Dads may think they’re helping their daughters avoid social judgment or obesity by making them weight-conscious. But commenting on the weight, exercise habits, and diet of young girls can have serious, long-term effects. Experts are reaching a consensus that although parents — and fathers in particular — should take an active role in helping kids make good nutrition and exercise choices, becoming a source of body-shame will only create and exacerbate problems.
“Parents are justifiably worried about the effects of weight stigma and health consequences that are associated with obesity,” says Stephanie Manasse, Ph.D., a psychologist and director of the Child and Adolescent Program at Drexel University’s Center for Weight, Eating, and Lifestyle Science. “However, making any comment about a child’s body is unlikely to be helpful, and is much more likely to backfire.”
Instead of protecting their girls, this brings judgment into their homes and puts it in the mouth of the man whose opinion matters the most. Research shows 42% of first- through third-grade girls want to be thinner, and 81% of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat. Young girls have gotten the message loud and clear: Gaining weight is one of the worst things they can do. Piling on comments about their bodies increases the risk that girls will develop eating an unhealthy relationship with food.
“Children and teens who report more critical comments from either parent about their weight and eating habits are more likely to experience high body dissatisfaction, depressive symptoms, weight gain, and disordered eating pathology,” Manasse says. But parents can reduce these risks significantly by avoiding the following phrases.
“Dessert is bad for you.”
It’s a fact that desserts contain more sugar and empty calories, which are technically not great for people’s health. But setting rules about certain types of food, such as desserts, is not good for kids either. As much as it might seem like a normal part of parents teaching kids about nutrition, rigidly categorizing certain foods as “good” or “bad” can make girls more anxious about what they eat in general.
“Strict rules about what foods are good or bad can lead to increased feelings of guilt or shame around eating, which can set a child up to engage in disordered eating behavior,” Manasse says. Even if food restrictions are not directed at daughters specifically, talking about it in front of them sends the same message: When people eat these foods, they should feel bad about themselves.
“Someone is hungry.”
Much like comments on types of food, comments on quantity of food cause problems. Calling out how hungry they must be or comparing how much they eat to their peers does not teach girls to listen to their own bodies, says Taryn Myers, Ph.D., a psychologist at Virginia Wesleyan University. The central nervous system is better at signaling fullness than dad is. And it’s on dad to remember that.
“Kids pretty naturally have a good indication of when they are hungry and when they are full,” Myers says. “When we comment on what they eat or try to restrict amounts, we are teaching them not to trust their own bodies and to see food as an enemy rather than fuel for their growing bodies.”
“You’re so skinny!”
Sometimes parents think they’re complimenting their daughters by saying they look skinny, but all that does is reinforce how much being thin matters. Much like emphasizing looks over intelligence, this rewards the wrong thing and can make it much harder to cope with their appearance changing over time.
“These types of comparisons send the message that girls are valued based on their body weight and size, which is associated with increased body dissatisfaction and weight concerns,” Manasse says.
“Exercise burns fat and calories.”
When parents associate exercise with burning fat and calories, it ruins the fun of physical activity, Manasse and Myers both say. Running, playing outside, and other forms of recreation are such a crucial part of children’s emotional and physical development, but when parents frame exercise as a way to compensate for overeating, it turns something that’s good for them into a consequence for their behavior.
“They will learn that exercise is punishment for being fat or something you need to do to fix yourself rather than something enjoyable,” Myers warns.
“I need to lose weight.”
Kid learn to have healthy relationships with food and their bodies by watching their parents. And since many moms and dads have been raised on the aforementioned phrases, this can be harder for parents to model than it sounds. Even when they’re not directing comments about food, weight, and size towards their daughters, their girls pick up on the connection between size and self-worth. Even positive comments about their own weight loss or their spouse’s weight loss reinforce the same sentiment. Parents cannot control all the messages young girls get about their bodies, but they don’t have to add to them with their own body baggage.
“Negative comments about parents’ own bodies is strongly associated with greater body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in their children,” Manasse warns. “It is critical that parents model healthy relationships with their bodies as well as healthy eating and physical activity behaviors.”
What to Do When There Are Real Weight Concerns
As much as modeling healthy eating and exercising behaviors help, it doesn’t eliminate the risk of children becoming overweight and unhealthy. Experts overwhelmingly recommend moms and dads bring genuine health concerns about weight and eating to their pediatricians, without their children present. If their concerns are warranted, doctors can recommend healthy lifestyle changes. This sends children the message that a medical intervention is taking place, not that their body should be a source of shame.