Shaping Self-worth

There’s all sorts of reasons why eating disorders can develop – from personality type to culture. It’s rare that we can identify one particular cause – but there are steps that we can take to help protect our young people. This applies particularly to the ways in which we are taught to view our bodies and the messages we give out about what gives us worth and identity.

In her book, ‘Where Has My Little Girl Gone? How To Protect Your Daughter From Growing Up Too Soon‘, Tanith Carey gives the following suggestions;

  • When it comes to diet, the most important things are what we don’t say. Don’t make food an ongoing topic of conversation. Even if you think you’re spreading healthy eating messages, you’re still making food a big issue. Without fuss, make sure a good range of nutritious food is available in your home. Remember there are no ‘bad’ foods. Model relaxed attitudes by sitting down and eating the same foods as your children.
  • Never mention the word ‘diet’. Overhearing endless conversations with your friends about the latest diet regimes can make girls think it’s a woman’s lot to starve herself. If it’s brought up in front of your daughter, quietly change the subject.
  • Involve girls in cooking to get them in touch with food, including where it comes from and how it’s made. Make meal-times a stress-free family occasion by focusing on companionship and conversation, not who’s eating what.
  • Check dads know not to make remarks. Criticisms made by a father about his daughter’s – or indeed any woman’s weight – can cut particularly deep, because your daughter will assume that’s how all men think.
  • Don’t use food to feed your emotions. How many of us have groaned: ‘I wish I hadn’t eaten that’ or ‘I deserve a treat’? Resist talking about ‘fat days’ – and stop sending the message that food is something to feel guilty about.
  • Compliment your daughter’s body on what it does – not how it looks. Help her see her body as something useful and powerful, not something to be judged on appearance. Praise her for the skilful way she plays sport. Compliment female athletes for their abilities, instead of admiring celebrities for their skinny figures.
  • Give up control. At the end of the day, it’s up to your daughter what she puts in her mouth. Don’t insist she finishes off her food, or monitor her junk food intake – or she’ll start to eat in secret.
  • Ask her what pressures she feels under. If a child starts obsessing about weight, it’s often because she’s worried about something else. Expert Deanne Jade says: ‘If my child told me she’s fat, I wouldn’t answer, instead I’d ask: “What’s worrying you?” Ask her to write down her worries about body image, so she can see them in black and white. By externalising, she may be better able to see the pressures on her more clearly.’
  • Pick your moments. At neutral times, not when your girl is feeling insecure about her looks, explain that what makes someone attractive is more than just  their appearance. Praise other women for their strength and personalities.
  • Teach children media awareness. Explain that not even the celebrities look like the images they see, thanks to airbrushing and stylists.
  • Never refer to your daughter’s shape unless to counter a negative comment. If she expresses reservations about her looks, listen without dismissing her worries.  Don’t agree, or say: ‘You’re fine.’ Suggest that often we judge ourselves more harshly than necessary and ask if she thinks she’s possibly being overly critical. Suggest she wouldn’t allow anyone else to be so cruel to her, so why should she treat herself like that. Give her a reality check by explaining even the most famously beautiful women in the world are never completely satisfied with their looks.
  • Listen to her. Eating disorders are often the last resort for girls who are not being heard any other way. Overscheduled and under pressure to be perfect, they don’t have a voice, so they protest with the one thing they do have control over – food. Make sure your children can talk to you and that you hear what they’re saying – not what you want to hear.

2 thoughts on “Shaping Self-worth

  1. Thank you so much. I worry about whether I’m passing my issues with food and body shape on to my little girl… These are really helpful. I think that a necessary addition to these, as Christian parents, is to pray that we’d be more concerned about her spiritual health and relationship with the Lord – finding her identity, self-worth and refuge in who He is, how He’s made her, and what He’s done for her (rather than simply trying to replace the idol of body image with other idols such as sporting ability or ‘strength of personality’… I know that’s not what the article is getting at but I think the danger is there!) Also to foster in our family a thankful attitude for everything God’s blessed us with (focusing on the Giver not the gift), so that we don’t give the impression of eating being either sinful, or the thing we go to for comfort.

  2. Thanks Debs – you’re spot on. These suggestions are helpful, but it’s our relationship with the Lord that tells us who we are and what life is about. All these things are useless (and even idolatrous) unless they’re undergirded by the truth that we are made for, owned by and given value and identity by the Lord Jesus. This is our hope – the rest is just detail.

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