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Some advice for mums...

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Dear Mums,

Here are some questions we get asked a lot, so we thought it might be a good idea to put some answers together to help you. As Mums it easy to worry about our daughters. We want to protect them and we can feel guilty and concerned when they get into states about their eating and their bodies. Mums are a big influence on our daughters and we can influence them positively. Children are incredible mimics. It is how they learn to fit in and grow. They copy us and the more we can accept our own bodies, the more natural it will feel to them to accept theirs.

I’m not saying it is easy to do. We know how important beauty and being a particular size has become and how it can be a struggle for us. Keeping our own battles with weight and bad body image away from our daughters so they don’t grow up thinking that to be female means to constantly fret about one’s body, is important. This first question is a common one.

Q: Sometimes I have days when I don’t feel great about my body. I’m fairly happy most of the time, but I do worry that my daughter could pick up on some of the negative feelings I have and that it would make her worry about herself more. How can I stop that happening ?

Let’s focus on what you can do to help yourself and your daughter and what things you could stop doing in front of her (and hopefully yourself).

Things to stop doing in her earshot

  • If you look in the mirror and sigh in her ear shot about how lumpy or awful you feel. Stop.
  • If you complain about floppy bits or fat. Stop.
  • If you say I shouldn’t be eating this because I don’t want to put on weight. Stop

Things to do to build up better feelings about your own body.

  • Look at pictures of yourself from a few years ago that you like. If you were dissatisfied with your body at the time and realise now that you looked just fine and only wish you had that body today, try to accept and enjoy your body as it is, at this stage. It would be awful to be looking back a few years from now at pictures of you now and being having those same regretful feelings.
  • Move your body. Put on music and dance around, go for a walk. Feeling the aliveness of your body from the inside is a good antidote to the criticism’s foisted on it from the outside.
  • Remind yourself that the images in magazines are all digitally touched up, stretched and lit in extraordinary ways and that they are there to make us buy products rather than being pictures of real women.
  • Remember yours is a living body that has worked, given birth. Bodies change as we age and it is a fiction that they could ever look like the perfected images on the page.

Things to do to build up good feelings for your daughters’ body:

Help her enjoy the changes her body is going through. If she hasn’t started to develop yet, anticipate it with pleasure in such phrases as “I wonder whether you are going to have my breasts or Dad’s side, or Grandma Flo’s or Auntie Sophie’s! We just don’t know. Exciting to see……”

If she is developing “You are so lucky! You have still have that lovely baby tummy and now you’ve got those sweet buds too. Delicious!”

If she already has developed “Your body is just so lovely now you are turning into a young woman. I hope you can really enjoy it.”

These kinds of sentences can sound funny to our ears first time round but they convey good feelings to our daughters and give her a positive sense of her own physical changes.


Many mothers ask how to start a conversation with their girls.

It’s really important for me to talk freely and honestly about everything to my daughter, but sometimes it can be difficult to talk to her about her self-esteem. How do I start talking to her about it?

Self esteem isn’t one thing, it isn’t about feeling good about yourself the whole time but being able to recognise and understand what we feel; to make sense of what can hurt us and to be aware of what can make us feel content and confident. Talking about feelings and actions and being very specific in one’s praise can be really helpful. A child doesn’t really know what to do with blanket praise but a sentence that says “I noticed how kind you were even though you really didn’t want to look after little Johnny….” Identifies a specific behaviour and shows your daughter you have understood her and respect what she has done. If she is struggling with homework and always puts it off but manages to get down to half of it, a sentence like, “you can feel proud of yourself for getting on with that. Well done” let’s her feel positively reinforced. If it comes to clothes or an art or writing project, try and pick out something you particularly like such as “the way you drew the house makes it so inviting. The way you put your clothes together, is really original. The way you told that story made me laugh so much. You have such a fresh style.”

Sentences such as these will give her something real about herself to grab on to. She will probably come back with, “really, Mum? I’m not sure,” and that gives you a chance to extend what you were noticing and to talk about the things you notice that she can feel proud about.

Developing her feelings of self worth also involves her knowing how to manage her emotions. If she feels sad, try just supporting her “oh that really is sad” rather than jolly her out of what she is experiencing. If she can the feeling of sadness and accept it, then it will be over and done with and she will be ready to feel something else. If she senses that it isn’t really ok to feel sad, that it affects you badly or worries you, then she will cut off that feeling and be a bit confused and then the sad feeling will return in a different form which she will also not know how to deal. If she feels it is ok to be sad, then she will probably stay in a conversation with you and you can say, “it’s so disappointing when x happens…….. “ Having her feelings and not having to be ashamed of them, whatever they are, really builds self confidence.


Some of you have written into to say:

My daughter’s self-esteem relies on her body image a lot. She’s really beautiful to me, and I know she’s at least as attractive as her friends, but she doesn’t always see that. How do I get her to appreciate how important the other things about her are?

If you greet your daughter and her friends with a sentence that goes something like, “My goodness, you two/three/four girls are all such beauties.“ when you are then alone with her you can talk with her about how lovely she and her friends her and how appealing their different physicality is. “Isn’t that Gemma’s height quite magnificent. So lovely to see her and you, such a perfectly formed little one together….. and Cassie’s smile is just so open and inviting isn’t it?” If she responds with feeling awful about her body, you could walk her to the mirror and show her how you see her. This could open up a conversation about how you see things for girls her age and how awful it is for them to have so much pressure on them to look just one way rather than celebrate their variety and stress again the lovely things about her particular body.


Many of you have written about pressure from friends:

My daughter’s friends have a huge impact on her self image. I worry that they can sometimes encourage each other to diet and that they are generally too obsessed by trying to look like celebrities they read about in magazines. How can I encourage her to be comfortable with herself and not feel like she has to always follow what her friends do?

One strategy is to talk to them together and get involved in a conversation about magazines and celebrities and how those magazines aren’t necessarily their friends but are there to sell them things. Look at the pictures with them and ask them what they like. Then tell them about all those magazines that photograph the celebrities and models as they are in normal life. Our fascination with those ordinary photos of them is because we usually see them so perfected. The girls need to know that they look often less gorgeous than your daughter and her friends.

You can also tell them some of the facts about dieting. For instance, if you diet you are 12 times for likely to binge. Whereas if you allow yourself a range of foods when you are hungry, you are likely to have a more stable weight.



Sometimes things get more serious.

My daughter’s suddenly stopped not wanting to do things any more – going to dance classes with her friends or going swimming – because she feels too self-conscious and ashamed of her body. She is twelve and it doesn’t feel right. What can I do?

Talking about the huge body changes that occur over these years and how you never knew whether you were going to be gangly or an ugly duckling when you were her age will help her feel less isolated. Acknowledge how hard it can be when your body starts sprouting in different directions and keeping up with dancing and swimming will give her some continuity can help. Getting her some really nice towels or dancing clothes will make it easier. And standing firm and encouraging her to continue with those activities she used to love or finding new ways to express herself through her body by trying more ‘grown up’ things like yoga or pilates or tennis, can help smooth her into young womanhood.

Talking to her too, about what specifically she hates, whether it is body hair, or spots, or the way she now needs to use deodorant, or needing to learn how to use tampons or find a hairstyle that works with who she is now, will provide moments of intimacy in which you can chat about the other things that are girls of her age worry about such as boys, or how girls can be mean to one another, will help shift the emphasis from her body.


One way troubles about the body play out is through food. Most girls now are on a constant sort of diet, believing that they should be restricting their eating in one way or another. Here’s one of many questions we’ve received from Mums.

My daughter wants to go from one ‘diet’ to another, and sometimes I struggle to get her to eat enough. I know this could have long-term impact on her life, but I can’t seem to get her to accept the idea of eating healthily.

So many girls have become frightened of food these days as though it were an enemy they have to stave off or even a drug they should be frightened of. At the same time, food takes on almost magical qualities and is something they can long for so that they veer between dieting or not eating and then suddenly getting caught up in bingeing because they have put the food off limits and their appetites bite back. Tell them there is nothing so tempting as something that is off limits and so making all foods allowable, neutralises them and makes it easier to make wise choices.

It really is worrying when they start cutting back drastically and when you see that their eating or not eating has little to do with hunger and fullness and all to do with ghastly rules they read about in magazines or exchange with their friends.

Being matter of fact about eating when you are hungry and stopping when you area full, even if that means leaving food on your plates sometimes or going for seconds or thirds at others, is an important model for your daughter. Letting her hear you reflect on your own satisfaction ‘that was just right’ or ‘your own capacity to make choices ‘my eyes would love to have some more of x but I know my tummy will not be happy’ or ‘shame, I just made this lovely dinner and I’m not that hungry or I am ravenous’ will go some way to making food a normal rather than an extraordinary event.

The sanest way for our daughters and ourselves to eat is to respond to our hunger so that we eat when we are hungry and we stop when we are full. This isn’t the easiest thing to do because we have lost the connection between the two often we eat when we aren’t hungry. If you eat when you aren’t hungry there is no signal indicating you are about to be full so it is important to model eating behaviour that restores the idea of appetite and fullness rather than dieting and bingeing.

Talking to our daughters from early on about how eating is a response to hunger just like peeing is a response to a full bladder can be helpful. They know that peeing is a natural process which they respond to rather than think and strategise about. So looking at food that way too can let you start a conversation about how eating when you are hungry, and eating the foods that meets that hunger and allow you to feel when you are full, will not only satisfy you but will also help the food get digested most efficiently because that is how our bodies are designed. Our metabolism works most effectively when we eat when we are hungry. Your daughters might not realise that our bodies are designed to cope with occasional famine and that if we eat too little continually, we don’t end up losing weight so much as we end up slowing down our metabolism because our body thinks it is in a famine state and conserves the food super efficiently.


Many mothers feel quite understandably alarmed that body troubles are affecting their daughters at earlier and earlier ages

I’m worried that my daughter’s getting worried about her body when she should still be enjoying her childhood, and I don’t know what I can do.

This is hard because things have really changed and childhood is being influenced by fashion and concern about body shape and size. Try not to be over alarmed, it is now part of growing up, but make sure to offer her other experiences in which she can feel good about herself and enjoy herself. But don’t avoid talking about her body and how adorable it is and all the things she can do with it, gymnastically or sporty or dancing for example. And try and show your delight in her scrumptious belly and the fact that she still lets you cuddle her.

Most of all, don’t drop casual negative comments about your own body into your conversations. In fact, see if you can go one step further and say positive things about your body and what it can do and the ways in which it makes you feel happy. If you go to the gym or do sports, pass a remark about how much energy it gives you.


It often feels as though all our best efforts towards our daughters are being undermined by our celebrity culture.

My daughter is really influenced in how she thinks about herself by the images of perfection she sees in the media and the celebrities she looks up to – how do I help her keep a healthy attitude?

Try laughing with her about how amazing it is that so many people’s energy – stylists, hairdressers, make up artists, photographers, lighting technicians, seamstresses and fashion designers - goes into creating that look and that maintaining is a full time job.

There is a great DVD you can send in for in which one of the most famous fashion photographers, Rankin, takes a couple of teenagers and shows how a photo shoot and all the things that a photographer does to ‘correct’ photos after a shoot can transform anyone to look like the most glamorous creature. Treating fashion images like fairy stories rather than reality and getting her to laugh with you about what fashions are considered essential this season and how we now all hate what was so in last year, is a way to help her see style as fun rather than essential to well being.

Talking too, about how we seem to be into just one body you are waiting to see a celebrity who has a really different body type and who is not 100% perfect all what kind of lives she imagines those perfected people live is another way to show how unre


Comments from other adults

I know that my daughter gets really upset by the things that her grandparents make sometimes. I’ve heard them telling her that she’s ‘filled out’ and even though I know they don’t mean to be critical, I know that it makes her feel bad about the way she looks. What’s the best way of tackling this without making even more of an issue out of it?

Probably here, you are best off talking to the adults quietly about how to make comments that show their delight in their grandchild’s changing body or try not to make them at all. At the same time it is worth giggling with your daughter about how Gran doesn’t feel comfortable saying she looks voluptuous or womanly or breasty and so she uses as a silly synonym. That can help take the sting out and if it then opens up a conversation about how your daughter feels about her own body, you can encourage her to talk about what she feels and the pressures she feels under. You don’t need to have an answer for everything or to dispute what she says she feels about herself, even if you find it hard if she makes negative comments about herself. You can just listen and say things like “that’s hard” and then maybe sometime later you can let her see you looking at her with a smile and say “I hope soon you’ll be able to see how lovely you are.”

Written by Susie Orbach and posted for Dove on their website