Bob King sits in a circle at the YMCA in Duluth, Minn., cutting out pictures of girls from teen magazines. At his side is his daughter Katie, 10. The two meet once a week with eight other pairs of fathers and daughters at a Dads and Daughters workshop, a program designed to help fathers and their daughters do something they don't do often enough: spend concentrated time together. This night, the dads and their daughters are talking about messages the media send to girls about how their bodies should look. The week before, a guest speaker talked about domestic violence. And the week before that, the group learned to swing dance. "My daughter is at a tender age. As girls get older, they can drift away a bit, and I don't want that to happen to us," says King, 48, a photo editor. Katie looks forward to leaving her younger sister and mother at home one night a week for some alone time with Dad. "Every week, we go out to dinner before the meeting, just the two of us, and I love it," she says.
The relationship between fathers and daughters is often caricatured as one in which a clueless dad is stumped by his eye-rolling offspring as she blows past him on her way to the mall. But the interaction between dads and daughters is far more complex. It not only sets an example for the kind of partner a girl may choose as she gets older but also affects the way she sees herself. Recent research, however, indicates that even fathers and daughters who are close during the early years tend to drift apart as girls hit their teens. That's partly why a growing number of dads like King, dissatisfied with being distant onlookers in their daughters' lives, are finding ways to be more involved by spending more time with their girls and trying to see the world through their eyes.
Michael Kieschnick, 49, a telecommunications executive in San Francisco, had been answering his daughter's questions about life from almost the moment she could talk. Then one day when she was 9, she startled him. "Daddy," she asked, "do you think I look fat?" "I stumbled through the answer," Kieschnick recalls. "I knew the answer wasn't the most important thing, but the question was. It really led me to realize that the influences around my daughter telling her she had to look a certain way were more powerful than her mother and I were."
Girls these days struggle with body image starting at younger and younger ages, and researchers are discovering that relationships between fathers and daughters can have a direct effect on problems like eating disorders. Dr. Margo Maine, the author of Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters and Food (Gurze Books) has treated thousands of girls in her 20-year career. She has observed that "a high percentage of them said they felt disconnected from their fathers. They were desperate for approval and not getting it. Girls eager for attention from their fathers will diet as a way to get it. Fathers tend to pull away when their girls hit adolescence, which makes things worse. Dads have no idea how much their daughters need them at this point." Or how much what they say matters. Maine notes that even an innocuous comment from a father about baby fat can initiate a cycle of dieting and depression in young girls.