Care and Feeding

I’m So Worried About My Daughter’s Body Image

A woman looks into the distance.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Nastia11/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

As a taller (5’8”) and rather muscular woman, I have always struggled with the number that appears on the scale when I’m weighed because of how mismatched it is with my appearance. Right now at 34 years old and after two kids, I generally wear size 6 pants and medium shirts, and I look slim but muscular. I weigh 200 pounds, which puts me into the “obese” category by BMI. I’ve mostly made peace with it. I don’t weigh myself at home, and I focus on how fit I am.  But it still feels bad each time that number comes up at the doctor’s office.

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Now that I have two daughters with my body type (they’re both solid chunks of muscle and have been since day one), I’m worried about how they will be affected by this, and whether there’s more I can do to help them love their bodies despite a number. (I think back to middle school PE class, standing in line to get weighed and have that read out loud and recorded by the teachers. Horrifying.) My mother also contributed to my negative feelings about my body as a child. I’ve told her with no uncertainty she is not to comment to or about my daughters’ (or anyone else’s) weight and that I will take care of managing their health. I’m prepared to enforce that boundary, as I do think her negative talk had a huge and lasting impact on me. Besides helping them to focus on other indicators of health, what more can I do right from the start with them to emphasize how unimportant that number on the scale is?

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—More Than A Number

Dear More Than A Number,

I think you have a lot of it figured out already, so I don’t have too much more to add. Yes, weight is truly just a number.

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You don’t say how old your daughters are, but if your girls are older, I would talk to them about the dangers of social media in terms of promoting a certain body image or weight as being beautiful or healthy. I can’t count the number of young girls in my 11-year-old daughter’s middle school who struggle with feelings of worthlessness or depression due to being unable to live up to the unhealthy standards shown on Instagram and TikTok. I don’t allow either of my kids to use social media right now, and it will probably be years before I do, but it would be easy for children to spiral while they scroll through their feeds if they don’t have a solid foundation regarding their weight. (Not to mention, this time of year is the worst on social media, because everyone is talking about weight loss resolutions.)

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Finally, this may sound trite, but no matter how old your kids are, I believe the goal is to teach them the importance of being beautiful on the inside. There will always be jerks and assorted knuckleheads who will say mean things about their appearance, but if they have the confidence to understand that being a good and kind human is more important than weight or looks, that goes a long way.

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Keep hammering home the idea that good health really comes down to how one feels, not how one looks or weighs. With a positive mom like you, I have a feeling your kids will get the memo.

New Year, Same Problems

For an upcoming special edition of Care and Feeding, we want to hear about the messy situations plaguing you that you’d like to shed in the new year. A pet fox corrupting daughter? A 10-year-old behind the wheel? Harsh PTA crackdowns? Submit your questions anonymously here. (Questions may be edited for publication.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I live in a multi-generational household with my two parents and my three-year-old son. My oldest brother, who abandoned us after stopping his medication, showed up recently asking for a place to stay. He’s got a terrible record, and his untreated schizophrenia is making me worried as a mother. I don’t see him as my son’s uncle, more as a freeloading guest. I’m fearful that his paranoid behavior is going to affect my son, and he also is prone to getting in bad fights.

What should I do? I love my son and my brother dearly, but unless my brother goes back on his medication, I don’t really want him in the same household as the people I love more.

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—Protecting My Son

Dear Protecting My Son,

I’ve been open about my mental illness around here, so I’ll run the risk of sounding insensitive by saying that it’s never an excuse for bad behavior.

You absolutely should do everything in your power to get your brother on track, even if it includes dragging him to a mental health facility to receive treatment, if needed. However, at the end of the day, his well-being is his responsibility. If you’ve exhausted every option to help him, and he still refuses to change or take his meds, then you may have to make the difficult decision of loving him from a distance.

Your job as a mother is to protect your young son at all costs, even if it means removing your adult brother from your lives. Hopefully it won’t come to that, and he will get the help he needs — but you need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario as well.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a three-year-old who continually curses, even for things as innocuous as us taking away stuffies or giving him an occasional spanking. He always responds that so-and-so does it, or he’ll ask if it’s a bad word, even after we’ve told him it is. Or he’ll intentionally say something close, like oh bucket. No punishment seems to faze him. What should I do?

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—Chicago Bread

Dear Chicago Bread,

The first thing I’m wondering is where your son is learning these words. I mean, it’s not like he came out of the womb dropping F-bombs on people, so he’s hearing it somewhere. If that place is at home, then you really need to start looking inward before attempting to discipline him.

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If it’s not happening at home, then you need to take a hard look at his environment (friends, extended family members, television shows, etc.). There’s no reason for a three-year-old to be hearing curse words on a regular basis. If you’ve determined that you don’t want him to repeat those words, then you need to either tell the foul-mouthed people in his life to knock it off, or you need some distance from those people.

The reason he’s behaving this way is because in his everyday life, cursing seems to be as normal as eating snacks and playing games. Instead of simply punishing him for saying bad words, you need to truly explain why those words are inappropriate in a way that a three-year-old can understand, and you need to remove them from your regular home environment.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Monday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 33-year-old sister has two daughters (10 and 8) and is in a dead marriage. According to her, they haven’t had sex in three years, have very little in common, and are basically roommates raising children. They’ve tried counseling and nothing seems to work. I told her that she should consider leaving, but she keeps saying that he’s “not an abuser or an addict” as her way of saying her marriage isn’t THAT bad. She also says that divorce would devastate the kids and she’s content to suffer for the next ten years until her youngest leaves the house. I love her dearly, but how can I get through to her that I’m done with hearing her complain without taking action? It’s incredibly draining.

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—Poop Or Get Off The Pot

Dear Poop Or Get Off The Pot,

I’ve said this before, but children don’t benefit from their unhappy parents staying together just because of them. Not to mention, it’s problematic if the bar is so low that we’re using the fact that a guy isn’t an abuser or addict as an excuse to stick around. She should want more for herself and her daughters.

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You’re right, though—it is extremely draining to listen to someone complain about their problems while doing absolutely nothing to fix them. I think your sister is in need of some tough love. You can provide some by saying, “Now that we’re in a new year, I think you should do whatever it takes to make yourself happy. It’s fine if you decide to stay in your marriage, but one thing I’m not going to do anymore is listen to you complain about how unhappy you are whenever we talk. If you want to stay, take actions to make your marriage better, and I’ll support you. On the flip side, if you decide to leave, I’ll do what it takes to support you. I just can’t listen to complaints without you taking action anymore.”

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That will likely sting and she could take offense to your words, but deep down she knows you’re right. Be prepared for her to take some time to come to that conclusion on her own, but I have a feeling she’ll come around eventually.

Life is too dang short to be miserable. If she wants to be the best mom she can be, she should prioritize her happiness, by taking the requisite actions to stay in her marriage or leave it. No matter what action she chooses (other than complaining, of course), she should feel good knowing that you’ll be there to support her along the way.

—Doyin

More Advice From Slate

My first grader is bright and imaginative, and he seems to be well-liked by his peers. Despite this, he often comes home from school dejected because no one wants to create imaginary play productions during recess. I have encouraged him to join the others and let go of his determination to put on pretend Broadway productions, but this goes in one ear and out the other. Should I say anything else, or let him work these playground politics out on his own?

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