Seven years ago, when I found out I was pregnant with a girl, I was over the moon. But if I’m being honest, after the initial excitement and joy, fear about raising a confident girl who would feel comfortable in her own skin crept in. After all, I knew what growing up female in our society can mean—an often unhealthy focus on physical appearance, weight and size, and a near-constant barrage of external messages about what is right for women’s bodies.
It’s no secret that almost half of girls in the U.S. are unhappy with their bodies, and concerns about being thin now start long before high school. As a mom to a six-year-old girl, this was particularly disturbing: According to the National Eating Disorders Association, by age 6, girls begin to have concerns about their weight and about half of elementary school girls are concerned about becoming too fat.
How were my husband and I going to raise a girl with a healthy body image? I don’t pretend to have all the answers (not by a long shot), but this is how we have approached this issue with our daughter.
Getting right with my own body image.
Kids absorb everything they see and hear, so if I was constantly knocking my body size or picking apart my eating habits, I knew my daughter would internalize those messages. If I wanted my daughter to have a positive body image, I had to better my own. Truly, after decades of societal feedback about women and weight, right and wrong eating habits, and good and bad food, I mostly relied on the old adage, “Fake it till you make it.” I stopped making comments about my weight and ditched the diet talk.
Changing how bodies and food are discussed—or not discussed.
Along the same lines, when you really start paying attention, discussions about body shape and size—particularly when it comes to women and girls—happen all the time. It’s not uncommon to hear people make passing remarks about other’s weight or eating habits. While neither my husband nor I did this, we both had family members who often did. It wasn’t something I wanted my daughter to hear, so we had to tell them that it was time to stop. Make sure grandparents, aunts, uncles and other close family and friends know that you don’t comment about other people’s bodies or make judgments about what or how people eat. We also let them know that our daughter didn’t need to hear anyone calling themselves the “f” word (fat, obviously) or talking about their diets or weight loss efforts.
Instilling healthy habits, without focusing on good vs. bad food.
Diet culture has taught many women that there are two types of food and two types of eating habits—good ones and bad ones. But assigning these black and white categories can lead to disordered eating. Instead we’re focusing on teaching healthy habits by providing our daughter a variety of nutritionally dense foods, differentiating between everyday food and “sometimes” foods (treats), and allowing her to help in the kitchen and learn how to cook healthy meals.
Getting active can help girls (and boys and adults!) feel strong. According to the Girls Index, a report by Ruling Our Experiences, girls who play sports are more confident and feel better about their bodies than girls who don’t. It’s important to remember, especially for younger girls, that playing a sport doesn’t have to mean they are competitive. Recreational teams are available for kids through high school who want to play, but may not want to compete at a more intense level. And if your daughter isn’t interested in athletics, think beyond team and individual sports—outside play, bike riding, yoga classes and active summer camps have all helped our daughter learn to love activity. Another good reminder as our daughter gets older: For girls who play sports competitively or not, it’s important to focus on effort and fun, not winning and losing.
No dwelling on my daughter’s appearance.
When it comes to little girls, many people default to comments and compliments about their physical appearance whether it’s a hairstyle, an outfit or even just doting on her for being “adorable” or “pretty.” While adults do this without thinking and from a well-meaning place, focusing on appearance alone can set girls up to think that their value and worth is dependent on how they look. Instead, we make an effort to give our daughter compliments that are focused on her academic or extracurricular efforts, her creativity and her ideas.
My husband and I expect that continuing to help our daughter form a positive relationship with her body will only get more complicated as she gets older. But we’re committed to building on this foundation to make sure she grows into a confident and self-assured young woman who understands that her worth has nothing to do with her appearance.