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How Someone Who Treats Eating Disorders For a Living Tries to ‘Body Image Proof’ Their Daughters at Home

BY Dr Louisa Hoey

When Mums (and sometimes Dads) hear that I am a psychologist who treats young people suffering from life threatening eating disorders, they often ask “What can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen to us?”.

When I became a Mum myself, I soon began to think about how could I “body image proof” my daughter. It was literally one of my biggest concerns. It seemed like poor body image was almost a given among girls; and I became DETERMINED to do what I could to prevent it. Soon, it became a personal and professional challenge: I was going to raise body confident daughters come hell or high water.

Now, I write this article with trepidation, touching wood after every paragraph. I know my job is not done. My tween daughters are still in primary school, and we may well have some rough waters ahead, but so far, I am cautiously optimistic. By their age, many girls will have body image concerns and some be dieting already; we know that dieting is often the precursor to an eating disorder.

So is there a secret? What have I done to try to inoculate my daughters? Every time I think about this, the word “layers” pops up for me. “Layers” represents the idea that there is no one strategy or thing. It’s the layers in the way I talk, the way I move, the choices that I make for me and the way I guide my girls in their choices. Our family priorities. I guess it is like I have a pair of metaphorical “body confident” glasses on, and everything in our lives I see through this perspective. Let me share with you some of the layers.

Layer One - My body image.

I LOVE Brene Brown. I may once have volunteered from 4am when she came to Melbourne in the hope I would meet her (I did not succeed…..but I am young and there is time!). I especially love her quote: “I can encourage my daughter to love her body, but what really matters are the observations that she makes about my relationship with my own body”.

From the moment our babies are born they are observing and learning from us. They see us pass up the ice-cream or take the small piece of cake. They watch us prioritise exercise over rest and hear us talk about earning that glass of wine. They learn that certain foods can make you fat and fat is bad.

They see us change out of comfortable clothes’ into presentable outfits before leaving the house. They are there when we cringe and apologise when a friend drops in unannounced before we can clean the kitchen and make the beds. They learn that what another person thinks about how we are presented is important.

What do I do? I sit with discomfort and unapologetically invite people in when the house is messy. I eat the cake. I wear the old jumper and gum boots to school pick up. It’s not that I don’t care. I feel self-conscious trust me! But I tolerate the discomfort to teach my daughters an important value. How they look is not as important as who they are.

I must walk the talk which sometimes means looking the dork.

Layer Two - My friends.

This is a quick one! Kids will learn about what is important from their friends. The reality is that our society is obsessed with image and fat phobic. Kids pick up this stuff EARLY! They learn it through their families. So, I am conscious about who I spend most time with and which friendships I foster; because I have noticed a pattern; my daughters tend to gravitate to kids that belong to families with similar values. My friends also love gumboots!

Layer Three - We move our bodies.

This one has layers upon layers! We have 5-minute kitchen dance parties. We sing and dance in the car to pop. Songs with messages that I love like “If everybody looked the same” by Groove Armada. Singing and dancing releases dopamine, the gorgeous feel-good hormone. I want that hormone associated with my girls moving their bodies so that they develop an association between their bodies and feeling good. I even say to them “oh man can you feel that dopamine in your brain?!”.

My daughters do gymnastics (at a community centre where kids mostly wear shorts and t-shirts not leotards) and play team sports. This helps them to trust their bodies and enjoy what they can do with them. And they learn something incredibly valuable. If they put effort in, they improve. This further deepens their relationships with their own bodies.

Layer Four - I tell them they are beautiful

Some experts say “don’t tell kids they are beautiful” with the theory that it is not great to reinforce the idea that outward beauty is important. I get it. I wrestled with this one and ultimately, I landed somewhere a little less rigid. I do tell my daughters that they are beautiful, though I qualify that it is “inside and out”. I comment sometimes on their bright blue eyes, their gorgeous smiles, their soft skin, their warm cuddles. I also regularly praise them for their determination, kindness, cheekiness and courage.

Layer Five - Always with self-compassion and creativity

The last layer, is about having self compassion. I am trying my best and sometimes don’t really know what I am doing! I hope for the best and treat myself like I would a good friend. I take these layers and each day I creatively apply them to whatever comes up. It is natural in some ways and in others I feel the old “fake it til you make it” is as good as it gets!

Meet The Author,
Dr Louisa Hoey

Dr Louisa Hoey is a clinical and health psychologist with extensive experience working with adolescents and adults. She has a special interest in helping people recover from eating disorders and is passionate about helping young people to develop body confidence. One of her career highlights was winning a local community grant to host a Confidence Program for tween girls. Using her creativity and passion for building up girls, she developed a fun one-day workshop that was a huge success.
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