When I found out I was having a girl, I kind of freaked out… but not in a good way. I worried about the tough challenge I would have in raising her to fight the many battles women and girls face. I especially worried about pressure from society and media related to body image, appearance, and self-acceptance. As a woman who spent way too many years of her life worrying about calories, exercise, and overall body concerns, I want to do everything I can to protect my daughter from basing her identity on her appearance. I want to do everything I can to help her spend her time on things far more productive than counting calories. And I want her to play sports because she likes them, not because she thinks that will make her thin.
Yes, my daughter is only 3. And, yet, studies show that body image issues start that early. Girls and boys are listening and watching what their parents do and say, and this includes how they act at meals and how they talk about their bodies. Although boys and men struggle with body image issues and eating disorders, the problem affects women and girls in much greater numbers. It is my hope that we moms can help our daughters grow up seeing their bodies as awesome, functional machines, and see food as this amazing fuel that keeps them running. Simple as that. And, yet, how do we make that happen? Here are six ways to start now:
1. Talk about your food
When you’re eating, talk about the food. Talk about how delicious it is, talk about how much you are enjoying it, talk about what it reminds you of. Don’t talk about the fat or calories in it. Don’t classify it as “good” or “bad” food. Don’t apologize for what you’re eating — or legitimize it. You never have to be sorry for eating a delicious piece of chocolate cake, and don’t tell me it’s “OK” to eat it because you skipped lunch! And, please, whatever you do, do not say this in front of my daughter!
2. Don’t label yourself as “good” or “bad”
Never label yourself as “good” or “bad” in relation to what you’re eating. If you order a salad and your girlfriend says how “good” you are, or if you share dessert and she bemoans that you are being “bad,” challenge her. Yes, there are healthy and unhealthy choices for food. There is moderation. There are better choices and not-so-good choices. But none of this equates to you being good or bad.
3. Exercise for health — not for rock-hard abs
Show your daughter how important exercise is for her and for you because it makes you healthy. Don’t talk about the rock-hard abs you want or the calories you are burning. Tell her how happy it makes you feel when you run with her, or how strong she is when she climbs the ladder at the playground.
4. Put on the bikini
Swimsuit season is around the corner. Wear that bikini because it is more comfortable than a soaking wet one-piece. Wear that bikini, and wear it proudly! Remember, the best way to get a bikini body is to take your body and put it in a bikini. That’s all you have to do. Dare to be as non-judgmental about your body as your kids are. Or, at least pretend to be. When you are at the beach, try to concentrate on the feelings of the sun, sand, and water on your skin. Don’t focus on your body or other women’s. Odds are, you and your kids will have a more enjoyable time.
5. Say “thank you”
When someone complements you on your body, say “thank you.” Don’t tell them they’re blind. Don’t talk about how many hours at the gym it took you. Just say thanks.
6. Seek support — we’re all in this together
If you are struggling with food and weight concerns and this is hard for you, remember you are among a large group of fellow strugglers. Seek support from your partner, your girlfriends, and your doctor. Fake it until you make it if you have to. As you start to help your daughter, you will help you, as well.