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How Can I Protect My Daughter's Body Image?

Follow these steps by Renee Engeln to instill a positive body image in your daughter and help her prevent eating disorders.

I talk to so many mothers who are worried because they struggle with body image, and sometimes they're struggling because of things their own mothers did. What they tell me is, "I want this to stop now. I don't want to pass this on to my daughter." 

One of the first things to remember is that your daughters are always listening. So you might say, "Well, I always tell my daughter she's beautiful, I never say anything negative about her body." But if you're saying negative things about your body all the time, your daughter hears that.

The bad news is that a lot of women who are struggling with eating disorders and body image say that some of the things their moms did when they were young contributed to these issues. But the good news is that research shows that you can turn that around, that when mothers have healthy attitudes toward their bodies, their daughters notice and learn from that. 

One of the first things to remember is that your daughters are always listening. So you might say, "Well, I always tell my daughter she's beautiful, I never say anything negative about her body." But if you're saying negative things about your body all the time, your daughter hears that. That's very confusing to young girls, because when they look at their mothers, they think their mothers are beautiful. If you're always saying, "My arms are too fat, or I look like this, or I need to change that," it makes them confused.

The message those types of comments can send is that hating your body is part of what it means to be a woman. And I don't think that any mothers want to send their daughters that message. 

What can I do?

Make sure you don't talk negatively about your own body. Even if you're struggling, you can talk about that with a friend, but you don't want your daughter to hear that. 

You can also make sure that when you talk to your own daughter, you praise her for things that are not about how she looks. Praise her for things that she can control. You can say "You are doing such a good job sharing" or "I love how curious you are". Praise all of the qualities that have nothing to do with how she looks, instead of all the time saying, "You're so pretty in that dress". Because the more we talk about something, the more we're saying that it matters. 

Decide not to talk about other people's bodies, not to make fun of people who are fat, not to make fun of the clothes people are wearing, or talk about gained weight or lost weight, but really just decide that you have different things to talk about in your household. 

I have some parents who say they make their house a body-talk-free household. They just don't do it. And that can be really good for little girls. It also means you need to give healthy messages around food. It is not trying to police food all the time and restrict it. Instead, try to teach your daughters more intuitive eating, where they can listen to their own hunger cues and know when they are hungry and know when they're full, where they can have occasional sweets. 

If you teach your children that they can never have any sweets, that can actually backfire. They will want more and more. 

Sending healthy messages about eating means that you don't talk about good foods and bad foods, but instead talk about getting what you need from your food, getting nutrients from your food, sometimes getting pleasure from your food, about having a balance there.

And really thinking about food as a way of caring for your body, as a way of giving it what it needs. It means trying to incorporate exercise and activity into life in general, not as a punishment, not as something you have to do. But it's something you do because it's fun, because it gives you something to do with the people you love, and because it helps with stress. It helps to think of both food and exercise as things that are about caring for your body and sometimes having fun too.

Those are things you can do to help your daughter that really add up over time.

And what about the boys?

We teach boys really different messages about their bodies than we teach girls. We tend to teach girls that their bodies are for being looked at, that they're like performance objects, and we teach boys that their bodies are for doing. 

The way we talk to boys is different. We tell them that they're strong, what we tell girls is that they're pretty. I will tell you that girl babies are no less strong than boy babies. We know this from research. They're equally strong. 

And we let boys get dirty more. Girls get scolded when they get dirty. But when a kid gets dirty it's because they were exploring, so it can be a good thing to get dirty. When we tell little girls things like "you need to sit like a lady,"that teaches them they should watch how their bodies look all the time instead of focusing on moving around and playing. 

When clothes matter

One of the biggest ways parents reinforce this gender divide is how they dress their children. 

For children who are learning to move around in the world, the most important thing for their clothes is that they are comfortable, that they allow them to move freely. But a lot of times what parents do is dress boys in really comfortable clothes and then dress girls in clothing that itches, or pinches, and has to be monitored all the time, and sometimes clothing that literally makes it impossible for them to move.

If you put a baby at crawling age in a big fluffy skirt, that can actually make it so that they can't crawl effectively. It can keep them from moving their legs the way they need to. 

Or if a little girl is put in a fancy dress, and she's learned that she can't get fancy dresses dirty, it might mean that she's not out there moving around in the world as much as she might like to. 

A lot of girls like to wear their fancy princess dresses sometimes, and that's fine. But it's a nice message to teach your children that clothing should first and foremost be about how you can move in it and how it feels, instead of looking pretty to other people. Even if your daughter is super adorable, you don't want her to learn the lesson that she's a doll. She is a moving human being been who is going to get out there in the world and do things, and it should be OK for her to do that. She should have the clothing that lets her do that.

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