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How can fathers shape their daughters’ body image?

Study analyzes fathers’ communication with young daughters about their body image.

Contact: Pate McCuien, 573-882-4870, mccuienp@missouri.edu

Dec. 17, 2020

The holidays are coming up, and when tables become overflowed with plates and bowls of delicious foods, be thoughtful with the way you talk about the food with your children. It can be common for children to feel pressure and insecurities about their bodies, and it turns out, parents can play a large role in children’s perception of their bodies.

This is an image of Virginia Ramseyer Winter.

MU Assistant Professor Virginia Ramseyer Winter is the Director of Center for Body Image Research and Policy within the School of Social Work.

Though she is the Director of the Center for Body Image Research at the University of Missouri, even Virginia Ramseyer Winter still often worries if her family is doing everything they can to make sure her daughter has a positive relationship with her body.

“I have a daughter that falls in this age range, between 5 and 10, so certainly it’s something that I’m always navigating at home, and my spouse— her dad— is also navigating,” Ramseyer Winter said. “You know, I work in this field and its still really tricky. How do you talk about food in a way that helps kids develop a healthy relationship with it and prevent eating disorders, and focus on their character as opposed to the way they look?”

While much of the previous research around the role parents take in their children’s body image focuses on the mother, there is little research about fathers’ role. So, in a recent study, Ramseyer Winter, in collaboration with Jaclyn Siegel at Western University and Mackenzie Cook at the University of Missouri, analyzed fathers’ strengths and barriers when it comes to communicating with their young daughters about their body image.

The researchers found through interviews that fathers tend to understand the importance of a healthy self-body image among their children. However, they often felt uncomfortable discussing body image and health with their daughters.

“Unsurprisingly, all of the dads we talked to really are interested in addressing this with their daughters. They know it’s important and they place a lot of value on it,” Ramseyer Winter said. “However, we found that there are some common barriers. They are struggling to have these conversations, and many of them are conflating health with body size.”

The 30 fathers interviewed identified several common barriers when attempting to discuss bodily health with their daughters, including a lack of confidence in uncomfortable conversations, gender differences with their daughters, and a recognition of their daughter’s discomfort with discussing their bodies. The study also found that the fathers noticed that their daughters can take negative statements about their own bodies and positive statements about other people’s body to heart.

There has been little prior research stating that fathers can have a positive impact on their daughter’s self-body image. In this study, researchers found the fathers attempted to have positive impacts by praising their daughters’ skills, strengths and talents instead of their body and accepting the way their daughters choose to present themselves. Ramseyer Winter said that understanding these conversations can help fathers learn what resources may be necessary to prevent some of the issues that can cause negative perceptions of body image at a young age.

“Dads obviously influence their children, so we need to understand what fathers are doing, and what is and isn’t working. There wasn’t much discussion on that topic before this study,” Ramseyer Winter said. “My hope is that this research can help to ultimately develop interventions that are easily accessible for fathers and their children to positively impact body image development. If we can prevent negative body image perceptions early on in children’s life, we can impact health and mental health outcomes long-term.”

Ramseyer Winter also said that if parents are looking for advice on how to help their children grow with a healthy perception of their body, there are currently a few resources they can utilize, including books on intuitive eating and Health at Every Size.

“It really presents a struggle for females, especially my little girl”: Exploring father’s experiences discussing body image with their young daughters was published in Body Image.

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