Teen angst over beach-ready bikini bodies wasn't on French engineer Louis Reard's mind when he invented the modern, navel-showing two-piece in 1946.
Who would have predicted the Kardashian sisters flaunting their Playboy-esque figures in new swimsuit ads for Sears - or Justin Bieber's sweetheart, Selena Gomez, looking like an effortless skinny-minny? Girls aren't the only ones to worry about their warm-weather physiques. Guys see buff actors like Taylor Lautner in the "Twilight" films and muscle-bound sports stars like Reggie Bush on "most jacked" lists.
So what should you do if you sense your kids feel uncomfortable with their beach bodies? After all, the odds are good that's the case. "People are self-conscious during that age because everyone looks so different," says my 12-year-old. "It's the beginning of when you care about how you look."
But your teens may not tell you how they're feeling. "Most kids don't go to their parents and say, 'I'm very self-conscious about my beach body!'" says my 15-year-old.
Be empathetic. "Everything is in the way that you say it," says registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of Read It Before You Eat It. "Be positive." If your child wants to drop some pounds, "don't pooh-pooh it or belittle the desire, no matter how little or much your child may need to lose," she says. "Recognize where your child is coming from."
Become healthier together. "The most effective method for kids to lose weight is if the parents are losing weight," says Taub-Dix. As a family, do everything right. Get enough sleep, eat a healthy breakfast, sit down when you dine, reduce stress, skip empty liquid calories in sodas and sweet teas, and don't be a distracted eater who snacks in front of screens, she says. "You are a role model."
Be a lifestyle role model. "The bottom line on all this stuff is you're not just teaching them about how to feel better in a bikini," says Taub-Dix. "You're teaching them how to make wise choices for the rest of their lives." Start doing fun family fitness activities, such as playing Frisbee or jumping on a pogo stick. Read about how to serve a "healthy plate" at the family dinner table.
Be low key. "Parents can convey a healthy lesson to their offspring by watching the level of emotional intensity that enters their remarks on the subject," says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character. "When your son or daughter says in a panic, 'Does this make me look fat?' the parent can smile and say blandly - as if this topic were not the most important thing on earth - 'Oh, I think you look great, honey!'" Parents need to keep their own anxiety "out of the picture," she says. (Victoria's Secret model Adriana Lima has talked about eating "no solids" for nine days before the show - not the desired approach. And as for the guys, some of their big-bicep role models may well be on steroids.)
Adopt an "I'm OK, you're OK" attitude. "The parent should provide a bedrock of confidence that the youngster is great and looks great," says Berger. "It is out of this confidence of feeling loved the way that you are that young people can then develop the gumption to make changes - if they really need to make changes - in their eating habits or exercise habits or whatever. For parents to get down on the level of the child's own anxiety is no help."
Don't worry about seeming like an old fogey. "It is better for the child to feel that the parents are old and out-of-it than for the child to feel that the parent joins forces with the crazy commercialized anxiety about being adequately thin or adequately buff," says Berger. "Inside, the child has gotten the message there's a whole world out there that isn't particularly focused on these narrow standards of what is 'acceptable.'"
Don't be a hypocrite. "Many parents are themselves frequently moaning about their size or weight or physiques or their diets, and their children know it," says Berger. "If the child points out the contradiction, the parent can always say kindly, 'Just because I'm an idiot about this stuff doesn't mean that you have to be an idiot about it, too."
Let your kids buy a new bathing suit. Places like Target and Lands' End sell cute, slimming swimwear. Also, your teen might feel more comfortable in a tankini rather than in a bikini or in swim shorts rather than tiny bottoms.
Know why kids feel awkward. "Part of it is you're told that this is the age when you'll look your best," says my 15-year-od. "And so when people don't feel they look that good at that age, That's especially worrying to them. You feel like you should be looking really good."
Understand if your kids confide in their friends, not you. "I know that all parents were teenagers once," says my 15-year-old. "But you have a different perspective looking back on it."
My hunch? Other than Michael Phelps (and some other elite athletes with bikini bodies), not many Americans over the age of 12 look forward to putting on a bathing suit. Here's to swim shorts for gals and baggy modern swim trunks for guys.
For more stories about your healthy family, read: