Let me caveat this article by acknowledging straight out that I am not yet a mother (though I hope to be in the near future). I am a Nutritionist, with a Psychology background. This advice has been guided by my own experiences with poor body image as a teenager, coupled with reflections shared by other women in my life. No-one would argue that body image is a black and white topic, and in no way do I want to trivialise it, or place blame on mothers here. Rather, the hope is that these points will resonate with you as a parent now, or in the future, and prompt you to give more thought to the comments you make. A mother plays an integral role in fostering the development of their daughter’s body image and I hope this article gets us all thinking about the impact of our words.
“Gosh, X has a lovely figure” – When you announce your admiration of another female’s body in front of your daughter, you’re immediately promoting this as your idea of the perfect figure. Your daughter will want to please you, and more than likely, this other female is going to have a different figure to your daughter. When your daughter hears your admiration, she is going to immediately compare herself to this women, and inevitably, will feel she comes up short (no pun intended!). On a serious note, you’re more than entitled to have an opinion of another women’s body, but keep your assessments to yourself. Of course, the converse is also true; outwardly making disparaging comments about a women’s figure in front of your daughter is only going to reinforce to her that women’s bodies are noticed, and evaluated by others. Instead, set a positive example for your daughter by never insulting another women’s body. A mother recently told me that when her little girl says to her “X is pretty mummy”, she will reply with something along the lines of “doesn’t her smile light up the room” – a clever way of diverting the attention in a positive way to something that isn’t reflective of the woman’s body or attractiveness.
“I hate my big butt/small boobs/fat tummy”– Teenage girls learn how to view, love and treat their bodies from their mother. If they see you on a constant yo-yo diet, despairing over your thighs, or fretting over a few gained pounds, there is a big chance your daughter will mimic your insecurities and see the same flaws in her own body. Indeed, a short film by Dove titled “Legacy” proved just this. Dove asked women to share how they feel about their bodies, and then posed the same question to their daughters. Whilst the mother’s answers varied, their daughter’s responses were eerily consistent with their mothers. “Oh, she said her thighs too, did she?,” one mother reacted after hearing her little girl’s response. Consistently, the little girl’s had adopted their mother’s insecurities as their own. The take away – a mother’s behaviour can have a lasting impact on a daughter’s self-esteem. Consider how you treat your body and try to set a good example to your daughter by promoting body acceptance (whether you actually feel it or not!).
“You look healthy” – At first read this statement may appear ridiculous, but hear me out. This statement is commonly spoken by mothers who have had a history of regularly commenting on their daughter’s weight, and who have erred on the side of believing their daughters (rightly or wrongly) are too thin. In these circumstances, and as a consequence, as soon as these mothers mouth the words you look healthy it sets off alarm bells in their daughter’s head, and these words are translated to “I must have put on weight”. The term healthy may conjure positive and aspiring images to you, but to an insecure young girl, “healthy” can simply be heard as “fat”.
“Your body is X <insert your opinion of your daughter’s body>” – Amongst the pearlers I have heard; “you’re bigger down bottom’”, you’re a little bigger than me”, and my personal favourite – “You seem to hold weight in your face”. Do these comments come from bad mothers? No. In digging a little deeper, it became apparent that the majority of mothers who have had a little too much to say in the negative vein, have had, or still have, their own body issues. They’ve projected their feelings onto their daughters. So, if you are a mother of a young daughter, what should you say? Put simply, steer clear of commenting on your self-assessment of your daughters figure. Chances are, she has already assessed her body many, many times in the mirror, and is quite in tune with her proportions and weight gaining hotspots!
“You have lost/gained weight” – Perhaps obviously, for an anorexic daughter, this statement provides positive reinforcement that what she is doing is working and therefore, propels her to keep pushing forward in her weight-loss crusade. For other teenage girls, this statement makes it apparent that her weight is noticed, and this has the propensity to create a constant inward self-assessment of whether or not she is currently at an acceptable weight in your eyes. For those erring on the side of disordered eating or low self-esteem, this can create an awful, anxiety laden cycle of waiting for the assessment of weight from their mother, and fearing that any absence of comment by you is evidence of the fact the she has gained weight.
“I think you have eaten enough“- Comments such as “that’s enough!”, “don’t eat too much” and “I think you need to start cutting back on food X” are, I’m sure, said with the best intentions of preventing one’s daughter from pigging out and gaining weight. However, when said to a young and impressionable daughter, these statements have the danger of translating to”I have put on weight, or “I am so greedy, I have no control” – and even, “I am disgusting”. None are helpful revelations. The impact of this statement can be much worse when said in front of others – when self-loathing is combined with public humiliation, you have an even worse outcome for your daughter’s self-esteem and body image.
So what exactly should you say? – Well, simply put, tell her she is loved and tell her she looks beautiful. Tell her daily, and if this seems too extreme, tell her weekly. This never wavering love and admiration from you irrespective of current weight, hair or make-up, will help her to be more resilient to the self-criticism and opinions that others will inevitably throw her way. Educate yourself and her on what is healthy for the body and mind, and put energy into being a positive role model for your daughter.
Secondly, do not associate your daughter’s worth with her looks. Looks will fade, along with her self-worth if it is tied to them. Instead, focus on her personality traits, achievements and talents. Tell her how kind she is, how funny, how clever, how creative. Provide her with compliments and positive reinforcement on the things that define her as a person, the things you admire about her. And finally, try to keep her laughing, being a teenage girl can be a very stressful road, but encouragement teamed with a safe and supportive environment provided by her Mum will go a long way.