Sports and Body Ideals.

“My daughter passionately loves her sport… but it makes her feel like her body isn’t good enough.”

Participation in sports can be one of the most powerful positive influences in our children’s lives. There are the physical benefits, of course: exercise helps with the growth and development of bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Movement is amazing for growing bodies.

And then there are the psychological benefits: youth participation in sports has been linked to positive outcomes ranging from higher academic achievement, to the development of qualities like leadership, teamwork, perseverance, and concentration, to higher self esteem, self confidence, and overall mental health.

Seems like a no brainer, right?

As body-positive parents, we are all about encouraging our kids to find sports and types of movement they love. But falling in love with sports can sometimes come with extra baggage. We’re thinking particularly of sports cultures with a strong emphasis on appearance and aesthetics. Think dance, figure skating, ballet, gymnastics -- where success and performance is traditionally tied to having a particular body type.

Does your daughter love a sport that tells her -- explicitly or implicitly -- her body needs to look a certain way for her to succeed? Does she feel pressure to change her eating or exercise habits to mold her body into an ideal, or feel horrible if, no matter what she does, she can’t achieve it?

Appearance pressures from sports can lead to unintended negative consequences for body image, disordered eating, and overall psychological health and wellbeing.

The good news is that you can take steps as a parent to buffer against those risks:

  • Help your daughter shift her perspective from “there’s something wrong with me” to “there’s something wrong with this expectation.”

Imagine your daughter passionately loves ballet, but her genetically determined body shape means it would be impossible for her to obtain the classic “ballet body.” To change her size would require unhealthy, extreme weight control behaviors. The impact would be dangerous, and temporary, if possible at all. And then there are her features even further from her control -- like her height, or the arch of her foot, or the structure of her skeleton. She might be left feeling that she’s failed, because she can’t mold her body into the shape she’s learned she needs to excel at ballet.

Try to help her externalize the problem instead. Remind her that there is nothing wrong with her, or her body -- even if she doesn’t look the way a dancer “should.” In fact, maybe there’s something wrong with any culture, sport, or art that sets unrealistic appearance ideals as a requirement for success. Can she see how the expectation makes her feel like she’s flawed and needs to change?

Join her in getting angry at the real problem -- rather than at herself.

  • Help your daughter think critically about and seek out body diversity.

Watching an event on TV together, you might muse about how all of the athletes or performers look similar. Start to name and draw attention to body ideals, instead of letting them go unspoken and unquestioned. Encourage her to get curious about their impact. Is it even possible for most people to achieve those body types? What would it take? 

Remind your daughter that bodies are naturally diverse, and come in all shapes and sizes.

How do the bodies in her sport compare to the range of bodies she sees on the subway or at the beach? 

See if you can find examples of athletes or performers who represent more body diversity in the field. Support and celebrate them!

  • Ask your daughter: what do you really love about your sport?

You might be surprised. She may share that she loves expressing her creativity through dance, moving her body to music, mastering a new skill, spending time with her friends, feeling the thrill of competition, or more. 

If she’s feeling the pressure from coaches or others to change her body to reach a more elite level of success, you can always guide her back to the basics of what she really loves. Can she enjoy that same benefit from her sport, in the exact body she has right now?

Help her identify what she really values about the sport and think through whether she can continue to enjoy it, just as she is.

Encourage your daughter to listen to and respect her body.

Children are born moving intuitively. They run around the playground, chasing, dancing, jumping, and playing because it feels good and it’s fun. They stop when they’re tired or not having fun anymore.

In organized sports, we move away from this style of movement. We begin to move based on the demands of a practice schedule or workout set by a coach, or push ourselves beyond our limits in the name of performance, achievement, or an identity rooted in a sport.

Encourage your daughter to still pay attention to her physical cues within her sports context. Can she be present in her body and listen to pain or injury, rather than ignoring these signals and pushing through? Ask her what is fun and brings her joy, how she knows when she is sore versus injured, and more. Tuning into her body will help her develop and maintain a lifelong love for movement of all kinds.

  • Be an unconditionally safe space for your daughter to share her concerns.

Many sports and dance worlds are highly structured, with adults in charge making top-down decisions that can’t be argued with. Can you be the trusted adult your daughter can go to if she has a concern? 

She may be told she could run faster if she lost weight, or hear that it’s normal and unconcerning to lose her period, or that other girls are doing X, Y, and Z to get the “right” body type. These messages are especially confusing if they seem to be endorsed by or come from adults in charge. Let her know that your priority is her safety and wellbeing, and that she can share with you anything that makes her uncomfortable. 

  • Work to make more systemic change.

As a parent and adult, you have the power to not only protect your daughter, but to make changes in her broader sports culture. 

Think critically and speak up if extreme or unhealthy behaviors are encouraged in the name of high performance. You are allowed to question coaches and institutions. Ask: is this necessary, and is this worth it? Look beyond elite performance and achievement to also wonder what is safe, healthy, and adaptive for young athletes.

Be selective about what programs your family participates in, to align your money and time with your values. Consider how a program or coach treats young athletes, and what messages they share about bodies, movement, and success. Support healthy sports cultures. Work to reform unhealthy ones.

In conclusion...

Our daughters learning to love movement is a beautiful thing. We share this information not to demonize any sport or art, but to help parents best protect their daughters self esteem, positive body image, and wellbeing as they pursue the sports they love.

The Full Bloom Project is a research-informed body-positive parenting resource—designed by parents, for parents founded by Zoë Bisbing, LCSW and Leslie Bloch, LCSW-R, both psychotherapists based in New York City. Click here to purchase a copy of The ABC’s of Body-Positive Parenting.