How To Raise A Body-Neutral Daughter, According To A Child Psychologist

Clinical Psychologist By Bobbi Wegner, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist
Bobbi Wegner, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist at Boston Behavioral Medicine and adjunct lecturer teaching human development and psychology at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has over a decade of experience treating adults, children, and families.
How To Raise A Body-Neutral Daughter, According To A Child Psychologist

Photo by Ronnie Comeau

As I towel off from the shower, my 4-year-old daughter says, "Your boobs are so fat!" I stop in my tracks, feeling exposed, vulnerable, a bit offended, and then slightly self-critical for letting my 4-year-old (accidentally) hurt my feelings. The truth is, as I careen into 40, my boobs do feel fat these days, and Eve just honestly and unintentionally grabbed me by my jugular by saying it. This hurts more and cuts deeper than when she told me my teeth are green. I want to be thin. I miss my pre-baby body.

Then I get out of my own head and realize this is where it begins. It is in how I respond to these moments that will shape the language my daughter uses to describe her own body and the feelings that go along with it. My goal is to raise a body-neutral daughter: a girl who prioritizes function over form and appreciation for the labor our bodies provide rather than shame for how they look.

"It hurts my feelings when you call my boobs fat," I finally tell her. "And we don’t call people fat. Everyone has different sizes and shapes. Yes, my boobs are big, and they held a lot of milk to feed you and your brothers when you were babies. My boobs gave you the best food possible and created a strong little girl. I love my boobs because of that."

A compilation of studies done by Common Sense Media found that half of girls and one-third of boys as young as 6, 7, and 8 believe their ideal weight is less than their current size. It also found that by age 7, one in four kids has engaged in dieting behavior. And in my clinical practice and among my personal friends, I have yet to meet a woman who doesn’t want to lose at least 5 pounds. This raises the question: Do women really need to lose weight, or is society feeding us distorted messaging?

Although our culture has made many strides toward acceptance, we continue to perpetuate images of perfection through mass and social media. There are even apps that allow people to edit themselves to look thinner. Our littlest kids learn early that being anything less than thin is ugly.

While I would like to feel that my body is perfect just the way it is, I, too, find myself wishing my belly were flatter and my boobs perkier. I must fight against the message of perfection that was internalized since I was a little girl. As a mother, I have a chance to change this. I can notice how to talk about my body and say something different from the message in the broader community. My voice matters now, and it matters a lot. Whether I am conscious of it or not, my voice is becoming my daughter’s internal dialogue. Every time I look at myself and say, "I look horrible. I need to lose weight," I am handing my daughter those words to talk about herself. I am teaching that self-criticism and body hatred is normal.

To all the parents out there: Be conscious. Your daughters are listening. The off-the-cuff remarks you say about people on TV, the jokes you make with your husband, and the diet you are doing to be bikini-ready all send the message to our children that thinner is better. Those comments prioritize form over function. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Look for opportunities in your home to talk about how you feel when you eat healthfully and exercise. Ask kids to notice this in themselves. When do they feel best? After a good night's sleep? After a healthy meal? After drinking lots of water?
  2. Don’t only talk about the importance of healthy behaviors; actually exercise and eat healthfully. Focus on the holy trinity of health—sleep, eating, and exercise—and make sure you are nurturing every domain.
  3. Prioritize how well your body is functioning based on how you are treating it. Use the car and fuel as an analogy. Kids understand that the car won’t work if you put rocks in the gas tank!
  4. Help children connect with their bodies. You can do this by helping them understand how to properly care for the vehicle that will carry them for a lifetime.
  5. Teach appreciation, gratitude, and love for all the work our bodies do each minute of each day. Send the message that every body is different, and that is what makes the world a beautiful place. Ask them what the world would be like if everyone looked the same.
  6. Teach your children that we don’t talk about people’s bodies, and we never call anyone fat. Help children look for other ways to describe people and focus on internal attributes rather than physical descriptors.
  7. Remember that body neutrality doesn’t mean being delusional. It means acceptance of the parts you like more and the parts you like less. Perfection does not exist in life. Relate to your body like your best friend—love the parts you love, and accept the flaws you see too.

At the end of the day, the most important thing to do is notice how you talk about your own body. Model positivity and appreciation. Prioritize function over form in all communication.

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