Children's Voice November/
December 2008


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The Down to Earth Dad

A Father's Role in His Daughter's Body Image

By Patrick Mitchell

The world is full of loving fathers who want the best for their children. Some dads have a knack for frankness, some are huggers, and others are encouragers. Some dads have a keen sense of humor, and some are teasers--this is no problem, unless the teasing is about their daughters' size or shape.

Fathers who offer commentary on their daughter's appearance are treading on thin ice, says clinical psychologist and researcher Helene Keery PhD. She counsels girls and women at Methodist Hospital's Eating Disorders Institute in Minneapolis. One in five girls is teased by her father about her appearance including body size, body shape, and body parts, Keery told me, pointing to results from a study she conducted with colleagues--The Impact of Appearance-Related Teasing by Family Members.

"Our research found that about 20% of girls are being teased [about their body] by their dad. Direct comments about body parts and weight, like, 'It looks like you're gaining weight,' or 'You could lose some weight,' or 'You're sitting around and being lazy and being fat, so you need to go outside and do something,' can trigger unintended negative outcomes in some girls, such as thinking they should never relax, or trying to lose weight quickly to please their dad," says Keery. "The child may start thinking, 'I better not relax' or 'I'm a fat and lazy person.' This doesn't happen to all girls, but there's a certain personality trait [a girl may have] that can cause her to take that comment and run with it.

"Referring to his daughter as having 'thunder thighs,' or making comments on the size of her hips, or breast development, is not a good idea, generally speaking, because girls are so aware of the [puberty-related] changes in their body, and having someone point that out in a negative way is not productive," Keery continues. "Commenting on body size or aspects of the body is something that some girls can perceive as damaging or confusing. The girl may think, 'Maybe I should eat less, or maybe I should try diet pills or laxatives. If I really want to achieve that small body, what are the means that I need to go and get?' It may not translate into extreme eating disorder behaviors, but it may translate into some of the more psychological things like being dissatisfied with her body or having low self-esteem."

According to Keery, girls who are teased about their body by their fathers are less satisfied with their bodies and more likely to start engaging in unhealthy behaviors, such as restricting their food intake, exercising excessively, or taking laxatives. Not all girls react to teasing this way, and dads don't cause eating disorders; rather, it's a combination of things that make eating disorders occur, and media images of girls and women are the major culprit. "Dads who tease their daughters about their bodies are just one piece of the puzzle," says Keery. She recommends fathers to encourage their daughters to focus on things other than their bodies. "Don't engage in 'body talk' with her, even when she's talking about other people's bodies," she says. "Encourage your daughter to think about her strengths, and to focus on her skills and abilities and the positive things about her.

"A dad is a girl's model of interaction with men in the world, and having an involved dad is an opportunity for a girl to have a really positive relationship with a man who values her as a person, and not for her body alone," she says. "Dads need to ask themselves, 'What impact are my words going to have on my daughter's body image and self-esteem?'" The world is full of loving fathers, and dedicated dads come in all shapes and sizes. Daughters do too, and dads need to remember that.

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and facilitates the Dads Matter!™ Project for early childhood programs, schools, and child- and family-serving organizations. He conducts keynote addresses, workshops, and inservice and preservice trainings. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the Dads Matter!™ Project for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877/282-DADS, or e-mail him at patrick@downtoearthdad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.


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