Full length shot of a father and daughter dancing

Think dads have nothing to do with how their daughters see themselves?  Think again.  According to recent research at Charles Stuart University in Newcastle, Australia psychologist John Toussaint surveyed women diagnosed with eating disorders about their perceptions of their fathers and their relationship to them.  He found that 42% of the women between the ages of 37 and 55 had over protective fathers, while 36% had distant fathers. Only one in five women had fathers that would be classified as caring parents.

“Fathers play an important role in the development of eating disorders, self-esteem and body satisfaction’” said Dr. Toussaint.

He also found a link between parental rejection and women developing bulimia. In contrast he found that anorexic women described their fathers as intrusive and over protective.

But not everyone is on board with Dr. Toussaint findings.  According to Sydney eating disorder specialist Stephen Touyz, it is a “long, long straw to draw to say fathers were responsible for their daughters’ eating disorders.”

Touyz further explained that those who develop anorexia have a specific gene that makes them more prone to developing eating disorders while the development of bulimia has a proven link to depression.  While he did not support Dr.Toussaint’s findings, he did stress that dysfunctional families and stress are certainly factors in the development of eating disorders and that a fathers bond with his daughter has an impact on her self-esteem and body image. For this reason, he called on fathers to be “body positive” role models for their daughters.

Author, educator and advocate Joe Kelly agrees with Touyz regarding the importance of a healthy father daughter connection.  On his website he offers 10 tips for dads of daughters.  The tips include:

  1. Listen to your girls. Focus on what is important – what does your daughter believe, feel, dream and do – rather than how she looks. When you value your daughter for her true self and take her seriously, she gains confidence to use her talents in this world.
  2. Encourage Your Daughter’s Strength & Celebrate Her Savvy.Help her learn to recognize, resist and overcome barriers. Help her develop her strengths to achieve her goals, help other people, and help herself. Help her be what Girls Incorporated calls Strong, Smart and Bold!
  3. Respect Her Uniqueness; Urge Her To Love Her Body & Who She Is. Tell and show your daughter or stepdaughter that you love her for who she is and see her as a whole person, capable of anything. She is likely to choose a life partner who acts like you and has your values. So, treat her and those she loves with respect. Remember 1) growing girls need to eat often and healthy; 2) fad dieting doesn’t work; 3) she has her body for what it can do, not how it looks. Advertisers spend billions to convince her she doesn’t look “right.”
  4. Get Her Playing Sports & Being Physically Active. Start young to play catch, tag, jump rope, basketball, Frisbee, hockey, soccer, or just take walks…you name it! Help her learn the great things her body can do. Physically active girls are less likely to get pregnant, drop out of school, or put up with abuse. The most physically active girls have fathers who are active with them!
  5. Get Involved In Her School. Volunteer, chaperone, read to her class. Ask questions: Does her school use media literacy and body image awareness programs? Does it tolerate sexual harassment of boys or girls? Do more boys take advanced math and science classes and if so, why? Are at least half of student leaders’ girls?
  6. Get Involved In Her Activities. Volunteer to drive, coach, direct a play, and teach a class.  Demand equality. Texas mortgage officer and volunteer basketball coach Dave Chapman was appalled by the gym his 9-year-old daughter’s team had to use, so he fought to open the modern “boy’s” gym to the girls’ team. He succeeded. Dads make a difference!
  7. Take Your Daughter To Work With You. I participate in April’s annual Take Your Daughters & Sons to Work Day and make sure my business participates. I show her how I manage money. My daughter will have a job and bills someday, so I introduce her to the world of work and finances!
  8. Support Positive Alternative Media for Girls. Our family watches programs that portray smart savvy girls. We get healthy girl-edited magazines and view websites like New Moon Girls. I don’t just condemn what’s bad; I also support media that support my daughter!
  9. Manage Expectations Wisely. My child has different rules and expectations in his mother’s house. I am patient with her responses to those differences, while remaining clear about my expectations for our home. I try not to compensate for our family situation by giving in to demands that I spoil my child or lessen my expectations just because he is a “child of divorce.” I remember that an honest, solid and lifelong relationship with him is more important than what happens today.
  10. Be the Father, Not the Mother.Be a powerful and encouraging role model, and tell her she has a special place in your heart. Your masculine actions and loving words will help her realize that she too can be adventurous, affectionate, playful and successful — and should expect respect from other honorable men. Your belief in her will help her blossom into a young adult who can make her mother and me proud.


About the author:

katie-150x150Katie FitzGerald is the Director of Communications at Walden Behavioral Care. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from Framingham State University in Framingham, MA and her Master’s Degree in Journalism from Emerson College in Boston, MA. She is the editor of the Walden Blog and manages the company’s social media pages. Ms. FitzGerald enjoys exercising and wellness writing, and is passionate about using technology to help people with mental illness get the help they need.