This article originally appeared in the May 23, 2013, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Now that the weather is warmer and summer is finally in view, the term “bathing suit season” is back in full swing. This notion that men and women need to get trimmer to be more presentable in their swimwear isn’t new, but it may be heard by new ears every year.
Young girls (and boys) can develop a negative body image earlier than you may think. Earlier this year, an Australian blogger wrote about finding a diet plan that her 7-year-old had written for herself. Girls are absorbing the idea that women must be Hollywood-thin at a young age and the prevalence of “thinspiration” online only adds to this idea.
Children and adolescents are still developing their own self-esteem and understanding of who they are. Their opinions of themselves are drawn from many sources: the values they learn from parents, how they are treated by friends and family, their skills and their perceived weaknesses. Body image is a major factor in self-esteem, particularly for young girls.
At an age when children want most to feel like they fit in with their peers and social group, any unique feature can feed into a negative body image. A child may feel they are too short or tall, too fat or thin, too tan or pale. They may experience peer pressure to look like their friends or other girls in their class. A mother’s concern about her own appearance can be mirrored in a young girl as well.
Keeping a healthy body image, particularly during adolescence, is difficult for girls. But a negative body image can lead to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem and depression. It can also lead to eating and other behavior disorders.
When it seems like images of unrealistic body types and radio ads about “swimsuit season” are everywhere, how can parents help their children maintain a healthy body image and self-esteem?
Parents should be careful of the words they use. Struggling with weight, for instance, is a common issue but parents should be sensitive when discussing it in front of their child. Instead of pointing to a celebrity on TV and saying, “I want to look like her,” emphasize the fun and healthiness of being active and feeling good about yourself. That’s an important lesson for a child to learn.
You can also help children identify what is realistic and what is not. Being a healthy weight is important, but many of the pictures of famous bodies we see are achieved partially through air-brushing. Tweens and teens should understand that they don’t need to compare themselves to an ideal that few achieve and should only make sure they are healthy and feel good about themselves.
The weather is getting warm, so parents should be as active with their child as their schedule allows. When a child understands the incredible abilities each body has to do fun things like swim or run outside, it will help them develop a healthier attitude toward the most incredible “machine” they will ever have.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is IMMUNO Professor and Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Saint Louis University. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon website at www.cardinalglennon.com.