How Dads Affect Their Daughters' Body Image

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Family, Self

Fathers have a tremendous impact on body image and self-esteem.

Imagine this scene from your childhood: Your body has just started developing — and you're uncomfortable with the changes — when your father makes a joke about it. Perhaps he is uneasy about his little girl growing up because it makes him feel older, and he says something like, "Wow, you're really getting big! You'd better get some new clothes because that shirt is way too tight and makes you look fat!"

He probably meant that you were ready to buy a larger size shirt, and it's completely normal for girls to outgrow sizes quickly while they're developing. What you heard, though, was a completely different message. You heard that your dad thought you were fat, that form-fitting clothes were somehow inappropriate and that being 'big' would not be something your dad would like.

When dads make comments about women's bodies, daughters learn that their bodies and looks are open to comparison — and criticism.

In the scenario above, the dad is confused about his role and how he should treat his little girl now that she's becoming a young woman. He's not sure if he should cuddle, hug and hold hands with his daughter as he has done for the past ten years. He's confused about discussing sexual issues, so he says something inappopriate. He may also distance himself from his daughter in order to not put his foot in his mouth.

My research combined with my experience as a parent educator (I'm also a parent of five daughters and two foster daughters) has taught me that dads play a big role in helping their daughters learn to like themselves. If a girl does not hear from her dad (or other significant male adult) that she's attractive before she turns 14, she never completely believes it from another man. When a girl becomes a teenager, the input and approval she does receive from her dad helps her maintain a positive body image

When they were young, my daughters would ask me how they looked. I would say something like, "That's a wonderful color on you," or, "You really know how to accessorize." They would roll their eyes and say, "Of course, you would say that. Mothers always tell you that you look good." Then they would go into the living room where their father was reading the paper and ask "How do I look, Dad?" He would lower the paper and say, "You look great." Then they would breathe a sigh of relief and go out the door.

There's a distinction to be made here, though. When both parents praise beauty constantly, a girl believes that her phsyical attractiveness is what matters most in the world. Though it's important to compliment physical attributes, also encourage intellect, bravery, humor, kindness and compassion.

Picture again the scene in the first paragraph. Imagine how the dad felt when he saw his little girl. She was playing with dolls but obviously in need of a bra. It was mind-blowing for him to suddenly realize his daughter was a sexual being. Rather than commenting negatively on her growing body, it was an opportunity for him to suggest a shopping trip and lunch together.

While a hundred dollars and two hours spent at the mall bonding with his daughter might seem like a lot, consider it two hours saved with a therapist when she's an adult. Absolutely nothing says, "I love you, accept you and honor you," like time. This connection will demonstrate that parental involvement is essential to acceptance of body and mind image of a child. It empowers young girls to become a self-assured woman.

You will find a deeper discussion and suggestions of building self-confidence in your children at How To Help Kids Like Themselves. Parents, extended family, and other caring adults can make a huge difference in the life of a child.  It is the most important work we do.

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