For many girls growing up, Mom is the most beautiful and perfect person imaginable. But she’s not just an example of what it means to be an adult in the world, she’s also a model to her daughters about how she feels about herself. So is she complains about her jiggly thighs or awful hips, her girls hear those messages loud and clear. Girls learn that judging their bodies — often in negative terms — is to be expected. Girls can grow up to de-value themselves, to fret over things like “thigh gaps” and “bikini bridges,” rather than appreciating how their strong legs and arms help them to run faster or give bigger, better hugs.
When you’re a mom, it’s your turn to pass along the life lessons you’ve learned about being a girl. The question is what will YOU pass on? A healthy relationship with food and self-image, or a continuous cycle of self-criticism and negativity?
Girls Are Listening
The preoccupation for girls to be pretty and thin in our culture is undeniable, and while the “ideal” body type may have changed over time, what hasn’t changed is the need for girls to try and achieve the “ideal.” They can feel shame if they fail to achieve the impossible, and this widespread issue impacts even the youngest among us.
“Children are watching us as models before they can even talk,” says Sarah Lavanier, a clinical psychologist for the Harold C. Schott Eating Disorders Program at the Lindner Center of Hope. Lavanier says that girls as young as 6 can begin “fat” talking and focusing on thinness. She also points out a few disturbing numbers: 50 percent of adolescent girls report using unhealthy means — like vomiting, laxatives or skipping meals — to lose weight; 25 percent of elementary school girls report dieting regularly. And according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), dieting school girls are pretty savvy when it comes to understanding things like calories and caloric restrictions.
Plenty of outside influences feed girls the message that they must be thin in order to be popular, admired or even loved. Media images that glorify skinny, the mass marketing of “beauty” and peer pressure from friends who compete in rituals like who can eat the least or go the longest without food, are all a factor in how a girl determines the ideal for herself.
“These messages are coming from many different directions,” says Lavanier, adding that recent research shows that one’s body image is negatively affected by how much social media one uses. “And Photoshop isn’t helping.”
Failing to duplicate the images on TV and computer screens is pretty stressful, whether you’re 6 or 16. Young girls are still trying to determine who they are, and when they’re told that the most obvious identifying factor about themselves — their bodies — is wrong, the doubts and bad feelings can take over.
Mothers and female role models need to take a good look at themselves. According to NEDA, young girls inherit their mothers’ attitudes toward weight and nutrition just as easily as other important life issues. And a study by the American Dietetic Association found that girls as young as 5 are in tune with and affected by their mother’s negative attitudes about their body image. All of the off-handed comments women make about themselves as they get dressed each day or night, no matter how harmless the intention, are heard. They’re internalized even when they don’t reflect reality.
Think about it: As she grows up, if a young girl is told over and over again how much she looks like her mother, and her mother shames herself for her weight, the young girl will believe she’s just like her mom even if both of them are actually very different in size. So if Mom skips meals and has a habit of expressing dissatisfaction with her figure, her daughter is more likely to do the same.
Managing the Message
How can a mother communicate the importance of eating healthy and loving the body, especially when she has her own food and self insecurities to overcome?
Lavanier suggests that when moms look at their own relationship with food and body image, they should ask themselves, how much do I focus on body, shape, size, image and food throughout my day? Does this focus influence my behaviors, my interactions with others and how I talk to and treat myself or my child?
If the answers indicate an unhealthy relationship with your own body, Lavanier says to first praise yourself for recognizing there may be a problem. “This is the first important step,” she says.
“Next is to begin to shift focus to self-love and self-acceptance and treating the body well.” She advises moms to remind themselves of what they love about themselves and their life outside of their appearance.
“Also know that treatment is available. Get an evaluation from someone who specializes in body image or eating disorders.”
It’s like the oxygen mask on airplanes — you can’t securely fasten your child’s mask if you haven’t taken care of your own first.
In the same way that parents are a main influence on children who develop a negative body image, parents are also a main influence for developing a positive one, which makes you more powerful than all those media images.
“Work on making your message stronger, consistent and more meaningful,” says Lavanier. She adds that parents should talk to their children about ads on TV and in beauty magazines and remind them that advertisers are trying to sell something so their viewpoints are skewed. Limit access to TV and magazines if you feel it’s necessary. Also, help your girls (and boys) focus on things besides body shape and size. Instead, turn their attention toward their talents and their gifts that make them unique and special.
The bottom line is that a healthy self image comes down to understanding what being healthy actually means.
Lavanier uses the Three F’s in her therapy work: Fun Friendly Fitness — doing the things that bring you and your family the most joy. According to her, “Being healthy is about honoring the body’s needs in a balanced way, including diverse and balanced eating, movement for the joy of it and regular self-care.”