Mothers, Daughters and Food
Breaking the female cycle of shame, guilt and self-hatred
Posted Feb 25, 2015
The mother-daughter relationship is a strong and storied one, both celebrated and disparaged. From the moment a pregnant woman knows she’s having a daughter—in my case, not until she was born—she begins to imagine passing on a lifetime’s worth of female experience to her child. A daughter naturally feels more known to a mother, especially in the early years before she fully develops her own personality. We delight in dressing them adorably in part because they reflect our own, younger, cuter selves. We are as proud of their accomplishments as if they were our own, and it can be difficult not to superimpose our own desires onto the dreams we have for them. We imagine that they will “be there” for us even when they are adults with their own families. A daughter is forever, as the adage says.
There are also daughter-specific anxieties that mothers suffer from starting in the earliest days of parenting. We worry about our daughters’ safety: They seem more vulnerable to certain dangers. The same cuteness we cherish also makes them potential targets for abuse and harassment. The manners and politeness we teach them also make them less likely to speak and stand up for themselves when the need arises. We worry about our daughters as adolescents because we know all too well how ruthless teenage girls are, especially to their mothers.
If you are a feminist, you hope for your daughter’s sake that society moves closer to gender equality; you pray she will face less sexist discrimination than the generations of women who have preceded her. Like all parents, mothers have sleepless nights worrying their daughters won’t thrive in the world as it is. Good mothers do everything within their power to prepare their daughters for a future as happy, healthy adults.
So why is it that mothers, mothers who love their daughters as much as any parent, do such a poor job of protecting their daughters from the scourge of disordered eating and poor body image? Shouldn’t mothers be on the front line of this battle, as we are in so many other dangers facing our girls? A quick glance at any statistics on the increase of these disorders will show you that this truly is a war. Yet not only do mothers fall short in this task, they are often the ones who perpetuate these harmful, life-altering, sometimes fatal messages for their beloved daughters. Why have disordered eating, food phobias, and self-doubt become an all-too-typical legacy from mothers to daughters? And more important: what can we do to stop this inter-generational poison from spreading?
Before I tackle this concept, let me make a few things clear. Mothers do not cause eating disorders; some certainly contribute, but people who develop full-blown eating disorders do so because of a complex assortment of reasons, some biological, some environmental, some psychological. I am not implying that girls alone suffer from poor body image or disordered eating, nor that that fathers don’t play an important role in teaching children about these issues. Boys increasingly suffer from these thoughts as well as girls, and fathers’ comments about food and body can be influential. But I am focusing on mothers and daughters for three reasons: first, mothers are role models for their daughters in ways that fathers are not. Second, the pressure to be thin and pretty is far greater on girls and women, making them more vulnerable. And last, it seems especially cruel and strange that it’s mothers who are more often passing down a legacy of self-hatred, guilt and shame to the very children for whom they would otherwise lay down their own lives. If we want our daughters to be strong, happy, healthy members of society, mothers must radically shift the ways we talk and think about food and weight.
Depending on your own feelings about body and food, this may seem either an easy or an impossible task. The more conflicted and unhappy you feel around these issues, the more likely you are to pass those attitudes down to your daughter. If you are always dieting, your daughter will think constantly restricting food is the norm for adult life. If you are always talking about your own fat thighs or cellulite or muffin top, what are the chances your daughter will escape the same nagging voice in her own head when she looks in the mirror? Chances are strong she will look like you when she grows up, and even if she doesn’t, the maternal voice is a powerful one. It will shape the rest of her life, so think before you speak about food and weight: is that how you want her to feel?
Even for mothers who have a relatively easy relationship with their own bodies and eating habits, countering the constant media and social pressure can be extremely challenging. The drumbeat of “healthy eating,” with its inconsistent, unreliable messages about what is and isn’t good for you percolates incessantly throughout our days. Public images of women are more photoshopped and false than ever. Pornography is not only available to children in ways it wasn’t before the Internet, it’s also become acceptable where it used to be taboo, normalizing female looks that used to be considered extreme. The hairless, airbrushed, fatless, essentially naked model on the cover of the most recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue isn’t a Playboy centerfold: She’s right there on the supermarket checkout stand. Women’s bodies are being manipulated and exploited more than ever before in history, and the diet and food industries are no exception. When there is money to be made from female insecurities about health, weight and appearance, the incentive to change these damaging feelings gets buried.
I strongly feel that mothers need to take a stand. I’ve never been one for marches or public activism; while I know these are effective tools in many cases, I think we, as mothers can effect powerful change on this issue more quietly. And here’s how to start. Those of you who constantly denigrate your own appearance or relationship with food: Stop it, already!
I heard a gorgeous story recently from a friend who’s had a lifetime of discomfort about her weight. One morning recently, she was wearing an (uncharacteristically) matching undergarment set in front of her young daughter when the girl looked at her and squealed, "Oh, Mama! YOU LOOK SO SPECIAL!" She then paused and said, "That is it. It is decided, Mama. You will wear a bikini this summer."
My friend suppressed her initial impulse—to say she is too fat—and asked instead, "You don't think I will look too fancy?" Her daughter said, "Oh no!" quite emphatically. “So this summer,” my friend says, “I will wear a bikini and teach us both about body love and acceptance. Any size, any shape. Bring it on.”
Think of this as a counterpoint to the Sports Illustrated cover, if you will: a mother who is sick of feeling "less than," tired of hiding her body, ready to wear what she darn well feels like wearing (which in this case happens to be a bikini, a style many American women refuse to wear exactly because they won't look model-like in it). If you’re one of the many women constantly putting yourself down because of your weight or body, you may serve your daughter better by taking a page out of this loving mama’s book. You don't have to wear a bikini, but you should not assume you're unworthy of one.
I have a lot more thoughts on this topic, including some for those of you protesting that you already teach your daughters about “healthy eating,” but first I would like so much to hear from readers about how your mother influenced your feelings about food, weight and body image, either positively or negatively. Or how you are as a mother. Please write to me either in the comments below or email me your story. I know there are so many mother-daughter stories out there, and I would love to hear from you before I continue. In the meantime, cherish your beautiful daughters, find delight in your food and try to love yourselves—your true selves—if not for your own sake, then for your daughter's.
What I’ve cooked recently:
- Butternut Squash Bread Soup (David Lebovitz, My Paris Kitchen)
- Oven Risotto with Kale Pesto (Bon Appétit)
- Marinated Beets with Pistachios and Thyme (adapted from Bon Appétit)
- Hearty Fritatta with Bacon, Potato and Cheddar (The Cooks’ Illustrated Cookbook)
- Financiers (David Lebovitz)
- Coeurs à la Crème with Raspberry Coulis (Epicurious)
- Risi e Bisi (Nigella Lawson, NY Times)
- Ribollita with Italian Sausage (Bon Appétit)
- Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake (Melissa Clark, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite)