Dads and Daughters
"Daddy, do I look fat?" Michael Kieschnick was so disturbed when he heard this question come out of his nine-year-old daughter's mouth that he was prompted to conduct some serious research into girls and body image with a group of fathers. What they found convinced them of the need for action, so they formed a nonprofit organization called Dads and Daughters (DADs), which provides tools to strengthen fathers' relationships with their daughters and transform media messages that focus on appearance as the valuation of girls' worth.Kieschnick, president of the progressive telephone company Working Assets Long Distance, and now the chairman of the DADs board of directors, was dismayed by the studies they looked at: By middle school, 30-to-50 percent of American girls say they feel too fat and 20-to-40 percent are dieting, many beginning by age 10. By high school, 40-to-60 percent of girls are trying to lose weight. In one study, young girls responded that they are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of cancer, nuclear war, or losing their parents.Sadly, Kieschnick's daughter's question is one more and more young girls are asking. DADs attributes a share of the blame for girls' negative body images to American media culture, citing examples like a recent Maidenform bra advertisement featuring a painfully thin women and the phrase "Beauty is only skin deep...." A glance at some research lends insight into the need for DADs' media-awareness advocacy. In a survey of suburban working-class 5th to 12th grade girls, 69 percent reported that magazine pictures influence their idea of the perfect body shape, and 47 percent reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine images. DADs found anecdotal evidence suggesting that comments and teasing from male family members trigger dieting and are associated with weight-control attempts in adolescence. Positive reinforcement early in life can go a long way toward strengthening girls' self-esteem. And educating girls about media enhances their ability to view ads with skepticism, making them more likely to recognize advertisers' persuasion techniques, which is why many educators have advocated for making media literacy a component of school curriculums.According to DADs, fathers have an extraordinary amount of influence in their daughters' lives. Studies show that girls with active dads are more successful in school, possess more self respect and are less likely to date or marry abusive men. However, as politically correct as Americans like to think they are, their views aren't keeping pace with societal changes, as men who are intimately involved in child rearing continue to be viewed as exceptions rather than the norm.With the prevailing media and cultural images of fathers as either deadbeats or just not involved in their children's lives, it can be challenging for a man to find a positive role model in his migration to the new role of "dad." But with a new generation of fathers with more workplace flexibility, there is a growing percentage of single dads who are bearing the sole responsibility of child rearing. The United States Census Bureau announced in December that the number of single fathers who have primary custody of their children climbed 25 percent in three years -- from 1.7 million in 1995 to 2.1 million in 1998. Since the '80s, the number has more than doubled. According to Michael and Carleen Brennan, co-authors of a handbook titled "Custody for Fathers," this increase is largely due to a change in the courts' attitude toward fathers. With younger judges moving in, less rigid ideas about family structure are emerging, giving more fathers a chance at custody.Despite these trends, some still see the father's role as limited by outdated cultural expectations. Armin Brott argues in his latest book, "Throwaway Dads," that there's a popular conspiracy in this country holding men back from achieving the same status as mothers in their families. Brott alludes to the unspoken hypocrisy in our society that speaks of equality and new roles for fathers, but remains firmly tied to the traditional model of a bread-winning father and a stay-at-home mother. Brott notes that although the Family and Medical Leave Act provides employees with plenty of unpaid leave and the guarantee of a job on return, most men don't take advantage of it because of various fears and challenges, not the least of which is the subtle disapproval of coworkers and society in general. DADs Executive Director Joe Kelly has had quite a bit of experience facing the stereotypes that at-home fathers are dealt. Kelly has been an at-home dad either part time or full time ever since his twin daughters were born eighteen years ago. While other men were swiftly moving up the career ladder, Kelly watched as their salaries grew and he struggled financially, which he says was difficult but well worth it as he got to play an important role in his daughters' lives. Even now, the stereotypes still show up in Kelly's life. This year five different newspapers have approached him to do Father's Day stories about "alternative" fathers, but he recalls his local paper contacting him for the same story six years ago. "I'm thinking: "Why is this still news?" Kelly says.He admits that there are far too many dads who aren't physically and emotionally available, and fathers who are just jerks, or predators, but emphasizes that DADs is a place where fathers can tell the positive stories about how to do it right; how to be a better parent and glean more from the experience. So while fathers advocating for their daughters' positive self-image might seem somewhat of an oddity it's an important first step. "There's a lot of potential for us to band together as fathers and use our power to change the world into one that is more nurturing of our daughters, rather than one that disrespects and violates them," Kelly says.In addition to their advocacy for improving girls' self-image, DADs provides a plethora of resources for fathers, from strengthening their relationships with daughters to initiating changes in their school systems. DADs features online support groups via their Web site (www.dadsanddaughters.org) and has lined up a number of action campaigns for the next year, the first of which is an educational curriculum being offered to 2000 U.S. schools between FatherÕs Day 1999 and the year 2000.The curriculum, entitled "Healthy Body Image: Teaching Kids to Eat and Love Their Bodies Too," was created by a therapist to educate pre-adolescent and adolescent girls and prevent the precursors to eating disorders. The curriculumÕs pilot results have been promising. In an initial test with 222 boys and girls (166 fourth grade and 56 sixth grade), 22 of 30 survey questions showed significant positive change after the students completed the course. While improving body image won't be the only issue DADs addresses, Kelly describes it as a good jumping-off point. "We felt strongly about how immediate a father's influence can be on body-image issues, and it's a very compelling issue. Our daughters are literally dying from this," Kelly says. "It's fine to do everything we can to immunize our own daughters, but it's not enough. We have to go outside of our homes and cure the disease.""Healthy Body Image" is available free to the first 2000 fathers who contact DADs with a commitment from their daughtersÕ schools to use the curriculum. For details, call 1-888-824-DADS, or visit www.dadsanddaughters.org.