How My Mom Affected My Body Image

We live in an appearance-obsessed culture, and many girls are taught to fixate on the way they look almost from the moment they’re able to lift a fork. Research shows that girls as young as six talk about wanting thinner bodies, and Weight Watchers now allows 10-year-olds to join its point-counting ranks.

Those wee ones aren’t coughing up cash for WW on their own, though — the person holding the purse strings (and doing the diet-shaming) is often, unfortunately, Mom.

“[A mother’s] feelings [about] her own body — and her comments about her daughter's body — are highly correlated with eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia,” explains Juli Fraga, PsyD, a San Francisco-based psychologist who specializes in eating disorders. “If [a mother] makes frequent comments about...‘being good’ by following a certain exercise or eating regimen...these messages are transmitted to her children.” A study of mothers with daughters ages five to 11 found that women who were very preoccupied with their own weight made more attempts to control their daughters' weight, too. Another study that surveyed 91 pairs of college-age women and their mothers found that a woman’s eating habits and attitude about her weight have an affect on her daughter’s body image.

Of course, not all moms have major hang-ups that they pass on to their kids; parents can also be positive role models who teach us to feel great about ourselves and our bodies. So, in the spirit of Mother’s Day, we asked 12 women to tell us about how their moms influenced their body image — for better and for worse.

Joshunda, 37
“My mom did not care a single bit about body-image hang-ups. [In the ‘90s] she actually tried to [help me] be less self-conscious by buying me crazy outfits, like a bubblegum-pink and navy polka-dot jumpsuit. It hugged my skinny, tall, awkward body, and I only wore it in the apartment because I could not deal with revealing so much. I preferred shirts [that buttoned up] all the way to the neck, like an old lady, and my mother always undid my top buttons and encouraged me to show off my lack of a figure. It was tremendously affirming.”
“Deena,” 29
“My mom constantly told [my sisters and me] how to dress and what to eat. I filled out in college, and my mom was pretty upset by it. She took to sighing and saying what a shame it was that I ‘take after my dad.’ I like my body a lot now, but my mom thinks I'm overweight (I wear size 4-6). We no longer communicate.”
Heather, 29
“My mother was always naturally very thin and loved to eat. She never wore makeup. As a parent, she always told me I was beautiful just the way I was, never made me finish my food, and never used food as a reward. As an adult I have a healthy relationship with food and, despite the usual insecurities, I [am generally accepting] of my body. Way to go, Mom!”
Charyn, 42
“My (now deceased) mother's constant chorus was that she never weighed more than 119 pounds — and that was when she was pregnant with me. She was 5'10.”
Sara, 39
“My mother never said anything unkind about my body, but she was so verbally abusive towards herself. [She] never let anyone take photos of her. Up until recently, I [would cry] when people wanted to take pictures of me. I am so careful not to speak badly about myself in front of my children. [When] they ask why I work out every day, or eat the way I do, I tell them it is because I want to be strong and live so long that I get to spend more time with them. [I’d be] crushed if I heard [them] say ‘I'm not very pretty’ or ‘I hate my body.’”
“Michelle,” 51
“When we were kids, my mother, who was slim, attractive, and looked far younger than her years, [started] jogging around the house. She would say, ‘I'm exercising because I feel fat.’ It turns out, I'm built pretty much just like her, and [even as a] slim size 6, many days I'll look in the mirror and think, ‘I feel fat.’ When I do [that], I [envision] my mom jogging around the house. Now, I [watch my weight because] I fear ending up out of shape like so many women my age.”
“Remy,” 34
“My mom was always very fit, so she was a good role model in that way. She [also] always told us we looked beautiful. But, she would always fret about getting fat. She and her sisters all counted calories to an insane degree when she was growing up.”
Jane, 36
“When I was little, [my mom] just never said anything about her own appearance or anyone else's appearance. No talk of weight or diets, either. I think it really effectively sent me a message that how I looked was not an important part of who I was, which had a huge, long-term effect on my body image.”
“Astrid,” 36
“My mom...starved herself to 80 pounds and said she’d never gotten more compliments in her life. She taught me that no matter what, I would never be skinny enough, have healthy enough hair, straight enough posture, appropriate enough clothing, tidy enough cuticles. I’ve pretty much un-taught myself all that via a love of fashion as a creative expression of who I am — not as a way to conform with what society wants me to look like.”
Laurie, 25
“My mom was always pretty neutral about her own body and mine. She never shamed me and didn’t shame herself in front of me. We both went on the occasional weight-loss plan, but she never made me. I actually don’t feel like she really had a strong impact on my self-image either way. I’m glad for that!”
Jennifer, 40
“Whenever I was walking outside with my mom, she would point to other women and ask me, ‘Is my butt as big as hers? Do my thighs look heavier than hers?’ While I hated it, that constant comparison between my mother and every other woman passing by hard-wired me to evaluate my body against every girl and woman...and to always come up short. I was into my late 20s before I had done enough emotional work to interrupt that pattern. Now, thankfully, I don't look at other women and wonder if I'm uglier or prettier than they are.”
Vanessa, 37
“My mom always told me, ‘Big-boned is good. Your [thin] sister is a beautiful, tall drink of water, but she will die first of starvation in a famine.’ [I’m not sure] if that made me feel better about myself or not!”