RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

On this program in recent weeks, we've been looking at the impact of stress in America. NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard school of Public Health have conducted a nationwide poll.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Among people who said they'd just had a very stressful month, 45 percent say they were unhappy with the way they look. And many said that unhappiness was a cause of stress.

MONTAGNE: In fact, appearance ranks as a major cause of stress - up there with financial hardship, health and problems at work. For another perspective on this, we turn to some teenagers to ask what they think of all this stress over appearance. Youth Radio's Scott Lau has our report.

SCOTT LAU, BYLINE: At Oakland Tech, like high schools all over, passing period is a time for passing judgment. Seventeen-year-old Aaliyah Douglass gives me a taste of how harsh critiques can be.

AALIYAH DOUGLASS: It's the classic teenage boy look - shorts and a t-shirt and vans. I don't know, he could probably dress nicer - more hipster-like I guess.

LAU: And when a girl walks by...

DOUGLASS: Well, that's a weave and I don't like weaves that much because they look fake on many people.

LAU: No one likes being cited by the fashion police. I asked 16-year-olds Kamari Keonez and Raina Pelly and 17-year-old Sophie Varon if they ever feel anxious about the way they look.

KAMARI KEONEZ: On weekends maybe I'll stress about it more then maybe like, let's say, a weekday. But yeah, I stress about it most when I'm going somewhere and seeing a lot of people.

RAINA PELLY: At school, if you don't wear a certain thing, people notice and you will get made fun of.

SOPHIE VARON: I've hated being short my entire life and I guess, like, wearing high shoes and like wearing clothes that I feel make me stand out kind of makes up for that. But I always wish that I was taller.

LAU: Girls aren't the only ones wishing they were taller or fitter or better dressed. According to the NPR poll, among adults, men worry about appearance just as much as women. And for some guys, the worry starts young.

RICHARD LERNER: I was a fat Jewish kid from Brooklyn. And many times psychologists study themselves. So as a pudgy Jewish kid from Brooklyn - notice I went from being fat to now I was only pudgy - I wanted to know why I wasn't so popular.

LAU: That pudgy kid grew up to be Professor Richard Lerner. He teaches psychology at Tufts University and for nearly 40 years has been studying how attractiveness impacts the lives of young people.

LERNER: The advantages of looking well are making good impressions and getting positive social evaluations and social opportunities more so than people who look less attractive.

LAU: Obviously, beauty's in the eye of the beholder. According to Lerner's research, if you find someone attractive, you are more likely to help them. And Lerner says it's probably always been this way.

LERNER: I would venture to say that the folks in Queen Elizabeth's court also wanted to look attractive by the standards of attractiveness of those days. I think wanting to look good to other people is part of the nature of what it means to be a human.

LAU: It might also be part of the nature of what it means to be a teen. I discovered that learning how to use your looks to get ahead in high school is one lesson some of us learn easily and some, not so much. My classmate Isabella Lew understands it well. Our high school voted her as Best Dressed Senior of 2014. She walks away with more than just the title. She's also gained an important life skill.

ISABELLA LEW: If you don't dress well, people are not going to think you have your life together. I mean, that's the first impression they get. I mean, at least for me, if my grades aren't right or if something's wrong with my life or something, then this is a way of faking it and pretending to people that you have your life together.

LAU: For my friend, 16-year-old note Dani Tarver (ph), getting dressed is not about covering up her flaws, but showing her true self. She recorded her morning routine for this story.

DANI TARVER: (Yawning) OK, so it's about 5 o'clock. I woke up this morning kind of late. I'm kind of tired still. I don't know what I want to wear.

LAU: Most teens spend their morning sleeping in. But for Dani, this is a time for unleashing her inner artist, crafting the perfect outfit to match her mood. School is practically her fashion runway.

TARVER: Yes it takes me long to get ready but I have my reasons. I have feelings, I have things to consider going throughout my day. Like I have to work today, so I have to look good for work, I look good for school. I don't think I'm showing too much because I'm not showing anything. But yeah, this is me and I'm cute.

LAU: After about two hours of mixing and matching, Dani decides on a blouse of flowers, tank top with colored stripes, black jeans with brown stitching, red socks and a pair of blue Converse.

TARVER: I call it the girly girl, serious, don't mess with me look (laughing).

LAU: This is just one of the many personas Dani is trying out. And that's what high school is partly about, figuring out how we want to appear to others. In the chaotic life of teenagers, we have very little control over the other things that stress us out - the curfew our parents set, the pop quizzes our teachers give and the shade our peers throw at us. But one thing we can own is the way we look. And if you figure out how to do that, waking up at 5 a.m. could seem like a pleasure and not a stress nightmare. For NPR News, I'm Scott Lau.

MONTAGNE: And that story was produced by Youth Radio.

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