Raising Daughters

On bringing up girls into confident young women.

Body Image: What Do Girls Need From Their Moms?

Maybe some of us never got the message ourselves.

This week, I read an interesting piece by author Barbara Moses about mothers who are heavily invested in their children's career identities. Its basic point was that some mothers feel that what their kids do for a living reflects on them as mothers. The article even cited a Michigan State University study of more than 700 companies, which found that 25 percent of the hiring managers surveyed had been contacted by parents trying to influence the managers to hire their child.

Yikes.

Of course, it's normal for parents to want the best for their offspring and even, dare I say it, normal for parents to want their kids to be the best -- at least at something. Reading this story, I couldn't help but draw parallels between the moms' feelings about their children's career accomplishments and some moms' feelings about the appearance of their daughters.

When readers write to me about their body image struggles, one of the most common themes I hear is that of mothers being overly involved. I hear from young women whose moms try to regulate every bite that goes into their mouths. I hear from girls whose moms are constantly criticizing their appearance. I hear from girls whose moms want them to dress sexier, and girls whose moms want them to be more conservative. I even hear from girls who say their moms are competitive with them when it comes to appearance.

What's it all about?

Well, it depends. For some moms who grew up struggling with their own body image issues, this over-involvement is born out of a desire to spare their girls from the shame they've felt. For others, it's a fear that society will judge their daughters -- and, by association, them -- if their girls don't look a certain way. I'll never forget what 37-year-old Cindy told me about her mother's attempts to control Cindy's eating so that she wouldn't ‘get fat': "One thing my mother did make perfectly clear to me was that the world finds it unacceptable to be overweight."

As a mom, I completely understand what it feels like to not want your child to be hurt. I can attest that my stomach was in knots late last week as I sat waiting to pick up my daughter, who was inside the school, hearing whether she'd made the softball team. It's hard to think of your child feeling hurt or humiliated.

But as I told my daughter during try-out week, we can't control the outcome of a situation -- we can only control our own effort and attitude. Again, I'll draw a parallel to body image: We can't change our genetics. We can only control how we treat our bodies and how we speak about them.

What our kids need most from us moms is to know that they're loved, no matter what. Whether they choose music or medicine, make the team or get cut, wear a bigger size or lose 20 pounds, they are loved -- no matter what.

Maybe some of us didn't get that message ourselves as kids. But like healthy eating and exercise, it's never too late to start a new habit.

Raising Daughters