Ask Marzipan: How Do I Keep From Passing My Negative Body Image to My Child?

February 19, 2010

Hi from New Zealand!
Just found your blog today, really enjoying it! I’ve struggled with body image all my life, I’m now in my early 30s and have a baby daughter, and I’m realizing I need to be very careful not to inadvertantly pass my negative vibes on to her. We naturally tell her she’d beautiful and lovable because we love her and totally believe it to be true, but I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on how mothers can actively help their daughters to grow up with a healthy body image? Or in a broader sense, things we can do to encourage other women to see themselves in a positive light?
Thanks for what you’re doing, it’s SO needed!

Hello new friend

You have officially touched upon my favorite, and most salient when I think about my life and future, question. This is something that I literally sit around and ponder so often that C thinks I am insane – since, in my case, these are rhetorical baby girls…

However! In your case we are discussing an actual mother daughter relationship. Much more interesting. Now I have a sneaking suspicion that there are many mothers out there who would say I couldn’t possibly give advice on this topic, because I haven actually been there.. BUT. I have been on the daughter end of this relationship and I have struggled with my body image since age 0 and am generally pretty observant so, voilĂ :

  1. Do your best not to criticize your own body or anyone else’s in front of her. Kids pay really close attention to everything that you do, and likely your daughter (no matter how much she will protest it during her teen years) will both mimic and admire you. Often moms do their very best to praise their child and tell them that they are beautiful and perfect, but then turn around and bad mouth their bodies, visibly diet, or speak I’ll of others. Kids make quick connections and they will easily learn to look down on their bodies if you look down on yours. In my case, even when I was told I was beautiful, if that person was controlling or weird about their own weight, I immediately projected that glare upon my own flesh.
  2. THAT SAID, we are only human, and likely we will screw up every once and a while, if not more often than that. My second piece of advice is that if you do bad mouth your body or visibly diet in front of your children, encourage an open dialogue about it so that children do not create their own reasoning around it and thus base their entire future relationship with their body around one bad day. Talking about these issues can be incredibly helpful, and an honest conversation can save a lot of future heart break.
  3. Be honest with yourself before attempting to be honest with you child. Children think differetly from adults, and some of the things that you barely understand or think that you are extremely adept at hiding will be blatantly obvious to your child. Do not do yourself the injustice of lying to yourself about your actual relationship with your body. We all have hang ups. All of us. Every single last one. And one of the best ways to make sure that your hang ups do not become your children’s hang ups is to be really self aware and honest with yourself. Check in. Build a support network. See a counselor if it helps. (and not just for the sake of your child, you will reap so many benefits when you pay more attention to how you feel and what you to as you are learning to love yourself more.)
  4. Tell your child that they can be whatever they want when they grow up, and give them positive role models that correspond with their experience of the world. Teach them about different cultures and different ideals of beauty. Try to elaborate upon the too often “white is right” and “thin=win” of today’s pop culture references. Read them stories with a variety of protagonists, and give them something to believe in that is better than money, fame, sex, bling, and nice cars.
  5. Do not. I repeat: do not restrict their food intake. I think that this is the absolute worst thing that a parent can do in terms of their impact on their child’s future body image and relationship with food. Micromanaging your child’s diet is a recipe for disaster, guaranteed. And it’s a fine line, because you want them to eat healthy, of course, but telling them what and when to eat will absolutely distort their future food connection, particularly if you (be honest) have issues with food as an adult. Children pick up on adult inconsistencies, and they will be able to make connections between your words and your “secret” behavior. Try to encourage them to eat healthily, eat their vegetables, but not just to finish the food on their plate. Ultimately you need to encourage them to learn to listen to their body’s cues about when they are hungry/ what they are hungry for/ and when they are full. When I was a kid, my parents let me dress myself, and it felt so good to be able to have that small amount of control and creative expression over my wardrobe. Control over food is similar, and often children who have little to no food restriction will be able to naturally balance their diet. I remember reading in a Geneen Roth (amazing) book about a mother who brought her daughter to Geneen to stop the daughter’s compulsive eating, and Geneen asked her what her daughter’s favorite binge food was. It was a candy of sorts, I can’t remember now, but lets say skittles. Geneen encouraged the mother to fill a pillowcase or huge bag with skittles and allow the child to bring it around with her everywhere and eat it whenever she wanted. Sure enough, after several days, the child began to regulate her own sugar intake, indulging in fewer and fewer skittles per day, because when they were constantly available to her, her compulsion diminished.

This is a really hard issue to tackle, because so often we are unaware of our own issues and neuroses around food and our bodies, and therefore find it difficult to pin point exactly the traits and habits we are leaving as a legacy in our children. In my personal case as an overweight child with compulsive eating tendencies, the tighter my mother sought to control and reign in my eating habits, the fatter I became. It was almost instantaneous. It was also difficult because my mother also told me how much she loved me and how beautiful I was. This contradictory behavior caused me to think that she was lying to me, particularly since she was for my entire life, very thin and very beautiful. I wanted to look like her, but I also rejected her image because of the pain that her control of my eating caused me. I saw specialists, nutritionists, therapists, personal trainers, and was put on countless plans and diets and diet pills and work out regimes. I was I wasn’t told was to tune into my body and figure out what I need in the way of nutrition and exercise. I wasn’t granted unlimited access to nourish myself the way that I saw fit, because (understandably) my mother was scared that if I was given that freedom, I would have become far fatter than I already was. [It is possible that granted this freedom, a child/adult/whomever will undergo a period of weight gain, as it is likely that they have been deprived/depriving themselves of food for so long they initially the may go crazy and eat everything in sight. This is normal and will even out, if you persevere through this initial frightening time.]

Now, finally, it’s not that mothers in general, or my mother in this case, are acting out of a desire to hurt their children. Of course they are just scared and worried and have a child in front of them that is over weight and hurting, and often they are acting out a desire to give their child the best life possible. We all make mistakes. However, if you are scared that your child is gaining weight or developing a negative body image, restricting them is one of the worst mistakes you can make. It is much better to encourage open and honest dialogue, without punishment or retribution. And to lead by example! Work on your own negative body image and eating habits. Not only will your child learn how to be healthier from following your lead, but I absolutely guarantee that you will feel better as well.

I hope that helps. xox.