National Eating Disorders Association

Habits of Body-Positive Dads: How Fathers Influence Body Image

August McLaughlin

“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren't trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”  — Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

Since I began speaking publicly about my personal eating disorder battle, I’ve encountered many individuals enduring similar challenges. One of the first was a man whose 22-year-old daughter, Katherine, was severely ill with anorexia. “She won’t eat,” he wrote me in an email. “Her mother and I feel helpless.”

He and his wife seemed to have done everything right regarding raising kids with positive body image and self-esteem—thank goodness. Genetic and societal factors seemed to have contributed to Katherine’s illness. Added pressure or negativity at home could only have exacerbated matters.

In the six years since, the family has worked together tirelessly to improve Katherine’s wellness. Last month, her father wrote me with great news: “Katherine took a turn for the best, a big one!” She was eating well and, more importantly, displaying emotional signs of self-love. I’ve no doubt that Katherine’s father played a significant role in her ability to carry on and begin healing.

“Many dads fail to realize just how valuable they are to their daughters’ self-worth,” writes relationship expert Linda Nielsen in the College Student Journal. “Yet research shows that healthy father-daughter relationships raise women’s chances of developing self-reliance and confidence, while guarding against eating disorders. Additional research shows that fathers play a significant role in boys’ body image.”

As we celebrate fathers this weekend, let’s also celebrate the wonderful ways in which dads can bolster their children’s body image, affirming that what really counts can’t be weighed, measured or photographed, but exists and radiates from within.

5 Habits of Body-Positive Dads

  1. Model healthy lifestyle behaviors. Children are sponges. Fathers who avoid dieting and fanatical exercise—major risk factors for poor body image and eating disorders—demonstrate that neither is effective or worth one’s time or energy. Supportive dads encourage activity as an enjoyable part of life, not as a form of punishment or weight control.
  2. Share quality time. Body-positive dads take interest in their children’s activities, which increases bonding and provides channels for open communication. Focusing on children’s daily lives, passions and skills also places value on authenticity, over aesthetics, paving the way for positive body image and self-esteem.
  3. Discuss negative media and keep it out of the house. Children are bombarded with media images celebrating an unrealistic, unhealthy definition of “beauty.” Twenty years ago, the typical model weighed 8 percent less than the average woman, according to Plus Model Magazine. In 2011, she weighed 23 percent less. Magazine images are so heavily edited to slenderize women and add six-pack abs to men, even the models don’t appear like themselves. Supportive dads bring light to these issues and keep sexualized, underweight and otherwise demeaning images out of reach.
  4. Focus on life, not appearance. Most folks want to feel attractive, but a body-positive dad places greater emphasis on life-beauty than the loveliness of his daughter in particular dresses or the brawny bulk of his son’s arms. Discussing life goals, dreams and experiences with children generates a positive sense of self-worth, prompting them to continue thriving.
  5. Respect women. A father’s respect for women, particularly loved ones, is one of the greatest gifts he can give his children. As children’s primary male role model, the way a father treats and regards women sets the stage for children’s long-term thoughts and behaviors. Daughters learn what to expect from the opposite gender, and sons learn what to provide.