Mothers and Daughters and Weight, Oh My!

Pregnancy & Postpartum


If you are lucky enough to have daughters, you probably know what a minefield the subjects of weight, body image and self-esteem can be with girls. (Even if you don't have daughters, you may remember what it was like when you were a teenager.)

I remember my mother telling me one day that I would never be petite, so I should stop even thinking about it. In hindsight, I know she was referring to my height and my good German stock and trying to get me to stop comparing myself to my friends who had a very different (more petite) body type.

Overall, my mother handled the whole body image issue pretty well, mostly by modeling good behaviors—something I also tried to do with my two daughters. My mother did complain sometimes about her less-than-flat stomach and she occasionally tried the latest diet, but mostly she modeled healthy eating, moderation in all things, daily walking and other occasional exercise forays.

Similarly, I have complained to my daughters when I gained weight and we've talked about eating healthier. Mostly I've tried to focus on staying active and choosing unprocessed healthy foods, with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Now that my daughters are 23 and 20, I can say that I'm proud of their health awareness and their desire to maintain a healthy weight through exercise and balanced diet.

Healthy weight and good body image often are linked to solid self-esteem, but it's important to remember there are other factors, too.

Susan Bodiker, health coach, author and founder of One Girl Wellness, helps girls and women overcome image disorders. Here are 10 tips from Bodiker on how to help your daughters grow into healthy women with healthy self-esteem.

  1. Be a good role model. Are you constantly complaining about your body? Do you obsess over dieting or exercise? Do you put appearance on a pedestal? Yes, we all want to look good (and it's great if you can maintain a healthy weight), but be aware of the example you set and the lessons you're teaching your daughter. Never let her believe that she's unworthy of your support because she's overweight. She has other characteristics and accomplishments that matter much more than weight. Always love and accept yourself—and your children.
  2. Work out together. Encourage fitness by staying fit together. Find physical activities you may both enjoy. With very young children, this may be just running around the yard together, but as your daughter gets older, you can try biking, hiking, skiing, swimming, jogging, dancing, tennis and many others. There will be years when your daughter may not want to do anything with you, but she will still remember that you value (and enjoy) physical activity and fitness.
  3. Keep it real. Your daughter will no doubt see plenty of images of ultra-thin models and actresses. Let her know that those images not only aren't desirable or attainable for most women, they may not even be real. Spend some quality time going through fashion/celebrity magazines or websites and show your daughter how to identify photo-shopped or otherwise altered images that distort real women's bodies. Encourage her to develop her own sense of style to bring out her natural beauty and enhance her confidence. Help her find clothes that fit and flatter—whatever her body type and weight. 
  4. No nagging. Bite your tongue before you nag, punish or lash out about your daughter's weight, no matter how frustrated you may get. It never works. Ever. It will not have a positive effect and it will harm your relationship. Instead, take practical actions to help her. Clean the junk food out of your cabinets and fridge. If you must keep a few less-than-healthy snacks, keep them out of site—not where they leap out at you every time you open the pantry. Make sure the fresh fruits and vegetables are visible and appealing.
  5. Make meals a good time, not a battle. Regular, positive family meals can have many good effects on children, from a sense of security and stability to better weight management. But remember to keep meals pleasant. Don't make an issue of who's eating what and how much. Serve everyone the same healthy foods in reasonable portions. If someone doesn't like what's served, encourage that person to get some fruit (which should always be kept in a handy bowl on the counter). Steer dinnertime conversation away from food or weight. Use the family time for nourishing minds and manners, not serving up more misery.
  6. Be the mother you wish you had. Nurture yourself (and your children) with the love and support that you may or may not have received. Let go of the past and put your energies into what you can influence—the present moment and (if you're lucky) the future. Value your self-worth and your daughter's by learning to dismiss external judgments.
  7. Be her champion. Messages to "be thin" are everywhere. As are messages to "supersize it." Couple these messages with poor peer influences, misleading advertisements and cultural institutions and policies that create conflicting messages and it's no wonder many girls get confused. It can be hard for moms to be the prevailing voice of reason. But don't give up. Take a stand against false "science," image-driven society and people who may be more "mean girls" than BFFs. Teach your daughter what is true and real. Show her that you're on her side and will strive with her for good health and healthy body image.
  8. Listen. And listen again. When your daughter asks, "Am I fat?" don't answer too quickly. Listen and consider the context. Maybe she wants to talk about something else that's bothering her. Weight may just be an easy way to start the conversation. Withhold judgment and find ways to reassure her that she can talk to you about anything.
  9. Love means always being able to say you're sorry. We never want to hurt our kids, so when it comes to a ticklish subject like weight, we may be afraid of saying the wrong thing. But you can't ignore touchy subjects. That can create more angst, stigma and uneasiness. Sometimes you will mess up (we all do—whether about weight or something else). Remember that a simple "I'm sorry" and "I love you" can go a long way toward restoring good feelings. Then work to find a more loving and helpful way to address the problem. For example, talk about health, not weight, and confidence, not calories.
  10. Enlist the pros. If all your good advice falls on deaf ears, it may be time to seek professional help. Your daughter may be more open to advice if it comes from someone other than her mother—even if that person tells her the same thing you've said over and over. Talk to your daughter's health care provider about what resources may be most helpful.

To order Susan Bodiker's new e-book, "Fat Girl: How to Let Go of Your Weight and Get on With Your Life," visit www.susan-bodiker.com.

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