Katie DeBill asked one of her 9-year-old twin daughters to please change her shirt.
"'Mom, I'm very comfortable with my body,' she told me, and I told her, 'That's great! I'm so glad you are; however, your shirt is just too small.'"
DeBill, a Spokane mom, isn't afraid to speak directly with her daughters this way. They discuss bodies, food, activity and health freely. And she doesn't necessarily agree with the therapist quoted in a recent Indianapolis Star article ("Do I Look Fat in This? A Question to Never Ask Your Daughter").
"Zero talk about dieting, zero talk about weight," Dr. Leslie Sim, clinical director of the Mayo Clinic's eating disorders program and a child psychologist, asserts in the story. "Zero comments not only about your daughter's weight, obviously, but zero talk about your weight and even other peoples' weight."
The premise of the article, as well as myriad well-researched books about girls' body image, is that our daughters absorb, and often pattern their own self-worth, from what we say and do.
DeBill's identical, ginger-haired fourth-graders are precocious, confident, opinionated and engaged in school, athletics and every family conversation.
"We discuss how we're going to eat better as a family on a regular basis," says DeBill. "We bought The Flat Belly diet books, and we talked about different foods, how there can be good fats, bad fats, the role of Omega-3s and fruits versus fruit juices... We discussed that the word 'diet' is really just a description of 'what we eat.'"
Monique DesChane, a Spokane counselor who specializes in adolescent health and eating disorders, concurs that "open lines of communication" between mothers and daughters is vital, and the word "diet" isn't necessarily negative.
"If you are promoting 'health' in a home, discussing what healthy eating habits are, that is not dieting. A normal eating routine includes breakfast, lunch, dinner snacks and dessert," says DesChane. But there is a caveat. "Our actions speak far louder than our words. I would say that kids pay little attention to what we say, and watch everything we do."
To illustrate DesChane's point, DeBill doesn't remember talking about diet and weight with her own mother, but remembers what she did.
"She was always dieting. She was never overweight, but she was not 'where she wanted to be.' We would go through phases like 'the grapefruit diet,' but we all lived an active life, and we were all pretty happy."
Summing up her child experience as an athletic kid with muscular legs and a taller older sister, DeBill says she was "Never the thin girl."
"I have always read articles and studies about how mothers affect their daughters' body image," says Jovanka McKee, mother to a 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.
Accordingly, McKee says she decided even before having children that she would cultivate and project confidence.
"I was raised by a mother in the 1980s," she says, "the Jane Fonda, Sweatin' to the Oldies, Jazzercise home workout video generation. My mom was on again, off again with workouts and diets," McKee recalls. "But she always showed she loved herself and wasn't ashamed of her body."
McKee tries to follow her mom's lead.
"I work really hard to talk about us eating healthy things, so that our bodies work their best and so we have energy and health. They see me savor a good meal every day." But she's almost certain she's let something slide.
"I often worry, have I made a face one too many times when getting into my swimsuit? Have I said, 'I need a longer shirt so you can't see my muffin top,' with my daughter within earshot? Have I rolled my eyes when my husband compliments the way I look? I know I must have. My mind has wandered to that self-loathing place at least a few times in nine years."
In her book, You'd Be So Pretty If..., author Dara Chadwick writes about the high degree of misinterpretation between mothers and daughters when it comes to weight and appearance.
"Moms are powerful," Chadwick writes. "What we say about our bodies — and those of our daughters — has a lasting effect on the way they see themselves."
DeBill says she hasn't shied away from making fun of herself.
"I have maybe joked with them, 'You don't want to look like me,'" she laughs. "We never say the word 'fat' or talk about being skinny or overweight."
But after interviewing dozens of grown women about the lasting negative impact of their own mothers' seemingly innocuous comments, Chadwick advises us to keep our quips to ourselves.
"Sometimes it's tempting to let loose with a wisecrack or a disparaging comment about your body when you look in the mirror," she writes. "But if your daughter's in the room, think of her and bite your tongue."
The Centers for Disease Control and the National Association of Eating Disorders report that 42 percent of first to third graders 'want to be thinner,' and more than half of teenage girls are on diets.
"I would agree that family still has the greatest influence," says DesChane, who also believes young people form their ideas from the onslaught of unfiltered content on social media. "You'd be shocked to see what comes up in a Google search of 'body image' or 'eating disorders'," she says.
"My kids recently have made jokes about my big belly or jiggly butt," says McKee. "I always tell them 'I used my body to bring you into the world, and it was worth it.'" But she says she lets them know those comments still sting.
"I say I know they love me, but saying things like that can hurt feelings and would make anyone else super-sad, so we can't ever joke about bodies."
DesChane says the same kind of conversation helps when we catch ourselves spouting self-deprecating comments.
"Ask your child, 'What is it like for you to hear Mom say things about her body?' Find out what meaning it holds for her."
And if it's your child struggling with developmental weight changes, DesChane advises giving "unconditional love and acceptance, no matter where your child is on that spectrum. Tell them young bodies don't know where they are going to land; that our body shape ebbs and flows until we develop a set weight."
"Being sensitive to body issues has forced me to be kind to myself, and I hope it gives my daughter a good foundation," says McKee. "But I wonder if I bring it up enough to make an impact... or too much, so it lingers too big in their minds? It is a scary and very long experiment." ♦