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"When ...a girl says 'I feel fat' or 'I hate my body,' it's so tempting to take that as a literal statement and respond in a literal way, and say, 'You're not fat!' But you have to also be very aware that body preoccupation or fat talk is often a signal that something else is upsetting them. And the challenge is not to get caught on the body level, but find out what's really upsetting them. Therefore, it may be helpful to say 'Did something happen at school or with a friend that's upsetting you? Did someone say something?' You want to start talking about what's really going on, even if it's hard to get to it in one conversation. You also want to teach them about the 'girl talk' that falsely plays into one of the most dangerous ideas of our culture: Lose five pounds and your troubles will disappear."
Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D.
Lisa Sjostrom, Ed.M.
Co-authors, Full of Ourselves: A Wellness Program to Advance Girl Power, Health and Leadership
Often, the best way to discuss weight is not to discuss it. Obsessing about weight and body size, whether your own or your daughter's, can give the subject more importance than it deserves. Labeling food as "good" or "bad" also reinforces an unhealthy guilt-and-reward attitude toward eating. If your daughter needs serious guidance about her eating habits, let your pediatrician do the talking. Keep your interactions positive and focused on your daughter's interests and dreams.
My body, her body.
If you want your daughter to feel good about her body, don't obsess about your own. Pay attention to the words you use and the actions you take around her. "Never put yourself down for how you look in front of your daughter. Don't tolerate anyone else doing this either," advises Catherine Steiner-Adair. It's also important not to make moral judgments about what you eat or dwell on food in front of your daughter. "Avoid counting calories or labeling particular foods or your own eating habits as 'good' or 'bad,' " Steiner-Adair says. Watch out for phrases like, "I was so bad today — I ate a hot fudge sundae," or "Let's be good and skip the dressing."
Don't dwell on eating disorders.
Given how common eating disorders are in today's culture, many parents worry that their daughters might be vulnerable. But studies show that in-depth discussions with young girls about anorexia and bulimia, or too much discussion about eating and health, can actually do more harm than good. Steiner-Adair recommends you focus instead on helping your daughter develop positive attitudes towards her body and the food she eats, and not dwell on disorders -- unless you believe your daughter has a serious problem.
Ask your pediatrician or nutritionist to help.
If you find yourself arguing with your children over food, or are worried your daughter is eating too little, eating too much, or not getting enough exercise, ask your doctor for advice. "The pediatrician is the expert on whether or not a child is nutritionally compromised," says Steiner-Adair. "If you do need to make some changes, often it's better for a pediatrician to explain them. In this way, your child is less likely to experience you as the food or exercise police. Your job will be to help your daughter adapt to the doctor's recommendations, not lay down the law yourself."
Let your daughter know you love her, no matter what she weighs or how she looks.
"Listen to her opinions," says Steiner-Adair, "show appreciation for her uniqueness, and as often as possible, allow her to take the lead. Listen to who she is, what she wants, what she is curious about, and help her cultivate her interests and figure out what excites her. Help her develop herself into the person she wants to be."