Do we really need researchers from Cornell University in the UK to tell us a woman’s dissatisfaction with her adult weight is related to the extent her parents made comments about her weight?
For good or bad, it’s something every woman already knows.
The 501 women in the study, aged between 20 and 35, were asked questions about their body image and to recall how often their parents commented about their weight. The Guardian reports, “Those with a healthy body mass index were nearly a third less likely to recall parents commenting on their weight than women who were overweight.”
In other words, if you are a parent and you talk to your daughter regularly about her weight, she will grow up to be unhappy about her weight and probably overweight.
"If you are a parent and you talk to your daughter regularly about her weight she will grow up to be unhappy about her weight..." Image via iStock.
That seems pretty obvious to me. Kind of like if you drop an egg on the floor it will crack.
No matter how much young girls and teens act as though they're not listening to you, no matter how many times they roll their eyes, you are kidding yourself if you think the 'harmless' remark about "baby fat sticking around for too long" will go down the same way as "clean your room".
Those critical observations about weight and appearance from the very people who are meant to love them more than anyone else in the whole wide world are filed and catalogued inside young girls. Each one heavier than the next. Each one sharper. Each one making it easier, making it normal, for other negative messages to come inside; from school, social media, friends, movies, advertising.
A parent's job is to help build resilience in their children, not to grab the hand of one of their daughter's biggest crippling obsessions and say "Come in, welcome to our home. Stay with my 14-year-old 24/7. When she is slipping off to sleep remind her she's not good enough. When she's laughing with her friends, stop her, mid laugh and let her go cold when she remembers that her body is 'not quite right'. Stay with her when she makes plans to go on a diet. When she looks in the mirror, don't mince words, tell her those four or six or ten extra kilos will stop her from being loved."
In a review of 56 studies, Dr Rachel Rodgers, associate professor at the department of applied psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, told The Guardian, "Parents who try to control their children’s diets, encourage them to watch their weight and advocate thinness as desirable are more likely to have daughters, in particular, who grow up to be dissatisfied with their bodies."
"Cutting away at their already paper thin self esteem..." Image via iStock.
There is so much pressure already on girls to look a certain way, weigh a certain amount, wear the right clothes, have the clearest skin, the funnest friends, the chicest bedrooms, get the best marks, surely another important job for parents alongside the building of resilience, is to act as interference to unnecessary pressure (which is very different to the necessary pressures of life)?
Growing up, I remember vividly the sting of not "looking right" because I didn't look like the models in magazines or the prettiest girl at school. When I was 14 I stacked on weight. I was nearly six foot and heavy and awkward and I went jean shopping with my mum and dad (I'm also gathering I wasn't a cool girl). The experience was miserable and in the end we bought the biggest size they had in the store.
When I got home I cried.
My dad said what he always says about me when he sees me. Even now.
"Ah, don't you look beautiful." Or "You must be one of the most beautiful women on the planet." Or "How lucky am I to be going out with such a stunner?"
I remember hissing at dad that he was a liar or blind as I stood on our verandah in my "fat jeans". And he just said simply: "No, I'm not."
"I remember hissing at dad that he was a liar or blind as I stood on our verandah in my "fat jeans" ."
My mum didn't say anything but she must have seen I'd put on quite a bit of weight. She was, unknown to me then, my role model. She didn't diet, we didn't own scales, she ate healthily but also enjoyed treats, she exercised. The most she would say about her weight, and she was (and still is) a slim, healthy woman, was "These pants are getting snug, I think I'll have to give up the treats for a fortnight."
That was it. She never looked at herself in the mirror and detailed all her physical faults to me. I never looked at her and detailed her physical faults in my head. Mum got on with living.
Now I'm an adult. With three daughters of my own.
I don't look in the mirror and detail my faults to my daughters. I also never talk about their weight, just as I don't talk about my weight. We talk about eating healthily. We talk about food choices, fad diets, a proposed sugar tax, our favourite cuisine, our favourite ice cream flavours. Mainly we talk about a lot of other things.
Like my mum I've stayed the same weight all my adult life. I'm slim and I don't diet. I don't own scales. I eat healthily but enjoy treats, and I exercise.
None of it is rocket science. None of it requires a 20 year study with 2000 participants. Of course a young girls' body image is severely impacted on by what her parents say about her weight.
Watch the trailer for 'Embrace', an Australian documentary about body image. Post continues below.
Dr Rodgers says, “Parents should avoid commenting on their children’s weight or appearance: that includes criticism, teasing, or even ‘positive’ statements. They should avoid encouraging their children to diet, or suggesting they need to lose weight. They should avoid ‘not allowing’ certain foods, telling their children that certain foods are ‘bad’ or trying to restrict their children’s diets.”
Girls will fluctuate in weight as they grow. They will also fluctuate in how good they look when they walk out the door. They will fluctuate, from minute to minute, in how they view themselves. And their own critical eye, the one they harshly level at themselves has enough power and poison in it - there's no need to add their parents potent observations to that mix.
And if your daughter has put on weight, so what? Unless it's going to kill them, don't mention it. It will get sorted.
I won't comment on my daughters' weight but I will about the power of their bodies. I will never stop telling my daughters their bodies are amazing because they can make them run fast in cross country or shoot really well in netball or dive through the waves or, one day, have babies if they want to.
Best of all, my husband will never stop telling them they're beautiful. That's all he sees. They roll their eyes at him when he says it too. But I see those words burrow their way deep inside them somewhere. Solid and warm. The man who loves them best in the whole world looks straight at them and tells them how beautiful they are. On their worst days and on their best.
They'll grow up. Just like I did and their dad will still say (no matter if they've been up all night with crying babies or out all night with friends), "Ah, don't you look beautiful."
It's a family tradition I'm hoping to carry on.
Mum will be a role model and dad will be blissfully blind.