As a mother of a young daughter, I often worry about the effects of society’s obsession with body image. I am also confronted with such issues while working with young girls and women in my practice.
How would your daughter rate her looks? Does she hate how she looks? Are there things she’d like to change? Is she in love with herself?
Body image is based on perception. And as girls head towards adolescence, their feelings about who they are naturally get cloaked in how they look. Between pencil-thin models on Project Runway, guilt-inducing diet ads, and extreme makeovers, it’s no wonder girls often feel they can’t measure up. Who could?
What You Can Do As a parent, you can counter the high-pressure messages your daughter is faced with. Here are tips for promoting a positive perception of body:
Set the example. Be upbeat in your comments about your own or someone else’s body. A daughter is more likely to be accepting of her own body if her mother is accepting of hers.
Address the issue. Acknowledge her dissatisfaction with her appearance. Rather than deny that anything is “wrong,” respect her comments. Then help her accept that there may be things she dislikes. Talk about family pre-disposition to above average weight, for example. Or educate her about diversity of size.
Make it about life, not a diet. Emphasize lifestyle over appearance. Encourage exercise for the joy of it. Teach your daughter to curb stress by playing a musical instrument or excelling at a sport. Stock the cabinet with nutritious snacks because that’s how your whole family eats.
Stress a well-rounded self. Explain that there is more to a person than how she looks. Soccer player Mia Hamm’s legs are muscular because she needs them to get the job done. Intellectual abilities, athletic prowess, and a sense of humor are all characteristics that make her who she is.
Celebrate the body. Encourage your daughter to appreciate what her body can do. Maybe she can run, dance, or do a cartwheel. Maybe she likes to fly a kite or ride a bike. Her body makes all these things possible.
Know the facts. Be a source of accurate information. Let your daughter know, for instance, that it’s normal to gain weight, especially around the hips, when she enters puberty.
Above all, keep the lines of communication open and nurture your relationship with your daughter. Solid relationships with parents and other significant adults go a long way towards safeguarding a girl’s compromised sense of self.
Keeping a Watchful Eye
While you want to avoid power struggles with your daughter over what and how much she eats, you do want to keep an eye on her. Is she skipping meals? Have her eating habits changed? Is she secretive or defensive about dieting? Though these behaviors are not proof that your daughter has an eating disorder, she may be having issues around food and their presence can represent the onset of an eating disorder.
One way to observe her is to schedule family meals as often as you can. With the current trend of teens and other family members eating away from home so much, the family meal may not happen without a conscious effort. At meal times, you’ll learn about what’s going on in her world as well as observe her as she eats. If you are concerned that she diets obsessively, exercises compulsively, shows extreme weight loss, or exhibits other symptoms of an eating disorder, seek professional help early.
On the other hand, if you think your daughter has a weight problem, visit her pediatrician to determine if she is overweight. The doctor can review your daughter’s history, growth pattern, and development. Then he or she can recommend a strategy for reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
Dr. Bahareh Talei received her Doctorate of Psychology (Psy.D.) from Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology. Dr. Talei is a licensed psychologist and is co-founder of Diagnostic & Counseling Center (DCC). Her experience has primarily been in working with children and adolescents with various disabilities such as autism and difficulties with learning and attention. Throughout her career, Dr. Talei has been actively engaged in the assessment of a diverse population (e.g., pervasive developmental disorder, learning disorders, central nervous system damage) and training of other professionals. Her experience and interests also includes conducting individual and group psychotherapy with family members of children with developmental disabilities and other populations (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders, and infertility).