This is the time for making resolutions, and so many of us resolve to eat better, get more exercise, and lose weight at the beginning of the year. I think a lot of moms (including me!) worry about how our dieting and exercising behavior might affect our daughters.
I’ve read a lot of posts recently about the importance of protecting young girls’ self esteem by teaching them that they don’t need to worry about the shapes of their bodies, and that they shouldn’t judge their own value and self-worth by their appearance. There’s good reason for this. About ninety-one percent of women are unhappy with their bodies (I’m actually surprised it wasn’t closer to 100%), and more than half of all girls of college age feel pressured to be a certain weight. This kind of thinking starts in childhood. Many adolescent girls have poor body image and low self-esteem as a result. One study showed that fifty-three percent of thirteen year-old girls are unhappy with their weight, and the numbers go up to seventy-eight percent by the time the girls are seventeen. This often leads to eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, early sexual activity, or substance abuse.
It’s a huge problem, and one that deserves attention and action. Especially from mothers. As the most influential women in our daughters’ lives, we need to set an example of how to love ourselves and our bodies. We need to show our girls that we are valuable human beings regardless of how we look, and that we have many gifts to share with the world which have nothing to do with our appearance. And the way we need to show them is by modeling those feelings with our own behavior.
I’ve written previously about my mission to change my own poor body image and banish my negative self talk for my daughters’ benefit. I will not have them learning to hate their bodies by watching me hate mine. I refuse. And because of them, I’ve learned to love my own body. (Not that I never have slip-ups. Sometimes I do. But I’ve gotten much better at nixing them quickly.)
But here’s the thing. From the articles I’ve read around the internet, it seems like a lot of people are pushing this idea that it’s never OK to have any opinion, positive or negative, about your body, your appearance, or your daughter’s appearance. And it’s never OK to allow your daughter to enjoy being pretty, or to think of being pretty as even a little bit important. And the absolute WORST thing you could do is talk about wanting to lose weight.
These articles are advocating that if you are on a diet, you should only say that the foods you are eating are healthier, and never explain why the fattier foods are unhealthy. And that if you’re exercising, it is only to make yourself stronger, never thinner. I can understand the sentiment. With all of these scary statistics about girls’ body image, and all the horror stories we’ve heard about pre-teens taking their own lives or being hospitalized because of an eating disorder, it’s hard not to want to shield our daughters from this.
But I think that we might be taking this a bit too far.
The fact is, being overweight is unhealthy. Overweight and obesity can lead to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, hypertension, joint pain, and yes–low self-esteem and poor body image. If you’re overweight, the healthy thing to do is lose weight. The most effective way to lose weight is to eat healthy food, avoid high-fat, high-calorie food, and exercise. And even if you’re not overweight, it’s still a good idea to do these things so that you don’t become overweight.
When you put yourself on a healthy diet and exercise program to lose weight, it’s not going to hurt your daughter to know this about you. In fact, it’s a good teaching moment. She’s going to hear lots of messages from the media, advertising, teachers, friends at school, and just people she meets anywhere about what she should be eating. Don’t you want her to get your take on it too? She should learn all the ways that food affects her body. Yes, healthy food makes you stronger and helps prevent illness, but if you eat the right foods and avoid the wrong ones, it also helps you maintain a healthy weight. This is a good thing!
And when you run, lift weights, do exercise videos, play soccer–whatever you do to work out, you don’t have to pretend that you’re only doing it to make yourself stronger or build your endurance. Of course those things are important too, but it’s OK if you want to burn calories to fit into a smaller dress size. Hiding this fact from her is not necessary to keep her from worrying that she’s too fat. It’s not even going to keep her from finding out that exercise burns calories. It’s going to show her that you have something you want to change about yourself, so you set a goal and do your best to achieve it.
Before I left my career to raise my kids full-time, I was a social worker, and there were a few years that I did clinical work with adolescent girls. As you can imagine, one of the major issues these girls had to deal with was low self-esteem and poor body image. I once had a fifteen year-old client come to me and tell me she wanted to get down to 105 pounds. She was about 5 foot 4, and this would have been more than a 100 pound weight loss for her. The problem was, she was planning to stop eating in order to lose the weight. You know what helped bring her back to eating healthy amounts of food? Showing her my own Weight Watchers materials. When she could see that these weight loss experts had minimum amounts of food you needed to eat to lose weight, and that they wanted you to set smaller, interim weight loss goals (they start at 10% of your body weight), she agreed to try it. And the slow and steady weight loss was a huge boost to her self-esteem.
Of course, there are plenty of girls who aren’t overweight but think they are. And they take drastic, dangerous measures to lose weight. It might seem tricky to maintain a balance between “Don’t eat too much fried food and candy. It’ll make you fat!” and “Don’t starve yourself. You’re beautiful at any weight!” But it’s really not impossible. It starts with you and how you talk about yourself in front of your daughter.
The problem comes when you obsess over your weight and trash talk yourself in front of her. Saying, “God I’m ugly. I look terrible in everything,” this is the kind of thing that teaches your daughter to hate her own body. Constantly talking about weight loss and never talking about anything else, this is what teaches her that your weight is the only important factor in determining your self-worth. Our girls learn how to perceive themselves from us. But answering your kids’ questions about why you’ve starting serving grilled chicken instead of fried for dinner with the truth about your weight loss goals is teaching your kids a healthy lesson. “Well, honey, I’m a little overweight, and I want to lose a few pounds. It’s healthier for me to weigh less, plus I like the way I look better when I’m thinner.”
And here’s another thing–the “wanting to look better” part–that’s OK too. Everyone wants to look their best. You don’t have to say you’re losing weight just to avoid heart disease. That’s not why I wanted to lose weight. I mean, sure, that’s part of it. But I like the way I look now more than I did 35 pounds ago, and that’s just fine.
I’m not saying you should drill it into your daughter’s head that being thin is prettier. But I am saying that it’s OK to let your daughter know that you like the way you look. AND it’s OK to tell her that SHE is pretty too. Heck, it’s not just OK, it’s necessary. Little girls love looking pretty. My daughters spend roughly 106% of their playtime in dress up. They want to wear princess dresses and tiaras and jewelry and nail polish, and it’s not just for role play. They admire themselves in the mirror, and they absolutely beam with delight when I tell them how pretty they are.
Of course I want them to know that they have other talents and gifts to offer the world. Of course I want them to understand that they’re excellent readers with vivid imaginations. That they’re compassionate and giving people who make me so proud every day. But that doesn’t all get washed away simply because I tell them they’re pretty. They ARE pretty. And they LOVE hearing it. Why should I take that away from them?
Lord knows that someday, someone is probably going to make a disparaging comment about their appearance. Even though they’re beautiful girls, some jerk in middle school is going to think it’s funny to make them cry, and they’re going to say my daughters have frizzy hair, or pimply skin, or maybe even that they’re too fat. It happens to almost every girl at some point. And even though it’s not going to completely insulate them from the hurt they’ll feel from those remarks, I want them to know that no matter what anyone else says, their mother thinks they’re beautiful.
Avoid making any mention about my daughters’ bodies or how they look to me? Heck no! I am going to tell them every single day of my life how gorgeous they are. I’m going to point out every time they do something smart, or strong, or industrious. I’m going to help them learn that they are creative and talented people who can accomplish anything they work hard on. And I’m going to do my best to make sure they grow up knowing that they are beautiful people.
What do you all think about this issue? I love hearing from you!