How to help our daughters (or young women in our lives) when we're worried about their weight, food choices, & body Image.

The Q:
"My daughter is 13. She's athletic (plays rep hockey and ball) and is a strong girl but her body type isn’t typical.  She has a very strong lower half with big muscular legs but has always had a bit of a belly.  I know at 13 she is at an emotional stage in life but she told me this morning she just feels gross and doesn’t like the way her body looks in clothes (and has mentioned that she has never seen a body type like hers!).

I would like to see her improve her fitness level and eating habits could be improved.  With the nicer weather we are trying to do some fun circuit or HITT routines as a family but I am also considering signing us all up to do a 5 k run just so we have follow a training plan. 

I just want her to feel good about herself but I am so unsure about what to say because I do not want to do any damage to her self-esteem. Can you help?"

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The A:
Oh yes. I love this question for so many reasons.....

Most of us were raised in a diet culture, as were our moms. If we had concerns about our bodies as young women we were offered two solutions: exercise more and eat less (with a heavy emphasis on the EAT LESS). We were taught that we were in ultimate control of our weight and shape and that if we didn't like it, it was up to us to squeeze into a full-body electric blue leotard, turn on the Jane Fonda, and change it.

No one even had to SAY it to us (though they often did), it was obvious in the messaging surrounding us on tv, radio, and in magazines. Remember Oprah going on the crazy liquid diet and revealing her slim self in her old Calvin Klein skinny jeans?? I sure do and I would have been 9! NINE!
Everyone was so happy for her. So proud of her! She was so much better skinny!!!

This messaging lead to a generation (several generations actually) of yo-yo dieters.
Repetitive, often dangerous, diets that caused damage to metabolism, higher weight later in life (research below!), and an unhealthy relationship with food that continues to plague women today.

No one got skinnier or happier or healthier from these diets (do we need to go back to the Oprah example?).

The development of a healthy weight, body image, and relationship with food happens when we stop trying to hyper-control our food and body shape and start focusing on happiness, confidence, and worth. 

In particular, with young girls, it's about encouraging them to TRUST THEMSELVES. Putting the power back in their hands.

Here are a few tips I sent to the lovely mom who wrote to me, after meeting with her and her daughter:

{Note* In the meeting we discussed her 13 year old's love of healthy food and exercise and also the way that her natural love of healthy things was being affected by her teen need to be independent, make her own choices, push boundaries, and just be lazy sometimes! All normal!!}

  • Many girls at this age feel super awkward in their bodies. If she mentions it....normalize it. Normalize the fact that girls (and women) of all sizes and shapes feel "off" about their bodies at times. Educate her on the fact that it's usually NOT about our bodies but about the way we feel about ourselves....i.e. don't offer food or exercise as a solution to feeling shitty about her body. It won't help. The opposite, in fact.

  • If she continues to feel "off" about her body, ask her if she wants to chat with me, alone. Now that we've had an appointment, she might be open to that.

  • A lot of parents worry about their kids at this age because they're growing at different rates and weight will fluctuate. Again, this is normal. Present your kids with a good balance of nutritious food and play foods and allow them to make choices without judgment. Judgment around amount of food OR how healthy the food is has been shown to lead to women who are more overweight later in life. Girls at this age are SUPER sensitive to criticism and will pick-up on any hidden agenda....and then they will REBEL. There's data to back this up too:) The main thing is to preserve her self-esteem, her trust in herself & her ability to make decisions for herself, and her natural love of healthy behaviours (even if they aren't as often as you'd like, right now:)

  • Get her involved. Like we did today with the smoothies. {Note* She indicated she didn't like vegetables much right now so I had her help me brainstorm ways to get veggies and other super foods into her diet!}. Have her making food, grocery shopping, putting in food requests...and honour her choices. The more control she has over her choices, the more easily she'll be able to make the choices that feel good to her.

  • She's on her mix up her media intake to include women with bodies more like hers/more varied: Alicia Fashionista, Healthy is the New Skinny, etc. Seeing MANY types of bodies is the one proven way to improve body image.

Need more proof that teaching young girls to diet is the wrong way to go?
From an article written by Evelyn Tribole.....

  • Research on nearly 17,000 kids ages 9-14 years old found that dieting was a significant predictor of weight gain (Field et al 2003).  Moreover, the risk of binge eating increased with the frequency of dieting. Boys and girls who dieted frequently, were 5 to 12 times, respectively more likely to report binge eating compared to their nondieting counterparts. The researchers concluded, " the long term, dieting to control weight is not only ineffective, it may actually promote weight gain".
  • Teenage dieters had twice the risk of becoming overweight, compared to non-dieting teens, according to a five-year study (Neumark-Sztainer et al 2006).  Notably, at baseline, the dieters did not weigh more than their non-dieting peers. This is an important detail, because if the dieters weighed more—it would be a confounding factor, (which would implicate other factors, rather than dieting, such as genetics).
  • A team of UCLA researchers reviewed 31 long term studies on the effectiveness of dieting and concluded that dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain—up to two-thirds of the people regained more weight than they lost (Mann 2007).

Hope that helps!