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Many dads watch their teenage daughters struggling with body image and don’t know quite what to say. The good news is that there are some great ways dads can help positively influence how girls feel about their body, food and exercise.
I’ve been fortunate to work collaboratively with some amazing psychologists to help young adolescent girls grow stronger and comfortable in their own skin. Here are some of the things that I have learned along the way.
Emphasize strength not appearance
When we look at stereotypes surrounding what society suggests makes females feminine and “womanly” what comes up are words like pretty, put together, reserved, quiet, nurturing and passive. When you choose to compliment your daughter compliment her for having a strong opinion (even if you don’t agree with it – the point is to let her have her voice and be heard), leadership, courage and standing up for herself. This is the most important gift you can give her so that she sees that her identity and what you love about her is tied to strength not appearance.
The influence of words
Claire, a Grade 9 English teacher recently told me about a powerful quote from one of her students from an assignment. “If you tell a girl she’s pretty, she won’t believe it. If you tell a girl she’s fat, she’ll believe it for the rest of her life.”
This week share this quote with your teenage sons and daughters around the dinner table and ask them their thoughts. This could be one of the most important teaching lessons they have about the power of their words, text messages and Facebook posts and how they influence others profoundly.
While disordered eating can manifest in multifactorial ways in response to a lack of control in one’s life, when I’ve asked my clients with anorexia and bulimia about where things started here are some of the things they have said that demonstrate the power of words:
- My ballet instructor told me to suck in my belly because it was hindering “clean lines.”
- My brother called me thunder thighs since my legs were bigger than his.
- My mom told me I wasn’t allowed to have dessert (but my other siblings who were skinnier seem to be allowed and not monitored).
- My coach told me I needed to lose five pounds before competition.
- I was always taller than the other kids and they teased me about being big. I wish someone had told me there is a difference between big and tall.
- It wasn’t the words that hurt it was the lack of words. I didn’t get told I was good enough.
Through adolescence, a female’s body and hormones are changing faster than her brain can often handle. Moving from a flat chest and narrow hips to higher body-fat and womanly curves is a big adjustment that is often difficult. Throw in media images of air-brushed and digitally “skinnied” models and societal messages that contribute to the over-sexualization of girls and you can see why adolescent teens feel inadequate and unsure about their body.
While a healthy body image does come from within, it certainly helps when our parents, coaches, boyfriends and friends remind us that cellulite is normal and curves are in. A boyfriend of one of my teenage clients with an eating disorder that is struggling to adjust to her new body after puberty said it best. “Guys are not like dogs, they don’t chase sticks.” Think this helped her feel just a little bit better? You bet!
Kids learn what they live
Think your kids didn’t see you skip carbs all day while following yet another fad diet? Stuffing uncomfortable emotions with food? Wonder why your adolescent girl is obsessing about the number on the scale? Kids learn what they live.
The best job you can do as a parent and caregiver is role model regular healthy meals but also save room for fun foods like chocolate or potato chips chosen for non-nutrition reasons. Expose them to moderate physical activity to keep the body strong. Remind them that just like we accept that we all wear different shoe sizes, we also need to accept that we all wear a different body size too.
Most importantly, give your teenage girl permission (if not encouragement) to flip out and have messy emotions. After all, it is the stuffed and starved emotion you should be more worried about.