How can you make sure you’re sending the right message to your daughter so that she grows into a strong, resilient woman with healthy self-esteem?It’s complicated. Barbie has been the prime suspect in crimes against girls’ and women’s self-esteem, followed closely by fashion designers and photoshop artists. But plenty of families don’t let her into their home, and still parents struggle to support girls’ image of themselves.
All manner of pop culture and the societal expectations they promote play a role in what a girl believes and strives for, but for many women, our overall malaise with our bodies started much closer to home. We began defining and judging who we are primarily by what our mothers showed and told us.
The following strategies have been the most effective in my work with girls and their parents. They are targeted to families with tweens and teens, but parents of younger children are advised to think proactively about the body messages they send.
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 your children’s 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! Put your energies into what you can influence—the present moment and (maybe) the future.
Believe that love means always being able to say you’re sorry.
We always want to do right by our kids, but often we are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Not talking, ignoring the “elephant in the room” is not the solution, not for issues of weight or anything else. Avoidance 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. Talk about 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.
Take charge of your own transformation. Your daughter will take her cues from you.
Remember: There’s no better role model for your daughter than you.
Do you ever find yourself denigrating your body? Or speaking negatively about others’ bodies? Does talk of diet and exercise outweigh talk about health and wellness? Do you express displeasure with your appearance? Yes, we all want to look good but be mindful about the example you set and the lessons your children are picking up from negative body talk.
Never let a child believe that because she’s overweight, she’s unworthy of your support or that her other accomplishments don’t 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. Children measure themselves against punishing standards for years to come.
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. Show her that you’re her champion and that you will work through this together. Listen and be willing to get involved in schools or groups if you feel the messages they are sending are not serving children’s best interests.
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.) Doing this together will help children become more discerning and self-confident consumers.
Find ways to encourage your daughter 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.
Be active together. Take younger children to family yoga and ask older children to join you in a workout or find a physical activity you both enjoy and can do together on a regular basis. Walking and hiking are great exercise and also help you connect to nature and disconnect from media.
And it probably goes without saying for this mindful audience, but fat shaming never works. Ever. Negative body talk will color your relationship long after she grows up and moves out of your house.
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 if you haven’t already, and don’t bring junk food into the house. But, more importantly, keep the conversation away from food or weight. Treat the dinner hour as a time for nourishing bodies, minds and manners.
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. Or if she’s very young, she might be parroting something she heard at school or at a friend’s house.
Whatever her motivation, listen and find a way to reassure and prove to her that she can talk to you. About anything. Without judgment. 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.
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.
This post has been adapted from “Fat Girl: How to let go of your weight and get on with your life,” which is available at www.onegirlwellness.com
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 eBook, “Fat Girl: How to let go of your weight and get on with your life,” is available as a free download on the site at www.onegirlwellness.com.