Discussing tanning and body image with my 8-year-old

IMG_1907Several times in the past month, Lexie has commented on being thin. She is thin – not bean-pole thin like her cousin but by no means is she fat or even slightly hefty. But sometime she mentions worrying about becoming fat. This is from the same girl who usually shows no concern about her appearance (we have to argue to get her to even comb her hair, which typically looks uncombed just five minutes after she brushes it.)

We know we need to address the issue of body image but have some concerns on how best to do that. I don’t want to focus on her weight as it is so easy for kids to latch onto some comment and blow it out of proportion in their own mind.

So I did what I always do when faced with a topic I need more information about – I began researching online how to handle this conversation with her.

Experts suggest staying positive and focusing on health, not weight. It was comforting to read that at this age (8) there is a good chance she will outgrow her concern. She is most likely reacting to peer pressure and self-consciousness rather than developing any type of disorder. While she may be picking up concerns from peers or the media, she is not likely to fully internalize these harmful messages as adolescent might do.

So how do I address this issue without intensifying or morphing it into an eating disorder? Here are a few tips…

  • Speak your message calmly and consistently (even if she disagrees with you)
  • Talk about different body types and that people come in all shapes and sizes. Some heavy people may be more fit just as someone who is thin may not be healthy.
  • Concentrate on being healthy through proper nutrition and exercising, rather than focusing on numbers or appearance

But it is more than just worrying about Lexie’s self-image. I don’t want her to be making comments to those who are not as fit as she is. A few years ago, it was not uncommon for her to point out to me people who were old, bald or fat. I don’t know that she thought of them as “bad” necessarily but did notice the difference in people. While we have always discouraged her from pointing out these physical differences, I don’t want her to shun people because they look different whether it be extra weight, that they wear glasses or have some sort of deformity. Sometimes these things are not choices the person can make.

I don’t want her to focus so much on appearance but to be able to see the person beyond. The chubby girl in her class can be creative, funny, serious, scared or a number of things. Most importantly, she can be a good friend. She needs to understand that no matter your weight, you are a valuable person.

And studies have shown that by fifth or sixth grade, the stigma that fat people are bad or inferior is often already ingrained in kids’ minds. Suggestions that I read said to ask questions such as

  • Does body weight have anything to do with whether a person is kind or mean?
  • Can you tell what a person is like just by his or her body size?
  • (when reading) How do you think the character felt when she was teased about her weight? If you saw someone being teased like this character was, how could you help him?

The hard thing is that people often do tease one another about their looks or behavior. And while someone may think it is just playfulness it can truly hurt and it can affect a child’s self-image.

Almost everything I read emphasized that our own attitudes about food and body shape impact our kids’ relationship with weight. So while I have been trying to lose some weight over the past few months, I need to be careful how Lexie perceives this. (And the bad thing is I have been focusing on the scale and how much I weigh more than I should.)


Lexie has all of sudden shown an interest in tanning. Not using a tanning bed, but she has mentioned laying out to get a tan while we are at the pool. Now I remember doing this too as a teenager. But of course I didn’t realize any of the dangers of tanning. While I think there is nothing wrong with a tan (you will get one just by being active outside), I am not too keen on my 8-year-old focusing on it or laying out to get one.

Whenever we head to the theme park, water park or the pool, we slather on sunscreen (usually SPF 50) and reapply it every 90 minutes to 2 hours. But if it is a short jaunt outside – a quick walk to the park or a brief stop at the playground (which is mostly in the shade) – we don’t apply sunscreen. And she understands that we do use the sunscreen so we don’t get a sunburn. But she doesn’t know anything about excessive sun exposure and repeated sunburns leading to premature aging and of course skin cancer.

So while I would love for Lexie to build her tan while being active outside, I would rather her not purposely lie out to get one especially at such a young age. The issue here is to give her enough information about the dangers without making her overly fearful of any sun exposure. I guess it is the same balancing act that I must follow when discussing her body image and both certainly will be topics we discuss often in the upcoming years.