Recently, I came across a compelling, well written, and well-intended blog post advising people NOT to talk to their daughters about their bodies, except to teach them how it works, (like this one). It was not the first one of it’s kind- the notion that commenting on a young girl’s looks is detrimental to her well being seems common.
As a clinical psychologist who treats eating disorders and body images issues, I thought I’d chime in.
My reaction to this is: NO!!!!
You’ve got the right intentions, but you’re going about it in a way that only speaks to a shame and discomfort with bodies. Therefore, not talking about bodies with your daughters only perpetuates the problem.
Here are some ideas as to how to approach our daughters throughout their childhood years.
DELIGHT. REFLECT. TEACH. OBSERVE. LISTEN.
Express DELIGHT where it naturally emerges.
DELIGHT in your daughter’s looks as she grows up no more or less than you would delight in her other attributes. Do not pretend to like something, or offer fake compliments in order to artificially boost her self-confidence. DELIGHT is not the same as praise.
To connect to the feeling of DELIGHT, remember back when your daughter was a baby, when delight in her appearance came naturally. Her smile, everything about her face moved you completely. Remember her chubby wubby yummy thighs, so big and wonderful and juicy, they made you squeal aloud, and you had to resist the urge to pinch. Try to find that natural channel of delight in your daughter’s appearance as she grows….how her hair is growing thick and long, like aunt Sally’s , and how she has eyes that change color depending on the setting, and how her toes are long and strong and unusually tan. Or, marvel at how she looks so much like the girl in that Renoir painting that you saw at the art museum- that will mean the world to her.
The delight you express in her appearance, as in her other attributes, is the delight she will eventually internalize- it is the voice that she needs to hear when she looks in the mirror, the voice that will drown out other less friendly voices, such as the media’s. (Don’t praise her body only when she loses weight).
Share with her your DELIGHT in food. Introduce her to all kinds of foods and show her that food is sensual, and enjoyable: cheese, quinoa, chocolate, raspberries, juicy hamburger, avocado, kale…. all of it! The experience of DELIGHT adds beauty to the body. Teach her that it is attractive to eat with relish and then take DELIGHT in her delight of food. (Don’t show her how to count calories or restrict her appetite).
DELIGHT and share awe in the wonders of the body: the body knows exactly what to do at different stages of development, has perfect timing for when she will get her period, and develop secondary sex traits, and the body will take over when she conceives a child and craft a perfect little specimen without any conscious effort on her part. WOW! Similarly, the body has a built in mechanism that helps her know when she is hungry and when she is full- she can listen to it and trust it. Delight in her ability to listen to these internal hunger and satiation cues, despite what others are saying she should do. (Don’t model or encourage dieting; don’t interfere with these internal cues).
DELIGHT in her aesthetic choices even if they do not match yours exactly- they are expressions from deep inside of her, the colors, or styles that move her. Putting herself together in the morning is a creative and effort-ful act- know that her body is her canvas, and understand that these creative expressions speak volumes about her. Get curious rather than critical about what she is revealing about herself. (Don’t try to control how she looks or interfere with this creative process).
A young girl doesn’t know how she is perceived in the world. She does not understand the impact of her body, or that the way she presents herself is a communication. You teach her how her actions affect others, and so you teach her how her body and appearance affect others.
Having tattooes and piercings, wearing pearl earrings, wearing a bra, not wearing a bra, showing cleavage or not, wearing the skirt long or short, or just in the latest color, smiling in a situation, or not, are all external expressions of the inner self. They are not good or bad in and of themselves, but they do have a certain impact. Encourage her to make choices for her body that reflect what she feels on the inside. Help her understand the impression she makes on others given her physical attributes as well as the choices she makes in presenting those. You can reflect back what you see, particularly when she asks for feedback. Give her some space here too. Let her make some mistakes. She will have to experiment a bit before fully applying what she has learned. (Don’t criticize and don’t lecture her).
Teach that confidence is an important aspect of beauty. Being at peace, rather than at war, with your body carries it’s own kind of beauty. Compare a “beautiful” girl who is constantly criticizing her looks to a woman who by conventional standards is less “ideal”, but is content with herself…you will see that very contentment in every pore, fiber, strand of her body, and in the glint of her eyes. That inner confidence and contentment become an actual physical trait. I’ve seen girls who are “beautiful” by conventional standards but their bodies are battle grounds for psychological issues, and it shows….it ain’t pretty.
Teach her that she does not have to be the most beautiful or the thinnest to have a happy and fulfilled life! The proof is everywhere- look around.
Teach her that no matter how beautiful she is there will always be someone who does not find her beautiful, or some other woman who is more beautiful….so what? That’s completely okay and doesn’t take away from her worth or her opportunities in the slightest. There’s room in this world for all of her beautiful sisters.
Teach her that even though the current social ideal is to be thin, every woman has a natural weight range that is, more or less, genetically determined. Trying to change her weight in any dramatic fashion is like deciding to wage war against herself and against nature. It’s possible to be at the lowest reaches of her range, but her body will rebel against her: osteoporosis, amenorrhea (loss of menstrual period),infertility, thinning hair, premature aging, and electrolyte imbalances that can be life threatening….
Teach her that being “overweight” (based on a measure of Body Mass Index) can be healthy and possibly even associated with a longer life span- (it amazes me that so few people know this!). Bodies of many sizes can dance, and move, and sport beautifully- they are healthy. (For more info on this click here and here).
Some people wish to separate the inside from the outside, to make the soul more important than the body. But the truth is the two are intertwined. What is inside will eventually show on the outside too. Your daughter’s body will reveal her deepest feelings, if you will only let yourself see.
If your daughter slouches because she is a head tall above the rest of her friends, then you can be sure that her sloped shoulders are telling you something- they are telling the story of her hidden feelings about herself. You can choose to ignore it or you can talk to her in a way that is supportive and not shaming. Instructing her to stand up straight every time you see her slouch is NOT helpful- that is not a conversation about her body or her feelings and will only make her more self-conscious in your presence. Approach her with loving kindness and curiosity, and tell her that you’ve noticed that she is slouching more recently and ask whether something might have prompted this. If she trusts you, she will tell you more about her feelings.
If your daughter suddenly gains or loses a considerable amount of weight in a relatively short period, then you can be sure something is going on inside of her. Sometimes this is your daughter’s way of trying to get your attention! Her body is speaking to you, because she can’t. She is begging for you to talk to her. Her sudden binge behavior and her extra (or missing) 30 plus pounds are an expression of the pain she feels inside. Encouraging her to lose weight in this situation does not address her pain and only perpetuates the problem. Many girls I have worked with are furious with their parents for not noticing these dramatic changes in their bodies, and pretending that everything is okay. Ignoring these kinds of changes in your daughter’s body sends her the message that you’d rather not deal with what is plaguing her. Either you can’t handle her feelings or you’d rather stick with your story that “everything is going swell with our family”.
We often forget that listening is one of the most important aspects of engaging in conversation with another human whom we value. If you approach your daughter to talk to her about her body, remember that the main thing for you to do now is LISTEN.
Build a trusting relationship with your daughter throughout her childhood years (not one with a history of you criticizing your daughter’s body.) That way she feels comfortable to talk to you about anything that is difficult for her. Your years together have shown her that you can handle her difficult feelings. She’ll be able to bring up any issues she has about her body. If you two can talk about BODY, then you know you have a trusting and deep relationship, and not one that just keeps things light and positive.
If you feel that you have a strained relationship with your daughter, or you fear that you may have engaged in some unhelpful criticism of her in the past, it is never too late to reach out to her. A loving and compassionate gesture from you can be extremely healing to both of you and to the relationship. If speaking to her about what you see feels overwhelming, try contacting a family therapist to help reopen the line of communication between the two of you.
Remember: talking to your daughter about her body is talking to your daughter about her deepest feelings.
All the best,
To learn more about my services: https://dranat.com/
Here are some other resources that promote a healthy approach to bodies:
The Health At Every Size movement: haescommunity.org
Elizabeth Patch’s images at moretolove.net
Also, there are some beautiful letters from moms to their daughters on-line about their bodies, like this one.
- Help your Teen Daughter Develop a Healthy Body Image (omtimes.com)
- Parenting and Your Daughters Looks (thebridgeacross.wordpress.com)
- How to talk to your daughter about her body (cysiproject.wordpress.com)
One thought on “5 Tips on how to talk to your daughter about her body?”
Thankyou Dr Anat! I enjoyed reading this, and I’m going to post it to my fb page, and put it on Pinterest under Teens. Look forward to reading more of your thoughts! Madeleine