It was one of those
moments when your mouth just hangs open. Joanne, mother of Tina,
age 6, wrote to me in disbelief. “My daughter’s cheerleading
coach told her that she needs to slim down if she wants to be a
winner. Tina just cried. When I spoke to the coach she told me,
‘these girls need to be able to fit into these cute little
outfits. (She showed me one). There is nothing cute about bulges
and bumps on six year old girls…even if you call it baby fat.”
Sports can be a wonderful way for children to grow, learn, and
develop as individuals, teammates, and leaders. But as parents,
coaches, and educators we need to be very careful. Our
weight-related behaviors, assumptions, and comments can have an
incredible effect on a child’s body esteem, health, and long
term feelings of self worth. Both boys and girls of every weight
group can be affected.
With girls, involvement in aesthetic sports like gymnastics,
figure skating, cheerleading, dance, and swimming, can have an
impact on a child’s body esteem if coaches or parents are
insensitive about looks and weight. Attire can be revealing,
competition can invite body-oriented comments, involvement can
be contingent on “fitting” a certain stereotype, and high scores
can be dependant on body size and weight.
Plenty of parents have come to me after their instructor told
them that their child didn’t have the right body for ballet or
the coach told them that “chubby girls don’t win competitions.”
Others have told me of the embarrassment their children face
when their weights are posted in front of everyone in the spirit
of “dieting by peer pressure.”
Girls have complained about their fear of getting their period
because they feel that their chosen sport frowns upon curves and
breasts. Many admit to weight loss strategies even at a young
age. Pressure to “fit in” to the perfect body standard can be
linked to improper dieting, over-exercising, delayed physical
maturation, laxative use, purging (vomiting), and eating
Boys can suffer from poor body esteem just like girls.
Involvement in weight class competition sports like wrestling
and boxing, contact sports like football or hockey, or weight
sensitive sports like cycling or running can invite body
scrutiny. A child might learn from teammates that rapid weight
loss is customary in preparation for a weight-class-based
competition. Boys participating in contact sports might feel
pressure to “bulk up.” Still others involved in weight sensitive
sports like cycling or running, in which low weight can give you
a competitive-edge, may feel pressure to senselessly diet or use
performance-enhancing drugs to keep up. Some coaches may not
know what’s going on or simply choose to turn the other way.
As parents, what can we do?
1.Evaluate your own thoughts: Do you have a
“win-at-all-costs” attitude? If so, you may be sending a message
to your child that s/he needs to do whatever it takes to win,
even if that means unnecessary dieting, bulking up, or using
performance-enhancing drugs. Keep winning in perspective and
remember the real reason your child is involved in sports.
2.Talk to your child: Be sure s/he understands your
feelings about winning-at-all-costs and the dangers that can
invite. Put “perfect” in perspective. Let your child know that
if s/he ever feels pressured to alter his or her body in any
way, to come talk to you.
3.Interview the coach: Whether you are dealing with an
after-school program or an in-school extra-curricular, you have
a right to interview the coach privately. You might ask the
coach about his or her opinions regarding weight, weigh-ins,
dieting, uniforms, winning, puberty, nutrition,
performance-enhancing drugs, and coaching philosophy. How does
s/he convey his or her views to the children?
4.Build character: If you start teaching
character-building skills while your children young, they will
take those lessons of self-respect, assertiveness, leadership,
and confidence with them into any activity they do. Teach these
lessons at home and find a sports program or activity program
that integrates character education into their lesson plans each
week. This way, your children will understand that sports are
more about building character than about fitting into the ideal
5.Avoid Comparisons: As parents and coaches we need to be
careful of comparing our children’s body shapes and weights to
others. Our children should be focused on making themselves
better rather than being thinner or more muscular than someone
else. Every child matures at a different rate. Maturation
invites weight gain that is both normal and healthy. When we
compare our children based on body size and shape it can be both
hurtful and destructive.
6.Talk to a doctor: If a coach has asked a child to get
on a special diet of any kind, speak to your pediatrician or
pediatric nutritionist. Children need a certain number of
calories, protein, fluid intake, carbohydrate, and vitamins for
normal growth and health.
7.Ensure developmental sensitivity: If your pubescent
daughter is involved with an activity in which the “perfect
body” for competition is thought to be a prepubescent one, be
sure that her coach is sensitive to normal maturation changes.
Similarly, if your son is involved in a sport in which the
“ideal body” is a mature muscular one, be sure that the coach is
sensitive to varying rates of growth and body types. How is body
size and shape handled in these situations? How are children
made to feel when it comes to these maturational factors that
they can not control?
There is a wide array of sports and activities for children of
all ages. Many sports and after-school centers offer wonderful
programs with long-lasting benefits. A great coach can be a
mentor, a friend, a leader, and an inspiration. However,
children are impressionable. Even subtle messages about weight
and shape in these athletic arenas can impact our children’s
behavior, body esteem and feelings of self worth. Doing a little
preventative homework and being clear about your own views can
ensure a positive experience for everyone.
|About the Author
Dr. Robyn J.A.
Silverman is a New Jersey-based child and adolescent
development specialist and body image expert whose
programs and services are used worldwide. She's appeared
on the Tyra Banks Show and many national news and
talk shows. She is also a success coach for parents and
educators, who are looking to achieve their goals,
improve their lives or improve the lives of others. She
is a writer and professional speaker who presents to
PTAs, schools, businesses and organizations that focus
on children or families.
Her book on girls and body image,
Good Girls Don't Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is
Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive
Despite It is available from Amazon and other
Interested in doing some coaching with Dr.
Robyn or having Dr. Robyn present a seminar at your
school or business? Go to
DrRobynSilverman.com for more information.