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Promoting a Healthy Body Image in Our Daughters

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As a woman, a therapist and a mom of two girls, I am intensely aware of how important a role I have in helping my kids develop a healthy body image.  My own mother didn't do a great job.  She said some pretty stupid things, likely because her own mother was very critical of weight and appearance.  She also openly dieted and tried to lose weight herself my entire childhood, which is modelling unhealthy behaviour for children.  I also got pressure from my grandmother who I remember saying to me many times, "You don't want to be fat when you grow up."  Nevertheless, I have many clients who have experienced far worse from their parents, comments about weight and appearance that can really be classified as emotional abuse.  And the effects of these experiences can last forever.

I always resolved to do a better job with my own children in this regard, but I have to admit its tough. Because of my focus on health and nutrition, I have to bite my tongue all the time about how much crap the girls eat.  I am proud to say, however, that neither my husband nor I have EVER talked about weight or body shape and, at least for the time being, my girls are both very proud of their bodies.  I would do anything to have it stay that way!

Given the importance of this issue, I am happy to share with you these tips on promoting a healthy body image in girls from author, Susan Bodiker:

Barbie gets a bad rap. She’s has been the prime suspect in crimes against girls’ and women’s self-esteem, followed closely by fashion designers and photoshop artists. But is she solely to blame?
It’s complicated. Yes, society’s expectations and pop culture play a role, but for many women, our overall malaise with our bodies starts much closer to home. We define and judge who we are by what—primarily—our mothers show and tell us.

Here’s how to make sure you’re sending the right message to your daughter so that she grows into a strong, resilient woman with healthy self-esteem.

1. There’s no better role model for your daughter than you. Are you constantly denigrating your body (or others’)? Always talking about dieting or exercise? Do you put appearance on a pedestal to the exclusion of everything else? Yes, we all want to look good but be mindful about the example you set and the lessons she’s picking up from all that negative body talk.
Never let her believe that because she’s overweight, she’s unworthy of your support and none of her other accomplishments matter. She will spend the rest of her life hungering for your approval and trying to compensate for that lack in all the wrong places and in truly unhealthy ways. She will measure herself against those punishing standards for years to come and wonder why her mother of all people couldn’t love and accept her for who she was.

2. Take a positive approach. Spend some quality time going through fashion/celebrity magazines or websites and show your daughter how to identify photo-shopped or otherwise altered images that distort real women’s bodies. (Hint: a flawlessly smooth contouring line at the waist, hip or thigh is a dead giveaway that there’s been some digital plastic surgery going on. It will help her become a more discerning and self-confident consumer in the process.

Find ways to encourage her to develop her own sense of style that will bring out her natural beauty and enhance her confidence. Help her find clothes that fit and flatter—whatever her body type and weight. (Hint: buying her something in a size too small is not motivating. It’s cruel.) Ask her to join you in a workout or find a physical activity you both enjoy and can do together on a regular basis.
And please, oh please, bite your tongue before you nag, punish or lash out in fat shaming, no matter how frustrated you may get. It never works. Ever. It will color your relationship long after she grows up and moves out of your house. And it will not have the positive impact you seek. It will only make things worse.

3. Make meals a celebration not a battle. Family time is precious. Serve everyone the same healthy foods in healthy portion sizes but don’t make an issue of who’s eating what and how much.
Sure, clean out the pantry and don’t bring junk food into the house. (Seriously, there is not willpower enough to resist it.) But, more importantly, keep the conversation away from food or weight. Treat the dinner hour as a time for nourishing minds and manners, not serving up more misery.
4. Be the mother you wish you had. Nurture yourself (and your children) with the love and support you may not have received but always wanted. Support your self-worth and theirs by learning how to dismiss external judgments and find approval from within. Forgive and let go of the past (you can’t change it anyway) and put your energies into what you can influence—the present moment and (maybe) the future.

Take charge of your own transformation. Your daughter will take her cues from you.
5. Create a safe haven. Our culture says, “Be thin.” Our commercial interests say, “Eat this. Drink that.” There are mean girls and interfering institutions that do more harm than good with public weigh-ins and institutional shaming.
Advocate for your daughter by educating her about what is true and real by giving her the emotional wherewithal to deal with bullies outside the home. And take a stand against well meaning but wholly ineffective policies that impose one-size-fits-all metrics on young girls and women. Show her that you’re her champion and that you will work through this together.

6. Listen for the subtext. When your daughter comes to you and asks, “Am I fat?” don’t answer right away. Think about the context. Maybe it’s her way to start a conversation about something else that’s bothering her about her body or her life and her weight is an easy conversational hook.
Whatever her motivation, listen and find a way to reassure and prove to her that she can talk to you. About anything. Without judgement. Because one day it may be about something far bigger than the numbers on a scale. You want to build that trust today so she can talk to you throughout her life.

7. Love means always being able to say you’re sorry. We always want to do right by our kids and when it comes to weight, we are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Not talking, ignoring the “elephant in the room” is not the solution. It creates more angst and stigma. Sometimes you will say or do the wrong thing and if you do, don’t be afraid to say “I’m sorry.” Apologize sincerely and work to find a more loving and helpful way to address the problem (e.g. Health, not weight. Confidence, not calories.)
Don’t let the paradox of perfect parenthood be a barrier to being there when your child needs you.

8. Outsource the cure. We all practice selective deafness. And if you and your daughter seem to be stuck in the same unhealthy patterns, don’t hesitate to ask for professional help. Sometimes the very same thing you’ve said over and over again resonates better and is much more palatable when it comes from someone else (i.e. not her mom).
An objective source with the right experience and manner can provide a new perspective and a safe space where you and your daughter can find new, more loving ways to heal the wounds, move forward and perhaps, one day, be the best of friends.

Susan Bodiker founded One Girl Wellness to help girls and women overcome the image disorders that eat away at their self-esteem and keep them from engaging confidently in their world. Her new e-book, “Fat Girl: how to let go of your weight and get on with your life,” is now on sale. Visit for details.


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