Earlier this year, I was teaching my 5-year-old son about the food groups for school. The assignment was to identify different types of healthy and unhealthy foods. As my son sorted the food items, he called a picture of candy “bad,” and I realized that I had made a mistake in my word choice. I quickly corrected him, reminding my son that foods are not good or bad. Foods can be healthy or unhealthy, but even foods like cookies and candy are good, as long as they are enjoyed in moderation. I didn’t want my children to grow up to have the kind of relationship with food that I had.
My adolescent and early adult years were spent fighting a war against my body and food. At some point in my childhood, foods had become good and bad. Exercise had become a form of punishment. The mirror had become my enemy, and I had come to hate my body. I don’t want my daughter (or my son) to grow up hating herself, her body, or food. I want my daughter to see her body as beautiful and food as good. If you’re looking to do the same with your daughter(s), here are 5 ways to encourage healthy body image.
1. Avoid criticizing other people’s bodies, whether it’s your own, your daughter’s, or another woman’s.
I might not always feel great about my body, but I never say anything bad about it in front of my daughter. By always talking about my body in positive (and realistic) terms, I know that I am helping my own relationship with my body, as well as encouraging my daughter to grow up loving hers. I also refuse to speak negatively about other women’s bodies. We are often tempted to compare ourselves with others, even demeaning other women to make ourselves feel better about our bodies, but I want my daughter to see the beauty in other women.
2. Teach your daughter the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods, but be sure to emphasize the fact that all food is good and is meant to be enjoyed in moderation.
When I talk with my children about food, we use terms like “healthy” and “unhealthy,” rather than “good” and “bad.” There are no inherently bad foods. You will not die from eating a slice of chocolate cake (unless it’s poisoned, of course). All foods are good and are meant to be enjoyed. God gave us the ability to create delicious foods; we have the ability to even turn food into a pseudo-art form. It’s just important that all foods are consumed in appropriate quantities; you should be eating more vegetables than sweets, but there’s nothing wrong with a slice of cake from time to time.
3. Compliment your daughter regularly, and encourage your husband to do the same.
Many people believe that by praising a child often, you will make them proud and vane. I won’t argue that it’s certainly possible. If you only ever tell your daughter that she’s beautiful and never compliment her on her intellect or virtue, you will create a woman who believes that looks are everything. But if you never tell your daughter that she’s beautiful and only every praise her for her accomplishments in school and extra-curricular activities, you’ll create a woman who sees beauty as worthless. God loves the true, the good, and the beautiful. We reflect God in our beauty. If our praise is well-rounded, we will raise well-rounded women, women who are true, good, and beautiful. And if your husband praises your daughter regularly, she will learn to expect the same treatment from the other men in her life.
4. Teach your daughter the importance of modesty.
There’s a mistaken assumption among many modern parents that modesty is an outdated remnant of a misogynistic society. Boys just need to learn how to control themselves. Girls shouldn’t need to cover themselves up just because boys are lustful and objectifying. That’s a problem for boys to solve, not girls. And while it is true that boys need to grow in virtue and avoid the sin of lust, girls are called to be virtuous too, and that means being modest in word and action. It means treating their bodies will respect and love, protecting it from being objectified and degraded. We are not in heaven here, so we must act in the knowledge that the world we live in is fallen.
5. Draw attention to the individual parts of her body and discuss what they are capable of.
We are often tempted to berate specific parts of our bodies. Our eyes are too puffy, our skin too wrinkly, our stomach too saggy. We can respond to this temptation by recognizing the strength to be found in each of those parts. Our eyes have endured countless sleepless nights, rocking our babies, comforting our young ones after a nightmare, agonizing over our grown children after they have flown the coop. Our skin is wrinkled after days spent in the sun with our children, after years spent giving our bodies to them. Our stomachs are saggy after carrying our children within us and then bringing them into the world. We can do the same with our daughters. Help them see the strength in their arms, the power in their legs, the potential in their core. Their bodies are capable of doing so much, and they are meant to be loved, respected, and celebrated.