Life

Things you shouldn't say if you want your daughter to have a positive body image

We're bombarded with unrealistic beauty standards in the media so body confidence is a difficult thing for many to master, writes Lauren Taylor But if we feel negatively about our bodies as adults, how can we expect young girls to grow up with a healthy attitude to theirs?

Parents need to underline that they think their children are amazing people in ways other than just how they look

HOW do we raise body positive children in a body-shaming world? A recent survey conducted by The Be Real Campaign, found that two in three secondary-aged schoolchildren worry about parts of their appearance, while a US survey last year found that children as young as five say they don't like their bodies.

In order to break the cycle of negative body image and to help children – particularly girls who have additional pressure placed on their appearance – feel comfortable and happy about the way they look, whatever their size and shape, we need to change the dialogue around image, particularly as parents.

Here are some key statements parents should avoid saying to, or in front of, their daughters:

1. "She shouldn't be wearing that"

The way we speak about other adults' bodies is important to consider. Liam Preston, head of the Be Real Campaign for body confidence, says it's all about establishing what's "normal" in your household.

"When a lot of people are watching TV, they can be quite critical of what they see on screen," he says. "'She shouldn't be wearing that outfit,' or, 'They look too big,' or, 'They look too skinny'. It's easy for people to say stuff they wouldn't say in person about people they're watching on TV, often in front of their own children."

Disparaging other people's bodies then becomes the norm and children may assume those types of comments are made about their own bodies by strangers too.

2. "I look awful/ I need to lose weight"

How you feel and talk about your own body will have a direct impact on how your daughter sees hers.

"Parents are a huge influence on the way that children see themselves, others and the world," says clinical psychologist, and author of The Supermum Myth, Dr Rachel Andrew. "If a mother consistently talks negatively about her own body in front of her child, she is telling her child that the way bodies look is important, [that they] should look a certain way and if they don't, this leads to unhappiness.

"A child often cannot understand the wider context, so will take on these messages in a simple form like, 'Looking a certain way will make me happy'. This can set up a life-long association that the way a person looks equates to their happiness."

3. "This is a 'bad' food"

Developing a healthy relationship with food is a key component of achieving a healthy attitude to body image.

"If you say, 'This is a good food or a bad food', young people will pick up on that straight away, and that isn't good for them as they try and understand what their own bodies need," Preston says. "As an adult worried about your [own] weight, it's easy to say, 'I probably shouldn't have that', but if you label it as 'bad food' that's something young people will think too, regardless of the context within which you're saying it."

4. "You look bigger/slimmer"

Pointing out how your daughter's appearance has changed is risky, even if you mean it as a compliment. It might imply that something was wrong with her appearance before, and she may put pressure on herself to continue looking that way.

Preston says: "In life we often say, 'Oh you look really good, you've lost a lot of weight' or, 'You look thinner'. But that reinforces this message [to children] that you have to look a certain way."

What if you're worried about the change in your daughter's weight for health reasons, though? While it's important for parents to notice changes to their children's health, this needs to be tackled with caution, and in a positive way – encouraging them to join a sports team or help you cook healthy meals, for example.

Dr Andrew says: "Putting on or losing significant weight can be a sign there may be an emotional or physical health problem. Rather than raise an issue with weight, talk about their life more generally – how are things with school, friends, sleeping, and how are they feeling at the moment? The answers are more likely to give you clues about if there's an issue, and what to do about it."

5. Compliments that are only about her image

"I don't think there's an issue telling your child they look nice in what they're wearing, or that they look pretty, but if that's the only compliment you're giving your child and you're not addressing the other reasons why they're an amazing person young people will go through life thinking, 'The only thing people care about is whether I look nice, or look pretty or whether this dress is good,'" explains Preston.

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