When I was a child, I watched my mum dieting—a lot.
She spent several years doing Weight Watchers and constantly counting points. Wednesday was “weigh-in” day, and the day we were allowed extra biscuits after school.
She also followed other fad diets. I remember one summer when I was 16, we even tried a diet together. It was the wildest four-day diet I’ve ever tried. We ate only potatoes on day 1, chicken and tomatoes on day 2, bananas on day 3, and then potatoes again on day 4. Yuck!
And it wasn’t just my mum. This was the 90s and everyone seemed to be dieting those days. Food and diets were a topic of conversation whenever my family got together, bemoaning those “last few kilos,” my aunts trying to “be good,” my uncle refusing seconds and patting his stomach as the reason why, and people complaining about weight gain. It was constant chatter.
Of course, it’s unlikely that my dreadful relationship with food could be entirely attributable to these moments. But it couldn’t have helped seeing these adults unhappy with their weight and size, constantly denying themselves and seeing food as their enemy.
Many years later, when my daughter was about four, I was going through a period of extreme food restriction on another of my “healthy eating regimes,” and I started to notice how she was watching me. When I skipped certain meals, cooked a separate “healthy” meal for myself, or refused to swim in the ocean, she was watching me.
I realised then that I had to change. That even if I never said anything directly to my daughter about food or her body, that she was watching me. I knew she’d eventually copy me and take on my warped perceptions of food and body image to assimilate as her own.
So, this is my parenting manifesto—the four things I’ll never say (or do) in front of my daughter so she can create a healthy and happy relationship with food:
1. I will never diet.
My dieting days are well and truly over, along with my “healthy eating regimes” and “it’s not a diet but a lifestyle.” I will never embark on a month-long detox or subject my children to sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free baking again. That is all behind me.
I now teach my children that healthy eating doesn’t include restriction, control, or guilt. Instead, it’s about both nourishment and enjoyment. I teach them about protein, carbohydrates, and fat—that they all belong on a plate to create a meal that is both nutritious and satisfying. That includes fruit and vegetables, along with ice-cream, chocolate, and sweets. I never want my daughter to be afraid of eating dessert.
2. I will never comment on my daughter’s weight or size.
I’ve noticed this about having a son and a daughter. When people meet my son, they ask him about sports or school. When people meet my daughter, they comment on her appearance (ex. “What a gorgeous dress,” “Doesn’t your hair look pretty,” and “What a lovely smile”). What the hell are we teaching our girls when appearance is valued higher than education or recreation?
And yes, it might seem obvious that we shouldn’t talk about our children’s bodies in a negative way, like “Gosh you’ve piled on the pounds,” but this was a comment I actually received from a family friend when I first started secondary school. It wasn’t helpful.
Positive comments can be equally harmful though, like “Wow, you look amazing now that you’ve lost weight.” This can be damaging because you never know what you are praising—you could be validating an eating disorder. There’s also an underlying assumption that she’s better in a smaller body, so what happens if the weight comes back?
Instead, comment on her: how kind and lovely she is, her personality, or something she has done. Just not on her looks.
3. I will never comment on my weight or size.
Growing up, my family never commented on my weight or size, but they did comment on theirs. Both of my parents discussed their weight, and it mostly revolved around the idea that thin equals better.
So, whilst you may not say anything to your daughter, she is probably listening to what you say about yourself. Do you berate yourself in a bikini, or say you need to lose weight to be beach ready, or perhaps you constantly moan about being “overweight”?
This kind of thing sticks with our children, so commenting on my own body is also something I’ve given up. Instead, we focus on the idea that “all bodies are good bodies.”
4. I will never label food “good” or “bad.”
You may not even notice the way you speak about food, but if certain foods are “bad” or “naughty” and other foods are “good” or “superfoods,” this can create a negative relationship with food in children.
One of the biggest things I’ve learnt on my food freedom journey has been to neutralise food. So now I avoid saying that broccoli is “healthy” and sweets are “bad” or a “treat.” We just call food by its name—it’s an apple or a chocolate bar.
I’m learning to take the morals out of eating to help my children stop feeling bad just because they like the taste of ice cream.
Bottom line is our kids are watching. They notice everything we say and do around food and our bodies, and they model their behavior after ours. So, it’s never too late to change our approach.
I hope these tips help you model a better relationship with food and body image, for you and your children.