I was in line at the grocery store last week when the words rung out in my ears. A mother was shaming her middle school-aged daughter for wanting a Kit-Kat bar.
“Chocolate isn’t part of your diet,” she hissed, “and your pants are already too tight to begin with.”
The mother removed the candy from the shopping cart and placed it back onto the rack in front of the register.
Knowing I heard this exchange and probably embarrassed, the daughter looked like she was going to cry.
It wasn’t my place to intervene, but I was wondering what this woman said to her daughter at home behind closed doors, considering she was so nasty in public.
I thought about the girl on my entire drive home.
How I felt sorry for her.
How, to me, she didn’t look overweight at all. Her pants certainly weren’t tight.
How I was grateful for my own mother for not body shaming me and my sister when we were growing up. For not pressuring us to look a certain way.
Perhaps this girl’s mother, who appeared obese, was projecting her own negative self-image onto her daughter.
I had a friend in college we’ll call Kristy. Blond haired, olive skin, tall, and naturally toned muscles, Kristy was the prettiest girl in the room.
Which was a unfortunate, because she had the worst self-esteem.
Kristy was unsure of herself, constantly thought she was fat, was insecure about other women, and always irrationally worried that whatever guy she was dating at the time would either fall out of love with her or would cheat on her. Always jealous, Kristy had a hard time maintaining long-term relationships with other women. Ultimately married a man who knew her insecurities and preyed on them.
One day, Kristy confided that her mother really messed her up emotionally during childhood. Kristy’s mother would constantly tell her she was fat and that she needed to “hit the gym if she ever wanted a man to want her.” This went on for years until Kristy left home for school.
No wonder Kristy had so many issues.
How many screwed-up women do you know with low self-esteem because of issues their mothers pushed onto them when they were younger?
We all know Kristys.
Maybe we’ve all been a Kristy at one point or another.
Plain and simple, the number one cause of body image in young women isn’t Calvin Klein ads, the Kardashians, or diet commercials.
It’s their mothers.
“Moms are probably the biggest influence on a daughter’s body image,” said Dr. Leslie Sim, clinical director of the Mayo Clinic‘s eating disorders program and a child psychologist. “Even if a mom says to a daughter, ‘You look so beautiful, but I’m so fat,’ it can be detrimental.
According to DoSomething.org, 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies and resort to dieting to achieve their ideal body shape. Unfortunately, only 5% of women naturally have the body type routinely portrayed by the American media.
Growing up in the era of Facebook and reality TV is hard enough. Girls don’t need their mothers- who are supposed to be their biggest advocates- making it unnecessarily difficult for them.
And here’s the thing: body image is closely linked to self-esteem which, in young women, can lead to eating disorders, substance abuse, suicidal ideations, and early sexual promiscuity.
It’s a slippery slope.
I’ve seen this in my personal life and also in my professional life as an attorney. Doled through psychiatric records where screwed-up women confessed their mothers were hard on them growing up because of their physical appearance.
Notably, studies have shown that the same-sex parent is the most important role model for a child. When it comes to weight and body image, Sim has strong opinions on what mothers should be doing.
“Zero talk about dieting, zero talk about weight,” she said. “Zero talk about not only your daughter’s weight, obviously, but zero talk about your weight and even other peoples’ weight.”
There are times when a mother (and parent) absolutely needs to intervene regarding their child’s weight. However, it needs to be spun as a health issue instead of an aesthetic issue.
“If you eat all those Cheetos, you’re going to feel horrible” is significantly different than saying “all these Cheetos will make you fat and ugly.”
I have insecurities about my body. (Sorry not sorry, I love things like beer and tacos and pizza and ice cream, and I hate working out.) I occasionally voice these concerns to my friends and husband and, once in a blue moon, will joke about them on my blog. But I never let my kids hear it.
Moms: it starts with you.
Stop reminding your daughters that you had six pack abs when you were her age.
Stop letting your daughters overhear you complain to your husbands that you look fat in the dress that fit you last year.
Stop telling your daughters they need to be a size 2 if they ever want to amount to anything.
Stop making your daughters believe prettiness is paramount to intelligence, hard work, and kindness.
The most seemingly innocuous comments can leave years of scars.
Just stop it!
If you want to implement healthy food habits without using the F-word (fat), start by being a good example. Actions speak louder than words.
Let them see you exercising.
Let them see you making smart food choices.
Let them hear you talking about the importance of feeling good by eating better.
Cheers to implementing healthy self-image in young women!