11/18/2014 05:37 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

4 Things I Never Say to My Daughters

Zanthe Taylor

1. Does this make me look fat?
Especially as my daughters grow older, I can't tell you the number of times I've been tempted to ask them this or some variation of it. Do I look too old? Do I look pretty? Trying on clothes, walking down the street, seeing another woman my age -- the triggers are everywhere. But I bite my lip -- hard -- and turn away. I don't want them to know how hyper-conscious women are of their appearance, and how we compete with the women around us. They'll find that out soon enough, but not from me.

2. You're wearing that?
An oldie, but goodie. Undermining and critical without being even remotely constructive. These days, I try to steer clothing choices discreetly in the direction of what's appropriate, but also to button my lip when an outfit doesn't match my own sense of what's cute. As long as my daughters feel happy and comfortable in their clothes, they don't need my meddling, which will undoubtedly sound like criticism to their ears. This can be tricky in the tween years, when we're still buying their clothes, but not dressing them. I may want her to wear that super adorable dress I just bought, at her request, but it may very well sit on the hanger with tags attached until it no longer fits her. Oh, well -- maybe my younger daughter will like it.

3. Eating that will make you fat.
This one is super tough for me. I confess to using coded versions of it. "Bad for you" is the most common, and I kind of hate myself whenever I say it. But I really don't want to teach my kids to feel guilty every time they eat something delicious. And whatever lies we spin them as toddlers, raisins are NOT "just like candy." There's no one in the whole world who thinks that... and if they do, they're insane. Plus, people don't become obese because they eat dessert or potato chips sometimes.

4. You need to get some exercise.
Kids are smart, and they see the connection adults make between exercise and body awareness from a very young age. To be skinny, you have to feel the burn, or so the conventional wisdom tells us. I'm all in favor of kids being active, but I hear from too many parents who nag and cajole their kids into sports because they're afraid of what will happen if they don't. Of course it's invaluable for kids to run around, burn off steam and get some fresh air, not to mention the benefits of organized sports for building self-esteem and bonds with teammates. I'm not against physical activity -- I'm against selling kids on the connection between exercise and weight loss. I never did any kind of formal exercise as a young person, I loathed team sports and preferred to spend my free time reading or singing or hanging out with friends. In college, I scoffed at the spandex-clad girls who spent hours endlessly ascending their Sisyphean Stairmasters. I was reasonably active, but chose activities only because I liked them, not because they'd help me lose weight (skiing, musical theater and ballroom dancing -- see?). Similarly, I encourage my kids to do sports and active things, from dance to soccer to softball and even Pilates, not because they need to do them to be thin, but because they bring joy and strength and self-confidence. And for the record, my lazy teenage self became an adult who regularly runs, does Pilates and practices yoga -- not because I'm guiltily fulfilling an exercise mandate but because I love the physical and mental benefits these activities bring me.

And lest you think this is all about what not to do, here's one thing I do try to tell my daughters all the time, one way or another:

You are so lucky.

You are lucky to have that beautiful, whole body. You are lucky in the opportunities you have. Good fortune has been given to you and it's your responsibility to make the most of it. Too many young people, and girls in particular, are weighed down by the burdens of expectations and responsibilities, and looking perfect is a big part of that. But any sane adult can testify that a remorseless search for perfection in one's weight or appearance is a recipe for unhappiness. So, reject the social pressure to feel guilty, self-punitive and competitive, and instead enjoy that body you are lucky enough to have, in all its flaws and imperfections and glory.

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