Story at a glance
- Researchers interviewed 30 cisgender men about discussions they’ve had with their 5 to 10 year old daughters.
- They identify in the paper barriers to effective communication, combating negative influences and strategies for discussing body image.
- Fathers often conflated health with thinness.
Body image is an issue that many people feel that they struggle with, and sometimes from a young age. Psychologists are interested in how parenting may shape a child’s self-body image and how that could lead to a positive relationship with their body. Female bodies in particular are under intense social pressure to fit into publicly perceived desirable body types. A recent study published in the journal Body Image reports the results of interviews with 30 fathers who have daughters between the ages of 5 and 10. The researchers asked the fathers about what conversations they have had with their daughters about body image.
The study, titled “‘It really presents a struggle for females, especially my little girl’: Exploring father’s experiences discussing body image with their young daughters,” identifies themes that include “barriers to effective communication, combatting negative influences, and strategies for discussing body image.”
“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,” says one of the study’s authors, Virginia Ramseyer Winter, who is the director of the Center for Body Image Research at the University of Missouri, in a press release. “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?”
The authors focused on fathers in this study because their role in “development of positive body image or prevention of body dissatisfaction and eating disorders” hasn’t been examined in previous research. The study group included 30 cisgender men who were majority white and whose daughters were also white. One third of the fathers identified themselves as working or lower middle class while just over a third identified as middle class and 30 percent as upper middle class or wealthy. Of the group, 73.3 percent completed an undergraduate degree.
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The results of the study are broken down by theme. In barriers to effective communication, some fathers expressed lack of confidence for difficult discussions. One participant said:
“There’s a fear of saying the wrong thing. If you truly love your daughter and you want the best for her, and you want her to be whatever she’s going to be and be the best dad, you want to make sure that you’re one that they can trust and believe in and rely on.”
Some fathers expressed that their difference in gender made them feel “an additional layer of complication.” One participant said, “For me, personally, it’s – I just don’t have a lot of the same challenges that women do. I mean, there’s not nearly the societal pressure on me to maintain a certain body that women do.” Another expressed that he didn’t spend as much time thinking about his body image or looking in a mirror and didn’t realize “how much more this was a thing” for his wife.
The paper continues to discuss negative body talk, media and appearance praise, where some of the fathers realized their daughters were hyperaware of cues about bodies and body image.
Some things that the fathers do in support of positive body image are supporting self-expression and giving character compliments. One participant said, “I try to focus more on compliments that are more character-based versus appearance-based.”
Lastly, fathers in the study talked to their daughters about health. A participant said, “I literally would say, ‘You don’t need to worry about that.’ Meaning, are you overweight or this or that. ‘That’s nothing you need to be concerned with.’ Those are definitely literal things that I’ve said. … I would specifically say something like, ‘That’s not important. Having [a thin body] is not important. The most important thing is to be healthy and to be happy.’”
But other fathers expressed concern about types of food they would eat, like big desserts, or encouraging daughters to eat healthy to not look like people with fat bodies. “We identified an alarming trend of anti-fat attitudes throughout their responses,” write the authors. “Several fathers in the current study conflated health with thinness,” they continue, “which is unsurprising, given that even experts have not come to consensus on the most appropriate way to approach discussions about ‘healthy eating’ with young children.”
Anti-fat attitudes can affect a child throughout their life. It can affect medical treatment. Toddlers, at 32 months, can already pick up on anti-fat bias to prefer looking at average bodies versus obese bodies. And even body positivity trends can still have underlying anti-fat attitudes.
“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 in the press release. “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.”
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