Several weeks ago, I met a girlfriend at Starbucks for some coffee and conversation. (Two of my favorite things.) We were relatively new friends and didn’t yet know a lot about each other, so we began talking about where we grew up, our sports and hobbies during high school, and where our lives had taken us since then. My new friend had read a little bit of my blog and began to ask me about my eating disorder and journey of recovery. After I shared for a little bit, she chimed in and expressed to me that she too had battled an eating disorder throughout her college years.
There’s often an instant connection, it seems, between two people that have both gone through much the same battles in life. You understand each other in a way that’s only possible because you have similar scars; similar memories, similar struggles and, hopefully, similar triumphs.
As my friend shared with me her own journey and story, she paused for a sip of coffee, and I took that opportunity to ask, “So, what would you say was your first exposure to a obsessive relationship with food? What were some of the factors that caused you to become worried about your weight and body image?”
She didn’t hesitate, tracing circles on the table with her finger as she replied, “Well, even when I was only 6 or 7 years old, I remember my mom always talking about being on a diet, and she never seemed happy with her body.”
My heart sank as I thought about what that must have been like for my friend to grow up hearing such obsessive messages about weight and size. This mother probably didn’t mean to negatively influence her daughter’s body image, but sadly, she did. And what grieves my heart even more, is that I’d heard this same opening line countless times before.
In my health coaching business, I often meet with young women who are in recovery from an eating disorder. Everyone’s story is unique in various details, but often there are recurring themes that stand out to me from these conversations. And one of those themes that blares repeatedly out at me is how a mother’s relationship with food, body image, and weight makes a enormous impact on her daughter’s values in these areas.
I’ve lost count of the number of times that a client or friend has started off their story with a comment like one of these:
“Well, my mom was always really obsessed with her body when I was growing up…”
“I remember my mom ALWAYS being on a diet…”
“My mom often went on about how much she hated her body and needed to lose weight…”
“My mom never really ate meals with us as a family; she would always just pick at stuff and talk about how she wasn’t hungry or couldn’t eat what we were eating because she was on a diet.”
I haven’t been a mother, so I don’t pretend at all to have this figured out. I don’t know how to raise a daughter with good body image and I wish there was a manual or book that would give us all some step-by-step instructions.
True confession: I’m terrified sometimes to think about raising my own daughter one day in a culture that bombards her constantly with pressure to be a size 2 or have a certain hourglass figure. I want with all my heart to be able to protect her from the obsession, compulsion, and pain that I’ve experienced because of my eating disorder. I wish there was some guaranteed method that would ensure our daughters grew into well-adjusted young women with positive body image and a healthy relationship with food. But there’s not.
It was drizzling rain on my way home from the coffee shop that day, my heart heavy as I thought about this cycle of mothers and daughters in exhausting battles with body image and weight.
As I sat at a red light with the rain pattering against my windshield, I began to make mental note of some things I would share with mothers if somehow given the opportunity. I didn’t have it in me to cry that day; I just wanted to be able to vocalize the frustration in my heart, and a mental letter seemed to give me that outlet.
One of my former clients was told by her mother when she was 8 years old that she was fat and needed to lose weight. Another young women I corresponded with over email said that her mom put her on a diet at the age of 10 because she thought her daughter was getting “pudgy.”
These are the more atrocious examples of mothers making a horrible impact on their daughters’ body image, and hopefully they are the exception. I’d like to believe that most mothers probably don’t realize the impact they have on their young daughters with the words they use to talk about weight, size, and appearance. I don’t think most mothers purposefully set out to make their daughters feel awful about their bodies. It seems to me, in most cases, mothers just aren’t as aware and careful as they need to be with the seeds they sow in their young daughter’s heart.
My letter to mothers everywhere would be something like this…
“Moms, please, recognize that your daughters are listening to the things you say about your body. They notice when you make comments about needing to lose weight or being unhappy with your thighs or hips or any other part of your body.
Your daughters pick up cues and signals from you about what is attractive and acceptable and this starts at a very young age. When you refer to someone as “fat” or mention that a certain friend needs to lose weight, your daughter remembers that for years to come, even if you think she’s hardly listening to your ‘adult’ conversation.
Your daughters begin to put together their beliefs and values about weight, size, shape, and beauty when they are very young.
If you place value in being thin, attractive, and well-dressed, your daughter will naturally assume those values for herself and model her thinking after your own.
If you are always talking about needing to lose weight, your daughter picks up the message that being thin is the ideal and something that makes her more acceptable to you and to others.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t care about your health at all. It’s a fine line and a tough balance to strike, for sure. You want to encourage your daughter to be active, to take good care of herself, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem becomes when you give her the impression that her worth and value is connected to her weight and size.
Please, be aware of how your words and behaviors are influencing your daughter’s views of beauty and self-worth. Do your best to have a positive and balanced relationship with food, and if you’re battling your own disordered behaviors or body image struggles, consider getting some counseling to help you work through those things, so that you can better encourage your daughter in a positive direction.
My heart aches when I hear story after story of mothers who berate and demean their own bodies throughout their daughter’s childhood. If you’re at war with your own body, how can you expect your impressionable daughter to be at peace with hers? She’s soaking up everything she can from you about what it means to be beautiful. Help her learn that true beauty is in the heart and not the outward appearance. Encourage her to focus more on building character, being adventurous, building friendships, trying new things, and pursuing her passion. Inspire her to focus more on living life than on being the perfect pants size. Show her by your own lifestyle and attitude that weight and size are not what’s truly important. Focus on things that are about who she is, not what she looks like. Compliment her personality and character, and not just her appearance.
Love her for who she is, and communicate that to her daily. And even though you can’t guarantee that you’ll protect her from poor body image or disordered eating behaviors, you will at least set an example through your words and actions every day. In a culture that promotes discontentment and obsession with body weight and size, you have the opportunity to give your daughter an example of a woman who accepts and loves her body the way it was created and designed. Don’t underestimate the power of your example. Your little girl is watching and listening to you every day.