You are here

Influencing Your Daughter's Body Image

"I'm fat, and I have a big tummy," proclaims Sally, 4, as she marches in high drama around the house. Her sister, Jill, 8, asks for an apple as a snack. "She loves healthy food," beams her mother  -- but ask Jill herself, and she'll tell you that she says no to cookies and cake because they'll make her fat. Her mom blames the images the girls see on TV, but she also admits, "They've heard me say I look fat in certain clothing."

Weight control is important for one's well-being, but some approaches are healthier and more likely to be successful than others. And your attitude about weight can have a great impact on the future mental and physical health of your children  -- especially girls.

Am I Fat, Mom?

Preteens and teens are famously vulnerable to the siren call of excessive dieting, even eating disorders. But new research shows that feelings about body image start very early. In a survey from Kenyon College, elementary school girls whose mothers made weight-related comments were more concerned about their own weight and shape.

"Daughters get their attitudes toward food from their mother," says Leann Birch, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University, whose own research has focused on 5-year-old girls. "If you have sound eating habits and attitudes toward food, your daughter is more likely to feel good about herself and her food choices. But negative behavior and attitudes can influence her in the opposite way." Paradoxically, kids with dieting mothers  -- and those who tend toward out-of-control eating  -- may be more prone to becoming overweight, she finds.

"Some of my patients, who are just out of nursery school, tell me that they're fat," says Ira Sacker, M.D., coauthor of Dying to Be Thin, a book on eating disorders. "Turns out that their moms are saying the same thing about themselves."

The good news: You can manage your weight and be a good model for your kids at the same time.

A Healthier Mind And Body

"Talking about how much you dislike your body, calling yourself fat, taking out your emotions on food by either bingeing or starving, punishing yourself for eating particular foods  -- such behavior just makes you feel bad," says nutritionist Laurel Mellin, author of the weight-control book The Solution: 6 Winning Ways to Permanent Weight Loss. Instead, nutritionists emphasize setting reasonable goals and moving toward them one step at a time:

  • Cut fat
    to moderate, not extreme, levels. You can't live by celery alone.

  • Reduce calories
    by no more than 500 calories a day, which should lead to a loss of up to one pound per week  -- a sustainable rate.

  • Exercise regularly.
    Aim for 45 minutes a day of brisk walking or another cardio-intensive activity.

  • Keep a journal
    to help you monitor what and when you're eating and how you feel at the time.

    Other healthy approaches:

  • Don't go on and off diets.
    "Diets mean deprivation," says Karen Miller-Kovach, chief scientist for Weight Watchers. "Instead, eat better all the time by cutting back on fat, adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet, and having smaller portions."

  • Know your appetite.
    The moment that you feel full, stop eating.

  • Enjoy your favorite foods.
    Rather than avoid them altogether, learn to eat small portions on occasion. It's an effective weight-control skill, and it also sends the right message to your daughter. "She will learn to stop eating when she's had enough too," says nutritionist Evelyn Tribole, coauthor of Intuitive Eating.

  • Forgive yourself for overindulging.
    Instead of skipping meals or overexercising, "Just say, 'Oh well, I overate,'" says nutritionist Debra Waterhouse, author of Outsmarting the Mother-Daughter Food Trap. And keep perspective: "One overindulgence is not going to have any permanent effect on your weight."

  • Keep quiet.
    Dr. Sacker treated an average-size 5-year-old who lost weight on a self-imposed diet. "She heard her parents talking about not eating carbohydrate foods, so she stopped eating bread and cereal," he says. But these are key staples for a young child.

  • Count to ten.
    Think before you say anything to your child about how much she is  -- or isn't  -- eating.

    In our thin-obsessed society, it isn't easy to switch from a dieting mentality to one that emphasizes healthy eating, physical activity, and a positive body image. But it's best for body and mind, and it's worth it  -- for you and your daughter.

  • comments