I remember the first time I heard that I was going to have a baby boy.  There was a part of me that felt immediate relief that my baby wasn’t going to be a girl.  It was the part of me that spent hours each day as a researcher studying weight management, body image, and disordered eating.  I knew, with a son, that it was less likely that these issues would affect my child.

But then, a couple of years later I heard my doctor say, “You have a beautiful baby girl.”  And, from that moment on, any hope of not taking the issues I study personally vanished for good. Now that Grace is a part of my life, I’m motivated by the hope that I can keep her from the struggles that plague so many girls and women: body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, and a general overconcern about physical appearance.

Of course, I can’t claim to be completely objective when I have my own daughter in mind, so I conferred with my colleague and fellow health guru, Georgie Fear, author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss, to come up with the below tips about What to tell your daughter about her weight [1].  Some of our advice is more applicable to some ages than others.  And some of these things you can do proactively while others may be in response to concerns raised by your daughter.  Regardless, if you need advice, read on—and don’t hesitate to contact a professional for additional tips!

1)  Focus on Health and Functionality

There are media messages everywhere that direct girls and women to focus on the appearance of their bodies.  And, there is nothing wrong with wanting to look nice.  But, we can do a lot of good by spending some energy talking with our daughters about what is arguably more important:  our health and functionality.  Research suggests that when parents focus discussions about food on health (not appearance), kids are less prone to develop disordered eating [2].  Obviously, if we don’t take good care of our health and stay active and fit, it won’t much matter if we are thin. 

So, instead of saying, “I have to get to the gym to lose five pounds before Aunt Julia’s wedding” try saying, “Going to the gym always makes me feel good, and it’s important to keep me healthy.”  Instead of saying, “I’m not having ice cream tonight, because it’s almost swim suit season,” try saying, “I love ice cream, but it is important to eat healthy foods more often than unhealthy foods, so tonight I think I’ll have fruit.”  Instead of saying, “I’m too tired to cook tonight, let’s order pizza,” try saying, “Want to help me pull a quick, healthy meal together from leftovers and some frozen fruit and veggies?”

2)  Keep it Positive

Many of us would never even think of commenting on our daughter's weight. However, commenting on your own weight or other people's in public teaches your daughter that people are judging her that way. Criticizing your own "huge thighs" can lead your daughter to model the same behavior, looking for flaws in her own body and others’.  Instead, consider involving your daughter in sports as a way to help her develop a natural sense of her body as one that can do things, be developed in both power and endurance, and get better at things with practice.  The lesson we want to teach our girls is that their bodies are not just something to be looked at.  Too often, it seems that girls and women have been trained to belittle themselves—as if being humble and self-critical about their bodies is a virtue. 

So, instead of saying, “my stomach is so flabby” try saying, “My stomach is pretty amazing – that’s where I grew you!”  Instead of saying, “I’m not athletic,” try saying, “I know that if I keep running a few times a week I’ll get stronger and healthier.”  Instead of saying, “I wish my legs were thinner,” try saying, “I’m so glad my legs are strong enough to push up this mountain.”  What if you don’t quite believe these sentiments?  Say them anyway.  You might just find that you convince yourself, too.

3)  Enjoy ALL Food

Early in life, kids learn that some foods are “good” and some are “bad.”  Subsequently, they learn that the “bad” foods taste good, and the fact that they are typically forbidden (or, by necessity, at least partially restricted) leads them to desire them that much more [3].  So, one valuable lesson we can teach our daughters is to not view some foods as “off limits” and instead encourage enjoyment of all foods in moderation.  A more adaptive way to refer to foods is as “every day foods” and “sometimes foods.”  An apple is an every day food—eat it whenever.  French fries are “sometimes foods”—have them sometimes, but not everyday.  Related, we should avoid using food as a reward or emotional tonic.  Alternates for helping your daughter when she is upset can be asking if she wants to talk, if she’d like to take a walk with you or play catch, or simply offering hugs and physical affection. The bottom line: Focus on food as something you have when you are hungry, not as a reward or a mechanism for punishing yourself. Let your child see that you have a relaxed and enjoyable relationship with food, and that you consume a wide variety of foods [4].

So, instead of saying, "I deserve this hot fudge sundae because I went on a long run today," try saying, “Sometimes, it’s just nice to have a hot fudge sundae!”  Instead of saying, “Eat everything on your plate,” try saying, “I'm full, so I'll take the rest to go.”  Instead of saying, “Don’t eat those French fries, they have so many calories in them,” try saying, “French fries are awesome, but we don’t want to eat too many or we’ll get an upset stomach and miss out on other foods. Baked potatoes and sweet potatoes are tasty too, so let's try a different one every time we come here.”

4) Be a Role Model

At the end of the day, what we tell our daughters about weight issues is probably less important than what we show them.  If we are weight obsessed and constantly worried about what we eat, we are likely to produce daughters with the same concerns.  In fact, in the first scientific article that I ever published, I reported findings that indicated that mothers who had high levels of weight concerns were more likely to have girls with elevated levels of weight concerns—and the girls in this study were only 5 years old! [5]  So, to say that girls’ worries about their weight start early in life is somewhat of an understatement.  But, it doesn’t have to be this way.  And, there’s plenty we can do.  The best part about this?  Changing how we think about these issues, what we say, and even how we behave is not only good for our daughters.  It is good for us, too.

Charlotte Markey
Source: Charlotte Markey

Smart People Don’t Diet (Da Capo Lifelong Books and Nero) by Dr. Charlotte Markey is available now wherever books are sold. You can follow Dr Markey on Twitter (@char_markey), Facebook (Dr. Charlotte Markey), Pinterest (Dr. Charlotte Markey) and on her website Smart People Don’t Diet (www.SmartPeopleDontDiet.com).

References

[1]  Fear. G.  (2015).  Lean Habits For Lifelong Weight Loss: Mastering 4 Core Eating Behaviors to Stay Slim Forever.  Salem, MA:  Page Street Publishing Publication.  To order go to:   http://www.amazon.com/Lean-Habits-Lifelong-Weight-Loss/dp/1624141129/ref...

[2]  Berge, J. M., MacLehose, R., Loth, K. A., Eisenberg, M., Bucchianeri, M. M., Neumark-Sztainer, D.  (2013).    Parent Conversations about Healthful Eating and Weight: Associations with Adolescent Disordered Eating Behaviors.  JAMA Pediatrics, 167, 746-753.

[3]  Markey, C. N.  (2014).  Smart People Don’t Diet:  How the Latest Science Can Help You Lose Weight Permanently.  New York:  Da Capo-Lifelong Books. To order go to:  http://www.amazon.com/Smart-People-Dont-Diet-Permanently/dp/0738217719/r...

Da Capo books, used with permission
Source: Da Capo books, used with permission

[4]  Satter EM. (2007).  Eating competence: Definition and evidence for the Satter eating competence model. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 39, S142–S153.

[5]  Davison, K. K., Markey, C. N., & Birch, L. L.  (2000). Etiology of body dissatisfaction and weight concerns among 5-year-old girls. Appetite, 35, 143-151. doi:10.1006/appe.2000.0349.

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