Chicago mom: Talking to your daughter about body image

Overheard in my kitchen the other day…

14-year-old friend of my daughter – “Man, can you believe how many calories are in these cookies? Oh, I wish I could eat just one of these peanut butter crunch balls. They look soooo good.

Later, while looking through magazines on the couch – “I cannot believe her tush is so tiny. I would die for a tush like that!

As a mother of three girls — one teen, one tween and one tot — I have always known that body image is an uber-important part of raising my daughters to be healthy and confident. I was also afraid to ever sit down and have a specific ‘talk’ about body image as I didn’t want to draw too much attention to the topic at all. But, upon hearing her friend’s hyper-sensitivity (and this girl is a very healthy looking fourteen-year-old who needn’t be so careful with her calories), I felt the time was overdue for a talk with my own daughter about body image.

In researching this many times for various articles and my own mothering, here are some best bets for broaching body image with your daughters, appropriately.

Body image starts in your own mirror

When you look in the mirror and declare, “I look fat,” your daughter watching gets the message loud and clear. When Mommy doesn’t like how she looks it will be impossible for her to get the message to like what she sees herself. Play up your positives, find something on your body you feel good about and declare that in your mirror. Let your daughter hear you compliment yourself, so she can learn to embrace her positives too. No more, “Does my butt look fat?”  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard a mom ask that to their little girl in the dressing room.

A little too little doesn’t always mean Anorexia

Yes, as a parent of girls we worry about images they see in magazines or on television. We worry that anorexia is just a mere skipped meal away. But, try not to jump to conclusions when your daughter pushes away a meal or jolts out of dinner early. Just watch for signs, such as extreme weight loss, and be vigilant about teaching healthy eating habits and making nutritious well-balanced meals. You may be inclined to talk about anorexia and bulimia specifically with your daughter. But, studies show that in-depth discussions with young girls about anorexia and bulimia or too much discussion about eating and health, can actually do more harm than good. Child psychologists recommend you emphasize a positive attitude towards her body and the food she eats, and not to dwell on disorders — unless you believe your daughter has a serious problem.

A moment on the lips, not necessarily a lifetime on the hips

I firmly believe in healthy eating habits, but I also believe in the art of a good indulgence. Show your children that your relationship with food is healthy by partaking of nutritious meals but, also allowing yourself desserts or treats here and there. Never add guilt to your meal as instantly, you’ve put that guilt on her.

“Avoid counting calories, or labeling particular foods or your own eating habits as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ I recently read psychologist and author, Catherine Steiner-Adair say. Watch out for phrases like, “I was so bad today — I ate a hot fudge sundae,” or “Let’s be good and skip the dressing.”

Banning magazines won’t save the day

Some of my friends insist that magazines are the bane of the teen girl’s body image. While I do agree that those girls on the cover aren’t real or something to aspire to, I think what we have to know is that we shouldn’t hide a teachable moment. Would I love if there were ‘normal’ healthy girls on those covers with hips, thighs and curves like the rest of us? Of course! But, as of now, those twigs are everywhere and banning magazines aren’t going to make them go away.

When People magazine first arrives in my home, my teen and I discuss photoshop, fashion and the whirlwind magic of hairstylists and makeup. We talk about reality versus artistry and she understands it’s fun reading, not reality.

If girls don’t see it and talk about it, it becomes taboo. Case in point: My tween’s one friend who cannot read magazines in her house, immediately grabs a pile in my house and runs to my daughter’s room to devour the pictures. In my house it’s a read, laugh, point out the photoshopping and then, trash it. No biggie.

The “talk” has to happen eventually, let her take the lead

“Listen to her opinions,” says Steiner-Adair. “Show appreciation for her uniqueness, and as often as possible, allow her to take the lead. Listen to who she is, what she wants, what she is curious about, and help her cultivate her interests and figure out what excites her. Help her develop herself into the person she wants to be.”

So, I finally sat down with my daughter and asked her about the whole calorie-obsessed friend. All I did was ask her how she felt about it. It went like this:

Me: Hey, I was just wondering how you felt about X talking calorie talk and tush size today.

Her: Oh, yeah. I hate that! It’s so annoying. I just wanna enjoy a little snack and she and some other girls at school are like totally ruining it for me. I wish they’d just get over it. They’re all so pretty and there’s no reason to obsess at all.

We talked for a while and I get the sense that my daughter really has a firm understanding of who she is as young woman and what her body has in store for her. She shared that she thought she was very pretty (she’s actually beautiful) and that no one is ever perfect – and that’s okay.

So, score: 1, for positive body image today. Time to go look in the mirror and tell myself something nice. I hope you’ll do the same!

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