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Enhancing Personal Appearance: Cosmetics, Tattoos & Piercings

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Wearing makeup, dying hair, and getting a tattoo or a tongue piercing are all ways that youth experiment with enhancing their personal appearances. Although some of these changes to their appearance can seem quite extreme, it is important to keep in mind that many of these changes may be considered a normal part of adolescent development because adolescence is a time when youth "try on" new identities. A normal part of identity development involves experimentation with different "looks" as youth figure out who they want to be and how they wish to express their individual identity.

upset teen girlWhile changes to personal appearance often represent an identity experiment, these changes can also signify youths' attempts to exert their independence by challenging the rules and conventions established by their parents, their schools, and their communities. Like identity experimentation, asserting independence is a normal part of adolescent development. However, adolescents still do not possess the emotional maturity, moral maturity, and cognitive maturity to function completely independently and often do not make wise decisions because they fail to consider the long-term consequences of their actions. This is where parents must step in. Once again, parents are called upon to walk a thin line between allowing their adolescents children some latitude to experiment with different appearances, while still setting appropriate boundaries and limitations.

When teens and their parents must discuss controversial topics with each other, the best outcome usually occurs when both teens and parents feel they have been heard and understood. An atmosphere that promotes meaningful conversations about these difficult topics ensures parents can provide teens the factual information that is necessary to make wise and healthy choices. Parents need to remain open-minded and be able to listen to the reasons their teens are attracted to a particular style, or desire some kind of body alteration. This receptive, non-critical approach provides parents the opportunity to help their youth to consider the potential negative consequences of their decisions that may not be evident to the youth; e.g., getting into trouble at school for violating the dress-code or alienating a prospective boss during a job interview. This type of discussion is more productive and pleasant than constant arguments and screaming matches over dyed hair, make-up, and body piercings. This is because an open dialogue, coupled with factual information, enables youth to find their own balance of healthy experimentation without compromising work, school, sports, and important relationships.

Even though these experiments with personal appearance are considered a normal part of adolescent development, parents need to be aware that sometimes changes in hygiene or personal appearance can signal a more serious problem may be developing. For example, if youth discontinue their usual hygiene and grooming routine (such as bathing, styling their hair, or applying their customary makeup), this may be an indication of a mental health problem such as depression, drug use, or a reaction to a traumatic event. As well, if parents notice significant styling changes that seem gloomy and dark, and youth are simultaneously becoming more isolated, moody, and irritable and experiencing school or home problems, this can also be a sign that a youth may be struggling with a psychological or emotional problem. If parents have any of these concerns, they should contact the school guidance counselor, the family's doctor or pediatrician, or a community behavioral health counselor or therapist.