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Body Image and Children

Although family structures and gender roles are changing, mothers are still primarily responsible for food-related household duties such as grocery shopping and meal preparation. Compared to fathers, mothers also do more to educate their families about nutrition and dietary intake in most households. This means they have a great influence on children’s eating behaviors and attitudes. Research has shown that this influence tends to have a greater impact on daughters

Mothers and Daughters

Young children receive different messages about their bodies from their parents. Boys generally strive to build muscles, while girls tend to use weight loss strategies to achieve what they believe is an ideal body size based on cultural expectations.
It has been shown that daughters’ attitudes about their bodies and eating behaviors are directly related to their mother’s verbal and nonverbal messages. Additionally, girls are more likely to develop ideas about dieting when their mothers diet.
A mother’s opinion of her own body can even influence her daughter, as mothers who are more concerned with their own bodies are more likely to limit their children’s eating. Mothers who promote dieting may be trying to help their children and protect them from society’s expectations, but early dieting may lead to a lifelong battle with body image. Early dieting can also increase a child’s risk of becoming obese.

Helping Daughters with Body Image

Parents are role models, and the mother-child relationship is often crucial to the development of self in girls. Therefore, mothers should be aware of how their thoughts and actions regarding body image affect their daughters. Mothers can assess their feelings about dieting and body image using the following questions:

  • Do I hide my body from friends and family?
  • Do I make negative comments about my body or other women’s bodies?
  • Do I make negative comments about my child’s body or eating habits?
  • Am I critical of my child’s body?
  • Have I limited my daughter’s food intake so she won’t gain weight?
  • Do I focus on my daughter’s weight more than my son’s?
  • Do I diet often, obsess about my weight, or over-exercise?

Here are some ways mothers can help themselves and their daughters develop a more positive body image and reduce risky eating habits.

  • Help your daughter understand that weight gain is a normal part of growing and puberty
  • Try not to make negative statements about food and bodies
  • Let your children make their own food decisions, but ensure they receive healthy meals and snacks
  • Discuss body images with your daughter as you watch television or movies, or look at other media

Mothers need to remember that they significantly influence their daughter’s body image, and they can help to develop a positive body image in their children. For more information and resources for mothers, visit the Office on Women’s Health.

Adapted and excerpted from:

E. Baugh, “Do I Look Fat in This?”: The Role of Mother-Daughter Relationships in Determining Body Image (FCS8838), UF/IFAS Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences (revised 07/2010).

Body image and your kids,” Office on Women’s Health (updated 05/2018).

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