How Do You Raise a Healthy Daughter in a Diet-Obsessed World?

Passing on positive body image to our girls

Who here didn't LOVE snack time as a kid? It was a glorious time, filled with soft-baked cookies and cold milk, fudgy brownies, salty pretzels, white grape juice, PB&J… the possibilities were endless. Even better, we were too young to know about calories, to understand that saturated fat was evil and a size 6 jean was saintly.

A few years ago, my mom was teaching her preschool class and snack time snuck around. As she began passing out juice and challah, some of the 3-year-olds in her class started making faces and pushing the food away. "I'm on a diet,” one of them informed her. "Can we have Diet Coke?" asked another. Baby carrots were also requested.

How badly have we failed our daughters when they're on self-determined weight loss programs before kindergarten? When they're afraid to drink anything with calories? And I say, "we" because it is OUR responsibility. They learn this garbage from us. Kids are like miniature sponges, soaking up every self-deprecating comment and food judgment we make. When we turn around and look in the mirror and grimace at our butts, they see it. When we look over a menu and say, "I should be good and just get a salad," they pick up on that.

With that in mind, Peggy Orenstein just penned an essay in the NY Times about the delicate territory which exists between daughters and mothers when it comes to body image. In it, the Flux author writes, "My own initial impulse, when I found out I was pregnant with a girl, was to suggest that my husband take responsibility for feeding her. After all, he doesn't see a few extra pounds as a character flaw. Nor does he serve up a heaping helping of internal conflict with every meal. It's not that I'm extreme; it's just that like most — heck all — of the women I know, my relationship to food, to my weight, to my body is . . . complicated. I did not want to pass that pathology on to my daughter."

So what Orenstein has done is diligently try to model an "antidiet" attitude -– sane, healthy eating habits around her daughter, even though it seems unnatural to her. "I've tried to forget all I once knew about calories, carbs, fat and protein; I haven't stepped on a scale in seven years. At dinner I pointedly enjoy what I eat, whether it's steamed broccoli or pecan pie. I don't fetishize food or indulge in foodieism. I exercise because it feels good, and I never, ever talk about weight. Honestly? It feels entirely unnatural, this studied unconcern, and it forces me to be more vigilant than ever about what goes in and what comes out of my mouth. Maybe my daughter senses that, but this conscious antidiet is the best I can do."

Sounds like she’s doing better than I anticipate I'll be able to do when I'm a mother. And yet…her little girl has said to her, "Mama, don't get f-a-t, O.K.?"
With Mother’s Day coming up, what better time than to examine our own attitudes towards our bodies and food, and give some thought to what legacy we want to pass along to the next generation? I've asked some moms to share with me their number one tips for helping their daughters love themselves, inside and out:

"I take her to the gym with me everyday and she gets to watch while she plays. She has begun to imitate the lifts we do and says, ‘Mommy works to get strong!'" - Amy, 33, mom to 2-year-old daughter

"I'm a former bulimic, so am extra mindful to walk the walk and talk the talk of someone who is comfortable with her body, lest I inadvertently pass on some negative messages. It actually helps me to feel comfortable, so in a way, they help me. I make jokes that show I'm good with my not-thin body ('Make room for my butt!' as I sit between them on the couch). I also try to neutralize the word 'fat.' If they say someone is fat, I'll say, '..and they also have brown eyes.' It's an uphill battle, but I'm trying.” – Stephanie, 42, mom to twin 7-year-old daughters

"Own it yourself first. Practice what you preach and there shall be nary a need to preach a word. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it takes investing in YOU/working on yourself first. It’s worth it when you watch your daughter realize she's amazing and ENOUGH simply by being who she is." –Carla, 40, mom to 4-year-old daughter

"I am recovered from an eating disorder. In raising two girls, one of my greatest motivations is to spare them the pain and suffering that may be their genetic predisposition. I work very hard to focus on health and strength with Josie, 10, and Raina, 6, rather than thinness. I encourage eating when you're hungry and do not limit the types of foods they can eat, hoping that will help preserve their inner sense of fullness and hunger. I dwell on their inner rather than outer beauty and do not keep a scale in the house, or make negative comments about my own weight in front of them. I am constantly reinforcing that different body types can be beautiful and that images in the media are unrealistic and altered. I think the fact that I, myself, am curvy but eat well and exercise is a good role model for them. The result is that FOR NOW they are pretty well-informed ladies and I am really proud. I pray it continues.” – Alyson, 40, mom to two daughters, 6 and 10

"Whereas I'm always trying to instill a positive body image in my girls, I am the WORST when it comes to myself. They think I'm obsessive/compulsive about my weight, and it drives them crazy."  -Tami, 47, mom to two daughters, age 14 and 17

"I'm a preschool teacher, and one thing that I always make sure to do when I meet up with former students is not to say, ‘Wow, how big you are/have gotten/etc.,’ but to mention how great it is to see them, how wonderful their hair looks, nice outfit, great smile, etc.   I really feel that children benefit from comments like that, and it encouraging the moms to focus on their kids’ positive attributes.” – Donna, 60, mom to 33-year-old daughter

"I have a college-aged daughter that gained the Freshman 15. Her 'I am fat' laments were answered by her mother with two things: 1) Stop the ANTS - Another Negative Thought and focus on your best assets, and 2) Tell me what you are eating. I found out and so did she that things she thought were good foods were actually really high in calories."  -Andrea, 44, mom to a 19-year-old daughter

"I think if you instill a healthy lifestyle, that's the best you can do. Eat well, teach your kids to eat well, and show your kids that exercise is fun. I think teaching your child to have a strong self-esteem is the best thing a parent can do. I think the problem today is that the parents themselves have issues, and then they pass them on to their children, most of the time unintentionally, but none the less they pass them on.” –Diana, 32, mom to 1-year-old daughter

"Self confidence is the most attractive attribute of anyBODY." Janet, 52, mom to an 18-year-old daughter 

Video: Gail Saltz, MD: How Can Women Put Their Health First?

We asked iVillage moms to write a letter to their daughter sharing what they've learned about being healthy and loving yourself. Check out their letters and submit one of your own to be included in a Mother's Day slideshow. Email your letter, plus a photo of you and your daughter to iVillagehealth@nbcuni.com.

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