When It Comes to Body Image, You Are Your Child’s Greatest Influence

A daughter's confession inspires a mother to change how she talks about herself and her family

Mother and older daughter shopping for clothes

When I raised my girls, for a time as a single mother, I was determined I would give them everything my own mother wasn’t able to give me: a sense of their own power, the freedom to have their feelings and talk openly about them and the belief that they could accomplish anything they set their minds to. Today my oldest daughter is a confident, smart 23-year-old about to make her mark on the world, accepting her first “real” job out of college.

But a couple years ago when I took her on a shopping spree, something happened that shocked me: She refused to try anything on. I couldn’t understand why. Yes, she had gained some weight in college (like most of us do) and clothes weren’t fitting quite like they once did, but I had never seen her shut down like this. I knew we needed to talk about it.

As we walked out of the mall and got into the car, I asked her what was going on.

“I just feel so bad about myself,” she said, crying. But why? Was someone making her feel this way, I gently asked. “You are,” she said. “You’re the only one who makes me feel that way.”

It was as if my heart was ripped out of my chest. 

Surely, she was wrong. It couldn’t be me making her feel so bad about her body. It had to be those airbrushed models in magazines or the Kardashians. It must be the “media’s” fault she was so down on herself, or maybe peer pressure from girls in her sorority. 

But as tears began to well up in my eyes, I knew she was right.

I grew up in a family that was no stranger to judgment and body shaming. It was never subtle. My mother made comments like “Are you sure you need that second cookie?” or “Those pants are looking snug on you.”

She also took every opportunity to put herself down about her own looks, shaming herself for gaining a few pounds or making comments about how “old” she was looking. 

How many times a day did I put myself down, making fun of how 'old' I was getting? Or put my hand to my belly and lament how 'fat' I had become? Or talk about feeling 'invisible' as I grew older?

Perhaps not surprisingly, I grew up feeling ugly and unlovable. It took me years of therapy to undo some of the damage and I promised myself I would never inflict the same on my own daughters. 

But I had, without even realizing it. 

How many times did I “subtly” ask if my daughter had been working out? Or stare just a little too long at her midsection as she modeled a new sweater for me? Or make a “healthy” dinner for her when she came home expecting some of her favorites, explaining it away by saying I too needed to eat “healthier”?

And how many times a day did I put myself down, making fun of how “old” I was getting? Or put my hand to my belly and lament how “fat” I had become? Or talk about feeling “invisible” as I grew older?

Research has shown time and again that the same-sex parent has the most influence on a child; with girls in particular, mothers have the biggest effect on body image. According to Dr. Leslie Sim, clinical director of the Mayo Clinic’s eating disorders program, “Moms are probably the most important influence on a daughter’s body image. Even if a mother says to their daughter, ‘You look so beautiful, but I’m so fat,’ it can be detrimental.”

Of course, nobody is perfect, especially a parent. But like I’ve always believed, when you know better, you do better.

After taking some self-inventory and much reflection, I apologized to my daughter. I let her know that the very last thing I ever wanted to do as her mom was make her feel bad about herself. I also promised to stop my negative behavior and told her to feel free to “call me out” when I put myself down because old habits can be hard to break. She was moved by our conversation and it brought us even closer. It also opened up a larger dialogue about self-love and how to break the cycle of body shaming.

Since then, I’ve definitely noticed a difference in how both my daughters see themselves. There is a confidence about them that I never had at their young ages. I’ve also found that I’m more relaxed around them. When you stop judging and taking the inventory of others, you free yourself up to live in the moment. 

That said, the hardest part for me remains stopping my own judgment and self-loathing of my body. It’s a struggle, but being conscious of it has helped me immeasurably in my own journey toward self-love and acceptance.

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