Caution, Moms: Your Daughters Are Listening

Why swimsuit season has moms reeling and what to do about it

Posted Jun 20, 2017

Alec Walker/Flickr
Source: Alec Walker/Flickr

It’s summer. For millions of women this brings on a familiar ritual that is laced with guilt and shame . . . the wearing of a swimsuit in public.  You can almost hear the groans as women across the country begin to agonize in front of the mirror, pronounce new diets, compare with others on social media, and body shame themselves for any perceived flab or flaws. But other than making us miserable, does this behavior really matter? Since it's so pervasive among women, should our rants just be considered harmless rites of summer?

As Kelly Wallace of CNN effectively writes in her recent article Ripple Efects on Girls When Moms Struggle with Body Image, for women who are mothers of daughters, yes-- it matters a great deal. In her article, Wallace highlights a viral video in which two moms humorously discuss their struggles with body image, swimsuits, and why we have to face these issues for the sake of our daughters. These moms certainly struck a chord on social media, echoing many moms’ fears and self-consciousness in our swimwear.

As I stated in the Wallace article, it is important for moms to be aware that our self-derogatory comments are not just hurting ourselves but our daughters as well.  It is damaging to girls when they hear their moms criticize their own bodies. One of the best predictors of whether a girl will have negative body image is if her own mother has negative body image. No matter what you say to your daughter about her beauty, if you criticize yourself or behave as if you don’t like your own body, chances are that she won’t like her body either (for more discussion of this issue, see my blog Moms: What Will Your Body Image Legacy Be?

And this goes even deeper. In our culture, the pervasive message to girls and women is that our physical appearance is the most important aspect of our identity. In other words, on a daily basis our daughters are receiving the message that the most important aspect of women’s worth is their appearance—so girls learn that their overall worth as a person is equated with how they look.  The bottom line: When our girls learn to dislike their weight, shape, or appearance, it becomes even harder for them to develop overall positive self-esteem. As I write in my book Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture, moms have to take an intentional stand to make sure that this cultural message isn’t perpetuated in our homes. We have stay mindful so that we don’t do or say anything to reinforce this harmful belief about women in general or about ourselves or our daughters in particular.

To promote positive self-esteem in our daughters, therefore, these are two powerful ideas to keep in mind: (1) we are our daughter’s mirrors for how they will see themselves, and (2) popular culture reinforces the idea that girls’ and women’s worth is primarily based on their appearance. So what can we do help our daughters thrive?

First, a few things we should NOT do:

1. Don’t complain about how you look in your swimsuit. Don’t talk about your weight/shape/appearance as if it is the most important aspect of who you are. It is only one part of what makes you a whole, unique person.  

2. Don’t talk about other women’s weight gains or losses. What you say about other women sends a powerful message to your daughter. If you are frequently criticizing other women in terms of their weight/shape/appearance, she will begin to learn that this is the most important aspect of a woman’s identity, and that she should view herself with a critical eye.  Look for other strengths or say nothing instead.

Second, a few things we can DO:

3. Do begin to question how much your own identity is tied to your weight/shape/appearance, and explore what you can do to begin to emphasize other aspects of your identity in defining your sense of self. 

4. Do make sure your daughter hears you talking about non-appearance based strengths in yourself and other women. Let her hear you discussing women’s unique gifts in life areas such as their intellect, leadership, spirituality, relationships, athletic skills, or their sense of humor. Let her learn that women are far more valuable than how they look on the outside!   

5. Do try to make sure your daughter is exposed to a broad array of body types and beauty, not just the ideal types that are reinforced in popular culture. Limit the thin-beautiful ideals that she might see in fashion magazines, the Internet, or on television. Help her understand that authentic beauty can be defined in many ways.

In conclusion, it may always be a struggle to accept ourselves as we are, but we have to take care when our daughters are watching and listening to our comments about ourselves and about others. We can’t change the media, pop culture, or fashion industry, but we can change what we say and do to protect our daughters’ self-esteem and resilience. And that is a cause that is well worth the effort.  

References

Choate, L. (2015). Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.