When I was 10, my mother starved herself to death. This has, admittedly, colored my parenting just a little.
There are a number of things I feel I can screw up related to raising my daughter if it comes to that. Don’t always suggest just the right strategies to help her develop a growth mindset? She’ll figure it out. Don’t always follow her lead when she has a question during a bedtime story? Eh, we talk a lot during the day.
But there’s one subject I really feel I just can’t screw up: helping my daughter to develop a healthy body image.
But how could I be sure I was doing it right? After all the stakes are pretty high on this. Since I have a podcast on how parents can use scientific research related to parenting and child development to make decisions about raising their children, I called up Dr. Renee Englen a psychology professor at Northwestern University and author of the book, Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, to figure out what factors influence my daughter’s nascent body image and how I can raise her to resist societal pressures.
Here the top five ideas I learned—and five more tips to guide us moving forward.
Our daughters learn from watching us.
We don’t have to say “being a woman means that whatever weight you are you should probably lose 10 pounds.” (Or 20.) We don’t have to explicitly teach them to dip the fork in the salad dressing before spearing the lettuce (fewer calories than pouring the dressing on!). We don’t have to tell them we’re unhappy about how we look in our clothes.
They see us stand on the scale and how our mood changes afterward.They see us eat a smaller portion than everyone else.They see us glancing at ourselves in the mirror, smoothing the bulges, turning away with a sigh.They see and they learn.
Our daughters also learn from listening to us.
It’s become really common for women to greet each other with some compliment about how they look: “Hi! You look great! Did you lose weight?” Women at a family gathering will often sit around and talk about what diets they are on, how much weight they’ve lost and how much they still have to lose. Men comment on how women look—their clothes, their hair, their bodies.
From all of these comments our daughters learn: this matters. How a body looks matters.
Our daughters learn from what we tell them.
When we tell them “you’re so cute” and “you’re so pretty,” they learn that being cute and pretty matters. We think we are building up their self-confidence, but actually we are just teaching them that being cute and pretty matters more than anything else: more than the book they’re reading, more than what they’re learning in school, more than what they think about our societal problems—and ideas they might have for fixing them.
Parents often think that their first line of defense is media literacy.
We’ve become aware enough of media consumption to know we need to teach girls how to recognize images that have been manipulated and commercials that try to convince us we’re fat and ugly so they can sell us remedies.
Take the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty: it tells us we’re all beautiful and, by extension, that the most important thing we can be is beautiful. It tells us there’s a ridiculously high beauty standard that’s really hard to meet, but it’s your job to meet it anyway. And by the way we, Dove, have a product that can help. And it’s cellulite cream.
One day, my daughter is likely to come home saying that someone called her fat.
In that moment, we might think the best thing we can do is say “of course you’re not fat, sweetie!” Or perhaps, as the mother of one girl to whom Dr. Englen talked said: “Let’s go on a diet, then!” Our gut reaction is to make the problem go away because we don’t want our daughters to hurt the way we’ve hurt.
We’ve experienced so many years of pain because of societal pressure about how we look and we want to try to protect our children from that. Putting a Band-Aid over it might make it seem like the problem has been solved, but in reality, the wound needs air to heal.
So how can we raise daughters with a healthy body image?
Stop talking about how bodies look: yours, your daughter’s and anyone else’s.
Talking about the things bodies can do—no matter what the body’s ability level, helps girls to see that what a body can do is far more important than how it looks.
Stop weighing yourself. Stop looking at yourself in the mirror when your daughter is around. Enjoy your food.
Teach media literacy.
Teach her that models really aren’t that thin, that they have lines on their faces and that companies try to convince us we’re fat and ugly to sell us stuff. Teach girls to ask: “who benefits from making us feel this way?”
…But don’t rely on media literacy alone.
Wherever possible, reduce exposure to these messages by turning magazines around in the racks in the checkout line at the grocery store and by minimizing exposure to commercials on TV and the internet.
Don’t teach self-esteem.
Research shows that improving children’s self-esteem actually doesn’t improve their life outcomes anyway! Instead, teach self-compassion. Teach them to experience the highs and the lows of life, to care for themselves and others and to ask for help when they need it. Teach them that it’s normal to experience emotions like anger and frustration and disappointment and how to recover from these states.
Accept your child for who they are, not who you wish they would be (or how you wish they would look). Your unconditional love and acceptance is possibly the most powerful inoculant against the harmful messages children see and hear all around them—related to their body image and far beyond.