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Moms play a big part in shaping daughters’ body image

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Published:   |   Updated: March 25, 2013 at 03:34 PM

She’s watching you, Mom.

Your little girl, the one who will be a teenager before you know it, on the verge of blossoming into full-fledged womanhood, is taking more cues from you than either one of you may realize -- especially when it comes to issues such as body image and self-esteem.

You may not always notice when you’re whining out loud about how fat you look in photos, or going on about how beautiful the visually manipulated starlets on magazine covers look, or obsessing about another diet you need to try.

But those sighs about your thighs could have serious consequences.

How serious? Start with the fact that the National Eating Disorder Association estimates 20 million American women will face a clinically significant eating disorder in their lifetime.

“Consciously and subconsciously, daughters mimic the way moms talk and act,” says Tampa child and family psychologist Jennifer Mockler. “Mothers need to be very careful.”

In general, there are two kinds of moms, says Cara Natterson, author of “The Care & Keeping of You 2: The Body Book for Older Girls” (American Girl, $12.99). There are those who keep their insecurities close to the vest and those who over-share. Those who constantly verbalize their negative feelings may be doing their daughters some damage, Natterson says. “They are not trying to beat down their daughter’s self-esteem, but they are at risk for doing just that,” she says.

“It’s not about you,” she says. “It’s about your daughter.”

Nancy Lemon, founder of Girls With Confidence camps in FishHawk Ranch, knows firsthand how a mother’s seemingly harmless quips and niggles can seep into a little girl’s psyche. And many of the elementary- and middle school-aged girls she knows say dieting is common among their moms.

Lemon says she’s heard about mothers who step on a scale every day in front of their daughters, or who tell their kids they won’t eat cake for fear of gaining weight. One mom launched a weight-loss competition. Against her daughter.

“I hope they don’t get this crazy idea that adult women are always on a diet,” Lemon says.

The Girls With Confidence classes are designed to focus on self-esteem, helping girls develop communication and leadership skills. That includes learning the best way to communicate with Mom – or anyone else whose actions might make a girl squirm.

Lemon, who does similar work at the corporate level, says even the youngest girls can learn “I” statements that can explain how seeing Mom obsess over her body image makes them feel. For example: “When I see you do that, it makes me uncomfortable. I wish you didn’t.”

“It can be as simple as that,” says Lemon, who herself struggled with body image and had a mother overly focused on weight.

“Don’t talk about how fat you are in front of your daughter. Be proud of your body,” she says.

But watching what you say is not the same as ignoring reality, especially if it means your own child is overweight or obese, Natterson says. Today, an estimated 18 percent of American kids are obese -- double the rates in 1980, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And more than a third of all kids, ages 6 to 18, are considered overweight or obese.

But many parents are oblivious when their own child is at risk. A recent study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NPR and Harvard’s School of Public Health found that while 80 percent of American adults considered obesity a serious problem, just 20 percent felt it would directly affect their own offspring.

For those parents who do see it, they need to be careful to change eating habits and activity behaviors in a way that doesn’t make the child resent it. Natterson advises being honest, especially with older children, about why dieting is necessary.

“Kids do what their parents do, not what their parents say,” she says. “Explain to them the choices you are making and why.”

Mockler says parents shouldn’t publicly obsess night and day about helping their child lose weight. Instead be a good role model, eating the same kinds of foods as your child.

“Everyone at the dinner table should be doing it. It shouldn’t be about your daughter being the only one losing weight,” Mockler says.

That means Mom can’t keep a junk food stash for herself if she’s asking her kids to eat healthy, and she can’t send them out to exercise if all she does is sit around and surf the Internet.

“Don’t have (junk food) in the house in the first place,” Mockler says. “You are focusing on the food. That’s wrong and sends the wrong message to your daughter.”

Of course, expert advice like this isn’t so easy to execute in reality. There are often other kids in the house, a dad who wants a gallon of cookies and cream ice cream at the ready, or a busy lifestyle that makes controlling food difficult.

Figure out what works for you, Natterson says. That’s especially important with tweens and teens, who tend to value friends’ opinions more than parental advice. Instead of making a production out of it, it might be better to simply leave an age-appropriate book about body image lying around the house for anyone to read.

Or give your daughter permission to ask a question about anything – from bras to weight to boys -- and allow her to pass it to you in a note if talking about it is too embarrassing.

“However it works in your house, keep those lines of communication open,” she says. “They will keep coming back to you over time.”


mshedden@tampatrib.com, (813) 259-7365, Twitter: @MaryShedden

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