It’s a terrible paradox of parenting: we want our daughters to know how beautiful they are, but we don’t want them to be obsessed with physical appearance. We don’t want our daughters to be ashamed of their weight, but we want them to be healthy. How can we let our daughters know how to be healthy and take care of their appearance without setting them up for a lifetime of anxiety?
Watch How You Talk About Your Own Appearance
No matter how much you might tell her daughter to love her body, she’ll learn more about body image by watching you than by listening to what you tell her. How do you talk about your own body? Avoid using disparaging words about yourself like “ugly” or “fat,” and don’t loudly lament every time you step on the scale. Don’t be hypercritical about body parts you don’t like unless you want to hear your daughter griping about her thunder thighs.
If your daughter is complaining about her appearance, though, you may find it helpful to let her know that you empathize, especially if the two of you already have a strong relationship. Saying “Everyone always used to make fun of my hair in high school” or “I always used to wish that I looked like Angelina Jolie” might help your daughter realize that this is something everyone goes through and that she’ll eventually get through it in one piece.
Focus On What’s Inside . . .
Think about how often you tell your son that he’s handsome. Now think about how often you tell your daughter that she’s pretty. Chances are that you compliment her appearance much more than you would compliment a boy’s, which makes her think, subconsciously, that her appearance is a major reason you value her. Instead of constantly telling your daughter how pretty she is, praise the things you love about her that have nothing to do with her appearance.
Compliment her for being generous when she shares or for being charitable when she gets involved in volunteer work. Praise her determination and her quick thinking. If you catch her doing something that makes you proud, be sure that she knows it. You love so much about your daughter that has nothing to do with her appearance; make sure she knows it.
. . . But Compliment The Outside, Too
As nice as it would be for your daughter to value herself purely because of her internal qualities, she’s going to be critical of her own appearance, especially if she’s already hit the tween or teen years. Although you should focus on praising her personality, be sure to compliment her when she does look nice, especially if she’s trying something new with her appearance by saying things like “Your hair looks so lovely today, honey!” or “That shirt is a very nice color with your eyes!”
Teens and tweens find constant reasons to criticize each other’s appearance, and a compliment will help to insulate her from her peers. Some girls may find it more comforting if you compliment fashion choices rather than general appearance because that’s something they can control; others might just want to hear that they’re beautiful because you’re the only person who will tell them that. Try both approaches with your daughter.
Talk About Health
If you’re concerned about your daughter’s weight, the words “fat” and “diet” should never cross your lips. Instead, talk about healthy eating habits and exercise. Instead of trying to shame your daughter into a diet, say that the entire family is going to try to eat healthier so she won’t feel singled out. Talk about the healthy foods you’re making and the nutritional value they have.
Instead of saying “We’re having salad instead of mac and cheese so we don’t get fat,” say “We’re having salad because it’s loaded with all sorts of vitamins and minerals, and mac and cheese is mostly empty calories.” Offer to go walking or jogging with her so she knows that you really are interested in making your own lifestyle healthier, too.
Food is another area where you need to make sure that you watch your own language. If you say that you’re being “bad” by eating a cupcake or make a joke about how the ice cream is going straight to your thighs, your daughter is going to internalize that attitude toward food. Instead, try talking about “always foods” and “sometimes foods” to make it clear that it’s okay to enjoy the occasional indulgence. If your daughter develops an unhealthy relationship with food, she also risks developing an unhealthy relationship with weight.
Talk About Media Messages
Girls are getting constantly bombarded with messages about what is and isn’t beautiful, and this message often implies that “beautiful” is synonymous with “sexy” and involves having a huge bust and a size-zero frame and is far more important than anything else in a woman’s life. Talk to your daughter about these images. Make sure that she knows that actresses and models often have personal trainers and nutritionists to keep them in shape; they go through hours of makeup, hair styling, and costuming before every movie or photo shoot; and they still find themselves airbrushed and digitally retouched to be skinnier.
If a character on a TV show she’s watching seems obsessed with her appearance, remark on how silly it is for her to care more about her outside than her inside. If your daughter is watching a movie about a supermodel surrounded by chubby actors, comment on how unfair it is that movies seem to think men can look however they want but women all have to look the same. Go through your photo album and comment on the beautiful features of your non-supermodel family members so your daughter can see that she doesn’t need to look like a movie star to have a lovely smile or pretty eyes.
Set Reasonable Boundaries
Although you want to encourage your daughter’s independence and individuality, that doesn’t mean letting her wear clothes that aren’t appropriate.
You don’t need to insist that she wear turtlenecks and ankle-length skirts, but be sure that she knows it is possible to look beautiful and fashionable without looking sexy.
“Reasonable boundaries” can also apply to personal grooming. If your daughter spends three hours a day in the bathroom primping and doing makeup, it’s okay to put your foot down and remind her that other people need to use that bathroom, too. If she spends too much time on her appearance, she’s developing an unhealthy interest in it.