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One Thing to Never Say to Your Daughter

Photograph by Twenty20

Here's the thing about our daughters. They are beautiful, lively, smart, funny, engaging and very often connected to us, their moms. But they can also be provocateurs. By that I mean they like to wind us up and get us going, especially around things that make them feel really bad. Things like their bodies.

For instance, you could have a daughter who is healthy, athletic and well-proportioned, and she might say something to you like, "I was trying on jeans the other day, and my stomach is so flabby."

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And you might say, "Flabby? No! You have a nice stomach, and without your stomach you wouldn't be able to digest your food. Stomachs are good."

At which point she might say, "No! You don't understand. My stomach is huge. I don't look good in any clothes. I have the fattest, flabbiest stomach in the world. I REALLY HATE IT!" She might even start pummeling her not-fat stomach trying to make it go away. She might even start pummeling you.

And here's where you have to do at that point: You have to squash every urge you may have to say, Well, if you didn't eat quite so much ice-cream, you might like your stomach better. Or, Maybe you just need to exercise more, so why don't I sign you up for basketball? Or, I could help you slim down a bit if that's what you really want.

Seriously, don't say it. Don't say anything that sounds like you are trying to fix your daughter's body. Because there's a good chance she'll hear this: Yep. Even my mom thinks I'm fat.

Girls are bombarded on a regular basis with comments about how they look. But the ones that really affect them are the comments that come from their parents.

My husband Mark is a psychologist on an eating disorder unit in psychiatric hospital in Boston. He sees young women ages 16 to 26 that are dealing with bulimia, anorexia and other disorders that are ruining their lives.

These young female clients tell him that they are bombarded on a regular basis, as most girls and women are, with comments about how they look. But the ones that really affect them are the comments that come from their parents. They are particularly aware of the praise and criticism, often around their weight, that comes from their mothers.

So, in that moment when your daughter is determined to keep hating her stomach or hips or thighs or all of the above, this is what you can do: You can lovingly reflect back the beauty you see, the beauty that has nothing to do with a number on a scale, the fit of her jeans or the screwed up idea of body image that society has brainwashed us with. If your daughter insists on screaming about her stomach some more, you can let her rant, still showing her the loveliness you see.

Then, THEN, at some point when she is calmer and open to talking, you can have a relaxed conversation about things that make her feel healthy. Ask her what activities make her feel good about her body. Does she like dancing? Skiing? Walking with friends? If she is old enough, you can ask her what she thinks of those advertising images with emaciated models. If she wants to talk with you about food, you can help her realize that everything in moderation is a pretty good rule, and even treats now and then are fine.

As my friend Liz likes to say, nutrition isn't rocket science, it's common sense. And demonstrating your own common sense can go a long way toward helping your daughter establish good eating habits.

If your daughter starts talking about dieting, don't just go down that road with her, even if you think she needs to lose a few pounds. Instead, talk with a doctor or nutritionist and get some professional guidance. If eating issues are showing up, this isn't the time to just wing it and hope for the best. While you're at it, get some clarity about your own issues around food.

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Another thing my husband said he hears from female clients is that they learn early from their mothers who have their own food issues. They see the diet drinks stored in the pantry, and the maniacal focus on losing weight for an event. So when you start talking about how fat you are or how you just need to lose 10 pounds, you are teaching your daughter to judge herself harshly, too.

There are so many things we can say to our girls at almost anytime: I love you. You're beautiful. I feel so lucky that you're my daughter.

So, please, skip over the words that send the opposite message.

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