“I Don’t Want to Be Fat”
The statistics are alarming: 81% of 10-year-olds report dieting, binge eating, or a fear of getting fat; the average age for a girl to start dieting is between 8 and 10. Although the problem of girls and women working towards unattainable and often unhealthy body images is not new, the landscape of online and social media access to these images and negative messages is a newer parenting challenge. Do we even have a chance to raise our daughters to be body confident? When I compiled tips from experts and looked into the research, it’s good news. There are very specific strategies we can be using from young ages to protect our daughters against the specter of body image issues and all the risks that go along with them.
My daughter was around six when she told me she didn’t want to be fat. It sounds naïve, but I didn’t even know she had that word in her vocabulary. My husband and I had always made concerted efforts to avoid talking about weight and appearance in front of the kids. Ever.
My other daughter recently told me how a group of four girl friends (third graders) were ranking how skinny they were. They informed her she was the “second skinniest.” She came home and complained to me that she did not want to be skinny.
As a mother of daughters, I have dreaded this since pregnancy. It is one of those parenting anxieties that kept me awake on those nights my body and mind could not get comfortable.
I witnessed the worst-case scenario when I spent 3 months of my training on an inpatient unit for children and teens with eating disorders so severe, they needed to be medically stabilized. The youngest I met with was 11.
Before I really dive into this, let’s all agree that a blog post is not sufficient to cover the entirety of this topic. I am writing from the lens of a concerned mother, a woman very aware of body image, and a psychologist with first-hand knowledge of the worst possible outcomes.
I am not an expert in this area – there are many much smarter than I am. I do know the day-to-day worry about navigating this as a parent whose daughters are accelerating toward the risky years.
I also want to acknowledge that body image concerns have increased in boys in recent decades, and boys have their own risks, including parents not expecting them to even have these issues. For the sake of conciseness, I am going to stick to the experience of raising daughters, but we should also be watching and thinking about our sons.
So many of my parenting promises to myself have fallen by the wayside once I actually became a parent (“My car will never be covered in goldfish crumbs!”), but one I know I have kept is I do not talk about my body in front of my children. I do not complain that I look fat or have a muffin top or clothes feel too tight or say anything about wanting to lose weight — or even look different in other ways (as much as I do sigh at the ever-growing number of wrinkles looking back at me in the mirror).
I also seize opportunities to talk about how everyone is born with a different body shape and it’s cool that we all look unique. I have even tried my best to shield my girls from watching adored female celebrities in their skimpy outfits, flaunting and glamorizing body shapes unattainable by most.
Yet, my 6-year-old said she didn’t want to be fat and my 9-year-old is dissatisfied with being “skinny.” UGH.
And they haven’t even discovered Instagram. They have no social media accounts. Yet. Is there a way to build them an armor of body confidence impermeable to social and cultural influences? Even writing that sentence makes me want to wave the surrender flag.
But my daughters are too important to me to give up.
When I took the time to dig into the issue, I realized it’s all about taking smaller steps that add up to making a big difference.
What Are We Thinking?
We need to be aware of our own issues and how those might unintentionally project messages onto our children.
Since becoming a mother, I feel like I have actually developed much healthier attitudes about my body because of thinking about how I want my children to think and feel about their bodies.
After eating nonfat cheese as a very thin teenager (so gross by the way) and definitely being critical of the heres and theres of my body for years, becoming a mother of girls really did transform my own attitudes because I realized how much I did not want to pass on this unnecessary self-criticism to them. Their bodies are perfect as they are for them — strong, active, compact, unique to their beings — and I never wanted them to feel less than all of this.
When my kids remark that my butt jiggles, I laugh because it’s simply a true observation. When my son asks if I have a baby in my tummy, I think about how that tummy has an unshakeable layer to it because it grew three amazing human beings.
We must ask ourselves and be honest with our answers:
What are my automatic thoughts about my body? Are they negative, positive, or neutral?
How much time do I think about my size and shape?
What emotions do these thoughts bring up?
Do I have work to do on building my own body positivity, or even “body neutrality?”
Each of us brings our own patchwork of hang-ups to motherhood. Some may have a more defined and in-depth struggle with body image, and others may carry a more general self-conciousness and body insecurity. Regardless of the details, the more we understand what we bring, the better we can affect what we say and do around body image as a parent.
What Are We Saying?
Becoming aware of our own internal dialogue and emotions about our body image can at the very least help us think more about how we are sending messages to our children, even unintentionally.
When we talk about bodies, let’s talk about what they DO rather than how they LOOK. It’s amazing that my daughter can now do flips from bars she couldn’t do two months ago because of building strength and stamina. My other daughter loves to speed around the block on roller skates. MY body created human beings! What is more incredible than that?
As we build up positive messages, we also need to be paying attention to any negative messages, even when meant in fun. For example, research has shown it is especially important how fathers talk to their daughters. Specifically, any teasing related to weight or body shape increases the chances of their daughter developing body image problems.
In one study of middle schoolers, 19% reported being teased about their appearance by their fathers. This teasing was more likely to predict “body dissatisfaction, comparison, thin-ideal internalization, restriction, bulimic behaviors, low self-esteem, and depression.” Mother and sibling teasing also had negative effects in this same study, and I think it’s common sense that any consistent people in a child’s life teasing them about their appearance is not a good thing.
Decades of research has also made it very clear that how a mother feels about her own body affects her daughters. Even if it’s not explicit statements about looking fat, things like checking a mirror and appearing unhappy or talking about needing to go on a diet are sending an important message to our daughters.
What Are We Doing?
I love the recent video of the gymnast, Katelyn Ohashi -- with a different body shape than typical of gymnasts (and a history of being body-shamed for being “too large”) -- doing her floor routine. I showed it to my kids (both of my daughters do gymnastics) and my unfiltered 4-year-old immediately remarked on her butt shaking so much. Her floor routine was flawless. My girls watched in awe.
We can look for opportunities to expose our children to this wide array of body appearances, again focusing on what all these different bodies can DO. We CAN take some control of the stream of images flashing in front of our daughters by finding the ones we want them exposed to, sharing them, and talking about them.
We also need to give our children consistent messages that their appearance does not define who they are or what they have to offer to the world. I have seen so much more awareness about refraining from telling girls they are “cute” and “beautiful,” and remarking on their outfits. It may seem harmless in that one moment, but those moments add up to an internalized message over many years that how a girl looks gets her positive attention.
We don’t need to completely eliminate any references ever to a beautiful smile or pretty dress, but it’s about balance. It’s important to add into our interactions with even very young girls comments about admirable traits or observations that have nothing to do with appearance.
The best news I discovered was the consistent finding across studies that warm, supportive, nurturing parental relationships protect against body image problems. In general, more critical and less emotionally responsive parenting increases the risk of body image issues, likely because of an overall sense of low self-worth.
Showing love and respect for our children for who they are and not what they look like truly does matter. I may not be able to forever protect them from the barrage of images and cultural messages, but I know I can do the warm and nurturing Mom part.
Strategies for Raising Girls with Positive Body Image
In summary, there is no need to wave the surrender flag! Here are some key evidence-based, time-tested strategies for mothers (and fathers) raising daughters:
Work on our own body image demons to minimize negative body image messages we may be sending unintentionally to our daughters
Talk with our children about what bodies DO rather than how they LOOK
Absolutely no teasing about body shape or size — PASS IT ON!
Expose our girls to a wide array of body shapes and sizes with associated positive messaging
Give compliments about valued traits and attributes in our daughters that have nothing to do with appearance
Be your warm, supportive, nurturing, emotionally available self, and that on its own builds self-worth in your children that protects them
The Starting Point
Of course, these tips skim the surface of a very complicated psychological and social issue. As with all adventures in parenting, each child brings different wiring with them into their environments. Some children may be more vulnerable to self-criticism and comparing themselves to others no matter what protective buffers you place around them.
Also, as soon as we figure out what works, something new will probably pop up. This process is fluid as we go through our own aging changes as mothers, and our daughters go through their developmental stages, the most obvious being puberty.
But it helps us all if we can look away from the daunting, constant stream of images and social messages, and keep our eyes focused on our home and families. Start with these small steps, focus on what we do have control over, and be confident we will never give up on our girls.
A Mighty Girl, A multitude of books about body image for parents and girls of all different ages
How to Help Your Daughter Develop a Healthy Body Image, Child Mind Institute
Health At Every Size Fact Sheet, Association for Size Diversity and Health
The impact of appearance-related teasing by family members, Journal of Adolescent Health
Study: Most Girls Start Dieting by Age 8, Refinery29
Moms: What Will Your Body Image Legacy Be? Psychology Today
Body Image and Eating Disorders with Dr. Emily Sandoz, Psychologists Off the Clock podcast