What Are You Modeling As A Parent About Body Image and Self-Esteem? Five Healthy Strategies
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 many meals still hungry.
“You’ve 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’d had double pneumonia. Twice. That’s what I told myself. What was actually true was that I’d developed anorexia.
A few years later, her admonishing words were, “You really need to do something about yourself.” What was reality? I’d gained eight pounds after being married for a year, up to a whopping 118.
What effect did all this have?
Full-blown anorexia in college and years of eating disordered thinking and body hate afterward. 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.
Passing on the message of gaining self-esteem through starvation…
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. And perfect…. was thin.
The legacy still remains. I monitor my choices. I scan pictures to see if the little roll around my waist shows or not. 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-disordered gremlins whisper in your ear. Anorexia is all about control, yet the irony is that the number on the scale 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.
Many do not. And you remain miserable and obsessive about your body. No thin is too thin for you. And your anorexia is governing you.
So what can you do?
1) Don’t discuss weight, calorie intake, “clothes getting too tight” or the like in front of your child. They’l’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 their dedication to athleticism or dexterity in playing the piano. Casually point out to strengths as you perceive them. 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) Closely monitor what TikTok or other social media influencers your child could be following. More recent research has shown that especially teenagers can be severely negatively influenced by accounts who guide followers to adopt ever-increasing restriction practices.
4) Model 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.
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.
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This was originally published on October 3, 2015 and was updated on April 8, 2023.