As a mother to young girls, I’ve worked hard to exemplify a healthy lifestyle through exercise, eating (generally) well, and making smart choices. But lately I’m finding that it’s impossible to hide them from a world that insists on judging women by their appearance.

A few weeks ago, my heart shattered when I overheard an exchange between my two oldest daughters about how “fat” they were. I interrupted to correct them, explaining that we don’t use that word and that we just want to be healthy, but my third-grader shook her head.

“No, Mom,” she said matter-of-factly, pointing to her perfectly flat stomach. “I really am fat.”

I stood at my perch behind the kitchen counter, where I feel like I spend 99.9 percent of my days, cooking food, cleaning food, or trying to convince my children to eat their food — and I felt my jaw just drop to the floor. Was this really happening?

After all of my work shopping for healthy foods, planning and preparing nutritious meals, and incorporating a balanced mix of fruits and vegetables, the little girl whose first foods were salmon and peas is telling me so nonchalantly that she’s “fat.”

Listen, I will be the first person to admit that being a mom is one of the most challenging experiences in life. I constantly feel like I am fighting a battle between finding my own answers about how to be a woman in this world and teaching my daughters to find their own way. Body image has always been a challenge for me, tracing back, of course, to how my own mother spoke of and treated her body. Food was always “bad” or a chore to cook, bodies were a source of shame, and exercise was either extreme or not happening at all. These are struggles that many women in her generation faced, and unfortunately I didn’t always know how to sort through them to find my own way.

I am still battling my own demons when it comes to body image, but the two things we try to keep consistent in our home are simple:

  1. Exercise is about keeping your body, but also your mind, healthy.
  2. Food is fun because it helps you feel good.

I have worked so hard to make sure my kids see me exercising in a “good” way: not to punish my body or make it look thinner, but because it makes me strong and because it’s fun. So to hear the very words I hoped to avoid coming from my 8-year-old made me feel like a complete failure as a mom.

Where did I go wrong? How did this happen?

My first instinct at hearing her words was to freak out, but somehow I managed to stay calm because in some deep recess of my brain, I knew that this was a pivotal moment. How I reacted to the “F” word could have a lasting impact. So I tried my very best to stay calm and neutral, not reacting in any way, but simply explaining that there was no such thing as “fat,” and that there are all different types of body shapes and sizes. We need to focus on is what our bodies can do and staying healthy, not what they look like. I pointed out all the things she is able to do, like run with me, kick a soccer ball, and dance in the living room to her favorite songs. Aren’t those things fun to do? Those are the things we need to think about, and using the word “fat” is not something we do in this family.

I honestly don’t know if I said or did the right things, but nothing can necessarily prepare you for those tough conversations as a mom when you realize that despite your best efforts, your very young daughters have already been influenced by a world that wants women to value themselves based on what they look like. It’s so hard and heartbreaking to see the struggles that so many of us know as adult women now playing out in our girls.

And I want so desperately to break that cycle. I want so much for “fat” not to be in my daughters’ vocabulary. I want them to run and jump and lift weights because they are strong and capable and want to be more, not less.

It starts with us as moms and all we can do is hope we are on the right path together.

Chaunie Brusie, BSN, is a registered nurse with experience in labor and delivery, critical care, and long-term care nursing. She lives in Michigan with her husband and four young children, and is the author of the book “Tiny Blue Lines.”