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Mom Talk: Daughters & Diets

Written by Susan Hyatt    

Photography by Top Photo By Paige Jones; Bottom Photo Courtesy Of Susan Hyatt

When the month of January comes around, so do the omnipresent messages to improve and transform one’s body. Of course, women receive these pressures year-round, often beginning in childhood. Today’s Mom Talk essay discusses this subject, as mother, podcaster, and certified life & business coach Susan Hyatt shares her personal experience raising a daughter in a body-conscious world. Plus, she shares 5 pieces of advice other parents can try at home.

My daughter Cora was 9-years-old when I realized something was terribly wrong. 

She came home from school and seemed strangely quiet. Her feisty spirit was subdued. A preoccupied expression clouded her face.

I plopped onto the couch and asked how her day had been, trying to probe for information but without being too obvious. 

That’s when she told me about The Pact. 

Several of her girlfriends at school had made a pact. They promised each other they would skip eating lunch for the rest of the year. They would toss their uneaten food into the garbage bin to prevent their parents from finding out their plan. This girl-squad invited Cora to join them in solidarity. A sisterhood of starvation.

Cora explained the secret Pact, and then asked me uneasily, as if searching for confirmation that her instincts were correct, “That’s messed up, mom. Right?”

I exhaled sharply, processing this disturbing information. And I assured her, firmly, “Yes, honey. That is seriously messed up.”

Then I pulled my little girl close, and I gave her a 30-minute condensed version of the entire history of women’s oppression.

I explained to Cora that many women do dangerous things (like starve themselves) because of something called The Patriarchy. And I explained that it’s really important to get plenty of sleep, eat nutritious food, and exercise to become strong, so that you have plenty of energy. Energy for what? To smash The Patriarchy, of course.

The next day, Cora marched into school and told her dieting classmates, and I quote: “My mom says we need to eat our sandwiches so we have enough energy to talk back to the boys, because we can’t let them boss us around.” 

I’d never been prouder of my little girl. She took a stand. She used her voice. She chose to be a leader instead of a follower. She was bold.

A 2015 study found that most girls start dieting by age eight. Despite our best parenting efforts, our daughters are influenced and often pressured into diets by the media, the diet industry, and their peers.

This got me thinking, “What if girls like Cora were the norm instead of the exception?” 

A big part of this starts at home. It starts with the influences we share (or don’t share) in our daughter’s lives. It starts with how we respond when our daughter bashes her curvy body. It starts with us speaking about our own bodies with compassion and pride.

Yes, the $71 billion diet industry is rooted in hundreds of years of patriarchy, which can make it hard to dismantle. But if we raise daughters who are informed, mindful, and resistant to the harmful effects of dieting; we’ll raise a whole new generation of women who are focused on bridging the wage gap rather than focusing on having a thigh gap.

Here are five tips to show up for your child:

Practice mindful eating at home.
Eating should be simple—but for many women and girls, mealtime is fraught with anxiety and stress. But since dieting is learned behavior, it can be unlearned. Instead, teach your daughter to trust her body. This starts with the example you set at home. 

I encourage you to think about food in two categories: power food and pleasure food. Power food is nutritious (fruits, veggies, lean protein, nuts, seeds, whole grains) and gives you lots of energy. Pleasure food is not necessarily packed with nutrients (cupcakes, candy, french fries), but it’s tasty and fun and can be a special treat. 

If you practice mindful eating habits in your life, your daughter will pick up on this. This might mean stocking up on lots of power foods that you and your daughter enjoy. It might also mean making an “occasion” out of eating pleasure foods (like going out for cake together rather than mindlessly eating it because it’s in the fridge).

Consider your own role.
Here’s an uncomfortable truth that I had to learn the hard way: As a parent, you’re an extremely influential figure in your child’s life. Which means if you want your daughter to be assertive, powerful, healthy, confident, a great listener, and a strong leader…it starts with you. 

Take a moment to consider the way that you speak and behave on a typical day. Do you complain about your weight and say critical things about your body? Are you continually going on diets, restricting calories, or swearing to cut sugar completely out of your life? Do you avoid exercising, or—on the other extreme end of the spectrum—do you workout compulsively and excessively? 

Even if it seems like your daughter “never listens” to you, be assured, they are influenced by everything you do. They’re picking up on the cues that you send out. And this means, sadly, that if you have disordered eating habits, it will affect your daughter. For this reason, I urge all parents to be mindful of their own eating habits and self-talk, especially in front of their children.

Clear harmful media influences.
Every day, girls are pummeled with hundreds of messages from social media, advertisements, song lyrics, magazines, and more. I encourage mothers and their daughters to ask: What’s in my media environment? Which messages help me feel strong and confident? Which ones don’t? 

The goal here is to get your daughter to take a proactive stand on clearing harmful influences out of their lives, including setting boundaries with social media. This could start with an open discussion with your daughter about the harmful effects of the internet. Perhaps, you could jointly spend some time going through social media and unfollowing all the people who make you feel inferior or generally “ugh.” 

As a mother, I also urge you to assess whether your media consumption is sharing harmful messages with your daughter (do you have weight loss magazines lying around the house? Get rid of these).

Promote joy in their life.
Life can be really stressful for your daughters. They have classes, homework, exams, applying for college, getting scholarships, after-school activities, maybe a part-time job, or volunteer commitments; it’s a LOT to handle. 

One of the best ways to keep your daughter’s stress levels in check is to encourage her to add more joy to her day. 

Kids should create tiny moments that bring beauty, comfort, and happiness into their lives. A good book. A hilarious video. A dance break! It doesn’t have to be a “big” thing. Even something really small can create a major shift in their mood. 

Spend time outdoors together.
Exercise is not a punishment. Exercise is a celebration of an incredible body. It’s a way of investing in your health and taking really good care of yourself. Set an example and show your daughter that her body was designed to move, and her body is happiest when it’s moving every day. 

Find ways of moving that you can both enjoy together. This might be dancing, hiking, running around with your dog, cycling, weights, or something else. If you’re too busy or your daughter rolls her eyes at the thought of exercising “with mom,” see if there are other ways you can encourage her to move her body. Has she mentioned wanting to try out surfing? Maybe you can pay for some surf lessons. Or has she spoken about rollerblading? Then maybe you can get her a set of rollerblades as a gift.

There are a lot of influences in the world—the patriarchy, the media, friends, family members, and online influencers—who want your daughter to stay small. They want her to invest countless hours and years of her life counting calories because this keeps her distracted. 

But I will repeat what I said in the beginning of this article; if we raise daughters who are informed, mindful, and resistant to the harmful effects of dieting—there will be a whole new generation of women who are focused on bridging the wage gap rather than focusing on having a thigh gap.

Are you a mother with something to say? Send us an email to be considered for our “Mom Talk” column.

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