As I have delved into the details of eating disorders, I have read multiple articles stating how mothers significantly influence a daughter’s body image. It all begins at a very young age. According to a report from Common Sense Media, one in 4 children engages in some type of dieting behavior by age 7. There are many contributing factors to this statistic, but mothers definitely play a powerful role.
My mother is my best friend. She is my role model and hero — who possesses characteristics that make her the most admirable person I know. When talking of her to friends, or even strangers, I light up. I catch myself always saying, “You would love her if you met her. She is the kindest, sweetest, most like able woman.” I only hope my kids look up to me, respect me, and idolize me like I do to her. She has set a standard, has modeled genuine character, and has strong values when it comes to family, health, and religion.
According to Stacey Rosenfeld Ph.D., “How a mother treats (and refers to) her body can impact how her daughter experiences her own. Often, women will have early memories of their mothers dieting, obsessively weighing themselves, grabbing their flesh, body bashing, etc. Even if the mother never comments on her daughter’s body, it’s hard not to internalize how she feels about her own.”
My mother was always very thin. She had a tiny waist, skinny arms, with not much meat on her bones. I was always told I was built more like my father — huskier, strong, muscular, with an athletic build. In my younger years, prior to puberty, I was petite — almost too thin. Nutrition and exercise were never discussed because I was playing soccer around the clock, and never had any weight issues.
I later struggled with body image issues, though luckily, later than most girls. In high school, I started noticing features of my body that I didn’t like; or made me feel insecure. My breasts didn’t grow as large or as quickly as other girls, my thighs started becoming thicker as a result of strength training and sports, and I definitely had a butt on me. I never outwardly expressed these insecurities. I just looked at myself in the mirror, examined my body, and recognized flaws. My mother NEVER criticized me, NEVER brought negative attention to these developing ideas, and ALWAYS told me how beautiful and person I appeared.
Growing up with two brothers, I was very active and involved in their sports and activities, along with mine. Body image, nutrition, and exercise were never topics of conversation because we all played competitive sports and none of us were even close to being overweight — in fact, we were probably all underweight most of our young lives. My parents were active, making exercise a priority of theirs, and we were never forbidden any food because “it wasn’t healthy” or “it was too fattening.” My mom made family dinners, and our house was always stocked with baked goods, snacks, and fruits. We could choose what we so desired.
When I developed an eating disorder, a lot of genetic information was revealed. My mom had struggled with anorexia in high school. Since her recovery, she has fiercely worked to maintain a certain body weight in a healthy, consistent manner. As I recall back to my childhood, I now realize she made choices that reflected this lifestyle; she chose frozen yogurt over ice cream, she ate meals in small portion sizes, her meals were structured, and she weighed herself daily. But, she NEVER inflicted, consciously, any of these behaviors on me. I was oblivious to her regime, which was exactly her goal: to protect me. In fact, I never knew there was a correlation between my body weight and calorie intake. That is, until I got to college.
When it comes to body image, every mother’s dream is that her daughter has a positive sense of self; that she is never insecure about her body, and that she is confident. My mother’s wish was congruent to this philosophy. However, her style of protection ended up negatively affecting me in the end. I was so unaware of diet fads, restrictive eating, exercising to lose weight, and behaviors that would enhance my goals to, ultimately, be thin. When I was finally exposed to these issues, it became eye-opening and enlightening. Unfortunately, because of my genetic predisposition, competitive nature, and driven personality, I took these behaviors I had picked up from friends, teammates, and other influences, and ran with it. And couldn’t stop.
By no means am I blaming my mother for having developed an eating disorder. I may have been destined to battle one no matter what she did to influence me. Her ability to protect me all those years from negatively judging myself is extraordinary; and for her to have been able to maintain my naiveness is incredible.
As mothers, we want the best for our daughters. The well-being of her daughter is, by far, a mother’s essential focus. Therefore, it is so important to understand mothers have such a strong influence on their daughters self-esteem, confidence, and body image. Embrace the challenge. By properly exposing girls to real life issues, sharing stories, and focusing on the positive functions of our bodies, we can help girls create a positive body image. But, it is essential to convey this message in a balanced way between protecting and educating your daughter. And, as a result, we will significantly decrease the number of eating disorders developed among the female population.