Between the thigh gap craze and magazine covers featuring models who don’t eat, it’s no wonder young girls have body image issues, right? Well, researchers have found something that influences a young girls’ body image even more than Taylor Swift’s lanky limbs….drum roll please… and it’s their mothers. We can’t all have a mother-daughter relationship like that of Lorelai and Rory from Gilmore Girls and the world is aware that there is no easy, one-approach-fits-every-kid way to parent. While there are still many mysteries surrounding the world of parenting, the amount of influence a mother has on her daughter’s body image is no longer one of them. For this piece, I was able to talk to two different girls about their relationships with their mothers and how their mothers influenced their body image and affected their relationship with food.
Sarah had been seeing a counselor for issues surrounding anxiety for over a year. One day, her boyfriend pointed out that her obsessive calorie counting and need to exercise every day didn’t seem normal and recommended that she mention it to her counselor at their next session. Sue, on the other hand, got caught up in the fitspo and clean eating craze in high school, which was constantly portrayed by the media and on Pinterest. Sue found eating and exercising to be a source of control in her life, especially during a time of transition from high school to college, when she moved far away from close friends and family. As her weight began to drop, her mother became concerned. For both of these girls, their behavior seemed normal and it wasn’t until someone expressed concern that they even began to consider that a potential eating disorder may be present.
Sue and Sarah both agree that being surrounded by students exacerbated the problem. Sarah was constantly comparing herself to other girls and judging other girls’ body types. Seeing skinny girls sparked a feeling of self-loathing, while seeing bigger girls sparked feelings of pride in her appearance. Sue felt constant validation for her eating habits from her peers. Other girls would say things like, “Wow! You look great” or “You’re so skinny!.” These comments made Sue feel special and liked. They even motivated her to continue her diet and exercise routines. One day, Sue stopped having her period. At this point, her mother’s concern was enough to seek out a doctor.
When Sarah brought up her anxiety surrounding food at her next counseling session, her counselor probed about her relationship with her mom and her childhood. Growing up, her mom was open about her dissatisfaction with her own weight. Her mother often categorized food as good or bad and would say things like, “I shouldn’t be eating this” or “I regret that brownie.” This sparked Sarah’s obsession and anxiety regarding food. At Sue’s doctor visit, the doctor diagnosed her with anorexia nervosa. Her mom was furious and took it all very personally. Her mom accused Sue of using her eating disorder as a manipulative way to get attention. Her mom supported her by paying for doctors and therapists, but Sue never felt she could confide in her.
Sarah’s advice to other mothers is to avoid talking about calories and diet in front of your children. She believes words are powerful and moms should refrain from labeling food as good or bad and focus more on moderation. Sue’s advice for any mother out there with a daughter struggling with an eating disorder is to teach your child to find value in things other than her weight, remove scales and diet talk from the house, and play a supportive role in your child’s healing process.
So, as mothers, what can you do to help nurture a positive body image and positive self-worth for your daughters?
- Avoid talk about dieting, weight loss, or calorie counting in front of your children
- Don’t make negative comments about your own body, your daughter’s body, or anyone else’s body
- Focus on the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle in terms of feeling energized (not in terms of losing weight or being skinny)
- Make healthy choices the easy choices. For example, cut up fresh fruit and vegetables to leave in the fridge that are easy for kids to grab
- Use engaging in healthy activity as time you and your children can spend together
- Model healthy behaviors
- Refrain from categorizing food as good or bad.
- Talk about normal body changes. Your children will gain weight while going through puberty and that is normal!
- Teach your kids to place value in things other than outer appearance. Praise them for things like good grades on papers or for being kind to their siblings.
Dads, you might not have the same amount of influence as moms when it comes to influencing your daughter’s body image, but it doesn’t mean you can’t take part in creating a positive environment and encouraging healthy behaviors! Keep mom accountable and help contribute to creating a healthy environment for your kids.