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What Parents Can Do to Help
Girls Love Their Bodies

Abigail H. Natenshon, MA

Body size acceptance is not related to weight or actual body size, but to self-esteem and emotional health. The true indicator of a good body image is good self-esteem – not the ability to fit into size 2 jeans. It is up to parents to insure that children grow up with all the emotional tools and resources they need to love and accept them selves and love their body.

In an effort to foster self- and body-love, parents should keep the following in mind.

  1. Minimize dieting behaviors, weight talk and any activities that may require parents to take a look at their own eating and exercise rituals, attitudes, and preferences about weight and size.
    • The mother of a 13 year old told her daughter one night at dinner that she was “about to sin”…..she was going to “order dessert and then exercise like crazy tomorrow to work it off.”
    • Beware of skipping meals. You may be a perfectly healthy individual who does not feel hungry in the morning, and may prefer not to eat breakfast. However, remember that your child is learning to develop an eating lifestyle from modeling after you. Sit down to meals with your child and family as often as possible in an effort to nourish and connect with them all both physically and emotionally.
    • Even if you will not be available to partake in particular family meal, be responsible for providing a nutritious meal for the rest of the family. Be sure your child’s school lunch is made the night before if you will not be available to send her off with it in the morning.
    • Do you avoid certain activities because they call attention to your own weight and shape? Do you wear uncomfortable clothing because it is fashionable? Do you exercise primarily to work off calories, rather than to become fit and feel good? Self-awareness is critical to effective parenting.
    • The father of a 14-year-old anorexic girl criticizes actresses on television for looking too big or for being fat. Her brother jokes with his boyfriends about a girl at school who “needs to wear a sign on her rear end that reads “Wide load.” Never tease or joke about weight or size.
  2. Raise consciousness about the American cultural bias in favor of excessive thinness. Help your child develop immunity to the steady stream of media messages that distort her perspective by countering destructive messages with reality messages.
    • Let your child know that the actresses we see in the movies and on television are thinner than 98% of American females.
    • Teach your child to become critics of extreme or otherwise harmful media messages.
    • Cancel your subscription to fashion magazines or to women’s magazines that encourage rapid weight loss programs. Ask your child what she thinks those actresses must do to remain so thin.
    • Turn off televised wrestling matches. Then talk to your son or daughter about why you have done so.
  3. Discourage dieting and weight-loss fads. Instead, encourage a wellness lifestyle. If your child wishes to lose weight, encourage her to eat differently, not less.
    • Let your child know that diets are the worst way to lose weight, that 95% of dieters regain lost their weight within 1-5 years, that when children restrict food in their early years, they become predisposed to becoming overweight adults, that fat-free or restrictive eating of any kind is harmful to a person’s health.
    • Get rid of your bathroom scale.
  4. Don’t equate thinness with happiness, self-satisfaction or self-actualization.
    • Such thinking creates unrealistic expectations, i.e. if five pounds lost makes her happy, then 10 pounds lost would make her twice as happy.
  5. Praise your daughter for what she does, not for how she looks. Do some of those things together with her.
    • Learn new activities together, modeling the natural successes and defeats of the learning process, and of life itself. Go canoeing together, take ice skating lessons, or learn snowboarding. Falling down is a perfect way to learn how to pick yourself up and move towards growth. Let your daughter become your teacher.
    • Emphasize enjoyment of activities rather than performance.
  6. Give your daughter a vision of a greater purpose in life that extends beyond herself and her appearance, thereby encouraging her to develop healthy interests and passions. Self-esteem is drawn from productivity and contribution.
    • Find substantive ways to interact and engage with your child; take a class together at the planetarium about Black Holes, volunteer to work together on a neighborhood wetlands conservation project, see a play together and discuss it afterwards, distribute meals to the homeless, attend church or synagogue together.
  7. Teach your child that there is no such thing as an “ideal” body. Beautiful bodies come in all sizes and shapes based on each individual’s unique strands of DNA.
    • Discuss the full range of factors that determine physical size with your child, explaining that genetics and heredity factors are beyond a person’s control; others, such as good nutrition and exercise are very much within our power to affect.
    • Teach your child that overweight people can be just as physically fit as thin people based on their eating lifestyle and their physical activity.
  8. Spend quality time with your daughter.
    • Wander into her room at the end of the day and sit down to chat.
    • Connect with her emotionally. The nature of the parent/child connection will change through the growing up years, though the connection itself must never become severed.
    • Really want to hear what she has to say, listening actively to her thoughts and feelings.
  9. Pay attention to negative comments your child may make about her shape. Even if they are irrational, be empathic, not dismissive, as she feels her feelings deeply. Engage your daughter in a discussion about how she thinks she might look better and how she a changed appearance might improve her life. How does she plan to accomplish these goals?
    • Listen “between the lines” to underlying feelings, and to learn what your child is really hungering for. This is a golden opportunity to teach some important “life” principles that she so needs to learn.

Kids need parents to do more than love them. They need parents to teach, to support, to be role models, listeners and talkers. Parents need to find new ways to listen to and communicate with their daughters. In addition, parents need to authentically live the lifestyle they seek for their child in order to insure their child’s immunity to eating dysfunction.

Most importantly, parents with eating disorders must be aware that it is not a foregone conclusion that their children will be adversely affected by their problems. When two parents can be of one mind and present a united front to child, disease, and professional, the strengths of one parent can compensate for the weakness of the other. When parents face an eating disorder and conquer it openly, inclusive of their spouse’s and children’s input and understanding, everyone stands to gain, not only in terms of how they eat, but also in terms of how they face and deal with life, and the long-term quality of family relationships.


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