A growing number of children, especially girls, fret about their body image. A poll conducted by Harris Interactive found that 17% of girls ages 8 and 9, and about a third of girls ages 10 to 12 perceived themselves as overweight. That compares with 16% and a fifth of boys, respectively, in the same age groups.

What are the causes? Some researchers and parents blame images in magazines and on TV, and even textbook drawings of girls that have become skinnier through the years. New research in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that adolescents who diet a lot are influenced most by two factors: media images and what their fathers think. Among those classified as “constant dieters,” the number one factor was their father’s concern about their thinness.

To Think About …

Bruce has always made weight an issue with his three daughters. Though each of them has always had a healthy body ratio, from the time they were young Bruce would often caution them at mealtimes about their weight and talk about thinness as the ideal. He’d say that overweight women are ugly.

The girls responded differently to their dad’s approach. The oldest was able to take it in stride and adjust in a healthy way. The other two became compulsive and anorexic. When the second daughter began seeing a young man regularly, Bruce warned her, “He wouldn’t like you if you were even an ounce overweight.” Since the young man gave her the attention and acceptance she longed for, she grew closer to him and eventually moved in with him–much to the disappointment of her father.

Since then, this daughter has continued to demonstrate desperate cries for acceptance–bouts with depression and even thoughts of suicide. But for now, her father has failed to make the connection between his obsession with thinness and his daughter’s cry for help.

Dad, what role does your child’s appearance or body image play in your perception of her and your consistency in showing her affection and appreciation?

ACTION POINTS for Committed Fathers

  1. Have you ever criticized your wife or children about their weight? Discuss with another dad how this impacted them. Then, apologize to your wife or children, tell them you were wrong, and don’t do it again.
  2. Point out two unique and beautiful physical features about each of your family members. Make it clear that, even without those features, you’d still love them just as much.
  3. This weekend, ride bikes, jog, swim and/or take a hike as a family.

Ken Canfield ©2001 National Center for Fathering


10 Things Parents Can Do to Help Prevent Eating Disorders

1. Consider your thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors toward your own body:

  • Accept the genetic basis for the natural diversity of human body shapes and sizes, and
  • Make an effort to maintain positive, healthy attitudes & behaviors. Children learn from the things you say and do!

2. Examine closely your dreams and goals for your children and other loved ones. Are you over-emphasizing beauty and body shape, particularly for girls?

  • Avoid conveying an attitude which says in effect, “I will like you more if you lose weight, don’t eat so much, look more like the slender models in ads, fit into smaller clothes, etc.”

3. Learn about and discuss with your sons and daughters:

  • The dangers of trying to alter one’s body shape through dieting;
  • The value of moderate exercising toward stamina and cardiovascular fitness; and
  • The importance of eating a variety of foods in well-balanced meals consumed at least three times a day.
  • Avoid dichotomizing foods into “good/safe/no-fat or low-fat vs. bad/dangerous/fattening”.
  • Be a good role model in regard to sensible eating, sensible exercise, and self-acceptance.

4. Make a commitment to exercise for the joy of feeling your body move and function effectively, not to purge fat from your body or compensate for calories eaten.

5. Make a commitment not to avoid activities (such as swimming, sunbathing, dancing) simply because they call attention to your weight and shape.

6. Practice taking people in general and women in particular seriously for what they say, feel, and do, not for how slender or “well put together” they appear.

7. Make a commitment to help children (both male and female) appreciate and resist the ways in which television, magazines, and other media distort the true diversity of human body types and imply that a slender body means power, excitement, and sexuality.

8. Make a commitment to educating boys about the various forms of weightism, and their responsibilities for preventing it.

9. Encourage your children to be active and to enjoy what their bodies can do and feel like. Do not limit their caloric intake unless a physician requests that you do this because of a medical problem.

10. Do whatever you can to promote self-respect of your daughters, nieces, and sisters in spiritual, intellectual, athletic, and social endeavors. Give boys and girls the same opportunities and encouragement.

© Linda Smolak, Ph.D. and Michael Levine, Ph.D. All rights reserved. This article was reprinted with permission. Please do not publish this article without direct consent from the author. Family First is not authorized to permit the reproduction of articles contributed to by non-staff authors.