Raising my daughters with positive body image

I’ve often thought, over the past year, how my weight loss journey has impacted on my daughters and I’ve been really focused on being careful about how I portray myself to them, what I say about myself, whether it be verbally or non verbally, what I am inadvertently teaching them by the things I say and think about myself and even how I treat myself.

Over the past year, Ava has become more and more conscious of people’s sizes and more specifically her own size. She is often saying things to me like:

Mom, look how thin I am?

Mom, does this make me look thin?

And I really don’t like it. I feel like she is far to young to be so focused on “thinness” in spite of our best attempts, it would seem that my weight loss journey and how I portray myself today versus how I portrayed myself when I was fat, has had an impact on her psyche and she is very aware that being fat is undesirable. 

I’ve really focused on my dialogue with her about all this. When she asks me why I run for example, I avoid making statements like:

I’m afraid to get fat again!


I want to be thin!

Instead, I focus on body positive things like, I exercise because I like being strong and running makes me strong. I eat healthy food because I want a healthy body, I want everything to work properly and I don’t want to get sick. 

But it’s hard. I am just as impacted by the messages I’ve received about my body and my body image, so sometimes I catch myself saying things like:

I’m a fat pig.

I feel disgusting!

Or asking my husband:

Do these pants make my butt look fat?

Does this top show off my fat bulges?

And there is no doubt that Ava hears me say those things to, then she internalizes them and takes messages from them about herself.

Recently, she started insisting on swimming with a pair of board shorts over her swimming costume, she says she doesn’t want people to “see”her. And I’ve really started focusing hard on reinforcing a positive body image for her. I won’t lie, it kind of scares me. With the pressure children, and especially young girls and women are under to conform, to meet with a specific requirement for being “beautiful” I am worried. 

I read this article on CNN and it scared the crap out of me, this especially:

Kids as young as 5 think their ideal weight is thinner than their current size, according to report

Then I came across this article, which has some great tips on how to raise girls with a positive body image.

Pink or blue? Think about the messages you are giving your daughter.
According to Steiner-Adair, the overemphasis on girls’ appearance begins at babyhood. “As soon as a baby is dressed in pink or blue, the world responds differently to that baby, as there are gender-based expectations on how girls should behave and what should interest them. Adults respond so much to what a girl looks like that by age five or six, young girls are getting the notion that their body is their selling point. When body image, clothes, marketing for girls is so sexual, it is that much harder for girls to develop a healthy, non-sexualized relationship with their bodies.”

Talk about who your daughter is instead of how she looks. 
Steiner-Adair recommends that we compliment girls on qualities other than looks. “Parents so often say ‘You look so pretty today,’ but don’t say things like, ‘You were such a good friend today,’ or ‘You handled that frustration well.’ It’s very useful to compliment girls on their assertiveness and even their anger with statements like, ‘You were brave to tell me how mad you were,’ ‘I like how you stand up for yourself,’ ‘You and I disagree and I respect your thinking,’ or ‘I never would have thought of that; you are so smart about these things.’”

Talk about what women look like in the media. 
Girls’ images of themselves are shaped by what they see around them, by brand names in magazines, and in particular, by TV shows that focus more on what women wear and how their bodies look than on what they can do. Steiner-Adair recommends parents limit, but not ban, girls’ exposure to television and particularly commercials. Talk with girls about what they see to balance the effects of these images. It’s never too early to begin this conversation. “By the age of two, kids are aware of brand names, so think of what the images selling those brands may be doing to them.”

Make clothes choices that protect their girlhood. 
Avoid buying clothes for preschool, elementary-school, and middle-school girls that make them look like sexy teenagers, advises Steiner-Adair. “We are living in a time when there are undies for five-year-olds that say ‘Juicy Girl’ or ‘Not on a School Night.’ Little girls don’t need to wear thongs that say ‘Eye Candy’ or any clothes that promote a ‘sexy chic.’ They are just too young to understand this. These products call attention to sexuality, which gets in the way of girls experiencing their bodies as children.”

The last point is especially pertinent for me. It’s something I’ve been struggling with because, Ava wants a bikini, because she’s desperate for a bra. I have refused point blank and told her no, that it’s not appropriate for little girls to wear such things, that there is plenty of time for her to grow up and wear grown up things when she’s older. But still she persists, especially her desire for a bikini. She has one already, it was gifted to her, a hand me down from an older cousin and Ava loves it, she wants to wear it all the time, even though it’s slightly to big for her and then when she does wear it, she walks around hunched over and with her arms wrapped around her stomach and I can see it’s because she’s feeling self conscious. No way I want to encourage that.

I was chatting to my friend, Jenny, the editor of Your Baby and Your Pregnancy magazine over lunch this weekend and telling her about Ava’s obsession and my reluctance to allow her to get a new bikini and she gave me some serious food for thought. She turned my objections on their head and, playing devil’s advocate, asked me what if the very thing I was fighting, which is a negative body image, is being reinforced with my refusal to allow her to wear a bikini. What if she is internalizing my refusal as her being to fat, or her body not being good enough, pretty enough, nice enough, for a bikini?  It kind of stopped me in my tracks that thought and I won’t lie, I am now seriously considering getting her one. I’m not a fan, I don’t like how such a large percentage of girls clothing is, in my opinion, completely inappropriate for little girls, but perhaps this is exactly what Ava needs to feel good about herself? It’s worth a shot right? 


Just remember moms and dads, they’re always watching us! This really inspired me…. 

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  • gillianmh

    December 15, 2015 at 7:59 am

    Love this story. Thanks so much Sharon. Riley is eight and she is also on this ‘need to be skinny” idea. I have learnt not to say anything about how i feel about myself and even when I feel at my worst sh tells me I look pretty I give her a hug and thank you. when she tell me she needs to lose weight, I tell her she is perfect the way she is. She does not need to go through the same pressures that I have gone through to be somebody else’s “perfect”

  • Lisbe

    December 15, 2015 at 9:09 am

    Hi Sharon – I also dont like my daughter (same age as Ava) to wear a bikini. I told her in Africa the sun burn can cause major damage when she is older, so she has a bikini she is allowed to wear at home if they swim before 10 or after 5pm. If we go out to the beach however they wear the swim suits that cover half their arms and legs to avoid getting burned. She seems to understand this and it doesnt bother her as long as she can get in the water…..

  • Michelle Reitsma

    December 15, 2015 at 10:17 am

    So pertinent Sharon. Think I only started worrying about swimming with boardshorts in about Std 8 – times they are a-changing. I m not a mom yet but do worry about the effect i ll have on my future kids – I m not naturally slim and forever have to work at maintaining a healthy weight. Battled with body image my whole life!

  • Jenny

    December 15, 2015 at 11:23 am

    Thanks Sharon for mentioning our chat! I do like to play devil’s advocate a lot as I am constantly questioning the why of things. I agree totally with the sexualisation of girls however I do think we need to guard against adult projection. I don’t object to little girls in bikinis because I just don’t see bikinis as sexual apparel. It’s just another style of cossie to me and frankly if children are going to attract the attention of abusers and paedophiles: well sadly they manage to do that in a onesie. Which leads me to my next point: as moms of girls are we saying ‘no you can’t wear a bikini as it will invite unwanted attention’ – is this not then the same message we don’t want to be giving our older girls: wearing a miniskirt means you could get raped i.e.: it is your responsibility to avoid violation and your fault if it fails? Something to think about. I let me daughter wear what she likes. I don’t go in for body shaming and I hated that story of the dad who wore short shorts to shame his daughter. Shame on him. Obviously this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make our children (boys and girls) aware of abuse and violation but I don’t think it should be – don’t wear a bikini because it makes you look sexy: i.e.: your fault. My point really about Ava is I think she is at a very natural stage of development where she is becoming aware of body image – my son also constantly called himself fat at 6 and I would laugh it off and make a joke of it. He soon stopped saying anything and perhaps that is because he is a boy. Not sure what I will do when my daughter hits that stage as I, like every mom, has body issues and of course am ultra aware of what I project. I think if she hears you say no to a bikini it will immediately make her think her body isn’t good enough only because she has no clue what sexualisation is. I also think if you let her wear it and don’t make a big deal out of it, the novelty will pass and she may opt for a full piece because it’s just more comfortable and then the whole thing passes with no issue. I do like your approach of telling her that you run and eat well to stay fit and healthy – that is exactly how a man would justify healthy eating and living and that is a point I am going to start making with my kids for sure!

    • Sharon

      December 15, 2015 at 11:25 am

      So odd that you bring that up, because I was thinking that exact same thing last night, how the whole little girl in a bikini thing is similar, if not the same, as rape victim blaming.

    • Sharon

      December 15, 2015 at 11:39 am

      Also… I just realized… I’m so indoctrinated into the culture of victim blaming and rape culture that even when I think I’m not…. I am VICTIM blaming… Quite a shock to realize this. That even though consciously, I disagree vehemently that it’s a woman’s fault if she gets raped if she’s dressed inappropriately but I don’t want my daughter to wear a bikini for the same reasons…. it’s just… wow… I did not even think of it this way before.

      • Belinda Mountain

        December 15, 2015 at 11:59 am

        Great post Sharon and these are issues I’ve been grappling with too. Rachel also wants a bikini for Christmas and she’ll be getting one – although I’m going for one of those crop tops and not triangles! I also make a conscious effort to praise my daughter on her kindness or how brave she was instead of focusing on her looks. Thanks for this post.

        • Sharon

          December 15, 2015 at 12:01 pm

          I’ve also focused a lot on that, when I want to praise Ava or compliment her, I will always try to focus on attributes like how clever she is, how kind she is, what a great friend she is, rather than on her looks.

  • Noelene

    December 15, 2015 at 11:57 am

    Really good article, thank you! As a mother of three girls I am also so aware of how I project ‘body images’ to them. As far as the bikini for Ava goes why not get her a tank top and full bottom part in costume material. It has the feel of a bikini but does cover a lot more skin!

  • Gail Schimmel

    December 16, 2015 at 8:55 am

    Country Road has some sweet bikinis – girlish designs that don’t look “sexy” like most mainstream. . .pricey but maybe worth it. And I have 2 my daughter refuses to wear anymore if you want 🙂


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