Preteen Body Image
On her 10th birthday, my daughter asked me why her chest was flat. All of her friends, she complained, were wearing bras because they needed them. She wondered if something was wrong with her.
Telling her that she was normal and that everyone was different wasn't going to be an answer that made her feel better. So I pointed at myself and told her that I started developing at age 11 and was done by age 12, whereas my sister was "flat as a board" until she was 16. My daughter pictured her beloved aunt's well-endowed bosom and said, "I can wait."
I was lucky. I had an example to share that my daughter immediately connected with. It hasn't been so easy with my son, who wanted to know why he was so much skinnier than his friends and why he wasn't growing as tall. Telling him that he was one of the youngest in his class and that he'd grow in his own good time didn't help.
If the preteen years weren't difficult enough with the hormonal, social and educational changes, children are physically developing earlier than ever before. Boys see that their bodies differ from one another on the soccer field. Girls see that their bodies are filling out today's fashions differently – and sometimes less amply – than their peers. It doesn't matter which end of the development scale your child is on; more than likely, a preteen won't feel comfortable looking different.
"Parents need to explain to their kids that diversity is a part of life and that we are all different shapes," says Mimi Nichter, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona. However, it helps if the parents have a better understanding of the body changes their children are going through.
For example, Nichter says that gaining weight is a normal part of adolescence. "In fact, girls need to gain the extra weight in order to be able to menstruate," she says. Nichter goes on to explain that parents often think their daughters are getting fat and tease them because of the "chubbiness," when in reality the girls are developing their curves. This natural change is looked at as negative and something the girl must either change or feel uncomfortable about, but it should be supported as a positive, natural change.
Early bloomers and late bloomers each have unique challenges, both within their own self-image and in the way they view others. Late bloomers often feel embarrassed by their "childish" body or frustrated because they haven't "caught up" to their peers. Maureen Busch of Stow, Mass., says that her athletic daughter is aware that her small stature is a problem on the soccer field. "Coaches and evaluators have a tendency to pay less attention to her because she is so much smaller than the other girls, so they assume she can't keep up with the taller girls," Busch says.
Late blooming boys also feel self-conscious, largely because society values tall and bigger-sized males. Even though the kids may not want to believe it (or hear it), the parents' best defense here is to remind their late bloomer that they will grow and develop while listening to – and not dismissing – their preteen's feelings.
On the flip side, early bloomers may need a little more intervention. "Girls who develop early tend to be treated more like the way they look than their natural age," says Mary Muscari, professor of nursing at the University of Scranton. "Early developers are at a higher risk for problems such as eating disorders, depression, panic attacks, distorted body image, problems with school and increases in risky behaviors."
This, unfortunately, combines with other signs of sexuality that young girls are introduced to. They look at their bodies as something sexual at an early age, Nichter says. "Even bras and underwear have become sexual," she says. "Thongs are being marketed to young girls." An early focus on sexuality forces parents to deal with more than puberty issues. According to Muscari, one way to handle this is to place more value on what people do than on what people look like."
How You Look at It
Early bloomers and late bloomers are the ones that stand out, particularly among their peers, but parents can help keep developmental changes in perspective. Jodi McWhirter of State College, Pa., says that even though her 10-year-old daughter complains about being too short or too fat, the reality is she and her friends are all developing at about the same rate. "This past summer, I asked her about bras, and she said yuck to that." McWhirter says. "I bought some anyway and put them in her drawer. She hasn't started wearing them – although she doesn't really need to, yet – but I have a feeling that once some of her friends start, then she will, too. She doesn't want to be first."
McWhirter's daughter has an advantage because her mom recognizes that the changes are coming and is being proactive. "Parents fear burgeoning adolescence," Nichter says. "They are afraid of the changes, and all that colors what parents think about their kids and puberty and how the changes are addressed."
Often parents, particularly mothers, are uncomfortable with their own body image, making it difficult for them to project a positive example for their children. It's a nasty cycle, Nichter says. "When mothers were teenagers, they didn't have good role models when it came to their body image, so it is harder for them to know how to be a good role model," she says.
Nichter also believes that parents and preteens can develop healthier lifestyles and learn to like who they are. Better eating choices is one way to accomplish this. Encouraging physical activity is another way to approach it. As children hit their preteens, participation drops off. However, both Busch and McWhirter have seen the positive aspects of keeping their sons and daughters involved with sports and physical activity.
"It has challenged their bodies, given them confidence in their body abilities and made them stronger and more flexible," McWhirter says.
"So far I think I've done a good job of preparing [my daughter] for puberty," Busch says. "I want to make sure I keep doing the right thing."
By the sound of it, she's on the right track – and you can be, too.