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Ask an Expert: Daughter, 9, thinks she’s fat

Nutritionist Cathy Schmelter offers help to a mom worried about her daughter’s obsession with body image. 

Q. My 9-year-old daughter thinks she has fat legs and a fat stomach. What do I say to her?

A.Oh boy, I always feel like these questions are more of a mental health (self-esteem) question than a nutrition one. So, in addition to the tips, I am giving you, I would suggest consulting with a child psychologist as well.

I would also want to learn more about why she thinks this. Did a kid at school say something, is she being bullied or is she comparing herself to magazines? This will be helpful information as you decide how to approach this issue.

You, as her mother, might start out by telling your daughter that her body is beautiful just the way it is, and that people come in all shapes and sizes and that’s what makes them special and unique. There is no particular size and shape that we all have to follow.  And that her body will be growing and changing for many years to come.

Here are some tips that can help you promote a positive body image:

  • Throw out the scale Are there family members who are constantly dieting and is weight a common conversation in your family? Get rid of your scale and center your conversations on healthy eating and active living.
  • Focus on fitness Encourage your child to focus on being fit and feeling healthy rather than a number on the scale.  Being fit means feeling strong, full of energy and in good health. Let her know that there are unhealthy skinny people too, and that size and weight are not always indicators of health.
  • Provide education Provide nutritional information to your daughter on the value of choosing whole fruits and vegetables over high fat, high sugar foods and how breakfast can rev up her metabolism. Help her choose exercises to participate in that she finds fun and enjoyable.
  • Set goals and celebrate results Work with your child to set attainable health goals and help her track her progress in a journal or on a piece of paper. Reward her for reaching her goals.
  • Promote positive friends  Encourage your daughter to surround herself with friends who are confident, encouraging, happy and uplifting. Having a healthy social and emotional life is equally as important as having a healthy body.
  • Ads sell products Let her know that the ads online, on TV or in magazines are not real and are often “touched up” or manipulated to look like the model or actor has the “perfect” body.

Hope these suggestions help. Let us know how your daughter is doing and what strategies work best. Good luck. And know that your question is not uncommon. Here are more suggestions from two other experts on the very same issue.

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