In our book, among the risk factors for body image issues and disordered eating that Marcia and I discuss is the physically or emotionally absent father, or one who is highly critical. "Father hunger" is what psychologist Margo Maine calls the emptiness the daughter of such a father feels. Often this longing for a close daughter-father relationship involves the worry that dad might love her more if she looked a different way.
Although we know now that eating disorders are the result of the complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors, and that parents should never be blamed for a child's eating disorders, there are positive, protective behaviors and attitudes you can strive for. We encourage positive father-child relationships for many reasons. In one study, fathers of girls with eating disorders were found to be unavailable, critical, perfectionistic and angry. Girls with eating disorders were likely to perceive their fathers as unloving, hostile, and aggressive. Researchers also found that girls who felt close to their fathers were less likely to have food and weight problems. Another study showed that the most influential factors in the development of eating problems among children relate to peer and parents, especially support from fathers.
Some fathers are not quite sure how to react to their quickly developing daughters, and may withdraw as a result. The danger is that the daughter may internalize this retreat and assume that her changing body is unacceptable. Joe Kelly, author and fathering educator for the eating disorders treatment center The Emily Program, writes provocatively on the "touch taboo" that many such fathers feel as their daughter begins to develop, in which our culture's objectification of women and its high incidence of sexual abuse makes fathers of developing daughters suddenly stop all expressions of physical affection toward their child. He's the author of Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter When She's Growing Up So Fast.
Recently, we spoke to Kelly for this Q&A:
Q: Why does it seem that a father's estimation of a young girl's appearance carries more importance in her mind than her mother's?
A: Even when a child gets strong, positive messages about her body at home, she gets a completely different message in the schoolyard, in the media and in the cultural air we breathe: that how you look is more important than who you are. The underlying presumption is that that's what men care about. It's a quite disturbing sexist influence dynamic where women and girls believe that if a man doesn't give you attention, then you are less valuable.
Q: What is the reaction you generally get from fathers when you speak on the touch taboo between fathers and daughters?
A: Nervous relief, if there's such a thing. It's getting better but men still have a hard time talking about this. Most men I talk to absolutely love the experience when a daughter is younger of being her hero. It's not uncommon for little girls to be completely enraptured with their dads, and that's an unconditional love that's pretty rare to experience. When they lose that they lose the coziness. It's a grieving time even in the healthiest of circumstances. And it's not talked about, the terror men have about continuing to touch their daughters [as they reach puberty.]
Q: What can dads do to counter this situation?
A: Have other men with whom you can talk about it, ideally veteran dads who have been down this road before. With your daughter, start with things that are small and non-threatening, like gardening together, riding bikes. Start spending intentional time in one another's presence. That's something men are relatively comfortable with-one of the most profound ways men communicate with each other is by being with each other in the same space; that engenders closeness in men. With a child, too, just being together and doing fun activities can be quite profound. There's value in girls experiencing men's way of living in the presence of their fathers. If a daughter puts up plywood flooring on top of the garage with her dad, they may spend two hours and he may say virtually nothing, but that camaraderie and bonding is a valuable thing for girls to learn.
There are an infinite number of ways to connect with another human being. Then you can build toward a quick hug, holding hands, things like that. It's not going to be easy, and the rules will change on a regular basis, especially if she's an adolescent. I was very affectionate with my children all their lives and they still like to snuggle with me on the couch at 31 years old. During adolescence there were times when they really wanted that, and times when they didn't want to have anything to do with me.
Q: That difficult moment for a father when a growing daughter pulls away from a hug or a kiss for the first time happens with boys, too. What can parents do to show that they understand, but are available when their child needs affection, comfort or reassurance?
A: That's really hard, and your feelings will be hurt. But you gotta be the grown up. My wife Nancy helped me learn that my job was to remain loyal to them, no matter what. I needed to know that the door was going to slam on my face on numerous occasions, and that it wasn't my fault, it had to do with their growing up. The payoff with my [twin] daughters is that they're 31 and they call me every week, and actually like me to come visit.
Q: Do you notice a difference in how younger fathers approach this issue compared to people of your generation?
A: I definitely see hopeful trends among younger fathers in terms of talking about being fathers, and about feeling more freedom to openly and actively engage in fatherhood. I do a lot of training for Early Childhood Head Start. They've been including fathers for 15 years now, and tell me that it's now very common for half of the adults who show up to be men. That's a hopeful sign. It's still hard, though. From every father I interviewed for the book there was this really profound fear and worry about their daughters emerging as sexual beings because they are some level afraid of the vulnerable position that women in our culture are put. In groups of men, when we start to talk about this, the anxiety level in the room goes up, then as we get more into it, there's a kind of relief.
Nutritionist Marcia Herrin and Nancy Matsumoto, co-authors of The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders, Gūrze Books. Marcia is also author of Nutrition Counseling in the Treatment of Eating Disorders.