Posted on June 10, 2012 by Dr. Deah
“Daddy, am I pretty?”For many daughters, their dad is the first mirror that reflects their appearance and attitudes about their appearance. For the dad, it’s a powerful position to be in and not always the easiest to navigate. Because we live in a world where media pressure continues to measure success with a tape measure and a scale, knowing whether or not to complement or comment on their daughter’s appearance can cause a great deal of confusion. I have armloads of empathy for fathers who may feel lost in The Paternal Cul De Sac from Hell trying to find their way out.
“How can I help my daughter feel good about herself if I don’t tell her she is pretty?”It’s true that the world we live in makes it difficult, but try to imagine what kinds of things you would tell a son to help him feel good about himself that have nothing to do to with his being pretty or handsome. Boys of course have their own set of dos and don’ts in this area but that is material for another day.
“But boys won’t like her if she’s fat. I’m just looking out for her own good.”Would you want her to be in a relationship with someone who is that superficial? Is being in a relationship with a guy more important than having a healthy relationship with herself?
“Okay, forget about the boys, how can I help my daughter love herself if I don’t tell her to lose weight? After all if her father doesn’t tell her who will?”That’s an easy one…EVERYBODY!
“Okay, I’ll tell my daughter she is beautiful no matter what she weighs or looks like.”This shows indisputable good intentions but this too can be a mistake.
“HUGE sigh of exasperation.”I know it seems unfair but comments such as those still puts the emphasis on your daughter’s body and appearance and places her worth in the arena of beauty.
“I can’t do anything right in this arena can I?”Let’s turn that around and ask the question a different way.
“What can I do that is right in this arena?”So glad you asked! Can we stop using the word arena now??? Number 1: Recognize your power...use it wisely. (Wow, I sound like YODA!) Power you have...use it wisely you should. Please understand how much influence you have as a father and take this aspect of parenting VERY seriously. I hope I’m not crossing any gender stereotype lines when I say that there are father daughter specific challenges that arise when it comes to a girl’s body image and the stakes are extraordinarily high. CASE in POINT: When my mother died, I was 13, and my father was left alone to raise daughters. Thirteen is a crucial age for developing a healthy body image and girls are super impressionable, at that age, as to what other people think about how they look. I was no different. I was already self-conscious about the transformation that was taking place…my body was betraying me in so many ways. I could no longer be one of the boys in my t-shirts and jeans climbing trees and playing ball, I had these breasts to contend with. I could no longer be invisible. My body became a place where uninvited comments crashed my private party of self-worth and comfort. My dad’s concerns about my (what was normal developmental) weight gain during puberty, complicated the issue. I started dieting and gained even more weight. I was praised when I was thin and shamed and pitied when I was fat. I didn’t have a stable internal compass of who I was. There was no (self-esteem) needle always pointing north; it changed at any given time based on my body size and fluctuating weight. Because I was interested in boys, my father’s opinions about my attractiveness held…dare I say it…a lot of weight. To please my dad, which I generalized to pleasing all males, meant I had to look a certain way even though there was no way I could attain that image without dieting and diet pills. Being healthy wasn’t enough, I needed to be thin or I was a failure. Of course my dad was certain that his insistence was only more proof of his love for me, and I understand why he would feel that way. But as an adult, and a parent myself, I know now that the way he expressed his love for me and how I tried to earn his love, robbed me of any love I may have had for myself. Number 2: Separation/Individuation Becoming a parent was my first experience with the Occupy Movement. It started with Occupy Womb, and spread like wildfire to Occupy Bedroom, Occupy House, Occupy Mind, and continues in the present to occupy my heart and my life. Never before had I felt so completely responsible for another person's happiness. Never before had another person's happiness been so integral to my own happiness. I wanted desperately to provide an environment where ones’ value and self-worth were not measured by waist size or pounds on the scale. I wanted to sever the cord that attached physical appearance to self-love and self-acceptance. But even if we could raise our children in a completely weight neutral attitudinal vacuum, one day our kids will leave home or turn on the T.V. and they will be at a loss as to how to deal with the onslaught of this crazy, sexist, body-obsessed world. So the weight neutral vacuum intervention (WNVI) is really not the way to go. Instead it is important to offer access to counter messages, opposing views, and cultivate an inquisitive mind that will challenge the norms. Two of these norms are the belief that diets work and that what you look like is more important than what kind of person you are. It is imperative to remember that her body is NOT your body so please resist the impulse to put your daughter on a diet and try with all of your might not to associate your love for her with her appearance. Number 3: Fire the Judge. There is a difference between judging and exercising good judgment. As parents we want to help our children learn to use good judgment as they figure out their lives. Poor Body Image and Eating Disorders go hand in hand. Think about this: if self-worth wasn't constantly associated with beauty do you think that Body Dysmorphia Disorder would even exist? It all starts with judgment...or should I say...poor judgment, when girls are taught that beauty is their most valuable asset. It is easy for fathers to fall into the role of judge desperate to help their daughters. For some, not doing this is difficult and may feel cognitively dissonant. But there will be enough people out there more than happy to take on the roles of judge, jury and executioner with your daughter’s body playing the role of the accused. Perhaps what she needs is a supportive counsel, helping her define her life and self-worth using a different set of standards. I think you’d be perfect for the part! These are not pretty concerns…ooh I meant to write petty and it came out pretty! Way to go sub-conscious! These are not petty or pretty concerns. They come from a place of wanting to be a good dad and wanting happiness and success for your daughters. But it takes conscious and careful execution of these intentions to produce a result that is congruent with your desires. So with Father’s Day coming up, along with all of the ties, coffee mugs, and ridiculous T.V. Remote Control Joke Cards, take a moment to appreciate your daughter for being your daughter and enjoy a moment of precious, unconditional, and mutual love. Happy Father’s Day. Til Next Time, Dr. Deah