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As a mom of two young girls, and a woman who has struggled with disordered eating for half of my life, I have become acutely aware of just how difficult it is to raise body positive daughters in a world obsessed with weight and appearance. The media has created this totally impossible standard for what beauty really is and then sells the idea that a person's value somehow rests on whether or not they meet those standards, and that really sucks.
There is good news though. As parents, we have a lot of power and influence over our children. With a little bit of knowledge and the right tools, we can play an important role in growing our daughters to be resilient, self-confident and radically accepting of who they are.
Here's the thing, it still isn't easy. A lot of the dialogue about building confidence and self-love in our children seems really vague. When it comes to applying these big ideas in the trenches of everyday parenting, I still feel kind of clueless most days. So much of successful parenting is less about the big picture and more about our small daily actions. So, here are a few everyday ways I've learned to raise body positive daughters.
Requiring our children to continue eating after they are full teaches them to ignore their bodies when they feel full, creating a habit of overeating.
Even though we may have the best of intentions, the comments we make about how much or how little our children eat can create foundations for disordered eating. There are two big ways we can honor our child's fullness or hunger every single day.
First, we can give up the parenting practice of requiring our children to finish the food on their plate before leaving the table. Even though this was probably common practice in our childhood homes (starving kids in Africa, am I right?), most nutrition experts, including Maryann Jacobsen, advise against this practice. Requiring our children to continue eating after they are full teaches them to ignore their bodies when they feel full, creating a habit of overeating.
Secondly, we can apply the same logic to our child's hunger. Common sense seems to suggest that if you are concerned about your child's weight, you should limit their calorie intake when possible. The truth is, withholding or restricting certain foods can lead to weight gain from overeating behaviors, according to a study by the University of South Carolina. Foods that are withheld can be a kind of forbidden fruit—and when kids get access to those foods, they might overeat. So, when your child says they are hungry for more, trust their ability to listen to their body and give them more.
In our culture, food is so often used as a way to manipulate our bodies into looking a certain way. And then, there is the way we label certain foods as good and others a bad. These ideas distort the real value of food, which is to provide fuel for our bodies and be a source of pleasure. So how can we start to talk about food in a healthy way?
First, we can talk about how the food we eat makes us feel. Start using words like "healthy" and "energized" and stop talking about calories or fat. When the opportunity presents itself, talk to you kids about how foods help them focus in school or play with their friends.
Next, it is great to acknowledge that taste is preference, and it is different for everyone. Talk at the table about how things taste, asking about favorite flavors and textures.
Lastly, stop talking about certain foods as if they are good or bad. No matter what diet culture says, the large majority of nutritionists insist that all foods can be eaten in moderation. Not only that, nutrition expert Alan Aragon argues research shows demonizing certain foods while placing others on a pedestal creates an unhealthy relationship with food.
3. Make exercise fun and never make it about weight loss
If in your home, exercise is simply a means of burning calories or making up for the last doughnut you ate, then you are thinking about exercise the wrong way.
Make exercise fun. That can look different for every family, but in our family that means a dance party every day, yoga in the evenings, and family hikes or walks when the weather is nice.
Talk about how exercise makes you feel. During or after exercise, make comments to your children about how great your body feels. Say, "I feel so full of energy when we walk!" or "I am in such a good mood after our dance parties!"
4. Compliment their character instead of their looks
Most parents think their children are adorable, but placing too much value on their appearance could communicate the belief that their value as a person is wrapped up in their appearance. Instead, compliment their character instead of their looks. Focus on their kindness toward their friends or siblings, how they stand their ground when they know something is right or wrong, or their creative perspective of the world.
5. Model body positivity in yourself
So many of us never want our daughters to diet and still put our bodies through hell because we haven't dealt with our unhealthy relationship with food and exercise.
This is quite possibly the hardest and most important part of raising body positive daughters. So many of us never want our daughters to diet and still put our bodies through hell because we haven't dealt with our unhealthy relationship with food and exercise. Taking care of yourself and loving your own body is the best way to model body positivity for your daughters. How can you do this?
Avoiding disordered eating habits. It is important that your daughters observe you eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full. None of us our perfect, but our children will learn a lot from how we approach food in our home.
Never insult your body, especially in front of your children. You will never learn to love your body if you are constantly focusing on what you don't like. Your value is not increased or diminished by your appearance, celebrate what makes you uniquely you.