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How to Talk to Daughters about Body Image

little girl measuring her waist,Mother and daughter talking

Mothers whose daughters are having problems with eating and body image ask me, “Why? What have I done to cause my daughter to feel this way?” As parents there are roles we play within the family that can contribute to many forms of dysfunction, but in my opinion eating disorders are not exclusively a parental issue.

The largest contributor to girls’ unhealthy eating patterns is the media. The young women who are lifted up as role models are thirty to forty pounds lighter and three to five inches taller than their female counterparts were forty years ago. Yet women today tend to be heavier than women forty years ago. Thus today’s ideal is so far from reality that it causes girls and women constant dissatisfaction with their bodies. One group of girls told me that one would feel left out if she didn’t have, or didn’t at one time have, an eating disorder. It has become the norm.

Our bodies should look the way God designed them to look, not the way we envision. One of the key messages of the Girl Power movement is “You can be anything! Visualize yourself as a certain size, profession, athlete, etc. It can be accomplished!” This assumes that a young girl knows what to visualize. When she sees a five-foot-nine-inch, 109-pound girl in her mind, we have a problem.

We need to talk to our daughters about what is beautiful.

What size are your daughter’s bones? Are they petite, small, medium, or large? How tall is she? What is the recommended weight for her height? These are all questions to address. And if we don’t do it, our girls will be seduced by the media images that are thrown at them hundreds of times a day.

When a girl has an eating disorder, she cannot see her body image clearly. It is a tragedy when a girl wastes away physically, deceived by the lie that her body is fat.

Eating disorders stem from emotional needs going unmet.

When a mom has several children, sometimes it’s hard to recognize that one child’s needs are unmet when the others are doing so well. When a child’s emotional needs are not satisfied, she will interpret that as rejection. Thus her tendency will be to find comfort in food. This will be especially likely after an episode in which she has felt rejected. This results in compulsive eating, bingeing, or bulimia.

Each of our daughters needs to feel nurtured, accepted, secure, and competent as a person and within her relationships. If this doesn’t happen, she may react by wanting to control food. If she feels that her life is out of control because someone or some set of rules is controlling it for her, then she may choose not to eat—the beginning of anorexia. This is her way of saying, “You can tell me what to wear, where to go, and what I can and cannot do, but you can’t make me eat!”

Most girls have a deep need to please people. This can result in taking unhealthy measures to become what they think other people would like them to become. In particular, a male role model’s comments can have a huge effect on a girl’s response to this issue.

Can you see some of the thought processes that drive girls with food addictions? Does any of this make you wonder about your daughter’s condition?

As with any problem, the first step is to recognize that there is a problem. This means beginning to see the disorder as an enemy, not as a friend.

For moms, that means communication. And communication, especially in a case like this, means learning to listen with our hearts as well as our ears.

Our children know when we hear them or when we’re just going through the motions. We need to listen with our whole beings, and we need to make sure that they receive one response, loud and clear: “You’re important!”

Moms, let’s take the time and trouble necessary to look behind our daughters’ facades. And let’s help create a real world in which they can honestly and genuinely grow up to be moral, godly, successful, and happy women.

Some girls will go to any length to convince Mom that all is well, when inside they are crying out for someone to see their pain. Some girls will be more overt in their efforts to get our attention, but generally those with eating disorders have perfectionist, controlling personalities and will simply insist on maintaining an image. Many times we won’t see the pattern until it has advanced. We need to watch carefully.

And there’s no harm done if we ask the key questions and find that we are wrong about the eating disorder. Then the talks will still have served a good purpose in building a closer bond for open communication.

As we open up new levels of communication, consider instituting a ‘safe box’. A safe box or a safe conversation is a place for our daughters where anything they choose to say will never be used against them. If we violate this once, even if it seems to have been for their good, trust will be broken.

But suppose you aren’t wrong. Suppose you determine that, yes, there is an eating disorder. When the problem has been identified, what is the answer? Giving advice, making strict rules, and requiring your daughter to change her habits will only push her farther away. The first step is to continue to listen and ask questions that will bring her to her own conclusion of why this behavior is destructive. How is she feeling? What is the problem? What can be done to solve it?

Keep asking these questions, especially if “I don’t know” is a consistent answer.

Timing is important. Don’t beat the talk into the ground and therefore close the door for another more open discussion. Use wisdom and really hear what she is saying. When she tells you something, use your own words to say the same thing back to her, so that it’s clear that you’re listening and understanding.

Girls are not always as ready to work through their distorted body image issues, but we need to be patient anyway. Love and understanding go a long way, and we must remember that they always come before a solution.

Neither you nor I have the ability to change, heal, or rescue our daughters. God must do this in and through them, and they must be willing to open up their hearts and allow Him to work in their lives. A change of heart will bring about an emotional shift from the addiction, to God. And that shift will bring about lifelong change.

Your Turn

Have you ever created a ‘safe box’ for your daughter? Explain its purpose and ask your daughter if she would like to write something in it that she’s previously had a hard time sharing. If she says that she doesn’t have anything to write, place paper in a place that is accessible to her. Tell her if she ever needs to write anything, it’s there for her, and you will be there to listen. What other ways have you created for you and your daughter to discuss difficult topics?