Many parents wonder how they can talk about their daughter’s body without hurting her body image. I’ve come up with some guidelines for what to say and what not to say when you talk about your daughter’s body. I’ve also included the three things you should also be talking about that will impact your daughter’s body image and mental health. Combined, this advice will have a significant impact on how she feels about herself.
What you can say about your daughter’s body
There are a lot of wonderful things you can say that will increase your daughter’s sense of worth and strength. But the fact is that female bodies are under tremendous pressure in our society. This means that when you talk about your daughter’s body you need to be aware of the social pressures on her body and adjust your comments accordingly. This will help her grow into a strong, resilient, and self-aware person.
Talk about what her body does
The majority of your comments about your daughter’s body should be related to what her body can do instead of what it looks like. For example, talk about how she uses her body to have fun, like turning cartwheels or running down a hill. Or you can talk about how she uses her body to get places and do things like walk to school, eat delicious food, and laugh with her friends. Her body is involved in all of those activities, and they have nothing to do with what her body looks like. When you talk about your daughter’s body you should spend most of your time focusing on her body’s incredible functionality. For example*:
- Your legs were flying when you ran down that hill!
- I’m really glad that you’re able to walk to school every day and that your body is able to get you where you want to go.
- Aren’t you glad you have a tongue to taste this delicious ice cream?
- Do your eyes see how delicious that pizza looks? I wonder if it tastes as good as it looks?
*My examples assume ability. Of course, not all bodies can do all things, and I acknowledge that.
Talk about how her body feels
It is a key skill for a woman to tune into whether she feels comfortable or uncomfortable, pleasure or discomfort. This is a skill that will keep her safe, healthy, and happy for life. You want her to be able to tune into her body’s signals and trust herself to make good choices.
Therefore, try to avoid telling her what her body should feel and whether she is comfortable or uncomfortable. Instead, be curious about her experiences of comfort and discomfort. Here are some ways you can talk about her body’s comfort level and raise her self-awareness:
- It looks like you feel uncomfortable in that shirt, is it itchy or scratchy?
- Grandma’s hugs feel warm and cozy to me, how do they feel to you?
- I’m sensing you might be cold, is that true?
- Your body looks angry right now because your fists are clenched, is that true?
- It seems like you’re feeling worried because you’re pacing around the room.
- Would you like to hug Uncle Jeremy goodbye today?
- You’re telling me your tummy is very full, which is uncomfortable. Let’s just rest here together for the next 20 minutes and see how you feel.
Talk about how she looks
There will be (hopefully many) moments when your daughter seems like she is the most beautiful thing in the world. It’s OK to think your daughter is beautiful! Beauty is something we find in nature every day. The important thing to notice is that natural beauty is never perfect. It also isn’t being marketed and sold to us. Unlike the beauty industry, which enforces harmful standards and extracts a hefty price, we don’t have to pay for nature, and it’s not selling us a solution to a manufactured problem.
Look at your beautiful daughter as a part of nature. When you talk about your daughter’s beauty, you should feel deeply that she is
beautiful inside and out …
with, not in spite of her flaws …
and she does not need* to do anything to make herself more beautiful.
*she may choose to do things like dress up, use makeup, etc., but those should be choices she’s making, not compulsions she’s performing to seek worthiness.
But sometimes it’s not a deep existential experience. You just want to give her a quick compliment and tell her she’s cute, adorable, or gorgeous. Maybe she looks great in that color, or her eyes are sparkling today. That’s OK, too! Just keep these compliments short and sweet. Avoid making them the main way you share your admiration of who she is.
What you should not say about your daughter’s body
Unfortunately there are some major landmines when it comes to talking about your daughter’s body. You should avoid talking about the following things:
Don’t talk about what she weighs
Body weight should be a neutral number, like height or shoe size. But of course that’s not the case. Decades of intense marketing and advertising have taught us that the higher a woman’s weight, the less attractive and worthy she is. This is appalling, but it’s the society we live in.
Therefore, I typically advise parents to not talk about weight in any way unless they have been specifically coached in anti-diet, weight-neutral practices. This is because all of us need significant un-training in order to talk about her weight without stigma and shame.
Don’t talk about how she compares
Women are taught to compare body parts, outfits, and all aspects of their appearance to other women. They are taught there is a scarcity of love and worthiness that can only be attained through “winning” at beauty standards. Your daughter deserves to grow up knowing that she is worthy exactly as she is, and that she does not need to compete against others to earn your (or anyone’s) love.
Don’t compare your daughter’s body, beauty, weight, or appearance (positive or negative), to anyone else. Show your daughter that her body’s weight and appearance have nothing to do with her value by never comparing her body to another’s body.
Don’t talk about what she’s wearing
Your daughter will wear clothes that you don’t like. Think very, very carefully about what you say about those clothes. Because her body should, first and foremost, belong to her (not you or anyone else). That means that what she puts on her body should almost always be up to her.
If you feel compelled to comment on what she’s wearing, take a breath. Think deeply about whether your comments about what she is wearing are necessary or helpful. Are they kind? Do they respect her as the sovereign ruler of her own body?
If you truly believe her clothes are “inappropriate” (look out for fatphobia and rigid gender norms here), you can make a simple statement. Say something like “I’m sorry, but I’m having a hard time with that outfit. I need to think about why it’s hard for me in order to give you a good explanation, but right now I’m not comfortable with you wearing that to school.”
Only use this statement rarely. Trust that she will find her own path. Support her in wearing clothes that feel authentic to her unique self, not your vision of what you wish she would look like. Remember that fashion crimes are not criminal, and bodily autonomy is a basic human right.
Read more: You’re Wearing That?
The foundation of self-acceptance
The dos and don’ts of body talk are important. But it’s also important to build a foundation of body acceptance. Here are three essential steps to raising a daughter who doesn’t hate her body:
1. Watch how you talk about your body and other bodies
Think carefully about how you talk about your own body and other people’s bodies. Our kids learn from what we do more than what we say. So if you are criticizing your own body or talking negatively about other people’s bodies, that’s a problem.
Rigid and ridiculous beauty standards are fatphobic, sexist, and damaging to mental health. Eating disorders are skyrocketing, and anxiety and depression about weight and appearance are a major problem. Girls and women experience both at much higher rates than boys and men, making this an important thing to think about if you have a daughter.
Here are common things you might be tempted to say about your body that you should stop saying:
- I can’t wear that (subtext: it’s not flattering/I’m too fat)
- No way could I eat that (subtext: it will make me gain weight)
- I can’t leave the house without makeup (subtext: my natural face is unacceptable)
- If I eat that I would have to spend the rest of the day in the gym (subtext: eating food requires compensatory behavior)
Here are common things you may be saying about other people’s bodies that you should stop saying:
- She looks amazing now! (subtext: because she lost weight/is thin)
- That person just doesn’t look healthy (subtext: they are fat and fat is bad)
- She’s let herself go (subtext: she’s gained weight and that’s bad)
- How can she leave the house like that? (subtext: she’s not meeting societal beauty standards and she should)
Remember that even very young children (toddlers!) will pick up the subtext. It’s impossible to live in our society and not translate technically benign statements into fat-shaming and body-shaming. Your daughter is watching and listening to you all the time. For the sake of her long-term health, work on your own body image and weight stigma, and release outdated gender norms.
2. Build media literacy
Our society is cruel to bodies. Parents need to counterbalance this cruelty by teaching media literacy. These conversations need to happen early and often.
Sexism, fatphobia, and objectification are a significant part of our media landscape, and if you aren’t talking about this, your child is picking up messages about beauty and how women are valued without your consent or input. You don’t need to raise your child in a bubble, but you do need to actively counter-educate her about how the media influences what we think and believe.
At a minimum, you should talk to your daughter often about these concepts:
- Almost all advertisements, TV shows, movies, and social media posts involve heavy editing and filters. Even if they don’t use filters, the person has likely spent hours perfecting their hair, makeup, and outfit, getting the right pose, and setting up professional lighting, etc. What you see on the screen almost never represents what a person looks like in real life.
- Bodies, particularly women’s bodies are often used as sales tools. For example, an apartment building may use a photo of a woman in a bikini to advertise their apartments. This advertisement may appear next to another one featuring a man who is wearing a suit and tie. We need to ask questions about this. For example: why is the man wearing clothing but the woman is wearing almost none? Also notice that many times women’s bodies appear without their heads or even as individual body parts in order to sell products. This depersonalizes the female body and treats it as an object and a sales tool.
- Just because someone on social media or TV says something is true does not mean it is true. Many times the person is speaking from personal experience, but that experience cannot be extended to you. Additionally, a lot of times the person is being paid or is hoping to be compensated when they promote products or services.
- If something on social media or TV sounds too good to be true or promises a quick, easy fix, then it’s probably not true. Most things in life are full of nuance and complexity.
- Pay attention to diversity – or lack thereof. If everyone you see in the media is white, thin, heterosexual and cisgender, then adjust your media consumption, or at least talk about the problem.
- Advertisements are successful when they create a problem that the product can solve. Therefore, media messages about “problems” are made up by advertising agencies. For example, wrinkles, weight, cellulite, and skin color are largely genetically predetermined. We have very little control over these features. The products designed to “solve” the so-called problems are neither necessary nor do they work as promised.
3. Talk about her other qualities
Spend the bulk of your time talking about your daughter’s non-body qualities. This is really important, because the problem is not talking about your daughter’s body, but rather talking about her body at the exclusion of her other qualities. Her body is a part of her, but she should not believe that her value and worth are based on her appearance.
In general, you should spend the majority of your time focusing on her non-body-based qualities. Body and appearance comments should be the small minority of what you talk to your daughter about.
Instead of focusing on your daughter’s body, talk about her:
- Sense of humor
- Attention to detail
- Mental flexibility
When you talk about these qualities, praise her for her behaviors, not the outcomes. This has been demonstrated in the research around the “Growth Mindset,” which is that focusing on outcomes can raise a perfectionistic, rigid mentality. Outcome-based praise can also be de-motivating and spoil the joy of trying new things. Here are a few examples:
|It’s really great that you put so much effort into your school project.||I’m proud of you for getting good grades.|
|I love that you’re putting so much creativity into your role in the play.||You’re the star of the show!|
|You were very brave to try out for the softball team.||You making the softball team is very important to me.|
As with appearance, of course you can sometimes mention outcomes, but be sure that the majority of your praise is about the behaviors you admire.
Finally, if your daughter is calling herself names or being cruel to her body, here’s an article to help: What to do when your tween says they’re “fat” and other tricky situations.
Navigating body image is difficult, but following these steps should help you raise a strong, confident person!
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.