“I’m fat.” Those are just two little words, five letters in total, but coming from your daughter, they’re enough to make your heart totally sink. How could a girl who’s typically so kind and accepting of others be so disparaging of herself?
According to studies, a whopping 80 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Why? Because they’re constantly surrounded by both subtle and direct messages that curvier or heavier girls aren’t as well liked, aren’t as likely to succeed in business, and in general, aren’t going to have as much fun or happiness in their lives. Think about it: many of the animated heroines they idolize have unrealistically thin bodies, gossip magazines and websites are quick to call scandal on even an ounce of celebrity cellulite, and so called, “fat jokes”—despite their inherent offensiveness—remain completely acceptable in many circles as well as in movies and TV shows. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs.
So, when your daughter does call herself fat, as her parent your instinct might be to immediately brush off her concerns by saying something like, “Don’t be silly! You’re beautiful!” The thing is, though, that response might actually do more harm than good. “First of all,” says Girl Scouts’ Developmental Psychologist, Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, “if she really sees her body in a certain way, simply telling her to stop seeing it that way isn’t going to help much. Remember that infamous dress on social media a few years back that some people thought was blue and some thought was gold—and how frustrating it was when those who saw it differently insisted that you were seeing it wrong and tried to get you to see it their way? That’s kind of how your girl is going to feel when you tell her that her body simply isn’t the way she thinks it is.”
Secondly, by telling essentially telling her that she’s not fat, she’s pretty, you’re reinforcing the idea that fatter, rounder, curvier or heavier bodies aren’t beautiful—which simply isn’t true. There are endless ways to be beautiful, and your daughter will grow up with a much healthier relationship to her body if you teach her that in a genuine way from a young age.
So what should you do when your daughter calls herself fat? Follow these tips from Dr. Bastiani Archibald:
* A better approach is to pause for a moment and ask your daughter why she thinks she’s fat. Is it because her clothes are fitting differently than they used to, or that a size she used to wear doesn’t feel comfortable anymore? Do her friends at school have different body types, and so she’s comparing herself to them? “Don’t be afraid to talk to your daughter about her body and how she feels about it,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “So many parents think it’s better not to talk about body image at all, but the truth is that even though there are so many things about us that make us unique and valuable, how you look still factors into our confidence and sense of self.”
So, ask the question and really listen to her response. If she says she thinks her legs are bigger or her tummy is rounder than those of her friends, those may actually be correct observations—and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. “Your daughter should never be ashamed of the realities of her own body,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald, “We’re all different in so many ways, and it’s counterproductive to pretend that we’re not.” Still, she’s not going to find total body acceptance overnight. In the meantime, help her identify some parts of her body that she does like and feels proud of. Maybe she has the most graceful arms in her dance class, or strong legs that power the most awesome soccer goals, or she’s taller than most of her friends and can reach the highest part of the jungle gym. Talking regularly and complimenting her about what her body can do rather than just what it looks like can really help change her perceptions and orientation to what’s important.
* Another reason your girl might call herself fat is because she’s heard you do the same to yourself. Your daughter listens to everything you say—and if you’re picking yourself apart in front of the mirror or complaining about your weight, there’s a good chance that she’ll follow in your self-disparaging footsteps. So do everyone a favor and be a little kinder to yourself. Identify parts of your body that serve you well and make note of the things you really do love about the way you look. Healthy habits like eating right and exercise are good for everyone, and should be a daily part of your routine, but fixating on your body and how it could or should be different isn’t healthy for anyone.
* Make sure she has positive body-image role models. Both the red carpet and the boardroom are becoming more diverse in terms of body size and shape, but girls might not see that reflected in the magazine aisle or on her favorite websites—so go the extra mile to compensate for some of the less-healthy messages your daughter may be getting from other sources. For younger girls, it might be helpful to show her some beautiful images of a women with very different body types, and tell her all about what they’ve accomplished, and what they’re best known for—their brains, their talents, their speed, their sense of humor. She needs to know you don’t have to be a certain size or shape to make it big in life.
Sadly, there’s no instant fix to society’s fat-shaming problem and the limiting depictions of beauty that are held up as standards for girls and women. But there are things you can do at home with your daughter, and in your daily life in general, to help fight against this culture and create a better one where all are celebrated as wonderful and worthy.
As your girl grows older, you'll likely have way bigger battles to face.