How the father daughter relationship affects a girl's body image
From changing her nappies and pushing her buggy to collecting her from school or teaching her how to cook, today’s fathers tend to be more involved than ever in their daughters' upbringing. Some dads, however, back off as their daughter grows up – but when it comes to encouraging positive body confidence, they may be needed at this stage more than ever.
Society often sends the message that mothers are best at raising daughters, while fathers should focus on their sons.
But when little girls start turning into young women, fathers have a key role to play in boosting their confidence and overcoming low self-esteem.
The importance of the father daughter relationship
Although much research has focused on the effects of the mother-daughter bond on girls’ body image issues and low self-esteem, growing evidence highlights the importance of dads’ role in parenting girls.
Daughters of fathers who are emotionally distant are more likely to struggle with issues around food and weight, according to clinical psychologist and author Dr Margo Maine in her book Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, and the Pursuit of Thinness.
Psychotherapist and author Dr Susie Orbach explains: “The more a dad is involved in a hands-on way from when she is a baby and a toddler, the more he will know her – and puberty and adolescence will be just one more phase like starting school. The less he is involved, the more he will be cautious around her.”
For dads who haven’t had a great deal of interaction with their girls, it’s never too late to start.
Supporting your daughter through puberty
Even the most hands-on fathers can struggle and feel embarrassed when it comes to discussing adolescent issues with their daughters. Fortunately, there are many useful resources, both online and offline, to help you navigate conversations about sexuality and puberty in girls (see Useful Links below) and nurture your daughter's positive body confidence.
“Although it might feel awkward when it comes to puberty and sexuality, welcoming a daughter’s development – showing her she is still ‘your little girl’ while celebrating her transition to a new phase of her life – is priceless,” says Dr Orbach. “Having a dad who can be there, who holds steady as she grows up can be really helpful.”
Dads' body image matters too
You may not be the same gender, but you're still an important role model for your daughter. Your attitude towards your own body can influence how your daughter treats hers.
A 2014 US survey revealed that 40% of fathers worry about how their own body image issues impact on their kids – and it’s a valid concern.
Girls are subjected to intense pressure to be thin, but as a father you can help counteract this message by living a balanced lifestyle that doesn't focus on weight or body shape. Be a good role model in what you daughter sees you eat or drink. And if you follow a fitness plan, emphasise how it makes you feel rather the way it makes you look.
Author: Sharon Haywood, health/body image activist and writer
Try to avoid making comments (positive or negative) about other people's appearance, be it your daughter, another family member or a celebrity. The importance of fathers in daughters’ lives means your remarks can influence the way she feels about herself
If she asks you how she looks, don’t be afraid to say: “You look great!” But try to spend more time talking about what her brain can do, instead of what she looks like
Express your admiration for female role models in areas such as politics, sport and business. And acknowledge the skills and talents of women in your family
If people make comments about your daughter's appearance, try coming up with a few responses together. As well as helping her feel empowered, it's great for father daughter bonding
The media sends girls harmful messages about beauty and the value of women. (See writer/motivational speaker Jean Kilbourne’s work for more information.) Keep an eye out for examples in films, on TV or in magazines, and be ready to discuss them. For guidance, see the How does celebrity culture and media influence body image? section of this site