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Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017 12:35 am

Letting our girls be girls

How to teach body positivity to daughters

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A 2015 study by Common Sense Media reported that 80 percent of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet. More than half of girls ages six to eight said they wanted to be thinner.

Dieting, besides being a self-esteem killer, is a huge distraction for girls in the midst of growing up and learning about the world. Restricting food in childhood may actually change young brains, altering sensitivity to rewards. It may also lead to obesity, eating disorders and substance abuse.

Another recent study shows that girls as young as five learn about dieting from their mothers. Can we use our influence as parents to counter the messages about the value of women and girls’ bodies in the media? Can we teach girls to appreciate their bodies and use them to carry through the plans their developing minds concoct?

How do we do this?

Experts agree on what not to do.

In order to protect your daughter from early messages to change her body, limit her exposure to media and pop culture when she’s little. In the absence of diet commercials and Kardashians, she’ll have more time to form her own ideas – about her body and the world. Keep fashion magazines out of the house, too.

Don’t use the word “fat,” and don’t remark on celebrities’ or your aquaintances’ weight loss or gain in front of her. These comments subtly teach girls that body size is the most notable aspect of people. And don’t complain about your own body. Though you might not be at the level of perfect self-acceptance when swimsuit shopping, bite your tongue in front of young ears. Do not let discomfort with your own body get in the way of going swimming or other activities.

Though it may seem innocuous, try not to tell a little girl how cute she looks in her adorable dress or pigtails. We don’t do this with boys. Author Lisa Bloom suggests asking girls about what they’re reading and what they like and dislike, teaching friends and relatives to do the same. Appearance needs to not be the first thing we mention about girls, so that they don’t get stuck in the diet trap, missing out on a life of meaning and engagement. While you’re watching your mouth, go easy on the mention of calories or carbs at the dinner table. If you are following a certain eating plan, don’t make a big deal of it. If she’s curious, explain how your food choices make you stronger and give you more energy.

But it’s not enough to do no harm. Girls need to know that they are loved and valued no matter what they look like. When celebrating, instead of using food-based rewards, set aside quality time like an outing with your daughter. Emphasize and commend her unique strengths.

When your daughter does watch shows, watch with her. When you see questionable messages, talk about them with her. If a character seems to be overly focused on her appearance, call it out: “Isn’t that silly? She’s so worried about her dress! What about her mind?” Help her process it, and point out the differences between movies and real life.

Identify your family’s most important values and talk about them often. Do you value ingenuity? Kindness? Creativity? Point it out explicitly when you see your daughter behaving in ways that align with them.

To be clear, taking the focus off appearance doesn’t mean ignoring the risk of obesity that is ever-present in our modern fast food environment. Have healthy foods available at home and talk about how food choices affect your health – without vilifying anything as “bad.” Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair explains, “The language I love to use with kids is: ‘There is fuel, and there is fun. Some foods are fun but don’t give your body fuel, and in fact might slow your body down. If you eat a lot of sugar, a little while later you may crash and become tired and crabby. And just like a car needs gasoline, your body needs good fuel to keep it running well.” Give girls ample opportunities to pursue sports and other interests. Connect them with mentors they respect who value their idiosyncrasies. When we take a proactive approach, we can give the boundless energy in our girls an outlet other than diets.

Ann Farrar is a health and wellness counselor with an interest in emotional eating and work/life balance. Her website is worklifefamhow.com.

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