Fathers: A Potential Antidote to the “If Only I Were Skinny” Fantasy
￼Culture contributes to eating problems and body dissatisfaction in many complicated ways. Historically, women have been socialized to focus on their appearance and to alter themselves to be pleasing to other people. Today, reflecting the impact of globalization, cultures place a high value on appearance and equate thinness with femininity and beauty. Furthermore, technology offers females many ways to attain the “perfect” body. Most experts in the field of eating disorders view these cultural and technological pressures as major reasons why so many young women are adopting severe diets and developing anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and other eating and body image conflicts. Fathers can moderate the impact of these social dictates. For example, if a father agrees with our culture’s shared misconception that all his daughter’s problems would be solved if she had a perfect body, he may be contributing to the development of an eating disorder. In fact, girls whose fathers value weight control and appearance are much more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies, to self-induce vomiting, and to engage in other unhealthy weight loss techniques.
On the other hand, a father can give his daughter messages about beauty, self-worth, and body image that counteract these strong cultural influences. His words can be very powerful and reassuring antidotes for girls who are trying to balance the cultural pressure to be thin and sexy. As the age of onset for disordered eating and negative body image gets lower and lower, even very young girls come to believe that “If only I were thin, people would like me more; Mommy and Daddy would be proud of me.” If fathers are not providing direct signs of acceptance and validation, the language of fat can easily take hold while daughters struggle to gain Dad’s approval or attention.
Our society forces children to grow up quickly, treating little girls as sex objects almost as soon as they are out of diapers. Abercrombie and Fitch developed a strong marketing campaign for their thong underwear for 10-year-old girls, laced with highly suggestive language such as eye candy and wink, wink. Advertisements frequently show female children who are made to look grown up, and more and more products originally intended for adults are now aimed at children. For example, make-up is now marketed by cosmetics companies to 9- and 10-year-old girls because they have money to spend. The implication is that little girls need to make themselves more appealing, prettier, or sexier.
Many little girls respond to these messages by becoming preoccupied with their appearance or by dressing in a provocative or adult style. Fathers often feel overwhelmed by this premature sexuality and may attempt to distance themselves from their daughters rather than finding ways to remain close to them as they experiment with these behaviors. Girls may then conclude that their fathers simply do not care or do not accept them. Their sadness can lead to desperate attempts to please Dad or other men through their body and appearance.
For girls of all ages, being thin has become the answer to a myriad of uncertainties about their lives and identities. In the past 50 years, women’s roles in our culture have expanded dramatically. Women are pursuing professions, interests, and lifestyles that previously were the exclusive domain of men. Many adult women live far different lives from those they expected, based on their observations of their mothers’ lives. In The Hungry Self: Women, Eating, and Identity, Kim Chernin was one of the first to explore this concept in great detail, particularly noting the difficulties young women experience when they surpass their mothers. These revolutionary changes have contributed to much inner turmoil and self-doubt, which in turn are conveyed to today’s little girls and adolescents.
Obsession with physical appearance and weight have become a primary means of dealing with this anxiety: “If only I were thin, then I’d be sure of myself,” or “If only I were thin, other people would see me as a success.” And today, the means available to change a woman’s body are endless. Diet pills, diuretics, laxatives, special diets, liquid meals, make-up, fitness programs, spas, and plastic surgery all promise an answer to the uncertainties women are experiencing. Unfortunately, these artificial solutions to a lack of identity and feelings of confusion and low self-esteem are often more available than are nurturing relationships.
Positive messages from a father can help a daughter face doubts about what being a woman means today. He can help her discern her life’s direction, values, and identity. If he is supporting his wife emotionally and validating her work both at home and in the world, his wife will be more positively involved with the family, and the children will see men and women working together effectively. When Dad’s role is a constructive one, the daughter will be less likely to rely on “If only I had a perfect body” fantasies in order to feel competent and successful as a woman and comfortable with her femininity. The more a daughter’s father hunger has been satisfied, the less she will resort to dangerous “if onlys” that lead to body image and eating conflicts as she attempts to forge her personal identity.
Reprinted with permission from Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, & Food
By Margo Maine, Ph.D.
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