“Mom, I’m so fat.”
When you’re raising a daughter, hearing this comment for the first time can stop you in your tracks. Maybe it comes sooner than you expected -- researchers have found that body image concerns can start as early as 3 or 4 years old. Or maybe you’ve been anticipating this moment, because you know that it’s sadly more common than not for girls to have troubled relationships with their bodies.
During puberty, our daughters are particularly vulnerable to body image concerns. Their bodies are changing and expanding into the shapes they’ll inhabit as adult women. At the same time, they’re being exposed to constant cultural messaging about what a woman’s “ideal” body looks like. The world tells them women should be thin, toned, and curvy in all the right places, and that fat is bad, unhealthy, unattractive, and shameful.
Researchers estimate as many as 80 to 90% of teen girls experience body image concerns.
So the first time your daughter turns down her favorite ice cream at the beach because she’s worried about how she looks in her bathing suit… or has a meltdown because she’s tried on five outfits and nothing looks right... or straight up asks you, “Does it look like I’ve gained weight?”... What can you do?
First, resist the urge to respond with a reassuring, “you’re not fat, you’re perfect!”
Of course you want your daughter to feel good about herself. It makes sense that you instinctively want to reassure her and alleviate her distress. But before rushing to reassure, take a moment to think about what messages that might inadvertently reinforce. This form of comfort can unintentionally suggest there is something wrong with having a larger body. That you can’t be fat and perfect. That she’s okay because she isn’t “fat” -- and so if her body were bigger, she wouldn’t be okay. This type of response may make it even harder for her to accept inevitable changes in her body.
Instead, try to keep body size neutral. Treat it as matter-of-fact, rather than suggesting that it’s tied attractiveness, morality, or worth. Imagine how you might respond to your daughter’s worries about being too short or too tall -- there likely wouldn’t be any value judgment implied.
You can validate what your daughter is experiencing, without validating that weight gain or a larger body is something to fear. Try saying something like, “It sounds like you’re feeling really upset and worried about how your body looks. That can be really hard.”
Use this as an opportunity to discuss beauty ideals -- and help your daughter resist internalizing them.
Rather than leave the conversation at validation, try to help your daughter understand what makes it so uncomfortable to see (or imagine) her body changing. You can take the pressure off by remembering that this is an ongoing process -- not one big conversation that happens just once!
When you’re watching a TV show together, or when you pass an ad or a billboard, ask your daughter what kind of message it sends about bodies. What does it teach us about what women should look like? Who makes money when people feel like their bodies aren’t good enough? What’s so bad about having a bigger body? Is it realistic for most people to look like the woman you’re seeing on this instagram/TV show/billboard?
We’re all exposed to our culture’s idealized standard of beauty and appearance. But research shows that when a girl internalizes that ideal -- takes it on as her own personal standard to aspire to or to hold other people against -- she is much more likely to struggle with body image.
Help your daughter learn to recognize cultural appearance ideals and know that she can decide whether to adopt them as her personal standard for how attractive, healthy, successful, and valuable she is.
Remind your daughter that she will grow into exactly the body she is meant to have.
If your daughter is worried about what her changing body means about her health, encourage her to focus on honoring her body by taking care of it. When she does that, her body will find the shape it is meant to have. And a quick reminder that taking care of your body doesn’t mean eating perfectly nutritious foods at every meal or working out 6 days a week -- it’s about listening and responding to your hunger, fullness, and satisfaction when it comes to food, and moving in ways that feel good to you.
What size does your daughter’s body settle at when she’s pursuing her goals and hobbies, enjoying her life, honoring her values, and taking care of her body without stressing out about it? That’s the body that’s right for her.
Remind her that, just like her feet will grow into their adult size without her having to micromanage the process, her stomach and thighs and arms will find the right size for her as she grows and thrives as well.
Remember that for girls in larger bodies, this journey will be harder, and they need extra support from you.
Especially if your daughter does have a larger body, we get that you want to protect her from all the challenges and pain she may face living in a world that stigmatizes bodies like hers. You want her to be happy and comfortable -- and so it can feel like the right move to support her in changing her body.
However, we encourage you to avoid this trap. There is extensive research showing that 95% of diets don’t work… and so striving for weight loss to feel more comfortable in her body is a temporary solution at best, and at worst, it can lead to a lifelong struggle with disordered eating and body shame.
Instead of helping your daughter change her body to feel better, try to validate what’s hard for her about living in the body she does have.
What has it been like to see her body change?
What is she thinking and feeling when she’s trying on clothes in the morning, or sitting by the pool in her bathing suit?
Help your daughter figure out what helps her treat her body with kindness, even when she doesn’t like the way she looks. What people, experiences, foods, and types of movement make her feel good living in her body, instead of bad about the way it looks?
She will inevitably be exposed to plenty of messages about what it means to have a bigger body and what she can do to “control” her weight. Try being the voice that tells her that she is okay exactly as she is, and that what matters is taking care of herself, no matter what size she is.
Worried about health?
Research tells us this is actually the message that is truly health promoting, so be wary of claims that intentional weight loss should ever be part of a health solution. For more info check out these two podcast episodes: https://www.fullbloomproject.com/podcast-episodes/episode-45 and https://www.fullbloomproject.com/podcast-episodes/larger-bodies
Model neutrality about your own weight -- and seek out resources to support you.
One of the most powerful ways a parent can support their child’s positive body image is to model your own healthy relationship with your body and food.
If you find yourself wavering in the face of your daughter’s distress or having a hard time being neutral about your daughter’s body or your own, we get that. You’ve been exposed to the same beauty ideals and stigma against larger bodies -- for decades longer than she has!
We recommend seeking out resources to learn more about diet culture and how to parent from a weight-neutral perspective. We recommend Ellyn Satter’s Your Child’s Weight for an incredibly informative, research-based perspective on how children’s bodies grow and how you can best support your child. We also recommend our own body-positive parenting podcast for biweekly episodes on these topics and more.
The Full Bloom Project is a research-informed body-positive parenting resource—designed by parents, for parents founded by Zoë Bisbing, LCSW and Leslie Bloch, LCSW-R, both psychotherapists based in New York City. Click here to purchase a copy of The ABC’s of Body-Positive Parenting.