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Fitting in While Standing Out:
Seven Tips to Cope with your Child’s Need to be
“Perfect” in a Win-at-All-Costs World
by Dr. Robyn Silverman
Regular Contributor at (December 3, 2007)
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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 disorders.

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 body type.

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 bookstores.

 Interested in doing some coaching with Dr. Robyn or having Dr. Robyn present a seminar at your school or business? Go to for more information. 



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Key words: body image, confidence, Health at Every Size, parenting, perfectionism, self esteem,  sports, weight, dieting, girls, self worth, size discrimination, overweight, eating disorders