A few weeks ago, daughters around the country presented their mothers with gratitude, glittery cards, and homemade treats. Now that the Mother’s Day glow has faded, I find myself hoping that we can gift our daughters something in return. I hope we can offer them an end to the body shame that is so often passed on like a legacy from mother to daughter. May we mark this moment as a turning point, the point when we decide to give our daughters the words they need to think and speak of their bodies with compassion and gratitude, instead of shame and disgust. This gift costs nothing to bestow, but if it helps to create a climate in which our daughters learn to live more comfortably in their own bodies, it is priceless.
As a body image researcher, I’ve listened to hundreds of young women berate their bodies: Too ugly. Not toned enough. Too hairy. Too fat. Disgusting. In one study I conducted, 93 percent of young women said they engage in this type of talk. When I ask young women where they learned to talk with this level of cruelty about their bodies, their answers come quickly. They learn it from listening to how the adult women in their lives talk about their own bodies. They certainly pick up on body-shaming cues from our culture at large, but it is first and foremost their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and older sisters who teach them the common language of body hatred. It is the women they care about most who model the notion that part of being a woman in our culture is feeling disgusted with your body.
Our daughters learn that a primary means of bonding with other women is by sharing a laundry list of complaints about the inadequacies of one’s body. As one woman I interviewed for my book, Beauty Sick, put it, “If I had a dollar for the number of times my mom complained about how her upper arms looked in my childhood, I’d be a millionaire.” How could she not learn to gaze in the mirror at her own upper arms with dread and worry after hearing those words for so many years from the woman who raised her? We may not mean to pass on these values, but they slip out in the way we speak of ourselves.
I interviewed a 7-year-old girl named Leigh about how she felt with respect to her own body. Leigh’s mother, Maxine, sat just behind her, complex layers of worry and hope in her expression as Leigh talked me through what it meant to her to be pretty. Leigh told me what a beautiful woman looks like: “She has long, straight hair. And she’s wearing a lot of make-up. And high heels. She’s thin, her arms and legs are thin.” When I ask Leigh what she thinks of her own body, she proudly shares that her body runs, climbs, jumps, and swims. When I ask her whether it’s more important if her body can do things or if her body is pretty, she shows no hesitation. “Do things,” she says, emphatically. Maxine’s relief was palpable at hearing this. Maxine grew up with a mother who focused relentlessly on weight, and undoubtedly contributed to the eating disorder Maxine battled during her tumultuous teenage years. Maxine told me she initially hoped she would be pregnant with a boy, because she was so terrified of re-creating that same dynamic with a daughter of her own. When she learned she would be having a girl, she and her husband had a frank conversation about how to break the cycle. As Maxine put it, “We said we’re going to have to make some very conscious decisions about how we talk.”
Those conscious decisions can make a difference. In a recent Arizona State University study, researchers asked 151 pairs of mothers and their 5- to 7-year-old daughters to stand in front of a full-length mirror and talk about what they like or dislike about their bodies. The bad news: Girls regularly changed their previously stated body likes into dislikes if they heard their mothers say negative things about their own bodies. If Mom says her stomach is too fat, suddenly her daughter says her stomach is too fat as well. But the good news here is more powerful: Girls who previously listed things they disliked about their own bodies quickly changed those dislikes to likes if they heard their mothers evaluating their own bodies in positive terms.
The challenge of changing these types of conversations should not fall on women’s shoulders alone. The men in our lives also teach us important lessons about how and on what terms our culture values women. But mothers and other women role models are in a unique position to show young girls that we can treat our bodies with kindness, even if our culture so often refuses to do so.
The messages we hear about women and beauty make it hard to have healthy attitudes toward our bodies. But at least we can make certain that those messages stop at our own front door. If we can gift our daughters with new words and new types of conversations about what it means to live in a woman’s body, we can start to dismantle the family tradition of body shame. What a beautiful gift that would be.