What do you tell your seven-year-old daughter when she says she wants to diet?
She laughs with her whole body. She hugs with her whole heart. She is bright and funny and full of vim.
But something is going wrong with my amazing daughter, Izzy*. She thinks she is fat. She pulls up her T-shirt and sticks her belly out at me as if it’s proof – all I see is a growing child. She tells me that she has to lose weight. She says things like “If I was skinny I would be a much faster swimmer” and “I’m fat because I don’t exercise enough”
It breaks my heart. Hearing my darling seven-year-old using words like “fat” and “skinny” stings. They feel like the words of angst-ridden adolescence, not childhood. I tell her that she is perfect and that between swimming, soccer and ballet she gets plenty of exercise. But I know that my words aren’t hitting the spot.
I remember it all too well – being bigger than my peers; deciding even before the teasing started that my body was wrong.
At nine I dropped out of gymnastics because I didn’t want anyone to see me in a leotard. By 11, I was wearing an oversized cardigan at all times, even on the most gruelling summer days. I didn’t want anyone to notice the awful truth – I was different.
I have done serious battle with my body image since then. Sometimes I lost – the years of crash diets and vomiting up the inevitable binges were hard on my health and my self-esteem. Sometimes I won – learning to accept myself at my biggest was a true breakthrough. These days I tread carefully – I’m committed to loving my body, but I’m only human.
When I gave birth to a daughter I swore I would protect her from the body image demons that plague so many of our girls. I tried to be a role model of positive behaviour – I walked the talk in terms of food and exercise. I didn’t let her hear me criticise myself; I didn’t stand naked in front of a mirror and suck in my stomach.
Despite these efforts my baby girl thinks there is something wrong with her body.
I wonder if it’s all my fault. In desperately trying to protect her, have I inadvertently focused on the very thing I wanted to avoid? Is history repeating itself?
But I can’t take all the blame. We live in a society that celebrates skinny and popular culture is hard to avoid. I can’t police everything Izzy sees and hears – and as much as I’d like to wrap her in cotton wool I have to accept that these messages are out there.
“When I gave birth to a daughter I swore I would protect her from the body image demons that plague so many of our girls”
Psychologist Giuliett Moran of Empowering Parents tells me children are particularly vulnerable to social conditioning. “Children absorb information and learn so rapidly that unfortunately they are susceptible to any negative messages,” she says.
“As with anything, the more regularly a message is heard, observed or seen, the bigger the impact that it can have.”
What can I do? I can’t just tell Izzy that she is perfect – I remember exactly how I felt when my mum tried that tactic on me. I can’t dismiss her desire to lose weight, either – if I don’t listen and support there is a risk she will shut me out altogether. And I’m absolutely not putting her on a diet.
Moran says keeping the lines of communication open will be key. “Talking about feelings and emotions (both positive and negative) in everyday conversations is really valuable. Doing this is important so that children hear adults vocalising their experiences,” she notes.
“This will normalise the fact that we all have doubts and difficult days and we can then discuss and model strategies that we use to get through these times.”
Another strategy is to talk to Izzy about the role of the media. I can spend time showing her pictures from the web that will confirm what I tell her about people coming in all sorts of shapes and sizes. In this way, I can make the internet work for us instead of against us.
I can also help to build Izzy’s self-esteem by encouraging her to continue participating in the hobbies she loves, in particular soccer. I hope that being part of a spirited girls’ team will show her that what we do with our bodies is much more important than what they look like.
Moran also suggests that I teach Izzy how to “talk back” to her negative thoughts. “Talk to [Izzy] about her comment, ‘I wish I was skinny’, and ask her why this is important to her – is it about her health? Other people’s perceptions? Or that she wants to look a particular way?
“Hopefully by talking through this with her, you can identify alternate statements which she can use instead, such as ‘I want to be healthy’.”
Most importantly, Moran says that Izzy’s dad and I must continue to be role models of a positive body image: “Young children learn best through imitation, and therefore parents and primary caregivers can have a huge impact.”
I feel the pressure especially keenly. It feels like I’m navigating a minefield and I’m absolutely terrified of getting it wrong.
At the same time, I’m hopeful my own experience means that I understand what my darling girl is feeling. But this time around, I’m armed with better knowledge. The fight is on – and the stakes have never been higher.
*Names have been changed.
This article was originally published on The Age
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