The legacy of body shame is REAL.
The conversation about mothers, daughters, diets and body image is complex and complicated.
Much has been written and spoken about the role that parents, especially moms, have on the way their daughters see their own bodies.
Moms might be the single MOST important influence on her daughter's body image. Make sense, doesn't it?
For many of us, mom is our first and most influential role model. Our first lessons in how to be a woman in the world came from her.
She taught us what a woman is supposed to feel, do, think and look like.
If you witnessed your own mother called herself fat and disgusting, how can you NOT believe that: 1) looking like her is unacceptable and undesirable or 2) that fat is synonymous with disgusting?
When I look back on my own childhood, there weren't any blatant comments from my mother to my sister or me about food or our bodies.
Even though she never put us on diets or told us we were getting fat, it was hard to not notice her own body dissatisfaction:
The "fat talk" she had with other women, her trips back and forth to Weight Watchers, and losing and gaining the same 20 pounds for years.
Up until recently, I'd always thought the origin of my food and body drama could be traced back to 2 things:
1) being teased in middle school for being "chubby", and
2) flipping through the pages of Seventeen magazine
But it turns out, it was much closer to home.
I knew I wasn't the only one who had a front-row seat to my mom's quest for thinness. So I collected a dozen stories from the women in my community who learned at an early age that something was wrong with their bodies and they needed to spend a lifetime trying to fix it.
I'm going to share snippets of these stories here today.
As you read them, you'll notice a common theme...the single thread that weaves these stories together:
The intense fear of being fat.
We've internalized the belief that body fat is a sin and female smallness is a virtue. Our culture has taught us to sacrifice being content with your body so you can reach the Promised Land.
It was true a generation ago and it's still true today.
The fear and shame of being fat and the resulting pursuit of weight loss gets passed down like the good china or grandma's pearl earrings.
I spoke to women about what they've learned from their mothers and what they're modeling and teaching their own daughters today.
Here's what they had to say:
THE SEED GETS PLANTED AT HOME
Your kids SEE you cutting carbs, weighing yourself, or avoiding the mirror. They HEAR you talking about how much you hate your thighs. They may not be able to name it right now, but the message comes across loud and clear:
"The idea of shopping for clothes was the most degrading thing for my mom. She would ask me to go along for moral support. My mom was traumatized by having to do this; there was no joy in buying new clothes. She always said: "I'm going to buy the things I hate the least".
"She took great care to look a certain way - upper arm fat covered, tops long enough to hide her belly, stripes always had to be vertical and never horizontal, and she was religious about passing that on to me, too."
"I don't remember my mom ever saying cruel things about herself out loud, but she definitely spent a lot of time talking about how skinny she used to be and comparing my sister's thin frame to her own."
WHO'S TO BLAME FOR THIS MESS?
We shouldn't point the finger at mothers...either YOUR mother or YOU as a mother. It's not fair or helpful to put the blame squarely on women.
Our toxic diet culture is a major player in this game.
Let's be real: The machine that told your mother to eat celery sticks and Dexatrim in the 70s is the same one selling you the 21-Day Fix right now.
The message that smallness should be our ultimate quest in life hasn't changed.
Whether a mother was vocal about her daughter's food choices and body or she decided to stay silent, the motivation is the same: she didn't want her children to experience what she'd experienced.
Mothers want to protect their children from the brutal weight and size bias in our society. These women want to spare their young daughters the trauma of living a life at war with yourself.
If your mom contributed to your negative body image, it's likely she was trying to protect you too.
"If I could, I'd gain all the weight in the world so my daughter doesn't have to".
"I am SO aware of how I speak and the way I act in front of my daughter. I do NOT want her to go through life with the shitstorm that lives in my head every day, in relation to my body and my self-esteem. She's beautiful and I want her to know that. I tell her and try to demonstrate that all the time."
"The things I hated that my mother said to me, came sputtering out of my mouth to my daughter. I thought I was helping. I thought: I lived the life, I know the hell, how can I save you from it?"
WHAT CAN YOU DO AS A MOM?
I don't have kids, but I have 2 young nieces who I want to protect from the brutality of diet culture. My sister and I make sure we say nothing about their bodies or how food will make them look. NOTHING.
I imagine it's not easy to carry your own shame and keep it hidden from your daughters. But know this:
"You're not alone. Everything you say, do and think is affecting your children. It's not so much about being quiet about it, it's about getting your own shit together."
"I wish that more parents wouldn't compliment their children on their looks or their body and instead invite their kids to look within to find their own reassurance and answers. Internal validation is so much more powerful than external validation in the form of compliments."
"Don't vilify being fat."
"Let your daughter exist as she is."
OUR COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY
We've been witness to the body scrutiny of the women around us for a long-ass time. We know the damage it does.
Women still deal with the trauma of hearing their parents telling them that they're not good enough unless they're thin.
The women who shared their stories with me were still dealing with old wounds. The tinge of sadness, hurt and disappointment lingers.
But there's also hope.
We can stop actively participating in diet culture and start being fully awake for our own lives.
We don't have to leave a legacy of body shame.
We have the ability to reclaim our power.
It will take all of us.
And I know we can do it. We MUST do it for ourselves and for the girls and women who will come after us.
We're in this together.