Body image is one of the most powerful things that will impact our daughters. Teaching our daughters, a healthy body image means imparting on them that what their body can do, is far more important than what it looks like. How often do you think your daughter hears how strong their legs are or how amazing it is that their mind created a wonderful piece of art or how caring her arms are holding her little brother or giving her friend the hug that they needed? There is so much emphasis on what her legs look like in that dress or how her butt looks in those jeans or how flat her stomach looks in a bathing suit. Our daughters are bombarded with how their body looks through our image obsessed society. Society teaches them being thinner means popularity, beauty and significance. So moms, listen up, you hold a BIG key. Really think about when you make remarks or comments about your daughter’s body, what is it about? Is it about what it can do or is it what it looks like? What comments do you make about your body? You have little sponges near you absorbing those words and applying it to their body.
For some of you, there may be some damaging old tapes playing that are from when you were a child and the comments that may have been made about your weight. If you were overweight as a child and felt judged by a parent(s), family member, friends, schoolmates or all of the above, then you are more than likely going to try to “protect” your child from experiencing that. You may try to control their food, so they do not gain weight, with the “I don’t want you to go through what I went through” story behind it. You may have grown up in a household that weight was an important value. So it’s all you know to stay on top of your child’s weight to make sure that they are not gaining “too much” weight and impart the “value” of weight upon them.
As a dietitian, I am very passionate about teaching young girls and often, their mothers as well, about the changes that naturally occur in puberty, and the influences of negative body image. I have had countless mothers bring their daughter in to see me because they have gained a lot of weight over the last year or that there was an increase in weight and now their daughter is caught in these negative behaviors of restriction and over-exercising. What these girls are not taught anymore is the changes that naturally occur with puberty. A girl can gain 20-40 pounds in body fat during puberty. Their little girl body is widening, developing and maturing so she can one day have a child. Fat is essential for this to happen. And over the time that puberty takes, into her late teens and sometimes early twenties, her body will distribute all that beautiful tissue where it is supposed to go. Her body will continue to change and mature until she is 25 years old, when the frontal lobe of the brain is fully developed. Knowledge IS power. Your little girl knowing what her body will do and how normal it is that her body is changing is so very important in how she sees her body.
She needs to know that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Just because her body is bigger than her friend’s, doesn’t make her body “wrong.” It makes it hers and the genetic blueprint that her body is following. She needs to know that comparing herself to her friends is always a set up to feel inadequate. Her body looks different because it is. It may bigger or smaller or maturing differently. Everyone has a different body size and develop at different stages in adolescence.
Several years ago, I was giving a lecture to a group of 9-10-year-old girls and their moms and had this moment happen that just reiterated the importance of the message I am so passionate sharing. I was talking about the relationship between body image and being able to listen to your body when you are hungry and full. A girl in the group who was in 5th grade, shared that she ignores her hunger a lot because she doesn’t want her friends to think she eats too much because of how her body looks compared to theirs. Her body was developing, while her friends hadn’t started yet. This “moment” for me, was that I was meant to be there that night to help this little girl hear that her body was perfect just as it was. These moments for me are pretty amazing. It’s when I know the big guy upstairs has planted me just where I am supposed to be. There was this ease that spread over this beautiful little girl’s face when I told her that she was developing just as her body wanted her to develop. Trying to stop that was like trying to stop nature. Her body may be different from her friends, but her friends probably felt the same about theirs. The key is acceptance and her hearing that acceptance and that her body was okay. I couldn’t help but wonder what her mom felt hearing her daughter’s words. But I also know that she was surrounded by a lot of diet talk. I had heard her mom talking earlier about what she had eaten that day and how many “points over” she was. I cringed inside knowing that there was probably a lot of body bashing and judging in front of her daughter. And sadly, that showed itself when her daughter spoke of her own discomfort with her body.
As women, our body image is constantly challenged. As we check out at the grocery store, we are bombarded with magazines telling us we can be firmer, flatter and more toned with pictures of airbrushed and photo shopped models on the front and inside. As we flip through the pages, or scroll through social media, we feel as if our bodies are not enough, that they can better than they are now. But comparing ourselves to the eighteen-year-old model that has never had kids or the completely photo shopped “mom of three” will never make us feel that we “are enough.” As grown adults we experience this. Just think about what our daughters feel when their bodies and faces are changing, and they are seeing these pictures. These flawless, curve less, “perfect” images staring back at them on pages that tell them this is what they should look like. Think about the imprint that it has if they do not know that these people are digitally modified. That some of these models do not even exist and are creations of photograph editors.
Helping our daughters have a positive body image means teaching them to see and love themselves based on who they are, not what size they are. It is letting them hear how hard working, kind, loving, caring, strong, patient, energetic, creative, playful and fun they are, every day. When she starts complaining about her body, do NOT comment. Just LISTEN. Give her the knowledge about her body and why it is changing. Encourage her to listen, respect and take care of their body. As a mother, the language that you use about your body, as well as your daughter’s will impact how she sees herself-inside and out. Let us always demonstrate and teach love, respect and compassion for ourselves and our bodies, so we can all see our true beauty.