Raising a daughter reminds me every day that girlhood hardly gets the attention it deserves. It’s a dramatic existence—a sea of emotions crashing against an ever-changing landscape. With that in mind, my parenting style can be summed up as this: I’m trying to be the mom I wish I’d had growing up. I love my mom, but she raised me to have the same body self-consciousness she’d grown up with. It takes years to undo the negative body image and that’s precisely what I hope to avoid with my daughter.
I’m convinced that healthy body image starts at home. Read on for some tips on how to raise body-confident daughters.
Use Positive or Neutral Words: Kids learn to see the world as they see themselves, but before they see themselves, they see us. Nothing sends a daughter into a tailspin more than the sudden realization that her mother doesn’t think very highly of herself. According to my kid brain, my mother was the epitome of female beauty. I still remember how confused I felt the first time I watched her pick herself apart in front of me.
“Mama, you have a tummy,” my toddler daughter pointed out.
“Yes, I have a tummy. You have a tummy. Aren’t tummies cool?”
That’s much better than saying, “I know—mommy hates it so much.” When those first moments of body awareness come to the surface, use them as ways to engage your girl in a body-positive way. If the subject is tummies, you could remind your daughter that she once lived in your tummy and share a memory about that time. Or turn it into an anatomy lesson—what’s going on inside our tummies right now and how interesting is that? Or you can simply say, “Yeah, I do!” and high-five your kid.
The options are limitless.
Empower With Nutritional Know-How: If you don’t know much about nutrition, having a kid is the best time to learn. Only after becoming a mom did I learn about the benefits of plant-based meals (even for us omnivores,) macro nutritional balance, what a calorie is, creative ways to cook vegetables, the benefits of sourcing food locally and hawkishly reading food labels.
You can share this information with your kids in kid-appropriate ways. I go grocery shopping with my 3-year-old and while she sits in the cart, we talk about all the foods we’re getting, and I enlist her help in choosing our fruits and vegetables. We cook together and she loves helping. We went strawberry picking and in addition to being a fun day, it was an opportunity to show her where food comes from.
Sometimes you have to get creative. I offer her diverse foods and try to think of ways to incorporate them into meals she already loves. For instance, she refused whole beans but loved them mashed and wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla with some grated cheese. Other times, it’s just a matter of what you make available. In an effort to ditch refined grains, I started buying whole grain sliced bread only. Now everyone eats it happily.
Food doesn’t have to be fraught with emotion if you don’t want it to. In that vein, don’t use food as a reward or punishment. Let food be food.
Activate Your Lifestyle: Pushing our bodies can feel exhilarating and the sweat-induced clarity you experience after a good workout makes it worth the effort alone. But when you frame exercise as a chore, no one wants to do it. Don’t make you daughter think that running on a treadmill is the only way to exercise.
Instead, focus on finding an activity you love—swimming, dance, yoga, hiking, weightlifting, etc. Then do it! Your kids are bound to emulate you and it can become an opportunity for both mother and daughter to enjoy something together. I’m a beginner yogi, but I love it. When my daughter sees me doing yoga, she practices alongside me.
When our kids see us enjoying ourselves, it gives them the wings to explore their own interests. My daughter is a natural dancer, so we have impromptu dance parties a lot around here. We also placed her in toddler ballet lessons, which she loves.
Raise Ad-Savvy Girls: It’s impossible to control every image or idea that’s going to come your daughter’s way. One essential life skill you can teach your daughter is knowing a sales pitch when she sees one. The more our daughters understand this, the more those ideas will start to appear like the illusions that they are.
Beyond the Body: For better or worse, girls grow up to have a keen awareness of their body. What’s even more important than having your daughter grow up to believe she’s beautiful is for her to understand she doesn’t owe beauty to anyone. Moreover, she needs to know she’s much more than her body and her beauty. What are their interests, beliefs, ambitions, goals? These are at least as important, if not more, and these nurturing too.
The goal after all, is not just raising a body-confident girl, but a girl who's confident about herself as a whole person.