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How to model body image to your children

If you have daughters, this is mostly geared toward you, but mothers of sons can benefit as well, too. As mothers, one of our jobs is to instill a sense of self worth into our children. Their sense of self esteem comes mostly from what they see us do, or hear us say. So, if you’re constantly griping about how you look, your little girl is going to think that she should be doing that as well. If you have boys, they are going to think that is an ok way to treat girls (constantly putting down their looks.) Boys also have body image issues, though they aren’t as in the limelight as much as girls’. Dr. Joan Chrisler, Ph.D. has developed a list of how you can be positive about your looks, and in return show your daughter or son that your self esteem comes from more than just how you look.

7 Things You Should Never Say To Your Daughters or Model To Your Sons

  1. Do not ask, “Do I look fat in this outfit?” This question sets up the idea that your daughter should be as anxious about her size and shape as you are about yours. If you’d like her opinion about your outfit, it is ok to ask, “Do you like the color of my dress?: or, “Doesn’t this sweater feel soft?” You want your daughter to see clothing as being fun and functional and not as a source of anxiety.
  2. Do not criticize your own figure Comments such as, “my things are too big,” or “my arms are so flabby,” may influence your daughter to see herself in terms of parts rather than as a whole individual human being. “A healthy body image is not just about appearance,” says Dr. Chrisler. “It is important to acknowledge your natural grace, strength, or athletic ability.” Say, “Wow! I ran 3 miles today!” or “look at the beautiful artwork I did.” This helps your daughter value her talents and abilities rather than fixate on her looks.
  3. Do not compare yourself to other women in a negative way. Remarks such as, “I wish I were a size 8 like Aunt Stacy,” or, “Why can’t my tummy be as flat at Heather Locklear’s?” or “I would be happier if I were thinner,” tells your daughter that you think you fall short of some ideal. This message may eventually push her to look in the mirror in search of her own shortcomings. “When you compare yourself to others, you lose the sense of your own uniqueness,” says Dr. Chrisler. To help your daughter improve her sense of self-worth, point out diverse images of beauty. And tell her that inner beauty is even more important, that everyone has something that makes her special: a talent for playing the piano, a great sense of humor, skills on the soccer field.
  4. Do not talk about your weight. Hearing you go on and on about how hard it is to lose weight can plant the seeds for your daughter’s own obsession with the scale. Instead of complaining about your weight, emphasize any positive feelings you have. Say, “Wasn’t that bike ride fun?” or “I feel so healthy when I swim.” And when you’re out with your daughter, and see a friend, don’t say, “You look great-did you lose weight?” This implies that looking good depends on weight loss. All you have to say is, “You look terrific!” Period.
  5. Do not brush off compliments. The lesson of self-deprecation is all too easy to learn. If you see yourself as unworthy, your daughter may feel that she’s also undeserving of praise. Or she may think that blowing off a compliment is the polite thing to do. Dr. Chrisler’s advice, “Next time someone pays you a compliment, simply say, ‘Thank you’ and smile. Bite your tongue if you have to.”
  6. Do not describe food in terms of being bad for you. “By labeling donuts and ice cream as bad, you make it harder for your daughter (or son) to learn to enjoy treats in moderation,” says Dr. Chrisler. “She also learns to protect her self-image by depriving herself.” When teaching your daughter or son good eating habits, take the focus off calorie counting and put it on  a well-balanced way of eating with a variety of foods that taste delicious.
  7. Do not comment on your daughter’s weight. Even a mild suggestion that she might want to lose a few pounds sends a message that the only acceptable body is a slender one. Such negative thinking could contribute to developing an eating disorder. Less talk about appearance and more praise for achievements will help boost your child’s self-confidence.
*This article is compliments of PARENT May 1999, author Joan Chrisler, Ph.D.
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