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How can I help my teenage daughter have a positive body image?

answered 03:20 AM EST, Sun January 27, 2013
anonymous anonymous
I am an international school teacher. My family moved this year to Vietnam where I have taken a position as a headmaster. My daughters are 13 and 16. Both are healthy and beautiful, but they take after me and I have always been a little heavy through the hips and legs. It’s just the way we are built. My eldest daughter seems OK with her body image but my youngest daughter is just starting to gain a little weight and broaden and the fact that she now compares herself to all these very thin Viet girls she sees all day is not helping her confidence, nor is the fact that she can’t even fit into anything at the mall when she goes shopping. How can I help her with her body image problems, especially given the environment we live in for social comparison? She doesn’t say much about it but I can sense that she is not the same confident girl she was even 6 months ago.

Penny Bell Says...

Penny Bell P. Bell
Master of Counselling, Grad Dip Counselling, Adv. Dip. Counselling & Family Therapy, MACA
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Firstly I would like to commend you as a father for your awareness of how your youngest daughter is feeling about herself, and your desire to help her.  Often young girls can fly under the radar with this sort of difficulty and it is not discovered until real social or health problems develop.  You are in the perfect position to help your daughter to overcome her fears about the way she appears in comparison to her slight Asian schoolmates.

One of the reasons I say you are in a perfect position to help your daughter is that you are her father, and messages that come from you about the way she looks are mighty important to her.  Teenagers become close with their opposite-sex parent, and your relationship with your daughter helps build her self-image and self-esteem, and prepares her for later romantic relationships.

Another thing that both you and your partner can do to help your daughter is model body acceptance yourselves.  As your daughter sees you are comfortable and happy in your own bodies, it will help her to feel comfortable in her own skin.

Celebrating diversity is another way you can give your daughter the message that she is wonderful just as she is.  People come in all shapes, colours and sizes, and that’s what makes the world so interesting.  As well, try to avoid talking about diets, weight or size, so that your daughter doesn’t gain the impression that these are highly valued to you. Instead, promote a healthy eating and lifestyle plan in your family that is not at all about body image but is rather about being strong and fit inside and out.

It’s important to talk with your daughter about the way she is thinking and feeling, and making a daily space for this will help her to process what is going on in her mind. 

Realise, too, that what your daughter is experiencing is fairly normal for a girl her age.  She is at puberty, her body is changing and she is most likely on an emotional roller- coaster.  Peer approval and social norms become a preoccupation at this age; appearance and body comparison is a fairly common feature of young adolescent girls’ conversation at school, and if your daughter has accepted and internalised the “thin image ideal” depicted in the media as that which is to be desired, self-evaluation will be based on this and body dissatisfaction will result.  As parents, your task is to blow this myth out of the water, so discussions about things like air-brushing and photo elongation to give the impression the model in the picture has longer limbs need to be part of your daughter’s education.

The discrepancy your daughter has noticed between her own body type and that of her Asian peers also needs to be explored, from the point of view of race and genetics.  It would be just as difficult for a slightly built Vietnamese girl to gain the height and build of a Caucasian woman as would be the reverse.  Because your daughter is the odd one out, she is most likely feeling it more than she would if there were just a handful of Vietnamese students at her school back home.  All these things can be gently explained to her during discussions in which she feels she is safe to share how she is feeling, to express her opinion, and challenge information.

Now to the clothing issue – I completely understand your daughter’s dilemma, as I often travel to Asia (I live in Australia) and as a 5’9” woman who wears a size 10 shoe, I only ever come back with room decorations or jewellery!  What about buying her clothes online?  There are some really good stores that will ship internationally in both the UK and the US which are sure to stock your daughter’s style and size.

I wish you all the best with your daughter, and I hope that the above information helps.  If you find you are still concerned for your daughter, after having put these measures into practice, then do make sure you seek professional help for her.

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