Bikinis for Preteen Girls
Just the thought of summertime sends many females into a frenzy, worrying about getting back into last year's bathing suit. But what if that female is only 8 or 10 years old? Should girls this young really be concerned with the appearance of their bodies? Whether or not they should be, more and more prepubescent girls are concerned about their body image.
According to Vernisha Shepard, a psychotherapist and clinical coordinator for the eating disorders clinic at Texas Children's Hospital, the number of young girls who show an unhealthy concern over body image increases during the summer months. "It is getting more and more common for young girls to begin to have concern regarding their bodies," she says. "Girls as young as 8 are now talking about their bodies and show a concern related to their weight and shape. When summer comes and people begin losing the layers of clothing, more attention is drawn to how we look. Young girls are learning this and basing their entire self worth on their bodies and beauty."
As we are constantly bombarded with visions of beautiful women on billboards, on TV and in magazines, young girls are beginning to believe that they must be thin and beautiful to be happy. "So much of a female's beauty, she thinks, is placed on how she looks," Shepard says. "This is the way society has socialized her to think. In today's society, being the thinnest is equated with the best. Being the best to a 10-year-old girl may mean looking the best in a cheerleading uniform or soccer shorts. In the summer, these girls are not usually participating in athletic events, but the competition is still there. They may not be doing a lot of swimming, but they have to look the best in a swimsuit."
"My girls are concerned about their appearance all year long, but especially during swimsuit season," says Joann Ziemer, an Illinois mother of two daughters. "I have talked with my daughters about how I had similar situations when I was young – being tall for my age and overweight. I try to tell them good things about themselves and try to take the emphasis off of their actual appearance. But during the summer it gets more difficult."
Females as young as 8 are more likely to develop an unhealthy body image with the presence of a negative influence. Whether that influence comes from friends, family or peers, simple comments can begin to change young girls' thoughts regarding their bodies.
"When a young girl plans on going to the pool or to a summertime activity, it all starts out very innocently," Shepard says. "However, if someone comments on her body, even a small comment, she may take it in a negative way and feel that she can no longer go to the pool or to this activity unless she looks good in a bathing suit or in the shorts. She may then develop a belief that she cannot return to the pool until she has starved herself or dieted extensively to lose weight and become the skinniest one there."
The Big "Bikini" Deal
The concern over body shape and size can lead to life-threatening disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. And because girls of this age aren't yet fully developed, eating disorders can lead to other serious medical conditions.
"If a prepubescent girl takes part in these practices, it can delay every type of pubertal activity that would normally occur," Shepard says. "The development of a normal menses is delayed, and bone deterioration can begin. They don't grow as tall as they would normally. If they are not producing any fat – which, if they become bulimic or anorexic they wouldn't be – they are not producing any estrogen, which is where all the female complications begin."
It is very common to see cycles of concern related to body shape, size and weight in young girls. "These practices of placing the major concern on body image do decrease throughout the school year as they begin to delve into a routine they are accustomed to," Shepard says. "They are involved with friends, classes, and although the concern for body image remains, it becomes lower on the list of priorities."
According to Shepard, a majority of the influence young girls receive comes directly from the home. These girls learn what is important regarding beauty, weight and body image based on how these qualities are valued by their own parents. "The best thing a parent can do is to have a healthy body image themselves," Shepard says. "If there is no overdoing of anything, such as dieting, and not too much emphasis is placed on beauty, the child will learn that these things are secondary to the person they are or are becoming."
"My daughter first started making negative comments about her appearance when she was 13," says Karen Jenista of Colorado Springs, Colo. "She is always checking herself in the mirror, trying to wear the smallest size she can squeeze into and weighing herself. I have tried to concentrate on complimenting her whenever possible – without making a direct reference to weight – and trying to be very conscious of how I speak about my own body around her."
By incorporating small, simple changes in communication, parents can decrease the risk of their child developing an unhealthy body image and help them learn to love themselves just as they are.
"Healthy lifestyle and positive esteem are the most important factors in keeping a child healthy and well rounded," Shepard says. "Taking the focus off of beauty and placing it on what makes them a good person will show a child that they are valuable, accepted and loved, regardless of how they see themselves on the outside."