How to talk to girls about weight, eating, and loving their body
“Mom, look at my fat stomach,” said my almost-13-year-old daughter the other night, pulling up her T-shirt and patting her belly.
She is very fit and healthy, and at a normal weight for her height, age, and body type, so I was saddened but not surprised that such a beautiful girl would be so self-critical. Why wasn’t I surprised? Because I hear comments such as these all the time from preteen and teen girls, who all have a negative body image. Who’s to blame? Airbrushed photos in magazines, social-media pages of celebrities, and society’s pressure on girls to have a body like that of Selena Gomez, Victoria Justice, or Taylor Swift.
According to statistics obtained from the Denver-based Eating Recovery Center, children under 12 admitted to the hospital for eating disorders has risen 119% in less than a decade. Additionally, one-half of fourth-grade girls are on a diet.
So, what can we do to help our girls adopt a healthy attitude about weight, food, and body image? I sat down to talk about this issue with Dr. Susan McClanahan, a licensed clinical psychologist and certified eating-disorder specialist who is the founder and president of Insight Behavioral Health Centers. She is also the chief development officer for the Eating Recovery Center.
McClanahan explained that the standards of beauty reinforce increasingly thinner bodies, and girls younger and younger are paying attention to their body size and weight instead of celebrating their different sizes and shapes.
“No one should be expected to fit into that standard of beauty that only 1 to 3% of the population fits into,” said McClanahan, who has worked in the field for more than 25 years. “The focus should be on how we feel physically, psychologically, and emotionally, and what we can do with our bodies. Can we walk, dance, play sports? The goal is to feel fulfilled and alive, and use your body in a healthy way, and that ends up looking different for everyone.”
McClanahan advised that if we want our daughters to have healthy body images, the first thing moms need to do is lead by example. In other words, stop looking in the mirror and criticizing your own body.
“If our kids hear us making comments about our weight—‘My butt is big,’ ‘I hate my arms,’ ‘I look like I’m pregnant’—they then will learn to model that,” she said. “The most preventative way is not commenting about body size, not only about yourself but about others as well.”
She also said moms need to encourage their children to eat all kinds of foods and to stay away from “no fat” or “no carb” diets.
“Take out the words ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods,’” she also said. “All food is OK; you just need to eat in diversity and moderation. There’s no reason you can’t have carbs or even desserts. It just needs to be managed.”
I asked McClanahan how to respond to a preteen who asks, “Mom, am I fat?”
“We would answer that by saying, ‘Fat is not a feeling. You’re feeling something, and you are calling it fat,’” she said. “Help your child put words around what that feeling is. Maybe they are feeling scared about school starting or someone said something to them that hurt their feelings. Take that as a cue that they’re anxious about something. It’s not about being fat.”
McClanahan also explained that it’s easy for people to pick on their own body when there are other stress factors present because the body is an easy target. It’s never going to be perfect, and the media drives that home.
When asked what to say when a preteen or teen asks, “Mom, am I fat?” and the child actually is overweight, McClanahan said the best response is to ask the child how you can help.
“Ask, ‘What do you think is going on?’” says McClanahan, who explained that 30% to 40% of obese teens have binge-eating disorder. “Maybe they are eating for comfort. Try to address the behavior that surrounds why they are eating a lot or binge eating.”
I find myself constantly commenting on my daughter’s physical appearance. For example, every morning when she wakes up, I say, “Good morning, beautiful.” Although I have only the best intentions—raising her self-esteem and making her feel good (plus I really think she’s beautiful!)—McClanahan said to be aware of how much you compliment your children’s outer beauty.
“If you comment on appearance all the time, that sends a negative message, which is that physical appearance matters most,” she said. “Focus on real, inner attributes of the child and what is special about them. Are they funny? Interesting? Enthusiastic? Thoughtful? Say, ‘Sit down and talk to me. I want to hear what you have to say, what you think.’ Don’t just say, ‘You look gorgeous.’”
Wouldn’t it be great if we could raise our daughters to feel beautiful based on acts of kindness and displays of intelligence rather than on what they see in the mirror?
Jackie Pilossoph, ESME’s Divorce Resource Guide, is the creator of Divorced Girl Smiling, a website that helps men and women facing divorce. She is also a weekly Huffington Post divorce blogger; the writer of a weekly column, “Love Essentially,” for the Chicago Tribune’s Pioneer Press; and a freelance corporate and business content writer. Pilossoph holds a master’s degree in journalism. She lives in Chicago with her two children. Oh, and she’s divorced.