What Messages Do You Send Your Daughters About Body Image?

As I was getting ready this morning, I was listening to bits and pieces of the TODAY show. Maria Shriver was on talking to a group of women about body image. I don’t know who they were. The only one I recognized was the actress Cameron Diaz, who was talking about healthy eating and giving up cheese.  The conversation really got my attention when the discussion turned to how their mothers influenced their eating habits and body image.

Yikes. It made me think about my own two daughters and also my mother. I learned some amazing things from my mom. She was, and is, a fabulous cook, and a very classy dresser. We always ate healthy meals, and every year my dad planted a vegetable garden in the backyard. Candy and pop were rare treats at our house. We almost never went out to eat. Being a frugal person, my mom has never spent a lot of money on clothing. She is very organized and purposeful about everything, including her wardrobe, which is quality over quantity. She looks at what she needs, what looks good on her and then she finds it. I’ve never seen her indulge in impulsive shopping.

The one thing that I remember is that she always seemed to be on a diet. She was never happy with her weight, even though she was never overweight. I would say she was average – not heavy and not too thin – so I never understood why she wanted to lose that “last five or 10 pounds.” In my childhood mind, I simplified this into an equation of being the “right” weight = happiness with yourself. Until you achieve that goal, you can never be truly happy.

As a mom, one thing that I vowed never to do was to speak negatively about my weight in the way that my mom had. I was also very purposeful in other ways. I never mentioned my daughters’ weight and asked my husband to do the same. I also didn’t have a scale in the house, and tried to focus on my daughters’ accomplishments and academics rather than their looks.

My husband and I are both runners, so we were role models for our children of people who enjoy exercising. And I learned from my mom’s example that cooking good, healthy meals is an enjoyable way to bring a family together, which I continued with my family.

One thing that I avoided was buying fashion and “women’s” magazines. My magazine subscriptions include Harpers (not Harpers Bazaar, but Harpers), The Atlantic Monthly and Bon Appetit. Girls are so bombarded with the importance of looks, weight and superficial things from TV, magazines, clothing stores and the Internet, that I felt it necessary not to indulge in that myself. I wanted to be a different role model.

So, now that my daughters are young adults, I wondered what their take-away was. I see them as accomplished, intelligent young women. The older one is employed by the Livestrong Foundation in Austin, TX, and the younger one is graduating in May. She has been accepted to graduate school, but I’m not sure what she’ll end up doing. Both of them are capable, fun, attractive and independent and, most importantly, they can carry on lives without me. That’s how I see them (but, of course, I’m their mother)….

So, I texted them this morning and asked what they learned from me, both good and bad, about body image. That’s a scary thing to ask your daughters, but my hope was that my strategies with them were somewhat successful.

Here is what the older one said in her text reply: “I think that you always set a good example for us in terms of eating healthy and exercising, which was very important, and still influences my lifestyle today. I like that we spend time running together and cooking. I also think the fact that you never complained about your own body had a very positive effect on my self-esteem.

Hearing your parent complain about her body makes you question what’s wrong with your own. And I think parents should avoid commenting on their children’s weight all together, no matter how old they are.

Parents shouldn’t comment on any weight change, weight gain or weight loss, unless it poses a serious health threat.

And, in a way, your children are kind of yourself, and you might share physical characteristics that if you criticize they will learn to criticize in themselves, too.”

Here is what the younger one said in her follow-up text: “I agree about focusing on healthy eating and exercise instead of how we look, because the point is just to be healthy. But also when I see any pictures of myself, I automatically think I look terrible, which is what you always say about pictures of yourself, too.”

So, there you have it. It’s true that I always say that about my pictures, and now I’m going to stop. We are all beautiful.

What are you teaching your daughters? Do you have any strategies to share?

Categories: Editor’s Blog