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Dads, Daughters and Body Image

Dads, Daughters and Body ImageWe’ve already talked about how moms and daughters can help boost each other’s body image. However, moms aren’t the only influential ones. Dads, too, play a pivotal role in shaping their daughter’s body image. And parents today have a lot to contend with; our society isn’t getting any easier on girls (or boys). It’s tough enough on full-grown women to navigate the treacherous world of women’s magazines, double-zero clothing and weight-loss ads. Add to that peer teasing and cyberbullying, and it’s understandable why some dads are voicing their concern. Paul Nyhan in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer described his fears of raising his daughter in our appearance-conscious society:

“Girls as young as 7 are now treated for anorexia, more than 40 percent of girls in first, second and third grade wish they were thinner, and the number of reported cases of anorexia and bulimia is rising, according to the Seattle-based National Association of Eating Disorders.”

Like Nyhan — who’s “worried because in a few years this toddler will stand at the edge of the nation’s body-image vortex, swirling with size 00 jeans, underfed celebrities glorified in gossip magazines, the latest “America’s Next Top Model” and an unrelenting marketing drumbeat that skinnier is better” — many dads aren’t sure how to approach their daughters. They’re typically more comfortable coaching their sons on their baseball game and catching up with their boys on the latest sports stats.

That might be because dads don’t see themselves as that important to their daughters, writes father-daughter relationship expert Linda Nielsen in College Student Journal. However, a good relationship between dads and daughters can have many benefits for daughters, Nielsen said: Research has found that daughters who have healthy relationships with their dads tend to be more self-reliant, self-confident and successful and less likely to develop eating disorders.

What You Can Do

Building a better body image is just as critical as building a healthy self-image. Here are ways to help your daughter build both:

1. Remember you’re a role model.

The experts in Nyhan’s article note that “both mom and dad set examples when they talk about their own bodies, eat and watch movies and television.” So be aware of the messages you convey to your daughter.

2. Call out bad messages and help your child analyze advertising.

We’re surrounded by self-objectifying ads and a pop culture that promotes sexy, skinny images, even to young girls. Just recently, Calvin Klein — a fashion design company swimming in controversy because of its highly sexualized images — unveiled a shocking image in New York City’s Soho neighborhood. Conveniently (for Calvin Klein), you can’t just turn off the TV to avoid the ad; kids and parents have to endure it every time they walk by.

Sexualized images in advertising and in the media can lead to shame and anxiety and are associated with low self-esteem, eating disorders and depression, according to a report from the American Psychological Association.

You can counteract these consequences by talking about negative advertising and teaching your daughter to think critically about what she sees. Some questions you can start with: What do you think about this ad? How does it make you feel? What do you think are the company’s motives? What is it trying to sell?

Jean Kilbourne, an international expert on advertising and co-author of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids, offers an extensive list of resources here. In this excellent article, Diane E. Levin, the book’s other co-author, discusses practical tips, including talking to your daughter about revealing clothing and sexualized advertising.
Canada’s Media Awareness Network also has advice on talking to your kids about advertising in general.

3. Check out expert resources.

The Dad Man is an excellent website that offers dads tons of tips on raising their daughters. Joe Kelly, who founded and maintains The Dad Man, on his blog lists 16 tips for dads to help their daughters foster a healthy self-image. Kelly adapted his tips from Margo D. Maine’s book, Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters and the Pursuit of Thinness. You can find tips 1-6 here and 7-16 here. Here’s a snippet of the valuable advice:

Know what you don’t know. Learn about your daughter’s life. Don’t believe that your experience and hers are similar; in fact, you are years and cultures apart. Respect the differences.

Encourage her to identify and discuss her emotions and opinions. Let her disagree with you without withdrawing your affection. Show respect for the differences between you.

Teach her to say no and set limits. This will prepare her for situations that might compromise or even endanger her.

Help your daughter develop values other than consumerism. Share some of yours and create opportunities to enjoy nature, reading, the arts, sports, music, cultivation of friendships, volunteerism, or other activities.

Maintain a diet-free home. Encourage enjoyment of food, moderate exercise, and a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Rules about food only backfire and contribute to eating and weight problems.

4. Engage your daughter in “life.” Jezebel blogger Jennifer suggests going beyond body image. She writes:

“When I was growing up, my dad never told me what I could and couldn’t do, but he did let me know that he thought that, in his opinion, YM magazine portrayed women as stupid. (Not to mention trashy.) My dad’s opinions meant something to me. I never read YM.

When I was growing up, my dad talked to me non-stop about his love of the music of Diana Ross, Laura Nyro, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King. My dad’s opinions meant something to me. That was the music I listened (and still listen) to, and those were the women I thought were really cool. But most importantly, both of my parents didn’t sit down and drill me about my “body image” — they were too busy asking me my opinions on what was going on in the news, what I was learning in school and nurturing everything from my interest in politics to my love of musicals. And guess what? I was too interested in life to be interested in what I weighed.”

5. Spend quality time.

Pick an activity that you both enjoy that doesn’t involve mom. Let this be your special time. As a little girl, my close friend used to tag along with her father, a biologist, in the field, helping him find specimens and collect data. He’d also regularly read science books to her (before she even knew what “science” meant) and ask her thoughts on various subjects. To this day, she talks about how influential these father-daughter experiences were and how they’ve shaped her interests and goals — she completed her master’s degree in evolutionary biology and is now an instructor at a state university. Oh, and she still tags along with her dad to do field work. Check out Time for some great stories about dads and daughters.

Boys and Body Image

Don’t forget that boys struggle with body image, too. They might not be as vocal about it, but unrealistic, unhealthy standards for boys proliferate. Big biceps, toned bodies and six-pack abs are today’s ideal, and can have various negative consequences.

Common Sense Media, an independent, nonprofit organization that helps parents review and find positive media experiences for their kids, includes on their site some useful tips—and some startling statistics:

  • Nearly a third of teen boys try to control their weight through unhealthy methods, like taking laxatives or smoking.
  • In a 2005 study, 1 in 8 boys ages 12 to 18 reported using hormones or supplements to change their appearance, improve muscle mass, or gain more strength.
  • 1 in 20 teen boys said they used products, including growth hormones or steroids, at least once a week.

Remember that you play an integral and influential role in helping your kids build a positive self-image. Hope you had a great Father’s Day!

Dads, Daughters and Body Image

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2019). Dads, Daughters and Body Image. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 16 Mar 2019 (Originally: 1 Jul 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 16 Mar 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.