Raising Body Confident Daughters

When I was younger, before I was bogged down with the demands of preschool, my mom and I would spend our days running household errands together, shuttling my sister around to her activities, making out-of-the-way pitstops for my favorite treats, and shopping. I would munch on my blue cotton candy ice cream while my mom would try on outfits. “My butt looks HUGE in these,” she’d scowl. “I’m just so FAT today. I have got to stop snacking,” she’d quip. Feeling defeated, she’d begrudgingly agree with the pushy sales girl to try the next size up. To me, the message was received loud and clear. Bigger was NOT better.

This anecdote has to be put into perspective. It was the 90’s and heroin chic was all the rage. Super models like Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford were setting the impossible standard for what women needed to aspire for, and my beautiful mom, like thousands of others, was unknowingly sucked into diet culture. As a young girl, I was caught in the crosshairs and internalized my own body hate at an early age.

These days we have a better understanding of exactly how much influence parents have on their children, and the findings reveal that it’s on a deeper level than we even realized. Research has shown that there are cells in our brans called mirror neurons that create pathways in the brain of the person watching an action as if they were performing it themselves.  Not only are your children actively mimicking what you do, neural connections are being formed in their brains simply by observing your behavior.

So now that we know better, how can we do better? The top research backed tips are below.

1.     Banish body bashing  

Make your house a negative body talk free zone - and that goes for siblings, relatives, friends, and men and women of all ages. According to a report by Common Sense Media, young girls aged 5-8 are more likely to report dissatisfaction with their bodies if they hear that their mothers are dissatisfied with theirs. Make it a point to lead by example and check yourself before the words leave your mouth. If you catch any body bashing coming from your little ones, gently reframe their thinking by explaining that all bodies are good bodies and our differences makes us unique.  

2.     Give compliments unrelated to physical appearance

It may seem harmless, but continual appearance-based compliments teach young girls to seek praise and approval through their physical form. Try to switch to compliments that highlight their accomplishments, skills, and personality traits. Praise your daughter for her beautiful drawings, the fact that she shared her toys, or how quickly she figured out the brainteaser. 

3.     Receive compliments graciously

How many times has someone complimented you and you’ve brushed it off or switched it to a negative about yourself? This sends the message that you are unworthy of praise and that women need to belittle themselves in order to be liked. Instead of deflecting attention or engaging in any form of body bashing, graciously say thank you and move on.  

4.     Celebrate movement  

Modeling healthy exercise behaviors is just as important as healthy food related behaviors. Emphasizing the fact that moving the body helps us feel good, grow stronger, and enhances our mood instead of burning calories will help her appreciate her own body more. Make movement a time to bond by going for long walks or hikes together, dancing around the house to her favorite songs, or racing up the stairs of the parking garage, etc. Be sure to show her that its ok to take rest days, to miss a workout, and to honor your body if you have injuries.

5.     Dish up dessert, sans guilt

Don’t let desserts or “junk food” be an off-limits no-no. The more we create the associations of “good” vs. “bad” foods, the more we enhance our kids’ desire for and shame around them. Savor your dessert loud and proud and make room for “fun foods” (a nicer term than junk food) alongside your more nutritious options.

6.     Let her decide when she’s finished eating

Forcing kids to clear their plates and not waste food or eat x bites of their vegetables may come from a place of love, but it teaches kids to ignore their hunger and fullness cues and to not trust their bodies. Let your kids know that it’s not a now-or-never feeding situation, and that they can have a snack later so they don’t get into a food scarcity mindset that encourages binging.

7.     Get ‘em cooking

One of the best ways to help your kids foster a healthy relationship with food and to eat more nutritious whole foods is to have them get their hands dirty in the kitchen. The more they see how the food is made, the more willing they’ll be to try a variety of dishes. Letting the kids help out, no matter how small the tasks, creates a connection between them and their food. Bonus points if you can grow a few herbs in a backyard, community garden, or even a countertop flowerpot to bring the “farm-to-table” concept to your own dining room.

8.     Practice mindful eating together

Make it a point to sit down for dinner together as a family ideally once per day, once per week at a minimum. During this time, remove distractions like phones, ipads, and tvs. Set the table with a candle, flowers, or placemats. Encourage slow, mindful eating. Highlight the flavor, smell, and textures of the different foods and how they make you feel, rather than how they may or may not make you look.

9.     Expose her to a wide variety of body shapes and types

Make it a point to highlight women of all body shapes, types, and colors in the media and emphasize their accomplishments. Showing your daughter that 1) there is not one “ideal” body type and 2) the size of a woman’s thighs are not indicative of what she can accomplish will help her take the emphasis off of her own body and celebrate other women.

10.  Openly talk about bodies

If your daughter’s body is changing, gently start a conversation about it. If your daughter seems to be struggling with her body image, talk to her about the fact that you’ve been there too. Help shape her rhetoric around bodies by discussing them openly with love and compassion. The more light we bring to bodies of all kinds, the more we drive out shame.

*Please note that this was written with daughters in mind, but these messages are equally important for sons, nieces, nephews, students, etc.

Kate Telge