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How A Parent's Words Can Impact Their Daughter's Body Image

Research shows 50 percent of pre-school ages girls are dissatisfied with the way they look.

04/08/2017 1:21 PM AEST | Updated 11/08/2017 9:14 AM AEST

They say 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me'. While we're encouraged to ignore negative comments, sometimes that's harder said than done.

According to Pretty Foundation, research shows more than 50 percent of pre-school ages girls are dissatisfied with the way they look.

While discontent with our body image can leave us feeling frustrated, parents need to be aware that when verbally pointing out the things we'd like to change about ourselves, our daughters are listening in and beginning to associate our body image comments with their own appearance.

Pretty Foundation founder and CEO Merissa Forsyth told HuffPost Australia that by the age of three, 37 percent of children want to change their body size. A new campaign, Pretty Powerful, aims to raise awareness around how what parents say can impact our children.

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In Australia, 14 percent of five-year-old's reported dieting behaviours.

"Pretty Powerful is all about the power of voice and we're focusing on the two to six-year-old age range because we know this phase is when children start to understand and build an outlook on how they see their bodies," Forsyth said.

"For us it's about spreading awareness around what we say and also encouraging parents to say positive things about their children that aren't appearance based."

The 'Pretty Powerful' campaign will involve four weeks of building positive body image for young girls by encouraging parents to be aware of what they say and promoting their daughter's uniqueness, talents and skills, rather than focusing on the way they look.

"We want to say things that promote uniqueness, looking at inner character and beauty, looking at how our body can work and function and the amazing things our bodies can do and talents we have," Forsyth said.

"It's also about encouraging our young girls to be brave -- often girls will say 'I can't do that', or 'Only boys can do that', and we're trying to encourage little girls to go 'Hey we can do that' so they give it a go and believe in themselves."

It's really interesting to hear a mother say what they don't like about their appearance, and then have their daughter replicate that.

According to Forsyth, an American study has revealed 14 percent of five-year-olds reported dieting behaviours, girls as young as five have been diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa and by the age of three, girls are developing the idea that thin is good and bigger is bad.

Forsyth explains that while outside influences such as what our children watch on TV or hear from their peers will influence their thoughts and opinions on their own body image, most of these concerns arise at home.

"Every child is different in how they react to certain things and we can never keep them fully from outside influences, so the best thing we can do for them is to just build resistance so when they're older they can make these decisions for themselves," Forsyth said.

"But more often than not little girls are hearing what their Mum says or what their older sisters say -- it's really interesting to hear a mother say what they don't like about their appearance, and then have their daughter replicate that."

The 'Pretty Powerful' campaign aims to raise awareness about just how significant a role parents play in shaping their daughter's body image. The campaign aims to target a new aspect of body image each week for four weeks to teach girls about their body in a positive way.

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According to Forsyth, if the phrase for the week is 'I am talented', activities will be available online for parents to help their daughters find out what they're good at and explore these skills.

While young girls may replicate the body image issues their mothers or siblings have, Forsyth encourages dads to get involved too.

"Dads can get involved by being aware about what they say to their wives and what compliments are they giving their daughters," Forsyth said.

"Every father wants to tell their daughter 'You're so pretty', and that's not a bad thing, but we encourage parents to go further and say 'Pretty what?' She's pretty strong, pretty talented -- things we can talk about that are not appearance based."

If you're finding your daughter asking questions here and there about the way she looks, or beginning behaviours that illustrate concern with body image, such as not eating certain foods, Forsyth suggests having a conversation to find out why they think that way and explore ways to change that.

The 'Pretty Powerful' campaign will launch on Sunday, August 6.

Merissa's Top Tips:

What should we say?

1. 'Who you are is more important than how you look' - Emphasise your daughter's personality and skills.

2. 'Everyone is different, and that's a great thing' - Celebrate diversity with your daughter and encourage uniqueness. Teach your daughter that she is valued for who she is, not what she looks like.

3. 'Healthy comes in all shapes and sizes' - Help your daughter understand there is no 'ideal' body type.

What should we avoid saying?

1. Critical comments about yourself - Minimise the negative comments you say about your own body image and be a positive role model.

2. Critical comments about others - Don't speak critically or comparatively about other people. Teach respect.

3. References to dieting - Focus on nutrition and a balanced diet rather than focusing on weight loss.

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