Girls can grow up loving or hating their bodies. It’s up to us as parents to help them love themselves.
Editor’s Note: August McLaughlin is our weekly relationships advice columnist. She’s here to answer questions and offer guidance on the tough challenges we face in our intimate relationships. Readers can submit questions to [email protected]. Not all questions will be published. The opinions expressed in this column do not constitute professional advice. The Good Men Project assumes no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any actions taken by, or reactions that ensue from, anyone following the recommendations in the answers.
My husband and I have a pre-teen daughter, who has been pretty fixated on her weight lately. She’s made comments about her “fatness,” though she’s a perfectly normal sized kid. She’s eating pretty well, and we haven’t noticed any other red flags that would suggest an eating disorder—but I’m admittedly concerned. How can we make sure she stays physically and emotionally healthy? My husband feels I should be the one to talk to her about these things, since he’s a man and this is a “girl issue,” which I’m unsure about. We’re both open to suggestions.
Hey Awesome Mom,
Thanks so much for your question. The fact that you’re both willing to do what it takes to cultivate health and happiness in your daughter’s world is to be commended big time. So many girls and women have poor body image, it’s considered a “societal norm,” but that doesn’t make it any less worthy of addressing.
As far as eating disorders are concerned, prevention is ideal. While treatable, full recovery from eating disorders can take years, if not decades. And the risks they bring are intense. All of that said, you’re in a great place if her habits seem healthy. The fact that she’s willing to discuss her body angst around you is golden.
Keep the conversations going and consider the following steps—and yes, these tips apply to your husband, too.
Listen and sympathize.
Listening sympathetically is one of the most effective things you can do. Rather than judge your daughter’s feelings, validate them. Let her know that you understand why she might feel as she does, given the culture she lives in. Tell her that you’ve had to work to embrace your body, too—if that’s true. If it’s not, consider working to improve your body image together.
Model positive behavior. Role models are one of strongest influences in a girl’s relationship with her body. Avoid saying anything negative about your body and praising others’ weight loss. Eat healthy, delicious meals as a family, allowing less-healthy treat foods in moderation. Stay active as a family as well, not to achieve a certain physical look, but for fun and health.
Encourage her passions.
Engaging in activities that have nothing to do with physical appearance is a powerful way for girls to develop self-confidence. The more healthy passion she has in her life, the less room she’ll have for negativity. Encourage her to participate in team activities or a new hobby or project. Praise her skills, efforts and accomplishments more often than how she looks in particular outfits.
Keep toxic influences out of your home. I’ll never forget the day my brother caught someone watching a beauty pageant in our home while I was in treatment for an eating disorder. From another room, I overheard him shunning them: “Did you forget that August has an eating disorder?” The TV snapped off. Keep anything that can disrupt her body image, such as “beauty” focused magazines, TV shows and diet products, out of your home. When you spot them anywhere, discuss their harm with her. Avoid dieting or weighing yourselves. If you must weigh in, hide the scale.
Know the signs of disordered eating.
Even if they don’t evolve into full-fledged eating disorders, disordered eating thoughts and behaviors can take a major toll on one’s wellbeing. If you notice that your daughter starts demonstrating symptoms of disordered eating, such as frequently eating alone, overexercising, making excuses to skip meals or counting calories, seek guidance from a professional.
See body image as a human matter. Poor body image isn’t merely a “girl thing.” Not only are continually more boys and men experiencing it, but guys play a tremendous role in how females feel about their bodies. You and your husband should engage in these conversations and habits regularly. The more you’re both involved in her wellbeing, the more it will thrive.
Cheering for you,