The message that "thinner is better" permeates our society, from everyday people being fat shamed to Hollywood almost exclusively hiring thin girls to shine in the spotlight. Researchers have shown that exposure to this harmful message can increase body dissatisfaction and can even raise the risk of developing certain eating disorders.
Even if you protect your daughter from the media, your daughter is at risk.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, many girls start to express concerns about their own weight or shape by the age of six. About half of all elementary school girls (ages six to 12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. This concern starts young and endures through their lifetime.
I remember constantly having these thoughts in elementary school, ashamed of my body starting in second grade. Looking back, I know it was completely ridiculous to be embarrassed of my baby fat at seven years old or think I was chubby when in fact, I was growing over 5 feet tall and weighed around 100 pounds during my gangly maturing years. Negative body images are completely irrational from the sidelines but feel so real and painful to the person going through them.
You want to shield your daughter from developing a negative body image, but you might be not realize you're teaching her by word and example to hate her body. (Luckily, there are ways to fix these unseen problems.)
Girls ages five to eight who think their moms are unhappy with their bodies are more likely to feel dissatisfied with their own, according to a report by Common Sense Media. If she hears you expressing disgust or disdain about your own body in front of her, chances are she'll eventually start thinking the same way about herself. Don't say you feel fat today or complain about putting on swimsuit in front of her. Try not to even use the word "fat" in your home, whether you're describing yourself or others.
Avivia Braun, a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders and body-image problems, suggests parents avoid labeling food as "good" vs. "bad" or "healthy" vs. "unhealthy." This wording can make your daughter feel bad or guilty when she eats a treat. Instead, Braun suggests talking "about 'sometimes' foods and 'always' foods; this can help your kids understand that some foods are better eaten in smaller quantities and less often."
There's nothing wrong with wanting to eat healthier or making a dietary plan yourself to lose some weight. But when your young daughter sees you counting calories, skipping meals or eating things different from what the rest of your family eats, you're teaching her a harmful lesson: girls should diet. Girls should watch what they eat. Girls should relate eating with worry about being fat.
Instead, choose to incorporate more vegetables in everyone's diets, or give your daughter the choice to make the same choices as mommy is, if she wants. Avoid dieting and instead help her know how to make good choices that help her body stay strong and healthy.
The world is already shouting the message to her that looks are the most important thing for women. A simple way to combat that message is to give her compliments on things other than her appearance. We commonly tell young girls things like, "you look so pretty in that dress," or "you have beautiful hair." While seemingly harmless, these constant compliments regarding only her looks sends her the message that her image is the most important thing about herself.
Instead, tell her "you can run super fast," "good job being so kind," or "you're such a good writer" to help support her personality and achievements.
Overall, focus on teaching your daughter through words and example that it's more important to be healthy and strong, not skinny and pretty. Your example does so much for your daughter. By instilling a positive body image early on, your daughter will hopefully be able to maintain that same level of confidence no matter what the media tells her.