The father-daughter relationship and girls’ body confidence – where do dads fit in?

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The father-daughter relationship and girls’ body confidence – where do dads fit in?

Dads shouldn’t back off during their daughters’ teenage years. In fact, when it comes to girls’ body-confidence, they may be needed now more than ever. Understanding the role her father plays is key.

From changing nappies to putting her hair in pigtails and teaching her how to cook, today’s dads are more involved than ever in the upbringing of their daughters. But this hasn’t always been the case.

Dr Linda Nielsen, expert on father-and-daughter relationships, writing in the College Student Journal, offers an explanation: “Throughout the 1950s, there was a growing concern that boys were becoming too feminine as a result of being raised by overly protective mothers… [so] fathers were urged to be more involved with their sons as a way of protecting the ‘manhood’ of the next generation.” Society often sent the message that mothers were best at raising daughters, while fathers should focus on their sons.

These days, it is increasingly common to see fathers at the school gate or pushing the buggy to playgroup. But what about when our little girls start turning into young women?

The importance of fathers in daughters’ lives during the teenage years

Although much investigation has focused on the mother-daughter bond in relation to girls’ body-confidence and self-esteem, a growing body of evidence underscores the importance of dads’ role in parenting girls.

Daughters of fathers who are emotionally distant are more likely to struggle with conflicts 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.

Leading psychotherapist and author Dr Susie Orbach says: “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 and her body.”

As for those dads who haven’t had a great deal of interaction with their girls up until now, it’s never too late to start.

The role of a father when talking about puberty and sexuality

Even the most seasoned fathers can struggle and feel embarrassed when it comes to exploring certain issues with their daughters. Fortunately, there are many useful resources, both online and off, to help dads navigate conversations about puberty and sexuality – so they can support their girl in the best way possible (see our Useful Links below).

Dr Orbach says: “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. Her body is going to be getting different kinds of attention and she is going to be feeling new kinds of things – many of which will be confusing. Having a dad who can be there, who holds steady as she experiments with becoming womanly, can be really helpful. There will be times when only he can answer her questions; or [they can] sit and watch a movie together, or go to the park.”

By showing that you are willing to talk, listen and generally be there for your daughter as she experiences puberty’s emotional and bodily changes, you can also nurture her body-confidence.

Dad’s body image matters, too

Although dads and daughters don’t share the same gender, he is still a critical role model for her; meaning that the way a dad interacts with his own body can teach his daughter how to treat hers.

A 2014 US survey revealed that 40% of fathers worry how their own body image impacts on their kids – and it’s a valid concern. Dr Orbach notes the importance of a father “knowing his own body image issues and ‘working’ on them, without imposing them” on his daughter.

As a father who adheres to a food or fitness plan, you needn’t draw undue attention to it. For example, when in the presence of your daughter, avoid skipping meals in favour of a protein shake, or overemphasising how exercise makes you look as opposed to the way it makes you feel. Girls are subjected to an intense pressure to be thin, but the role of a father can be to counteract this. You can help negate this message by living a balanced lifestyle that does not focus on weight or body shape.

Author: Sharon Haywood, health/body image activist and writer.

Supporting the father-daughter relationship: Action steps for dads to help boost their daughter’s body-confidence

  • Try to avoid making comments (positive or negative) about others’ appearance, be it your daughter, another family member or a celebrity – the importance of fathers in daughters’ lives means that your remarks can influence the way she feels about herself. For example, expressing how ‘gorgeous’ you think a woman is in a magazine or newspaper will send the message that looks are important to you, and may actually make your girl feel insecure about her own looks.
  • Make a point of expressing your admiration for female figures in areas such as politics, sport and film. And don’t forget to acknowledge the women in your family, who all have their own skills and talents.
  • Your daughter may find it helpful to have responses ready for people who may make comments about her appearance. Construct a few together. Not only will it help her feel empowered, it’s an activity the two of you can bond over, leaving you with a stronger father-daughter relationship.
  • 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 body can do, instead of what it looks like.
  • 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 when they arise. For some guidance on how to have these conversations in a positive way, see the Role of Media section of this site.

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