Paul, a fitness runner and the father of a 12-year-old swimmer, felt dismayed every time he saw his daughter in a bathing suit. "Sarah is pudgy, even though we try to keep her active." I reminded Paul that every child's body is different; some are petite, some are larger, and some are in the middle. That is normal and OK. Although Paul was unhappy about his child's physique, I warned him to express his concern from the point of health, not beauty. Conveying the message "you are not good enough" can be the root of future problems. Sarah was undoubtedly more than aware of her excess body fat; helping her accept and appreciate her body would be an important step for him to take.
Although dieting is standard among swimmers and participants in other sports that emphasize leanness (figure skaters, dancers, gymnasts, runners), the pressure to acquire the "perfect" body can lead to trouble if the dieter has a poor self-image and low self-esteem. All too often, diets are about feelings of being imperfect or inadequate rather than weight alone. Dieting increases the risk of developing a full-blown eating disorder.
As a parent, Paul needs to downplay body size as an important currency of worth and teach Sarah to love herself from the inside out. I advised Paul to never comment about the size of large children; Sarah could conclude she must be thin to be valued and loved. This is particularly important for young girls during puberty who are coping with body changes while struggling to be the best at their sports. Their efforts to control weight may lead to unhealthy dieting, frustration, guilt, despair, and failure.
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