On the daily, females are bombarded by abstract ideas of what they should look like. The media constantly purrs in our ears that we should be thin and toned. Magazines feature glossy photos of models and actresses baring midriffs and pearly white teeth. Gossip sites chastise celebrities for gaining a few pounds, making us feel guilty for that extra bite of cake. The power of how media influences body image has become a mainstream conversation—articles have been written in outlets like Huffington Post and Glamour exploring body image and the negative impact that magazine covers and television shows have on the way that we perceive ourselves.
Shows like Girls have challenged society’s assumptions of what female protagonists should look like and how they should behave. Whereas in the past, we expected our female protagonists to have glossy hair and photoshopped bodies, Hannah Horvath and her circle of friends on Girls has shown us it’s OK to be unique and embrace our bodies for what they are.
Yet, it strikes me that there is another sphere of influence we tend to overlook or avoid: the way that adult women in our lives impact our body image.
Recently, while babysitting a family friend’s daughter, I noticed something peculiar while we were getting ready to go for a walk. On a smoldering, midsummer day, she was wearing long pants and long sleeves. I was bewildered. When I asked about her choice of wardrobe and whether she wanted to change before we went outside, she told me she didn’t want to wear shorts or anything revealing because her thighs were too big. I’d like to note here that she is smart, beautiful, and wildly funny.
During our walk through a quiet Maryland suburb, and with her comment in mind, we started discussing body image. During this discussion, I was able to discern that her mom was constantly dieting and was very vocal about her dissatisfaction with the way that she looked. At that point, I started to wonder whether there was a correlation between a daughter’s dissatisfaction with how she looks and her mother’s, and, apparently, I was on to something.
According to Dr. Renee Engeln, a psychologist and body image researcher at Northwestern University, body image begins at home.
“When you grow up hearing the adult women around you hate their bodies, you learn that that’s a normal way of feeling about your body and that that’s part of being a woman,” Dr. Engeln said.
“A lot of adult women who are currently struggling with body image remember very well what their mothers or fathers said when they were little and see that as an important force.”
A study looking into parental and peer factors associated with body image echoes this sentiment, mentioning that parents who express dissatisfaction with their own or their children’s weight can have a negative impact on their child’s belief about themselves.
Another study tested the correlation between how a mother feels about her body and the way her daughter perceives herself. The findings show that girls mirror positive or negative body responses based on their mother’s responses.
According to Dr. D. Catherine Walker, a visiting assistant professor at Union College, the link between shared body dissatisfaction amongst parents and children has been a topic of constant study amongst researchers. However, it seems like this topic is not readily discussed in mainstream media.“I think part of the reason is that we don’t want to blame parents for something that has already happened,” Dr. Walker said. “Instead we want to educate them on what to do.”
So the question is, what can mothers do to help their daughters develop a healthy relationship with their appearance? According to Dr. Engeln, the answer lies in discussing bodies less frequently.
Spend less time dissecting your own body, the body of your neighbor, or that of Britney Spears. But if you have to discuss someone’s body, try to not to voice these thoughts in front of your daughter.
Instead, mothers should concentrate on caring for the body and not looking a certain way. In other words, focus on how your body jumps, runs, laughs, and takes you from one adventure to the next. Not on how much your body weighs, or where it has curves and edges.
“A way to help women feel better about their bodies is to talk less about how their bodies look and instead think more about what your body can do, how it feels and where it can take you,” said Dr. Engeln.
The good news is, times are changing. According to Dr. Walker, parents today are developing more healthy relationships with their own bodies and passing that onto their children.
“The idea of positive body image is where the field is slowly moving and where there are a lot of unanswered questions,” said Dr. Walker. “ We know what not to do but we need to figure out what can we do.”
Simply in looking at Google Trends, searches for ‘positive body image’ increase from 2012 to 2017. The data shows that interest in this topic is starting to become more prevalent and that more material is being published on it. It is also important to point out that keywords associated with negative body image have significantly decreased.
When mothers speak to their daughters about body image, it’s important to be self aware. Mothers should make an effort to consciously acknowledge and remember that their negative outlooks on their bodies are not solely their own but are very likely to be passed on to their daughters. So, before criticizing yourself in front of your daughter, take a step back and think about the consequences.