Sometimes, something hits a nerve.
A few years ago this Dove commercial caught my attention. It highlights body image messages that mothers might unintentionally give daughters.
And…it shocked me.
The subject of the video is moms talking about what they liked and disliked about their bodies, while stating with assurance that they’d only taught their daughters positive messages about their own. The daughters, interviewed separately, were asked the same questions. The result? The daughters mirrored their mothers’ criticism of their bodies by critiquing their own in almost exactly the same way.
The mothers’ surprise and sadness was palpable; while they had tried to prevent passing along their own self-consciousness and even self-loathing to their daughters, they had in fact done just that.
This video has stuck with me over the years and I’ve mentioned it to patients who are struggling with their own image; and on a more personal level, this video brought back some of my own memories. Before I had children, I was petrified that I’d have a daughter and unintentionally send the same messages to her that had been passed down to me from my own mother. She suffered from severe anxiety and an eating disorder herself and the body image messages I got from her were damaging.
“Ladies never eat everything on their plate,” she’d remind me. I left more bites of food than I like to think about.
“You have never looked better!” she once exclaimed. I was twenty-one and weighed 101 pounds, which was twenty-five pounds less than I normally do; I’d lost weight because I had had double pneumonia. Twice. And what I was in denial about? I’d developed anorexia.
“You really need to do something about yourself,” she once admonished. Reality? I’d gained eight pounds after being married for a year – up to a whopping 118 pounds.
I promise, sadly enough, that I gave my parents lots of reasons to confront me, yet this was the only time in my life my mom did so.
What effect did all this have?
Full-blown anorexia in college. And example after example of eating disordered thinking and body hate. If I’d gained three pounds, I turned down visits from friends. I hyped myself up on diet pills.I starved myself before trips home, knowing my body would be quietly and critically assessed.
Yet I tried to act like none of this got to me.
My mom was caught in the same trapped thinking and without a doubt, she didn’t mean to hurt me. She wanted me to feel attractive, have wonderful self-esteem, and catch a man. That was the culture in which she was raised, and she knew nothing else.
After she died, many people said, “Your mother was so beautiful. Always so well-dressed.” Unfortunately, she didn’t value herself; she attempted to hide this by presenting the most perfect version of herself was. She wasn’t able to relax and just be herself.
The legacy still remains I monitor my choices. I scan pictures to see if the little roll around my waist shows or not – as advancing age has made being thin enough a thing of the past. And I have to fight off shame if it does. Automatic calorie counts register in my head. If I receive a compliment, “Thank you“ comes out of my mouth. My actual thought? “If you could see the way I look, you wouldn’t say that.”
This is what I call “eating-disordered thinking.” Ruthless, eating-disorder gremlins whisper in your ear that ultimate control over food consumption is needed. Anorexia is all about control, yet the irony of it is that the number on the scale that is totally controlling you.
Now I confront those voices. I actively replace those thoughts. I am winning this eating-disordered-thinking battle. One meal, one picture, one compliment at a time. I’m lucky, but many aren’t.
Perhaps you remain miserable and obsessive about your body. No thin is too thin for you, but I couldn’t disagree more. It’s hard work to detach from those messages and from that shame, but it’s so worth it.
If you have a daughter, how can you avoid passing along any negative body image thoughts or eating-disordered thinking you may struggle with?
1) Don’t discuss weight, calorie intake, “clothes getting too tight” or the like in front of her. She’ll be getting those messages from friends, social media, and society at large and you don’t need to reinforce that at home. This goes for things you might consider to be positives, “I just dropped a jean size!”
2) Praise her dedication to athleticism or her dexterity in playing the piano. Casually point out to strengths to her as you perceive them, so that she understands why she should be happy in her body. It can be as simple as asking her to get an item from a shelf too high for you to reach, “It must be nice to be so tall!”
3) Remind her that those Instagram and YouTube celebrities spend hours on make-up and lighting and filters to present themselves as flawless. Teach her that a real human body isn’t what we see in the media; perfection is a myth, and struggling to achieve it will only lead to a lack of self-acceptance.
4) Model for her how one has a healthy relationship to their body. Prioritize healthy food choices when possible; she’ll notice that mom usually orders a healthy meal and occasionally snacks on comfort food. If you work out on a routine basis, you’re already showing her that exercise is valuable. If you don’t, perhaps start by taking a walk a few nights a week; maybe take your daughter with you for some quality chatting time.
And remember that perfection in parenting is a myth as well, so forgive yourself if you hear yourself saying something body-image related that you later regret. Move on and resolve to keep doing your best.
5) If you have an eating disorder or “eating-disordered thinking,” please seek treatment. And be open about it with her. You’ll be modeling to that it’s okay to ask for help.
Teach her self-acceptance, self-compassion and self-care. Those are lessons that will serve her all her life.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
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This was originally published on October 3, 2015 and was updated on October 27, 2018 and again on March 28, 2021.