Life / Health

How to talk to your kids about body image in 'aesthetic' sports

Girls in "aesthetic sports" like figure skating and gymnastics are at a higher risk for eating disorders, so some parents are tackling the issue at an early age.

Kathy Mah’s daughter Kaya competes in level five gymnastics, practising 20 hours per week. At home, Mah models a healthy lifestyle and talks a lot about nutrition, as does Kaya’s coach. “We emphasize fun as a first goal always,” says Mah.

Eduardo Lima / metro canada

Kathy Mah’s daughter Kaya competes in level five gymnastics, practising 20 hours per week. At home, Mah models a healthy lifestyle and talks a lot about nutrition, as does Kaya’s coach. “We emphasize fun as a first goal always,” says Mah.

With the arrival of December, delighted parents and children ring in another skating season. Community rinks will soon be flooded with girls and boys out to have fun and master the basics. Children and youth in skate programs will glide through arenas for testing and competitions, and some of the world’s best skaters will prepare for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics.

American figure skater Gracie Gold recently announced her withdrawal from the season to treat an eating disorder. Canadian pairs skater Meagan Duhamel was "saddened but not surprised" at the news. According to Canada’s National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) statistics, "female athletes competing in aaesthetic sports were found to be at higher risk for eating disorders." Six years ago, now retired skater Jenny Kirk said in an interview that about 85 per cent of skaters suffer from an eating disorder.

The potentiality of body image-related issues in aesthetic sports isn’t new. However, Gold’s public story shines renewed light on the secretive subject.

So, when and how should parents of children enrolled in ice skating, gymnastics and dance discuss body image?

Erin Boyd, who coaches 10- to 14-year-old figure skaters in London, Ont., says she sees insecurities start to form once kids reach the intermediate, or STARSkate level — that’s when wardrobe, bodies and expectations change.

“I see that they are more aware of themselves in skating dresses. Even when the dress fits, some feel uncomfortable,” Boyd says. “They’re growing, and something that was second-nature is now frustrating.”

Kirsten Heyerdahl, a holistic nutritionist and former dancer, has two boys, 6 and 8, returning to skating. In their Learn to Skate lessons at a city-run rink, children wear snow pants and sweaters, and the program emphasizes skills and fun. She’s introduced skating as a social and cultural activity her sons can enjoy with friends, but as a sport, feels it can be too much pressure — even for boys.

"If we were aware of a coach promoting negative body image, we would pull our children from the program.Those kinds of messages affect people into adulthood."

Heyerdahl believes, “If you want people to maintain a weight class, you can do that in a healthy way to feed and fuel the body.”

Whether your child is just having fun, or reaching new heights, experts agree an environment of respect; open dialogue; focus on skills; and nutrition education, can help set them up for good health and success.

The Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport advises
that
“the younger years in a child’s life are critical for producing positive self-esteem and may be influenced by personality, parenting techniques and role modelling.”
So don’t wait until their teen years to start that conversation – Kathy Mah isn’t.

Her nine-year-old daughter, Kaya, competes in level five gymnastics, practicing 20 hours per week. The program emphasizes performance elements like body control and confidence, prohibits make-up, and requires regulation bodysuits that cover the hip bone and buttocks, which Mah appreciates, as there's less confusion about looks or sexualization.

At home, Mah models a healthy lifestyle and talks a lot about nutrition, as does Kaya’s coach. Encouraging her daughter to make thoughtful food choices, she’ll sometimes guide with questions like, “Would your coach approve of that?”

Ultimately she wants Kaya to feel confident in her body, abilities and decision-making. "We emphasize fun as a first goal always, let her know we're proud of her, and help her to understand expectations and outcomes."

How to have a conversation

Do:
• Keep it positive
• Praise skills, effort and achievements
• Discuss nutrition in terms of food & fuel
• Explain the effects of puberty
• Discuss media images and positive role models
• Acknowledge strengths outside of sport

Avoid:
• Commenting on weight
• Commenting on and comparing other bodies

•For professional help, contact a certified nutritionist, counsellor or the NEDIC Toll-Free Helpline.

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