Question: I'm concerned about my 6-year-old granddaughter. Her mom constantly speaks about how fat she (Mom) looks, her recent weight gain, how she ate too much, etc. She recently had a tummy tuck and is drawing attention to the fact that her stomach is still swollen. (By the way, she is not fat at all and looks fabulous.) I think my daughter-in-law should stop talking about her own negative body image in front of my granddaughter. On a recent snow day, my granddaughter didn't want to put on snow pants because "they make my hips look big." Is there any way to delicately handle this?
Answer: You could cut out this Q&A and show it to her, suggested Fugen Neziroglu, a professor of psychology at Hofstra University and clinical director of the Bio-Behavioral Institute in Great Neck, N.Y., a research and treatment facility for anxiety disorders.
Your daughter-in-law's chatter about her disappointment with her figure will definitely negatively influence your granddaughter's current and future body image, Neziroglu said.
Girls internalize information about attractiveness from the media, cultural influences and their families. "The utmost factor on what we learn about our body image comes from our siblings and our mothers," Neziroglu said. "Kids pick up on the way we look at ourselves."
While it may only be manifesting itself in small ways now, your granddaughter's body image will become far more important to her psyche during puberty.
"That's when you start developing eating disorders and excessive emphasis on the way you look," Neziroglu said.
Problems such as anorexia, bulimia and yo-yoing body weight can be rooted in the messages girls got when they were even younger.
The messages your daughter-in-law is sending — whether she realizes it or not — are these: "If I'd only be 30 pounds thinner, I'd be beautiful, desirable, happy." "You have to be perfect to feel good about yourself." "Perfection is attainable."
That might be the way your daughter-in-law feels, but she should keep those feelings to herself or talk about them with her friends, but not in front of her young daughter, Neziroglu said.
The mother may not even realize that discussing these things in front of her daughter is detrimental, said Hindi Mermelstein, director of adult psychiatric clinics at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y.
"She may not really have an idea of how much effect she's having on the kid."
Instead, the mother should model for her daughter healthful eating habits and acceptance of herself, Mermelstein said. "It is healthy to model for children imperfections that you can tolerate and live with. I personally would like to be 5-foot-6, but that isn't happening."
The mother should be encouraging habits based on attaining good health.
"Especially in this country of overweight people, it's important to encourage your child to be healthy," Mermelstein said.
But that doesn't necessarily equal being super-skinny, or having a distorted view of how overweight you are. "She should learn to make healthy, reasonable, normal choices and understand, at age 6, that she is still going to need to do whatever it is she needs to do to grow well."
Now get out your scissors, cut this out and leave it on your daughter-in-law's kitchen table. Or, if you're reading it online, forward it to her e-mail inbox.