daughter’s behavior is normal. Most teenage girls care passionately about how they look, and many even enjoy their obsession. But be sure to step in if you think things are getting out of control. Anorexia is a psychological disorder where adolescents starve themselves trying to become thin. This disorder only occurs once adolescence begins. It is connected to the sexual feelings that make some teens feel they can never be quite thin enough.
But if your daughter’s obsession with her looks is not of the dangerous kind, the best thing you can do is continue to compliment her, be supportive, and understand her feelings. Give her suggestions for improving her appearance if she is open to your help.
Teenagers’ unusual or obsessive approach to clothing and grooming is another reminder that they are growing up. This may be something you don’t want to face. Or you may have a hard time understanding that your teenager is “playing to a different audience” than you are. Or possibly you are concerned that if your teenager has adapted his appearance to suit his friends, will he be just as likely to use drugs or become sexually active? What are you really worried about?
According to Steinberg and Levine, “Dressing in current adolescent styles does not lead to problem behavior any more than wearing tweed jackets increases one’s intelligence.” Is it possible that you are thinking your child’s appearance is more significant than it actually is? Your teenager has the right to fit in with the current fashions of his peers within reason. You are perfectly justified in asking that your child meet the following requirements.
Keep yourself clean.
For obvious reasons of hygiene, it is important for your teen to maintain good habits of cleanliness.
Do not dress in sexually provocative ways.
Your teen may not realize that the way he or she dresses might communicate something to others that's not intended. If he or she dresses provocatively, it may lead to negative attention or sexual harassment.
Do not dress in a way that will offend others.
If your son wears a t-shirt to school that is covered with obscenities, he will disrupt others and is likely to find himself in the principal’s office.
Dress appropriately for the situation.
Explain that she will have a hard time getting around the school in spike heels, for instance.
Do not dress above the family’s budget.
Even if your child is making his own money at a part-time job, he should not be allowed to spend all of it on clothes.
You can express your opinion about your teenager’s appearance, especially in regard to the above requirements. But don’t impose your own personal style on your child; it’s not worth the fight.
Keep in mind that adolescents are going through a stage where they will experiment with different looks and styles until they find their true identity. Adolescence is a very difficult and demanding time. If you and your child don’t have trouble with each other over the small things like pierced ears, a new hair color, or excessive and obsessive grooming, you will be able to communicate better about the big things. Unless your teenager’s appearance is extreme or offensive, try to express your opinions gently or not at all. In most cases, this is an unnecessary battle that is best avoided.