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Struggling With Body Image: Helping Your Daughter Love Her Athletic Body

Let's talk about LOVE; or, more precisely, let's talk about helping our daughters love their athletic bodies.

I'm thirty-two years old, and after two Olympic Games and ten years of racing as a professional cyclist, I'm still self conscious about my big, muscular legs and flat chest. Girls aren't supposed to have big muscles, right? We all know that's just silly, but that thinking has become part of our culture. It's programmed into us at a young age and we don't even realize it. I was recently watching Peter Pan with my kids and even Tinker Bell looks in the mirror and has an issue with the size of her hips. Every magazine and television show that your daughter sees is full of beautiful, thin, frail models and movie stars. Girl lacrosse player receiving pass

My husband has coached several young athletes in the weight room and he tells me they are all self-conscious when they start adding muscle. Boys are proud of their big, strong muscles, but most girls wish theirs weren't so big!

So what do you do about it when your athletic tween or teen daughter starts adding muscle and getting lean, and thinks it's a catastrophe?

Muscle Fibers

Everyone's body is different.

  • Type 1 muscles: some people have a predominance of type 1 muscles, or slow twitch muscles, which tend to be less bulky, found in endurance athletes such as triathletes and marathon runners.
  • Type IIb muscles: Other people have a predominance of type IIb, or fast twitch, muscles, which tend to be bigger, more powerful and more explosive. Think sprinters and weightlifters.
  • Type 1a muscles: Lastly there are people like me who have a lot of type IIa, or intermediate fibers, which, depending on how the type of training, can go either way.  Athletes with these fibers often play sports which involve both endurance and speed and strength.

Your child's genes dictate her muscle fiber type, so the first thing she needs to accept is that there isn't anything she can do about it. She is who she is, and she should embrace that. It is awesome that your daughter is an athlete, and as she gets more serious about her training, she's going to put on muscle and lose body fat. These "side affects" will help her to be the best athlete she can be. But, while she is looking forward to the success her training brings her on the field, she may not be so happy when she looks in the mirror.

Listen and reassure

What you want to drive home to your daughter is that she is beautiful just the way she is, and as far as beauty goes, what really matters is on the inside. Remind her to focus on the qualities that she does like, and that as far as bodies go, they are good for so much more than for just sitting there and looking pretty. Her athleticism will help her achieve her goals and dreams and has the potential to open a lot of doors!

If your daughter rolls her eyes and tell you that you don't understand, the best things you can do are listen and reassure her. I know you are wondering what on earth you are supposed to say, and the right thing is different for each child. But if you are at a loss, you can always share my story.

I met my first coach when I was fourteen years old and he taught me what it really meant to train hard. I started riding a lot more, doing more volume and intensity, lifting more and doing plyometrics. I'd like to say I worked my butt off, but actually I grew a butt and big strong legs. That year those legs carried me to my first national championship, followed by several more championships, a Pan Am Games and two Olympic Games. So, I've decided I don't have much to complain about.

Moving to the Olympic Training Center when I was eighteen boosted my confidence and helped me feel better about my new physique.  At the center I was surrounded by athletes - male athletes in particular - who thought women with lean, athletic bodies, and big muscles were actually attractive. Reassure your daughter that she is beautiful and attractive just the way she is. I know you don't like the idea of guys thinking your daughter is attractive, but that is what your tween and teen daughters are worried about. If she still isn't convinced, you can let her know that I met my husband at the Olympic Training Center. He was a wrestler.

I have been amazed over the years how many people, whether they be girls, boys, men or women, have come up to me in the gym, or on the street, and said how much they wished their legs looked like mine. As I politely thanked them for the compliment, I was laughing to myself and wondering if they had any idea how much I disliked having big legs

Tread lightly

I still remember the first time someone told me my legs were getting big. I remember exactly where I was and who said it. He meant it as a compliment, but I was fourteen, and it had never occurred to me that I had big legs. From that day on it bothered me. If your daughter isn't aware, or doesn't care that her muscles are getting bigger, DO NOT draw attention to it!

If she is self-conscious about her body, there are lots of athletic women who you can use as role models for your child. Introduce your child to strong, successful, attractive, athletic women! They will see that being athletic doesn't mean they are less feminine!

Encourage her to hang out with her athletic friends

We all feel better when we surround ourselves with people who can relate to us. Having your child in sports will most likely lead her to have athletic friends, and then she won't be the only one with muscles.

Go shopping

As your child gains muscle and loses body fat her clothes will start to fit differently. There is nothing like a little retail therapy to help her feel a little better about her new body. Help your child find clothes that flatter her new, athletic figure.

As I got fitter my butt and legs weren't the only things changing. I also got extremely lean, and the leaner and got the smaller my breasts got. Believe me, most days that is even harder to deal with than having big legs. Being a girl is tough! I have learned to accept it, but I am still thankful for shirts that help draw attention elsewhere and padded bras!

Throw away the magazines

Tweens and teens love their magazines, but they are full of subliminal and overt messages that tell your child she isn't thin enough, pretty enough, or good enough. Staring at air brushed, seemingly perfect, beautiful, thin and frail looking models isn't what your child needs to boost her confidence. If you can do it without starting a battle, get rid of the offending magazines and replace them with ones that promote healthy, but not unnaturally thin, body images. And remember, again, that if your daughter isn't into the magazines that promote thinness yet, don't encourage her!

So in honor of Valentines Day, let's help our daughters love what they've got, feel good about themselves, find better role models, and focus on the things that really matter.

Erin Mirabella is a two-time Olympic track cyclist, mom of three (including a new baby!) and MomsTeam contributor.

Posted February 10, 2011; updated November 2, 2011