Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: Do you have any advice for approaching or responding to the topics of body image, healthy eating and exercising with my tween daughter? Her body’s changing, and once in a while she laments the changes — nothing I’m concerned about, normal stuff. I also see these (relatively infrequent) comments as an opportunity to broaden the discussion from “looks” to feeling good and healthy and taking charge of your physical and emotional health.
I wish my mom had taught me more, so I didn’t have to figure it out myself in adulthood, but I also have friends and a sister who’ve suffered from eating disorders, so I am so sensitive about discussions surrounding body image, food, exercise, etc. She’s already well-versed in the biology of what’s happening, and her dad and I model good behavior around eating, exercise, and tending to our emotional health, so we’re on the right path.
Raising a Tween Girl
DEAR RAISING A TWEEN GIRL: “Broaden[ing] the discussion from ‘looks’ to feeling good and healthy” is good stuff, but it will quickly not be good if you respond to her complaints automatically with, “What matters is that you’re healthy,” or etc. Doing that will have the unintended effect of negating her, and also sending her the message that bodies and feelings about bodies are not to be discussed except within the narrow confines of the parental talking points.
I’m not suggesting this is what you have done, just spelling it out as a common trap.
This subject can be nightmarish to navigate, legitimately so, in part because the cultural messages have been so consistently unhealthy, but also in part because simply the level of awareness is problematic — meaning, it’s not just a matter of what a person eats or doesn’t eat or how one does or doesn’t exercise, but also a matter of how much one thinks about eating and exercising.
So, not talking about it is a legitimate path to consider, and that, honestly, sometimes makes me want to throw my hands up and just say to my kids, “Just play hard and you’re fine.” Which is kinda right, now that I think of it.
Anyway, your modeling good behavior and emotional housekeeping is huge, and so I suggest, where possible, you get moving. Hike, bike, paddle, swim, dance, ski, skate, etc., as a family. It’s easier to feel good about a body that’s doing good things for you.
And respond to your daughter’s complaints by saying her frustrations with her changing body are normal. Everybody goes through it.
And do a lot of listening before you respond, because she may still find it useful to hear that feeling good takes precedence over looks, but the way you say it needs to be tailored to what she’s asking of you, versus coming off as boilerplate mompreach. Being heard can do more for a kid’s mental, and therefore physical, health than a kale and quinoa surprise.
RE: BODY IMAGE: The “A Mighty Girl” blog did a post on [books about body image], with links to both parent and kid views: http://bit.ly/AnyBodies.
DEAR ANONYMOUS: Good stuff, thanks.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.