Can Parents Help Their Daughters Avoid The “Fat Trap”?

As far as I can remember, I have always had a complicated relationship with food.  As a twenty-one-year old college student, I go through periods where I wonder if I’ll ever really love my body – feelings that are often followed by waves of feminist guilt.  I know I’m not alone in these feelings, but already, I am afraid that I’ll pass them on to my (long-distant) daughter or my more present three-year-old half-sisters.  How escapable is the near-pervasive body hatred that many American women experience?  And can mothers help their daughters prevent it?

Peggy Orenstein, in this week’s New York Times Magazine, tackles the question of how mothers can help their daughters stay healthy and love their bodies.  She puts two sets of statistics next to each other – childhood obesity and eating disorders – and asks how she, as a parent, can reconcile them.  The answer is somewhat depressing.  Despite Orenstein’s attempts to model a “sane” approach to food, by “pointedly” enjoying what she eats, refusing the urge to step on a scale, and rejecting calorie-counting, she concludes,

“Still, my daughter lives in the world. She watches Disney movies. She plays with Barbies. So although I was saddened, I was hardly surprised one day when, at 6 years old, she looked at me, frowned and said, ‘Mama, don’t get f-a-t, O.K.?’”

Orenstein’s only consolation?  “At least she didn’t hear it from me.”

Growing up, my mother refused to let Barbies or junk food in the house.  She discouraged Disney movies and, as far as I know, never made a negative comment about her own appearance in my presence.  She did, when I was older, tell me about experiences with eating disorders in college, but by this time, I was already entrenched in a war with my body that lasted until my senior year of high school.  Now, I wonder why I, too, wasn’t able to escape the “fat trap,” despite my mother’s best efforts. 

But I have a few ideas.  First of all, it’s a mistake to place all of the responsibility for modeling and promoting positive body image on the mother; in heterosexual parent couples, the father should be equally thoughtful and active.  Growing up, my father was the person who allowed us treats, who bought junk food on the weekends when my mother was away, and this made healthy eating seem like her realm, something imposed on me rather than something that I might choose for myself.  Early on, I learned to associate denial with the female body.

I also wonder what would have to happen before we didn’t have to think about how we would talk to young girls about their bodies, before mothers and sisters could stop worrying about how they can camouflage their tangled relationships with their self image.  Even Orenstein admits that her “studied unconcern” is “unnatural,” and I bet her daughter can sense that there is something being hidden.  Should we just accept this as a depressing truth?  Absolutely not.  But more needs to be done than simply encouraging mothers to disguise their discomfort with their bodies.

Photo from Rachel From Cupcakes Take the Cake's Flickr Photostream.

66 comments

Jean Lord
Jean Lord6 years ago

Education is the key to this situation. They need to learn how to maintain a healthy body weight.

Alicia Nuszloch
Alicia N.6 years ago

What I am concern about is , healthy food, and I think that should be the only one thing , not the weight in fact. Health and healthy food for healthy bodies. Thanks.

Mary Swan
Mary S.6 years ago

My child's school seems almost obsessed about healthy eating. Not necessarily a bad thing. My five year old is always asking me which is healthier and telling me not to pack her a cookie because it "isn't healthy". She doesn't mind eating her treats and sweets at home though. I am happy that the message at school is about healthy eating and not keeping a particular size/weight or shape.

Pamela M.
pam M.6 years ago

Start from the cradle, in this way you'll teach your children to eat healthy if they start out with the habit. I've seen to many parents give into children shutting them up with food. Parents also fatten children to keep them dependent on them. Not many teens will stray from home if obese or over weight, because their social life is nil. Talk to your children about the media, let them know that what they see on the idiot box is not truth its fantasy. Ensure your children get plenty of exercise and teach nutrition early. Children are not stupid their brains are like a sponge, it's up to parents to make sure they dip that sponge in the right well of knowledge.

Melissa C.
Melissa Condon6 years ago

I dont get why you were discouraged to watch Disney movies....

Sarah D.
Sarah D.6 years ago

In some countries mothers deliberately "fatten" up their daughters because they basically consider girls who are skinny or even with an average healthy figure to be immoral and ugly.

Sarah D.
Sarah D.6 years ago

I've always been the "chubby girl." My weight troubles, as I've found out, are genetic so trying to lose weight is difficult, no matter what I eat.

"Parents can help their children by eating well"

Just eating well? What about encouraging children to engage in social activities like sports or dance classes or even [visual] art classes where they can make friends? What about encouraging their children, especially their daughters to love themselves as they are and think of themselves as beautiful no matter what they look like or do? Tell your daughters that they should do what makes them feel good, not what makes others feel good.

Helen Allard
Helen Allard6 years ago

This is something that I never had to experience when I was growing up but my grandaughter is 8 and having to face it. She has no limit of what she wants to eat. We as kids had the opportunitty to run and play outside until it started to get dark , then you best have your butt in the house or you would pay for it. This is no longer a threat to our young. They have no fear of being accountable for anything so they go for it. I guess that I would too but like I said we had too much fear instilled in us.

Phil Smith
Phil Smith6 years ago

Taking their TVs and electronic gadgets away from them is a good start.. Having them walk to the store is another.. (or at least Use their bicycle.)

Rylisa A.
Ada P.6 years ago

noted