“Mom, I’m fat.”
No mom wants to hear that comment from her daughter.
Yet never before have our girls been more obsessed with their weight and appearance. Girls are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of nuclear war, cancer or losing their parents, according to the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination.
Chronic dieting, low self-esteem and eating disorders are affecting them at alarming rates.
• Girls as young as 6 worry about their weight.
• 89 percent of girls have dieted by age 17.
• 15 percent of young women have disordered eating.
• 42 percent of girls in grades one to three want to lose weight.
• 45 percent of boys and girls in grades three through six want to be thinner.
• 51 percent of 9- and 10-year-old girls say they feel better about themselves when they are dieting.
• 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat.
Those statistics come from the Body Image Therapy Center. Though the numbers may convince us that raising body-confident girls is impossible in a culture focused on thin as the healthy ideal body type, we can make a difference.
Parents, teachers, mentors and health care professionals have the power to create that shift. Our girls need us to take a radical stand to accept all bodies and the girls who live in these bodies.
The most important thing we can do to promote positive body image is work on our own body image.
“Over 97 percent of women have at least one body-hating thought every single day, and 91 percent of women are dissatisfied with some aspect of their body,” said Alexia Conason, a clinical psychologist and the founder of the Anti-Diet Plan.
Those statistics have risen to epidemic proportions due to our disordered culture, which focuses on our flaws and pairs our self-worth with our pant size or the number on the scale, Conason said.
But there’s good news.
Girls who have a mom who is not self-critical of her own weight are 40 percent more likely to be body positive or body neutral, despite the cultural messages that teens see and hear every day, according to a Yahoo survey.
When we work on our own body image we support our girls.
If your daughter says she’s fat, how you respond matters.
Typically, we say “Oh, you’re not fat.” Yet that only reinforces that fat is “bad” and undesirable. Instead, let’s be authentic and honest in our communication with our girls. Be curious. Ask her questions such as: What caused her concern about her body size and why does she feel this way? Then listen deeply.
Practice empathy, the ability to understand and share her feelings. Can you relate to how your daughter feels about her body?
Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your own struggles with body image and why it’s important to have a healthy relationship with your body. Let her know she’s not alone.
Use the inevitable questions and challenges regarding body image and eating choices to strengthen your relationship with your daughter. Let her know “we’re in this together.”
So instead of telling your daughter that she’s not fat or her thighs aren’t too big, teach her to see bodies and health from a broader and more realistic perspective.
Teach her to take a critical look at the media she is consuming. Social media in particular plays a large role in the daily lives of our young people. Check in with your daughter and discuss how social media images often portray unrealistic bodies ideals. Have her unfollow any feed that doesn’t make her feel good in her body now. Then, together, check out body-positive social media feeds to replace them.
Teach your daughter to separate self-worth from appearance. Create a list with her of all her strengths and accomplishments — qualities that have nothing to do with her appearance.
“True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are,” said Brene Brown, author of “The Gifts of Imperfection.”
Break the habit of body criticism. Our girls are listening. Comments like “Ugh! I feel so fat today.” Questions like “Do these jeans make my butt look big?” Statements about food like “Oh, I can’t eat that, I’ve been so bad this week.”
Our kids model our behavior.
“A new study by Webb et al (2018) posited that hearing ‘fat talk’ from one’s family may reinforce notions of a thin ideal and self-objectification which in turn may make women less attuned to the internal workings of their own body, eat less mindfully, and rely more on environmental or other external cues to guide their eating,” Alexis Conason wrote in Psychology Today.
Show your daughter how health looks different on every body. Have her question the cultural assumptions that smaller bodies are healthier than larger ones, that all weight loss is good and all weight gain is bad. Health comes in different sizes and shapes. Together look for examples of her favorite female athletes with different body types.
Let’s be the body image role models our girls need. And don’t worry about making a “mistake” when you find yourself challenged by how to address a body image concern. Just circle back and try again. It matters.
“Adolescents are inundated with messages about the importance of attractiveness and body size from sunup to sundown,” said Nicole Rue, a Jackson clinical psychologist specializing in disordered eating, compulsive exercise and poor body image.
“Parents occupy privileged positions to communicate to their children that human value is multifaceted by acknowledging, encouraging and genuinely appreciating non-appearance-based achievements and proclivities.”
I would love to hear ideas from our community. Where do you see challenges with teen body image?
Let’s create solutions. Let’s act radically in our community to prevent our daughters from fearing fat more than war, cancer or death.
Now when your daughter says “I’m fat” you can let her know that it’s not what she sees in the mirror that needs fixing, it’s the culture.
(This article was published in the January 23, 2019 edition of the Jackson Hole News and Guide).