My relationship with my body has always been complicated, to say the least. I’ve always struggled with trying to achieve body ideals. I’ve been through countless diets, exercise, gym memberships, you name it. I used to believe that my value and my worth depended on how I look. And I needed to look like all the stars from my Pop Star and Teen Vogue magazines.
Amidst all of the difficulties I had growing up surrounding my body, I was fortunate to have the support of my mother. She aimed to be as respectful as possible of my decisions and my body — she never once insisted on a diet unless I suggested it. As a grown-up looking back on this now, I recognize that her silence at times, was a disguise for the pain she was feeling of not knowing how to make me feel better.
Negative body image can put young girls at risk of developing low self-esteem issues, eating disorders, depressive symptoms and negative effect. And, while media and peer pressure play an important role in the development of self-image, studies show that mothers play a big part in the way young girls develop body image.
This is why, as a child and adolescent psychologist, I am convinced that a healthy body image narrative between mothers and daughters can help young girls — such as 7-year-old me — reclaim their self-worth. But, what should mothers say? More importantly, what shouldn’t they say?
Take a long hard look in the mirror
Before you even start a conversation with your daughter about body image, look at your own relationship with your body. Is it healthy? Do you say positive messages to yourself when you look into the mirror? Where do you place your self-worth? How is your own self-esteem? How would you describe your own self-image? This is important because — in the infamous words of RuPaul — ¨if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?¨
Studies have shown that mothers who have shown a greater internalization of media pressure about beauty standards, were at higher risk of raising daughters with eating pathologies. In addition to this, evidence shows that “mothers’ communication about her own appearance is related to poor body image in daughters.”
When you look at the evidence, it’s not surprising to see how mothers’ own perspective and personal take on body image serve as a model for their daughters.
As young girls — as early as three-years-old — observe and listen to their mothers’ narratives about their bodies, they interpret and introject those messages as common. Therefore, increasing the risk of developing an unhealthy relationship with their own bodies.
Reinforce the quality of their bodies, rather than the quantity
Have you ever been proud of yourself for accomplishing a physical goal? Like running your first 5K or finally achieving that yoga pose you’ve envied your trainer for executing so effortlessly? Imagine feeling that pride for your body every day. Imagine broadening that value and making that strength the epicenter of your self-esteem and self-worth.
As women, we are forced to redefine our identity as we confront a series of biological changes. Our bodies are strong enough to carry life inside them. Strong enough to produce the one meal that’s necessary for our children to survive. And strong enough to accomplish as many physical goals as we want to. So, why do we limit ourselves to the way we look?
Societal pressure and beauty standards have taught us that we should reduce our worth to our physical image. We have learned to minimize our self-love by what the number on the scale shows. When in reality, we should feel proud and empowered by everything our bodies can do. A healthy body image is exactly that: learning to love your physical body for what it is, and recognizing and maximizing the potential strength it has.
Promote a wellness approach throughout the family dynamic
A recent study published in the journal of Feminism & Psychology identified a variety of strategies mothers can use to promote a healthy body image in daughters. Among the strategies the authors recommend, they include “shifting the focus from food, body size and weight loss to making healthy choices.”
When we become self-aware of our own relationship with food and with body image, we can actively work towards building a healthy environment in our daughters’ lives. Something as simple as changing the way mothers express themselves about eating healthy. For example, shift the focus from ordering a meal to “lose weight” to “because its nutrients are good for our bodies.”
Wellness is so much more than our size or our sugar intake. It’s about mental health, as well. And in a topic as complex as body image, self-worth and self-esteem — mental health and physical health go hand in hand.
When mothers are more open to recognizing the way they treat themselves, the way they bond and foster a healthy relationship with the daughters, and the message they send their daughters about their bodies and their self-worth, they are setting the space for young women to thrive and feel worthy. Twenty years later, I can honestly say that while looking in the mirror still makes me cringe a little bit, it’s a battle I aim to win. Every. Single. Day.