Ways a mother can influence her daughter's body image

5 Ways A Mother Can Influence Her Daughter's Body Image

December 5, 2023

We know that culture, societal pressure, media, and gender norms influence women's feelings about their bodies.

These pressures are instilled in you from a young age and may be passed onto future generations with good intentions. I have spoken with countless mothers who viewed their obsession with their bodies and their daughter’s bodies positively. Mothers often report that they just want their daughters to be healthy. They want their daughters to be accepted in a world that rejects women who don’t fit in with the current beauty standard. The hyper-focus on their bodies is a sign of love and care.

While mothers themselves are certainly victims of unrealistic beauty expectations and diet culture, it is often mothers themselves who pass down the harmful expectations they want to escape. Instead of exploring why this happens, I tried to fill this article with strategies to help improve the relationship between mothers, daughters, and their bodies.

Mother and daughter diet culture

5 Ways Mothers Have A Unique Influence On Their Daughter’s Body Image

  • Research reveals that best friends and mothers significantly influence whether or not a girl will use risky behaviors to lose weight. Daughters whose mothers encourage them to lose weight are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies.
  • Negative weight talk by mothers about their bodies has been proven to cause serious and lasting effects in their adolescent daughters, from depression to disordered eating habits.
  • One study followed 173 mothers and daughters and checked in when the daughters were ages 5, 7, 9, and 11. They found that mothers preoccupied with weight and eating were more likely to restrict their children’s foods and encourage daughters to lose weight.
  • A study followed sixth-grade girls and found that when mothers encourage a daughter to lose weight, it puts the child at risk for bulimia and eating disorders.
  • A study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that teenage girls' desire to be thin or lose weight was partially based on their perception of what their mothers wanted. Girls in the study were more likely to diet if their moms had dieted. A third of the girls in the study reported wanting to be thinner.

This does not mean mothers are solely responsible for their daughter’s body image issues or eating disorders. It means that the mother plays one of the most significant roles in ending the cycle within their own families.

5 Ways A Mother Can Negatively Influence Her Daughter’s Body Image

Moms, try to stop:

  • Talking about your weight or body negatively. When you feel the urge to critique yourself in front of your daughter (or alone), you’ll need to practice doing something different. One of my favorite techniques is to neutralize the thought with a compassionate, rational response. If you think, “I hate how my legs look in these shorts. I need to work out,” you may want to respond to yourself with, “I’m not happy with how I look today, and that’s okay. Everyone feels like that sometimes. I will try to focus on spending time with my daughter.” If you mess up, it’s ok! You can say something like, “I have been trying to be kinder to myself, and I let that slip. Can we start over?” This is a tough habit to break, and it will take a lot of practice.
  • Labeling foods as “bad” or talking about how “bad” you are for eating something. Foods are morally neutral. They’re not bad, and you’re not bad for eating them. Consider how certain foods make you feel, how much energy they give you, and what foods fit certain moments in your day. Challenge yourself to get through a meal without talking about the value of the food. Instead, you can comment on how it tastes and looks or avoid food talk altogether.
  • Commenting on your daughter’s body when you see her. Many daughters report that the first thing out of their mother’s mouth is a comment on their body when they see them. Sometimes, these comments are seen as compliments, but they’re always a sign for that person that their body is being examined. Try to stay away from body comments.
  • Making bodies and food the main topic of conversation. There are so many other fun things to discuss.
  • Comparing your body or your daughter’s body to other women. A mother may never explicitly comment on her daughter’s body and still have a negative influence because of the way she talks about other women’s bodies. Challenge yourself to refrain from speaking negatively about how other women look or engaging in comparison.

5 Ways A Mother Can Positively Influence Her Daughter’s Body Image

Moms, try to do this instead:

  • Adopt body-neutral vocabulary. Give up on the idea that you have to love your body or try to love it every day. Instead, focus on what you do with your body and how you think and feel.
  • When you sit down for a meal, order or eat what you want without any extra commentary about the food's moral value; if you want the salad, order the salad. There’s no need to add, “I’m getting a salad because I’ve been so bad this week. I need to watch what I’m eating.” Try to make comments about the food that are neutral or positive, “wow, that pasta is so pretty” lands way better than “I can’t eat pasta. Are you kidding me? I'd have to run for a week to burn that off.”
  • Avoid commenting about what other people are eating or what they should be eating. Instead, you can ask, “How is your meal?” Focus on how the food tastes and enjoyment, not how it will impact your daughter’s body. What other people put on their plates isn’t about you.
  • Speak about anything other than bodies or physical appearance. It’s better to discuss current events, a recent success, or even the weather. Ask questions about their life and interests.
  • Challenge yourself to say something kind that isn’t related to your daughter’s appearance every time you see her. Instead of saying, “Wow, you look great. You lost weight!” you can say something like, “It’s great to see you! Thanks for driving out here.”

5 Ways To Respond To Your Mom’s Body And Diet Comments

If your mom makes a rude comment about your body or what you’re eating, here are some ways you can respond. I will give you a combination of changing the subject and more harshly setting a boundary. I know these are therapy-speak, so please make them your own.

  • When she talks about her own diet:
    • “I’m glad you’re doing what’s best for you. Have you watched the new show on Netflix ____? It’s so funny.”
    • “I don’t want to talk about diets/weight.”
  • When she comments on what you’re eating:
    • “This pasta is so good. I love the tomatoes in it. What did you do last weekend?”
    • “Please don’t comment on what I’m eating.”
  • When she says something about your weight:
    • “Hi, mom! I’ve been doing great. Thanks for checking in. I want to tell you about this new thing I’ve been working on.”
    • “Please do not comment on my weight.”
  • When she talks about other people’s bodies:
    • “I love her shirt. What are you up to today?”
    • “I don’t like talking about other people’s bodies. Can we talk about something else?”
  • When she’s commenting on being “bad” because of what you’re eating:
    • “We’re not stealing the food, Mom. It’s just pasta.”
    • “I like to eat what I want without making it mean something. Let’s both just order what we want.”

5 Ways Mothers And Daughters Can Fight Against Diet Culture Together

  • Talk about the messages you received about your bodies growing up. Having an open dialogue about the pressures you have faced can be transformative.
  • Admit it when you mess up. Both of you will slip back into negative body talk and diet culture. It’s inevitable and doesn’t make you a bad person, mom, or daughter. If you catch yourself saying something or slipping back into bad habits, call it out and talk about it.
  • Try to get to the root of why you want to change your body or appearance. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to work out, eat healthy, or improve your appearance. The important part is the why and how you speak about that change, especially when you have a young, impressionable daughter.
  • Make your body the least interesting thing about you and your relationship. You have so many other exciting things to talk about and focus on.
  • Remember that the world constantly bombards you with messages about how you should look and be. The women in your life should be a haven from all that noise.

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