Mothers and Daughters: Parenting Healthy Body Image

In facilitating discussion with parents on children’s body image, I often introduce the “how to talk to your daughter about her body” debate. A blog of the same name instructs parents: “Don’t talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works.”  The message? Encourage your children to love life, and focus on what their bodies can do for them, not how they look.  But, one mother responded, “If you pretend that your daughter’s body doesn’t exist, she’ll feel like she doesn’t exist. It’s not about ignoring our children’s looks. It’s about helping them to redefine beauty.”  What to say, and how to say it, remain active subjects of discussion on and offline. With the advent of ‘mommy blogs’, and online how-to parenting manuals, the pressure on mothers to get it right has perhaps never been higher. Another major influence? “Social media,” says Suzanne Phillips, Program Coordinator at the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), “The amount of exposure that kids have to media images. I think it’s talked about more in the playground: How you look, the importance of fitting the ideal.”

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Phillips points out that weight loss practices are often unconsciously supported by adult mentors. “My daughter dances, and I’ll listen to the moms waiting while their kids are in dance class, discussing diets. Kids are hearing this as part of a normal day.” Poor self-image in youth can have dangerous results. More than once, the NEDIC team has gotten phone calls from teachers concerned about an “eating disorder epidemic” in their school. So how can mothers respond when the body image debate becomes an urgent reality? Here are a few steps to consider.

1. Recognize that she is normal. One in four teen girls diet, many experiment with restricting or bingeing with food, but not all will develop an eating disorder.
2. Help her learn to love mealtimes – involve her in grocery shopping and meal planning and let her cook a family dinner of her choice every week.
3. Expose her to a variety of diverse body image role models. If you’re commenting on people’s appearance, shower compliments equally on women of different sizes.
4. Teach critical engagement with media. Watch one of the Dove Self Esteem Fund videos with your daughter. Ask her what she sees her friends going through, how she wishes things were different, and what she likes about her own body.
5. Have fun together. Choose a physical activity you both like, from playing with younger siblings in the park to tennis or yoga, and keep a weekly date. 
6. We often normalize negative body-image at home by modelling it unconsciously. So appreciate your body – or act the part well. Try to avoid disparaging comments about your size, shape, and appearance.

And beauty? “It’s based on a lot more than a certain body size, hair colour, the shape of your nose,” says Phillips. “There’s more to it than that. It’s how you act, how you feel, how you engage with others. What I hope for my daughter is that she embraces who she really is, and that she’s able to determine what makes her special and unique. I hope most of that has nothing to do with how she looks.”

Jackie Grandy is a Registered Social Worker and Outreach & Education Coordinator at the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), a program of University Health Network. NEDIC provides support, information and resources to Canadians through its national helpline, outreach and education programming, biennial conference, and Beyond Images, a free media literacy curriculum for grades 4 through 8. You can contact Jackie at and follow NEDIC online through Twitter and Facebook.