Ask Eliza: My Five-Year-Old Daughter Says She Looks Fat

A few days ago a dear friend reached out to me with a text that said “Help! My five-year-old just said that she can’t wear that dress because she looks fat! What do I say?”

My friend and I then proceeded to have a great conversation about how to start teaching her daughter what “beauty” means beyond her physical appearance.

As I was offering suggestions for things to try, I felt like these were important lessons for us all – myself included.

I’ve been interested in this topic since my little girl was born (almost five years ago).

How was I going to teach her to LOVE herself and her body beyond just her physical appearance?

How was I going to protect her from all the dysfunctional messages women receive about their bodies on a daily basis?

How was I going to make things different for her than they were for me?

The truth is, I won’t be able to protect her from these things – not all of them anyway.

I’ve learned that the best thing I can do for her is what I’m going to share with you below, and what I shared with my dear friend a few days ago.

1. One of the best things we can do is model excellent behavior. As adults, we are children’s role models.  I am incredibly aware of how I speak about MYSELF in front of my little girl, Quinn.

I don’t put myself down (I try not to do this anyway!). I don’t speak about my body in its physical form. If she is with me standing in front of the mirror I make a point to say something kind to myself – “I’m feeling really strong and powerful today”.

This may sound corny, but they are listening to every word we say and learning about their world through us. How we talk about ourselves and others is just as important as how we talk to them.

I don’t comment on others’ physical appearance very often. If I do, it’s a positive remark, but mostly I’m just teaching her that physical appearance is not what I’m looking at in a human – good or bad.

2. Give attention to the characteristics about your daughter that have nothing to do with how she looks.

Is she kind? Funny? Hard-working? Thoughtful? Assertive? Bold? Brave? Charming? Intelligent? My husband and I make it a point to tell Quinn what we like about her personality on a regular basis. We note when she’s working really hard at a new skill, we give praise when she overcomes a fear. And, we teach her that her looks may be a part of her, but they certainly aren’t the most interesting part.

3. Ask your daughter what she thinks is beautiful.

One of the things that baffled my dear friend is that she doesn’t use the word “fat” at home. Not that this is a bad word by any means, but there just isn’t any reason for her to use it. She doesn’t describe herself or anyone she knows that way. She didn’t know where her daughter had heard it. Of course, friends at school, TV, movies – basically anywhere outside the home she would be exposed to the word “fat” used in a negative way.

Her daughter went on to tell her that she couldn’t look fat because then she wouldn’t be beautiful. At five, this is not inherent thinking – this is learned. It can also be unlearned. I encouraged my friend to start talking to her daughter about her own feelings. What does SHE think it means to be beautiful? Could people of different shapes, sizes, colors all be beautiful in her mind? This is a good age to start helping your daughter define her belief system instead of relying on others to create it for her. Last, offer her examples of different people, races, and disabilities and ask if those people can be beautiful and perhaps offer reasons why they might be.

4. Saying she’s beautiful is OK.

We don’t want to eliminate messages of physical appearance altogether, since our children learn from what we do say and what we don’t say.

For example, a child who never hears they are smart or capable grows up wondering if they are. So do express your child’s beauty to them. Here are some of the things I say to Quinn.

“You picked out such a pretty outfit today.”

“You are beautiful exactly as you are.”

“Your eyes are really shining bright today.”

“You just shared your toy with her, that was so beautiful”.

I have no problem telling Quinn I think she’s beautiful, I happen to think she is and she deserves to hear it, just as much as she deserves to hear all the other characteristics about her that I love.

Just make sure, as I said before, that it’s not the most interesting part about her – not by a long shot.

5. Talk with Dad about these things as well.

There is a good body of research out there that emphasizes that dads have an important impact on how their daughters view their body. Make sure he is offering messages of beauty that go beyond her physical appearance. Make sure he is either positive (or quiet) about her physical appearance. I have had clients who remember the one well-meaning hurtful thing their father said to them about their physical appearance 20-30 years later.

To wrap this up, please note that this is by no means is this an exhaustive list. I don’t claim to know everything about this subject, but it is an area I’m really passionate about. I would LOVE to hear your ideas and contributions to this conversation.