As a mother of two girls who have both raged against their bodies in one way or another over the years, I’m well aware of the minefield that is body image. It’s very hard for a parental voice of reason to gain traction in the face of popular pro-anorexia sites and non-stop press about “perfect body” attributes, including the “thigh gap” (the desirable space between the upper thighs that only the genetically pre-disposed can ever really have). Add this to the mix: many moms have issues with their own bodies and unknowingly telegraph that to their daughters.
So what’s a parent to do?
Start with these tips for how to effectively communicate positive body image messages and counter some of the negative forces that are out there.
1. Make non-beauty compliments.
“I think that the best thing a parent can do if they want to make their child feel important or feel good about herself is to compliment traits other than beauty or size,” says illustrator Colleen Clark, 21, who got so fed up with all of the judgmental comments she heard about women’s appearance and bodies, she created a comic called “You Have Body Issues.” The comic is a reminder, she says, that there are other things—strength and intelligence, for example—worthy of praise.
2. Counter negative body talk.
Clark spent years being angry with herself for being too curvy and not having a body that matched what she saw in magazines and other media. “Kids absorb these messages without knowing it,” she says, which is why it’s important for parents to address the media. “It helped me when I began to understand that there’s a huge industry wanting us to see our flaws and problems so that they can help fix them!”
Talking about how Madison Avenue makes the rules about women’s appearance may seem like too sophisticated a topic for preteen girls but it’s not, says Laura Fenamore, a body image coach and founder of onepinky.com. “We see 300-600 images a day that we don’t even notice and every one of them is some form of ‘perfection.’ We need to counter that ‘lie’ with an honest look at how unreal that is,” she says. Thankfully, there is a lot more size inclusion these days, says Clark. Point out celebrities who are of different sizes.
3. Pay attention right before and during puberty.
A particular vulnerable period for girls is puberty, when a girl’s body is starting to change, says Clark. That’s when self-consciousness and self-doubt can set in. The best way to counter those worries is for parents to stress the normality of the process before and during its onset: “Maybe talk about the science of puberty—what’s causing breasts to grow, your metabolism slows down, you start to menstruate—and set it in a comforting context of healthy growing up,” she says. “It helped me to be reminded that my body changing was normal and that really it wasn’t something that I could help; it was supposed to be doing what it was doing.”
4. Watch what you’re role-modeling.
“My mom is absolutely great, but she has her share of body issues, so I grew up seeing her insult herself,” says Clark. “That trickles down—even though it wasn’t about me.”
Clark says moms who love themselves for a variety of traits and no matter their size make it more normal for kids to love themselves.
5. Watch your mouth (dads too).
Both Clark and Fenamore suggest that parents take a hard look at what comes out of their mouths when it comes to body image. And avoid talking about women’s appearances, period. When parents say things like, “Oh, that woman needs a nose job; she would be really pretty or if she would lose some weight, she’d look so much better”—that can really stick in a kid’s brain, says Clark.
Dads can have a powerful effect on girls self esteem, too, so they should take opportunities to send the message that your body/appearance is just a sliver of what’s valuable about the whole person, Clark says.