Sports: Good or Bad Influence?
To divert attention from media-driven images of being super skinny, some parents engage their daughters in sports. But it doesn't always work.
"Some athletic pursuits, especially those like ice skating, which emphasize that what you look like is important, might put girls more at risk [for problems related to body image, like eating disorders]," says Sarah Murnen, PhD, a professor of psychology at Kenyon College.
But Murnen's research also has shown that girls who participate in sports that don't emphasis leanness are likely to feel better about themselves. "Perhaps sports give them a way of defining themselves that doesn't involve appearance," Murnen suggests.
Unfortunately, plenty of sports do emphasize lightness and leanness, and they link performance to appearance. Countless dancers, gymnasts, ice skaters, and other athletes have succumbed to pressures -- from coaches, peers, or their own high expectations -- and ended up feeling inadequate or, worse, with eating disorders that risk their health and make them too weak to compete.
Certain aspects of sports programs can offer parents clues about whether they are prone to boost or lower their daughters' self-esteem. Parents should observe the type of messages coaches send to their athletes about body image; the level of competition vs. camaraderie found among teammates; and their own daughter's attitude toward the activity.
If parents suspect that their daughters' eating or exercising habits, albeit intended to drive peak performance, may in fact be jeopardizing it, they may want to tell them so in objective terms. "Explain that if you're running on empty and have depleted your fat stores, the next thing you're going to do is break down muscle mass," Gittes suggests. "Get them to understand the processes that are going on."
Parents: A Powerful Influence
By the time most girls reach their teens, they've consumed years' worth of messages about what a female body should look like -- and not just from the media.
"Mothers play a tremendous role in their daughters' self-assurance and potential to develop eating disorders," Gittes tells WebMD.
Girls take to heart what their mothers say about bodies: their own, their daughters, those of strangers and celebrities. They notice when their mothers exercise obsessively, diet constantly, or make derogatory comments about their own appearance. That should come as no surprise, as mothers are a girl's first and, often, most influential role model.
Fathers play an equally influential role in shaping their daughters' self-image. "A daughter learns how to relate to men by the way she relates to her father," says Carleton Kendrick EdM, LCSW, social worker and co-author of Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's.
That's why it's critical that fathers check what they say to their daughters about their physical appearance. "There needs to be a pause where you say, 'What will this comment do? What's my intention when I tell my daughter she should lose some weight?'" Kendrick suggests.
Equally important -- and extremely obvious to girls -- is the way in which fathers perceive all females, not just their daughters. To that end, Kendrick urges fathers to consider the following questions: "Can your daughter see you watching Internet porn? Are Playboy and Hustler hanging around? How do you react at halftime when the cheerleaders come on?"
Kendrick urges all fathers: "Pay attention to how you respond to the media images of sexy, thin women because your daughter is listening."