Mothers, Be Good to Your Daughters, Too
By Olivia Land
[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]“I[/dropcap] feel like everyone thinks I’m so fat, and that when they see me walk around with food they’re, like, judging me.”
I didn’t say these words. I overheard them in the cafeteria, standing in line to get some chocolate chip blondies, aka my favorite school dessert. It obviously broke my heart to hear that the girl in front of me felt this way, but her words send a pang up my spine for another reason, too. In truth, I often felt the same exact way she did. Whenever I treated myself to a dessert at school- or anywhere, for that matter- I would cover up my plate with a napkin, desperate to avoid what I perceived as the snickering eyes of those around me. Hearing that this other girl had similar anxieties was equal parts comforting and disturbing.
Intellectually, I understood that my female classmates dealt with similar insecurities, but it took hearing them out loud for that fact to really hit home. Throughout the rest of the day, I couldn’t stop wondering: How on earth did we get like this?[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]
[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]M[/dropcap]y childhood came on the heels of the 1990s’ low-fat craze, but dieting was still all the rage. Growing up in a suburban hotbed of Tom Ford sunglasses and Rachel haircuts, terms like South Beach and Nutrisystem were as familiar as the swing set at the local park. I can’t count the number of times I heard my mom and her friends lamenting how they’d fallen “off the wagon” and were “paying for it” with “bloated” midsections and “fatty” thighs.
I didn’t think these comments were odd, but actually took them pretty seriously. I vividly remember running from the television room into the kitchen, the promises of a weight-loss commercial spinning in my head. “Mommy!” I would squeal. “[Insert name of mail-order meal service or diet pill here] can help you lose weight!” I absorbed every ounce of information from those ads, from what number to call for a guaranteed discount to the kinds of results to expect.
In my mind, the commercials were preparing me for my own future. Because of what I heard from my own mother and pretty much every other woman around me, I assumed that body dissatisfaction and dieting came with the grown-up girl territory. When the time came, I thought, I’d be armed and ready with a host of options to get myself “back into a size 2”...whatever that meant.
Little did I know just how early I’d get my membership card to the Diet Crew. It was sixth grade, and my female peers and I had officially graduated from the kids’ section into Abercrombie skinny jeans. Within weeks of starting school, I couldn’t help but notice how my legs looked noticeably rounder in my skin-tight denim than those around me. Suddenly, I became hyper-aware of every curve and contour on my 11-year-old form, and, as a result, felt my inner confidence start to crumble.[divider type="short" spacing="10"]
At first, I was in the questioning stage, squinting at myself in the mirror and asking “Are my thighs big?” or “Do my arms jiggle?” By the end of the year, I transition from questions to answers. I avoided mirrors and frequently made declarations echoing what I’d heard others say about themselves for so many years: “My thighs are fat.” “My stomach is too large.” “I am huge!”
I wish I could say that today, almost six years later, I no longer subject myself to such cruel insults. It would be nice if my body issues were just a phase, and that now I’m super-confident, ready to effortlessly sport a bikini at a moment’s notice. But that would be a lie. I’m still in the process of shedding my physical insecurities, and there are still times when I look in the mirror and barrage myself with all the negative adjectives I can think of. So although time has not cured me of my self-consciousness, it has afforded me the opportunity to reflect on where it stems from. While there’s no doubt that the media’s extreme beauty standards are a big contributor, in my heart I know that the issue lies not on billboards or in magazines, but within my own home.[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]
[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]A[/dropcap]t 11 years old, I barely understood the meaning of the abuses I directed at myself. All I knew was that I felt like an alien in my own body, and terms like “chubby” and “so out of shape” seemed to be the go-tos for expressing that feeling. Those weren’t my words, but rather regurgitations of what I’d absorbed from years of listening to my mom’s own body lamentations.
This realization led me to a painful but all-too-true conclusion: Without realizing it, my mother and so many others were brainwashing their daughters into joining the cycle of body hatred.
Now, here is where I want to throw in a disclaimer. A recent New York Times article titled “Parents Should Avoid Comments on a Child’s Weight” cited several studies indicating that parents’ comments about their children’s weight are a contributing factor to the development of unhealthy weight-control behaviors such as extreme dieting and binge eating.
[pullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]They say, after all, that a mother is a daughter’s best friend- little do they know just how powerful that friendship can be.[/pullquote]
I am not trying to say that mothers who express discomfort with their own bodies are entirely to blame for their daughters’ own physical insecurities, nor that they are the sole cause of destructive habits that may arise from said insecurities. My mom, in fact, was the first person to intervene when my own eating pattern crept into restrictive territory. What I will say, though, is that no amount of Dove soap ads can soothe the damage done when a young woman spends a lifetime absorbing lessons in body shame from her first and most important role model: her mother.
So...what? All current and future generations of women are doomed to battle crippling physical insecurities until the end of time? Not exactly. In realizing the impact their comments have on each others’ thinking, mothers and daughters alike have an opportunity to make groundbreaking changes.
Instead of existing separately within the body-hate wilderness, mothers and daughters can instead become partners in navigating the difficult road towards body acceptance. This relationship creates space for mothers and daughters to bond through the healing process, whether by being open about their physical anxieties or even by motivating each other to show their body some love through nutritious foods and joyful exercise.
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This last suggestion has been especially helpful on my own body-love journey. A few years ago, my mom and I went through a mutual lifestyle adjustment, and suddenly found ourselves connecting over butternut squash and the sweet horrors of Jillian Michaels’ home workout tapes. Not only did this period mark the transition of our relationship from one between mother and child to that of mother and teenager, but it also opened up doors for my mom and I to grow even closer in the future.
Bonding aside, though, this mother-daughter partnership also has the potential to revolutionize the body image of entire generations of women. When faced with a growing foundation of women who are at peace with themselves inside and out, our society will have no choice but to shift the conversation surrounding the female body. Will unattainable mainstream ideals will disappear overnight? Sadly, no.
But the presence of more body-confident women and girls in everyday life will likely accelerate the efforts already being made in the name of body positivity (looking at you again, Dove ads). And even if the visible changes are small, who could argue against the benefits of having more confident, empowered women in the world? As a young woman myself, I know what a difference it would make for my own confidence to be surrounded by women who are proud of their bodies regardless of shape or size.
Once again, I did not write this piece as wagging finger towards the mothers, hoping to reprimand them for irreversible damage they’ve done to their daughters. Rather, I want this to serve as an inspiration to all of the women out there who struggle with feeling “less than” about you body. No matter if you’re twelve or thirty-two, it’s never too late to reach out to take advantage of the best multi-hyphenate in your life: your mom. Next time you two are alone, try having the body conversation. As evidenced by my own experience, your mom likely has some hang-ups of her own, many of which probably go back to before she was your age. It might be uncomfortable at first, but fleshing out your feelings together again and again can be one of the most healing experiences there is.
They say, after all, that a mother is a daughter’s best friend- little do they know just how powerful that friendship can be.