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The Shocking Thing My Child’s Friend Said to Me

Photograph by Getty Images/Cultura Exclusive

I was recently walking along with my daughter and a friend of hers. As we passed an old fashioned Sweet Shoppe the friend declared, "I can't eat anything in there. I'm on a diet."

The girl in question is 7. I was shocked.

"What do you mean you are on ‘a diet?’" I asked, as casually as I could muster.

"I have to watch what I eat," she explained. "I'm too big." As she said that, she ran her hands over her flat, non-existent belly.

It stopped me in my tracks. I was disturbed. I was frozen. I had no idea what to say.

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My daughter was clearly confused. We've never talked about dieting. Moreover, her friend does not have an ounce of extra weight on her. She is long and lean, just like my daughter. And my child looked back and forth between her friend and me with big, surprised eyes she asked:

"Mommy, what is she talking about?"

And I realized how I responded was important. I had two young, impressionable girls waiting for me, the adult, to speak about their bodies.

No pressure.

One thing I do know is that when a girl or woman has an image of herself, especially a negative one, it is hard to change it.

I tried to remember the advice of parenting expert Katie Hurley. She has three tips for parents about talking to girls about body image issues:

1. Answer the question with a question

Well, the child hadn’t actually asked me a question to start the conversation. But I had followed up her remark with one. Problem was, I had no idea how to react to her answer. I knew the words I chose would matter. A lot.

2. Watch your words

I did not want to use the words “fat” or “skinny.” She had used the word “big.” I was concerned if I said something like, “You don’t look big to me,” she might interpret that to mean she could look big to someone. Or it would somehow reinforce her view of herself.

One thing I do know is that when a girl or woman has an image of herself, especially a negative one, it is hard to change it.

So, instead, I replied with, “It is important to think carefully about the foods we eat. Food is fuel for our bodies, so we want to give it good things. Especially when we’re growing. That helps us be healthy. But an occasional treat can be good, too.”

Was that the right response? I have absolutely no idea. I was flying by the seat of my pants. But I hadn’t said anything directly about her body. Should I? Was she waiting for me to do so?

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3. Talk about strengths

What I said next was, “When I look at you, I see a healthy, strong young woman. Who can run, climb, dance. Which is good, because it is also important to move our bodies and keep them active. We like to do that in our family.”

And then I asked them if they wanted to race me to a particular spot farther down the sidewalk. Of course they did. They both beat me. We laughed and went on with our day.

But her words continue to haunt me. It has definitely made me evaluate carefully how I talk in front of and to my child—and her friends. Because they are always listening.

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