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I’m going to start by sharing some statistics (found at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org & www.nedic.ca):
- 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner (Collins, 1991)
- 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat (Mellin et al., 1991)
- 46% of 9-11 year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets, and 82% of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets (Gustafson-Larson & Terry, 1992)
- According to a 2002 survey, 28% of girls in grade nine and 29% in grade ten engaged in weight-loss behaviours.
- In a survey of adolescents in grades 7-12, 30% of girls and 25% of boys reported teasing by peers about their weight. Such teasing has been found to persist in the home as well – 29% of girls and 16% of boys reported having been teased by a family member about their weight.
- Body-based teasing can have a serious impact on girls’ attitudes and behaviours. According to one study, girls who reported teasing by family members were 1.5 times more likely to engage in binge-eating and extreme weight control behaviours five years later.
- In a study of 14 – 15 year old adolescents, girls who engaged in strict dieting practices:
– Were 18 times more likely to develop an ED within six months than non-dieters
– Had almost a 20% chance of developing an ED within one year
– Girls who dieted moderately were five times more likely to develop an ED within 6 months than non-dieters.
So what can you do as a mother (or father) to help? The first thing I always tell people is this: live by example!
So the question then is: what does this mean? Well, I’ve compiled a list of the “DOs” and “DON’Ts” of ‘body-image smart parenting’, And here they are:
- DON’T talk about your body in a way that you wouldn’t want your daughter talking about hers e.g. no ‘thunder thighs’ ‘fat mommy’ ‘large arse’…(you get the point)
- DON’T talk about any other family member’s body in a way that you wouldn’t want your daughter mimicking in reference to herself e.g. calling each other fat, flabby, referring to ‘spare tires’ etc… And while we’re at it, don’t talk about anybody in this way. Remember, with everything you say about yourself and others you are setting an example to your daughter about how she can talk about others AND herself.
- DON’T refer to exercise in any way other than for the purpose of enjoyment and health. In other words, none of this: “Mommy really needs to get to the gym, look at her thighs!” “Looks like mommy needs to do more sit ups! Look at that flab!” “I’m going to have to run a mile to burn off the calories from this!” (and the same goes in reference to talking about others, don’t tell your daughter or other family members they need to exercise to ‘burn off those calories’ or ‘get rid of that flab’ – exercise should be encouraged as part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle, it is not in any way to be used in reference to aesthetics and should never be referred to as an ‘obligation’ or ‘responsibility’ OR (most importantly) punishment for eating.
- DON’T engage in ‘Food Talk’! What is Food Talk? Any discussion about food in which it is categorized as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ e.g. carrots = good, chips = bad. Food is just food. And eating should be encouraged and not regulated.
- DON’T use food as punishment or award. This is similar to the above point: Food is just food! So no talk of “I had a bad day, so I’ve earned this brownie” – what does a bad day have to do with a brownie? And why can’t you have a brownie on a good or neutral day? (this also links eating with emotions, which encourages….Emotional Eating!) OR “After that pizza last night, I should eat nothing but broccoli today” – this encourages restriction & in essence you are ‘punishing’ yourself for eating pizza by forcing yourself to eat broccoli (categorizing one food as ‘good’ the other as ‘bad’).
The next two go without saying, but I’m going to say them anyways:
- DON’T tease your daughter (or any family member or human being in general) about her body!
- DON’T put your daughter on a diet. (and by the way, this means you shouldn’t be on a diet, either, remember what I said about leading by example?)
- DO love your own body (and if you aren’t there yet, fake it!) if you must say things about your body in front of your daughter, say how much you love it, how much you appreciate it’s strength and health.
- DO praise your daughter for things other than her appearance. It is good to encourage and compliment your children (of course!) but with girls we tend to focus SO much on their appearance, why not praise how smart she is? What a great drawer she is? How good she is at dancing or singing? Focus on her skills and her personality not her physical features.
- DO counteract negative messages your daughter hears/sees in reference to eating, exercise, and beauty. You cannot protect your daughter from all negative messages. Actually, you can only protect her from very few. But what you can do is prepare her so she is able to respond to these negative messages (from media/friends/other family members) in a positive rather than destructive way. Explain to her where true beauty comes from (psst…it’s from inside!) Show her videos and pictures that explain what Photoshop is and how it works. Don’t just get mad at her if you hear her talking bad about how someone else looks, have a conversation with her about it – explaining why she shouldn’t talk this way (again, you will be far more credible if you don’t do this yourself!) If you’ve been in a setting where one of the people was talking about his/her latest diet and weight loss plan, talk with your daughter about it after – ask her how it made her feel and explain to her that even though ‘everyone is doing it’ that doesn’t make dieting OK.
- DO promote Intuitive Eating at home. What is Intuitive Eating? In a nutshell, it’s about honouring your hunger & full signals – eat when you are hungry, stop when you are satisfied. And the key? Eat what your body wants to eat. No ‘good’ food. No ‘bad’ food. No binging. No restricting. NO DIETS. (see links at the end of this post with more information on this)
- DO give your children the opportunity to listen to their bodies’ natural cravings. This goes along with the above point – if your daughter is craving fish sticks for dinner, why not let her have fish sticks? And if she wants veggies and ranch dip, let her have that! The problem is our natural ability to listen to our bodies has been so corrupted by all the messages we receive about what we should and shouldn’t eat and how much we should eat etc… Don’t pass this corruption on to the next generation! Give your children a chance to listen to their natural cravings – remember, our body’s only goal is self-preservation, and in order for us to truly reach a healthy place with food, we need to reconnect with our innate ability to feed ourselves. Studies have been done where parents ‘gave in’ and let their children eat as many Jelly Beans (or whatever their favourite candy is) as they want, and after a few days of bingeing on the candy (only because it had been denied to them by their parents), when the children realized they could have it whenever they wanted in whatever quantity they wanted they did in fact STOP eating the candy! Remember, a child’s desire to eat nothing but sweets is not ‘innate’ it is the first sign of them responding to our corrupt approach to food – parents deny their children candy and so they want it – LOTS of it. Stop denying (just like when a dieter stops restricting) and the binges/insatiable desire for it will stop, too.
I know some of this may seem a bit drastic, or even downright crazy, but take it from someone who has gone through the whole “dieting/over-exercising/restricting/eating disorder/’healthy food only’/bingeing” cycle – this is what works.
When we break the habits of body-hate talk and we focus on inner beauty rather than physical features and combine that with returning to our natural ability to feed ourselves, everything falls into place.
And if you stop and think about it, I mean really think about it, it starts to make sense…
I encourage you to buy the book “Intuitive Eating” by Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch (and no, this isn’t a shameless plug – the authors don’t even know who I am!) it is an excellent book and has an entire section on raising a family to have a healthy relationship with food. The newest edition (3rd edition – available for pre-order) has an entire section dedicated to ‘raising an intuitive eater’.
This book changed my approach to food and was integral in my recovery from my eating disorder and I know the principles I learnt from it will be integral in ensuring that if I have a family one day, my daughter doesn’t go through the same struggles I did.
You can watch a video I did on Intuitive Eating here: http://youtu.be/MLt5Y5mTdt0
Tell your daughter she’s beautiful! & make sure she knows it has nothing to do with her appearance.
 Collins, M.E. (1991). Body figure perceptions and preferences among pre-adolescent children. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 199-208.
 Mellin, L., McNutt, S., Hu, Y., Schreiber, G.B., Crawford, P., & Obarzanek, E. (1991). A longitudinal study of the
dietary practices of black and white girls 9 and 10 years old at enrollment: The NHLBI growth and health study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 27-37.
 Gustafson-Larson, A.M., & Terry, R.D. (1992). Weight-related behaviors and concerns of fourth-grade children. Journal of American Dietetic Association, 818-822.
 Boyce, W. F. (2004). Young people in Canada: their health and well-being. Ottawa, Ontario: Health Canada
 Eisenberg, M. E. & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2003). Associations of Weight-Based Teasing and Emotional Well-Being Among Adolescents. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 157(6), 733-738.
 Neumark-Sztainer, D. R., Wall, M. M., Haines, J. I., Story, M. T., Sherwood, N. E., van den Berg, P. A. (2007). Shared Risk and Protective Factors for Overweight and Disordered Eating in Adolescents. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 33(5), 359-369.
 Patton, G. C., Selzer, R., Coffey, C., Carlin, J. B. & Wolfe, R. (1999). Onset of adolescent eating disorders: population based cohort study over 3 years. British Medical Journal, 318, 765-768.
Lauren is the Founder and Editor of Libero. She started Libero in April 2010, when she shared her story about her struggles with an eating disorder and depression. Now Lauren uses her writing and videos to advocate mental health and body positivity. In her spare time, she enjoys makeup artistry, playing Nintendo, and taking selfies with her furbaby, Zoey.
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