It was the opportunity of a lifetime: In 2007, freelance writer Dara Chadwick was chosen to be Shape magazine’s weight loss diarist, chronicling a diet and exercise regimen for one year in the pages of a national magazine. She lost 26 pounds, but throughout the process, Dara worried about the effect on her then 11-year-old daughter, Faith (and to a lesser degree, son Evan, then 9)—especially as she realized how much her mother had colored her own body image.
“I think Faith and I both realize that she’s learned from watching me,” says Dara.
“This is a real thing, this legacy I’m giving her.”
She wrote about her experience in her book You’d Be So Pretty If . . .Teaching Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies—Even When We Don’t Love Our Own. Four years later, she says her family communicates often and openly about food and health, but only with continuing diligence. Dara shared some tips on how she’s navigated the touchy topic of kids and weight.
Don’t demonize food. Labeling certain foods or behaviors “good” or “bad” is a habit chronic dieters often have to work hard to break. You can lay the groundwork for your child to have a healthy relationship to food by avoiding those kinds of absolutes in your vocabulary. “I try to make it about being thoughtful,” Dara says. “We talk about portion sizes: ‘Are you still hungry?’ Or I’ll say it’s fine to have an ice cream if it’s a conscious choice. But I try not to launch into a long nutritional lecture.”
The exception, she says, would be if she thought her daughter was developing a “crash diet” mentality. “Then I would definitely go all nerdy on her and pull out the facts,” she says with a laugh.
Encourage physical activity. Now a freshman in high school, Faith plays on the junior varsity softball team, which has given her an extra boost of confidence at a time when teen girls often struggle with self-esteem. “I think it’s really important to encourage girls—and boys—to find some kind of athletic activity they love,” Dara says. “It’s especially great if it’s something that really speaks to them, and not just something you insist they stick with. Sometimes they have to try a few on.”
Comment on appearance with care. While some experts advise that parents don’t make any comments, positive or negative, about their children’s appearance, Dara has taken a more measured approach. “If you can tell that your daughter has taken care with her appearance that day, like she’s spent a lot of time on her hair, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying, ‘You look nice,’” she says. Fathers in particular should also be careful of not only joking with their daughters, but also how they comment on other women, as kids often internalize such remarks.
But one of the most important lessons Dara learned through her weight-loss diary experience was to watch how she comments on her own appearance.
“One day Faith and I were walking together and I realized she was wearing my pants and sweater,” Dara says. “It struck me: What if she had heard me beating up on my body? How would she feel going into my closet? It really gave me pause.”
Make it a family affair. If your child is overweight, it can put you in a quandary: Do you ignore it for fear of damaging his or her already fragile egos, or do you speak up in the interest of health? Fortunately, there is a middle ground—instead of talking about health, just do it, implementing family-wide changes.
“The majority of kids are not doing the grocery shopping, so you can just begin to buy healthier foods,” she says. “And then you can find a natural opportunity to say, ‘I don’t think we’ve been eating so well as a family. Let’s get a cookbook and pick out a healthy recipe we can try.’”
Dara and her daughter, Faith, talk openly about body image and weight.