Parenting Girls Through Diet Season

8 min read

Some of the toughest questions about raising girls are about body image. Girls are growing up in a sea of images – several thousand a day – that tell them that their primary value is their appearance. Before finishing elementary school most of them have learned that they are supposed to be tall, very thin (so thighs don’t touch), with long, straight hair and perfect skin. No wonder 80% of ten year olds have been on a diet. At the same time, childhood obesity has more than doubled in the last 30 years, almost a quarter of adolescents are considered obese.

These two extreme trends leave many parents at a loss on how to role model and communicate with their daughters, especially when girls go through puberty, gaining the average of 25 pounds.

One mom told me, “I want to tell my daughter to eat what she wants and not worry about what she looks like, but then she eats six pieces of toast. That’s not good for her.” Another mom told me that she only hears what she should not do, she said, “I know I shouldn’t talk to her about calories or dieting, but I don’t have another language.

To help answer your questions, we reached out to body image expert and author Julia V. Taylor. If you want follow-up or clarification, please leave a comment. We’d love your insights and questions to help keep the conversation going.

Even Ensler Never Broken

SM: Regarding body image, you say this time of year can be as hard as beach season, why is that?

JT: Our society is saturated with inconsistent, unrealistic expectations about beauty and weight. It’s difficult for men and inescapable for women. Women are inconspicuously sent the message that we have to prepare our bodies for every season; like we are easily moldable objects designed solely for the viewing pleasure of others.

I believe this time of year is difficult because of the increased advertising around body related products in January. Most of these products contain an overarching message of “there is something wrong with your body and our product (food, diet, makeup, lotion, cleanse, detox, gym membership, etc.) will fix it.” Eve Ensler says it best: “Stop trying to fix your body. It was never broken.”

SM: Do you use the word diet with girls? Why or why not? 

JT: I never use the term diet; in fact, I think it is the worst four-letter word. To me, the word diet implies something temporary that involves deprivation. Also, statistically speaking, diets don’t work. The dieting industry is a multibillion-dollar industry with an incredibly high failure rate, yet we have the highest rate of obesity than any other nation. This isn’t a coincidence. I prefer the term healthy changes/habits. A change or habit is something to continue and rarely has a deadline.

SM: Many of our moms know how important their role is as a role model for their girls. When it comes to feeling good about your body, how can we role model it if we don’t feel really feel it? 

JT: If you desire to make a healthy change, it never begins with shame. True change is about learning to accept your body, as is. You embrace your body for what it does, and not what it looks like. Acceptance and self-care is key. You don’t have to love your body or even like your body to embrace that notion of “it is what it is.”

I may be going against the grain here, but I’m inclined to say be honest with your daughter if you’re struggling. If you don’t feel great about your body, tell her you’re working on being kinder to yourself and in the meantime, try not to make disparaging remarks about yourself, your body, and/or other people’s shapes and sizes.

SM: What if we really do need to be healthier with eating or exercise, how can be give our girls permission to like their bodies when our own bodies are not healthy?

JT: Girls are watching, even when you think they are not. You can’t look in the mirror and comment on how you hate this part or that part and then tell your daughter she should like her body. Your body isn’t an object; your body isn’t a shape. It’s your body.

This reminds me of a situation I encountered many years ago when speaking at a conference in Nashville. If I am talking about body image or media literacy, I always show Tri Delta’s 2008 Fat Talk Video. This woman came up to me after my talk and had tears streaming down her face. She told me that she had a 5-year-old daughter that was starting to make comments about being fat and ugly, and she had no idea where it was coming from until she watched that video. She shared that people always comment about how much her daughter looks like her, yet she berates herself and her body every day. She hugged me and said she would never do it again.

SM: What about when family members comment about girls weight, as parents, how should we respond? 

JT: Swing to the left and try to prevent it from happening. If you know you have a family member that can’t possibly touch a carb or refrain from commenting about the latest “diet” they are on, ask that they not make comments about food or weight or exercise or bodies (or politics) around your family.

Sometimes this isn’t possible, and other times well-meaning, loving people say the wrong things. They may make a flippant comment they never spend another second thinking about, and now your daughter can’t forget it. If this happens, take some time to process what happened with your daughter. Go for a walk and tell her how sorry you are that so-and-so said something absurd. Ask her how she feels. Listen to hear her and validate her feelings. If she says she’s “fine”, then tell her how angry/hurt/disappointed you are in that person. Tell her again how sorry you are, and leave the door open for further discussion. Hug her.

SM: For parents worried about their girls starting of the New Year with a diet, what can they say? 

JT: First, New Year’s Resolutions do not have to be about weight. If you want to avoid this all together, come up with a few goals that have nothing to do with looking different.

If your daughter needs and wants to make a healthy change, help her do just that and start with one or two feasible goals, like Meatless Monday, moving in a way that feels comfortable and fun, or adding an extra fruit or vegetable each day. Make duo or family goals so she feels supported.

Finally, I recommend keeping a gratitude journal, especially if there is a food/exercise related goal. Buy her a journal or a composition notebook to decorate. Encourage her to write down five things she is grateful for each day that have absolutely nothing to do with her weight or looks. She may roll her eyes at you, but still give her that sacred space and permission to express herself. And don’t read it unless she gives you permission.

SM: Specifically, what roles do dads play in helping their daughters develop a healthy body image?

JT: Fathers and father-figures can play a tremendous role in helping girls feel confident about their bodies and abilities. It’s important for male role models to treat girls and women (all women) with dignity and respect. For example, don’t tell your daughter or partner they are beautiful and then make a negative comment about how other people look. Those messages are inconsistent, hypocritical, and confusing to children and teens.

Also, it’s important to stay connected to your daughter during the tumultuous adolescent/teenage years. Don’t get weirded out by natural weight gain, periods, and bras and treat her differently when her body changes. A common fallback for dads is to tease as a way to combat awkwardness. While teasing is teasing and usually meant to be in jest, it can easily and unintentionally cross the line. Understand she may need more space; yet try to stay close even if she pushes you away during this time.

Lastly, fathers/father-figures can play a unique role in squashing gender microaggressions, sexism, weightism, etc. Teach your daughter that her gender and body won’t hold her back.

body image workbook for teens

SM: Last question, besides your book, what are the top five body image resources you recommend?

JT:

  1. Miss Representation – watch it with your daughter or invite your friends and their daughters over for a movie night.
  2. For parents and their body image woes, anything and everything by Brene Brown. She tackles the stuff underneath. There is always stuff underneath.
  3. A Mighty Girl has this great body image resource page for girls.
  4. I also love Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls – it is all things good.
  5. And of course, Girls Leadership Institute. I especially enjoy your weekly videos. They tackle tough situations in a straightforward and empowering fashion.

TaylorBio
Julia V. Taylor is a school counselor and Ph.D. Candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA.  She is author of The Body Image Workbook for Teens,  The Bullying Workbook for Teens, Salvaging Sisterhood, G.I.R.L.S: Group Counseling Activities for Enhancing Social and Emotional Development, and a children’s book, Perfectly You.  She can be reached at www.juliavtaylor.com

  1. Margo

    Such important messages. One additional I believe should be about becoming a role model. It’s one thing to make sure you don’t put your own body down in front of your daughter (or at all), but if you want your daughter to make the healthy choices regarding food, which will prevent her from later on seeking out fad diets, then it’s important to serve as a good example. Nearly 2 years ago I gave up refined sugar. The result of this change in eating habit was that I lost around 10kg without “dieting”. My daughter, 12, who has excellent eating habits and a good body image, recently decided that she would cut down on sugary treats, and limit them to one small treat per day. I loved that she was moderate about her approach, didn’t do anything drastic and had health as her main goal, and not weight loss. I know that it’s because of my change in habits, which were positive and not weigh-loss motivated, rather health motivated. I also go to the gym 203 times a week – so I’m not fanatic but it’s a priority for me to stay fit and therefore healthy (but I’m not a skinny person at all.) My daughter dances a lot, so she knows that this is her way of staying fit and healthy.
    By creating a positive food environment and showing our own commitment to fitness and health, our children will benefit and will adopt good eating habits and body images as well.

    • Julia V. Taylor

      Hi Margo:
      Thank you for sharing. You’re right about role modeling healthy habits in order to create a positive environment. I’m glad your family changes were not drastic and you make health the priority.
      JVT

  2. John Sileo

    As the father of two amazing daughters, I especially appreciated your “dad-specific” advice. Everything in your post was useful to me, but it’s nice to know how I can better improve my relationship with my girls around healthy habits. Thanks for your expertise and for the additional resources.

    • Julia V. Taylor

      Hi John:
      You are most welcome. I appreciate you taking the time to read (and comment!) – your daughters are lucky to have you.
      JVT

  3. Caley Hirsch

    Hi There,

    Thank you for sharing your insight. I’m wondering how much freedom to give my daughter when it comes to food. She is 5 years old and is always thinking about food. When breakfast is done, she starts talking about what’s for snack and lunch. When I drop her off at preschool, she immediately sits down and opens her lunch box and starts eating her lunch (minutes after a big protein based breakfast). We are a pretty healthy (not obsessive) family. We are trying to teach her to make good choices about food, but if we don’t monitor the AMOUNT, she will eat until she says her stomach hurts. Do you have any advice about how to address this?

    Thanks so much,

    Caley

    • Julia V. Taylor

      Hi Caley:
      Have you spoken to your daughter’s pediatrician about your concerns? From a body image/healthy habits stance, it sounds like you’re on point. I’d run your concerns by a medical professional to see if anything else is going on.

      Julia

  4. Mayura

    It was wonderful to read the section on Body Image. Sometimes it is presumed that some cultures are more accepting of womens’ bodies. Even if this is true the globalised world is quickly changing this. I was so surprised to hear my 11 year old daughter rubbing her tummy and saying she was fat!

    • Julia V. Taylor

      Mayura:
      Yes to everything you wrote. In fact, I’ve worked with girls from other cultures who feel more shame about their unhealthy thoughts and concerns related to their body because they are “supposed” to feel differently. It’s a vicious cycle. Thank you for sharing.
      JVT

  5. Florence

    More, more, more please
    I have three daughters and I see so many body related issues: shape, weight, make up, inappropriate clothing styles, using “feminine cuteness” to get their way, inability to coherently express themselves when angry… Our girls are living in a time of great progress, but still being bombarded by archaic ideas of what womanhood is!?! Help!

    • Julia V. Taylor

      Florence:
      We’re on it; the double standards are real and girls receive conflicting messages about femininity from a very young age. It’s confusing, at best. Have you read Rachel Simmon’s “The Curse of the Good Girl”? She discusses how girls suppress and express anger. I dig it.
      JVT

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