What would life have looked like if you had never worried about your body shape or size? How much happier would you be if you didn’t spend time thinking about that? How much more could you have achieved if you weren’t focused on it; if you weren’t held back by the insecurity that so often comes with disliking your body? For most women, that is an impossible life to imagine.
Approximately 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies.
When I was middle school and high school age, I spent hours agonizing over my size. I was the tallest person in my class until I got to high school. I did gymnastics and ballet as a young girl. Looking at pictures of me doing those activities, I’m a full head taller than every other girl in my class. It practically looks like I was held back a year.
This resulted in the boys in my class repeatedly threatening to fight me. My sheer size was a threat to their budding masculinity. If I had to pick a point where I started to be a little body conscious, it was then.
Unfortunately, my body-consciousness was only set to get worse. Between 5th and 6th grade, puberty started. I went from a large – but “normally” proportioned – kid, to a chubby kid.
Middle school began a long downward spiral of self-loathing. I was smart, consistently making the honor roll. I was a great basketball player and was learning clarinet and doing very well. In spite of all this, the entries in my diary never reflected that; they were always about my body.
I drew pictures of bodies that I perceived as beautiful. Next to them, I drew pictures of what I perceived my body to look like. The images had rolls of fat spilling over my jeans.
I remember thinking about suicide on a regular basis.
I don’t think I ever contemplated it in a way that I was truly going to go through with it. However, I thought about it frequently and I even called the suicide hotline once or twice.
Though the path to this state of mind was my own, it is a state of mind that nearly all women have experienced to differing degrees. It’s an absolute epidemic. It is our responsibility to change this for the young women who are growing up now.
I’m not blaming our mothers and fathers for the way they raised us. I was raised by a single mother who is the epitome of kindness and class. She balanced a demanding job with raising me, and she excelled.
I don’t blame her for the things she did or didn’t do that helped foster my body hatred. After all, she was raised by my grandmother (also an absolutely incredible woman.) She, as my mom describes it, always had her hair and makeup on, even when she was doing chores.
If you’re picturing the beautiful woman in the full skirt, tight shirt, vacuuming in the 50s, that’s basically the impression of my grandmother I get from my mom. In other words, the focus on outer beauty has been occurring for a long time. Each generation has been modeling what they learned from their parents.
It’s time to break the pattern. Here are a few things myself, and other women from my generation that were kind enough to share their stories with me, wished our parents had done differently.
Openly Love Yourself
An overwhelming number of women shared memories of their mothers being self-deprecating or self-conscious about their own bodies. One woman I spoke with, Katherine, could not recall her mother ever saying anything good about her appearance or her body.
At first I thought this was strange, but as I looked back at my own experience I have the same memory of my mother. I don’t remember her ever saying that she felt beautiful.
Katherine’s mom’s response to compliments she received about her outward beauty were always deflected. If somebody told her that her hair looked nice today, her response would be something along the lines of, “Oh no, my hair is so frizzy.”
She vocalized her imperfections to Katherine on a regular basis. Even though Katherine swears that her mother was never critical of Katherine’s body, she feels that because her mother was so critical of herself that she learned by example that she should be self-critical, too. Katherine has worked, and continues to work, very hard to overcome that way of thinking.
My own mother wasn’t so openly critical of her body, but one thing that stood out to me as a young girl, and still to this day, is that my mother feels insecure ever leaving the house without full makeup on and her hair done.
She does not feel presentable to the world as her natural self.
For a long while I shared her view. I never wore quite as much makeup as her, but God forbid I leave the house without at least a little powder, blush, and mascara on. Somebody might see what I look like naturally. Luckily with time, the body positive movement, and the support of my husband, I’ve grown out of that.
I love playing with makeup for a big night out, or even if I just feel like it one day. However, I don’t feel like I have to be ashamed of what my natural appearance is without it.
What Katherine and I wish our mothers had done is openly love themselves and their bodies. When somebody complimented my mother, I wish she would have simply said “thank you.” Though it doesn’t necessarily outwardly display self-love, what it does do is avoid outwardly displaying self-loathing. That would be a first step. What I think would have made even more of a difference is if my mom had actually affirmatively displayed self-love.
While watching Kate Winslet’s appearance on Running Wild with Bear Grylls, I was so struck by what she said about instilling body positivity in her daughter, Mia. Kate stands in front of a mirror and says to her daughter, “[w]e are so lucky that we’ve got a shape. We’re so lucky we’re curvy. We’re so lucky that we’ve got good bums.”
Look, I hear you right now. You’re probably thinking a couple of things. First, something like, “Come on, that’s Kate Winslet. She’s a gorgeous movie star… of course she thinks that about herself. So does the rest of the world.” Yes, Kate Winslet is a gorgeous movie star, though she is certainly considered to be on the “curvy” side for Hollywood, but that’s not the point! The point is that she shares her self-love with her daughter.
She could just as easily be picking at her perceived imperfections. I’m sure she thinks she has them. I’m also sure a horrible Hollywood producer or two has pointed them out to her. In fact, she was once told as a teenager that she should be happy to settle for the “fat girl parts.”
Kate could be vocalizing that negativity to her daughter instead of championing herself. You might also be thinking that it’s a little bit too much focus on figure or outward beauty and it might be causing her daughter to overvalue it. I think if you’re reading this article, you can agree with me that there are way more important things than physical appearance.
If I were doing this with my future daughter, it might go a little differently. It might sound more like, “We are so lucky to be healthy, and strong, and beautiful, and smart.” Regardless of this, I commend Kate for doing something that is making her daughter, Mia, love the body she is in.
Mia’s response to her mom is, “I know…” when so many girls might otherwise respond as my friend Katherine’s mother did to compliments – “no, I’m ugly” or “no, I wish I looked like [insert any number of options] instead.”
I wish that when my own mother was getting ready and was checking herself out in the mirror she had said, “I love this outfit on me,” “I feel great today,” “I am so strong,” or really anything positive about herself at all. I wish she would have shown me that natural appearances are beautiful, and that makeup isn’t necessary. Rather, it’s just an option if you want it sometimes.
She always told me I was beautiful, but that wasn’t enough to combat the deeply pervasive societal concept of the “ideal body.” Children are constantly soaking up information and they engage in so much mirroring behavior. If a little girl sees her mom saying good things about herself, then there is a strong likelihood that she will follow that same behavior.
Never Be Negative
It is extremely important to model self-love. It’s just as important not to make negative comments about your daughter’s body. This is not something my mother ever really did. However, my after-school caregiver repeatedly made comments about my weight and eating habits, among so many other negative things.
I reached out to friends to see if people in their lives had made negative comments about their body. I was surprised to hear from so many of them. The friends I did hear from on this topic, by the way, are those I never considered to be overweight.
One friend told me that her father called her and her sister the “chub sisters.” Another friend, Sarah, told me about a litany of things her grandmother said to her. When Sarah started to develop, she went from a very thin frame to having more curves. Sarah’s grandmother noticed this and commented about how the gap was gone between Sarah’s thighs.
Later, when Sarah was newly engaged, she went to swim at her grandmother’s house. After seeing Sarah in her swimsuit, Sarah’s grandmother asked if she had given up working out. Sarah looked at her perplexed and told her that she still worked out and loved doing so. Her grandmother’s response was to say that there was “cottage cheese” on Sarah’s thighs and her fiancé was not going to want to marry her if she “let herself go.”
I had the good fortune in my 20s to befriend a remarkable young girl that I watched grow into a teenager. She is musically talented, smart, caring, and has such a positive outlook on life. As she matured, I watched her father make small comments about how she needed to run more because she was gaining a little weight and should be healthier.
I do genuinely believe he was focused on her health. He certainly never called her fat or ugly. Despite his seemingly genuine focus on health, I watched her internalize his comments. She would call herself fat, and turn those comments into the self-loathing that so many of us grew up feeling.
Another generation lost, succumbing to disdain for her body.
A Word Of Advice
If you have a negative comment about a person’s body – keep it to yourself. These types of derogatory comments do nothing positive for the women that they are spoken to. If anything, my friends indicated that for them, the comments instigated unhealthy responses such as anorexia, bulimia, or overexercise.
The comments didn’t inspire them to be healthy. Instead, they created or inflamed already existing self-loathing and prompted extremely unhealthy behaviors.
While you can’t control how every person in the world talks to your daughter, you can and should have conversations with those who will be spending time with her on a regular basis – caregivers, close family, etc.
Talk to them about how important it is to you that your daughter not grow up hating herself. Talk about how they should never make comments about your daughter’s body.
If you feel that your daughter is overweight or is otherwise unhealthy, then I’m not asking you to do nothing. The best approach for her emotional well-being is for you to show her what healthy is through leading by example.
Talk About Society’s Messaging
Regardless of how well you treat your daughter, you’ll never be able to control all that is said to her or the media’s messaging. Women featured in the media have traditionally been limited to a very specific beauty ideal. The women who found themselves outside of that ideal, which is probably most of us, never found themselves represented amongst the pages of a magazine or in a movie as anything other than the fat, funny friend.
That being said, there are awesome things happening in society right now to correct that. Ashley Graham, a size 16 model, just graced one of the covers of Sports Illustrated this past year.
Christian Siriano, a New York City fashion designer, sent not one, not two, but five curve models down his runway during New York’s fashion week. Even better, those models were welcomed with a rumbling of applause! These are some important steps forward at expanding the media’s beauty idea, but there is still so much more to be done.
What To Expect
Your daughter will be regularly assaulted by tabloid covers touting, “Look who has gained weight” stories, comparison pictures of who wore the same outfit better (the skinnier woman wins that argument more often than not,) news segments about “how to lose that last 10 lbs.,” and the constant pressure to compare themselves to celebrities.
One of the things that personally drives me insane is that my 24 Hour Fitness has advertisements on the TVs in front of the cardio machines that include ads for plastic surgery.
What kind of message is that sending? You being at the gym isn’t enough? Unfortunately, this type of messaging is still everywhere.
My mom was never much of a tabloid or magazine reader beyond Reader’s Digest. She knew I read Seventeen and other magazines like it. In retrospect, they just made me feel like crap after reading them. I couldn’t wear any of the clothes and I didn’t look like those girls. I read far too many articles about how to change your appearance.
Stopping me from reading those magazines was never going to be an option. I was stubborn and I would have found a way regardless. I believe talking to me about what I was seeing in them and how my worth was not defined by their beauty standards or anybody’s beauty standards couldn’t have hurt.
I’m not sure if I would have really heard it and understood it at that age. I just believe it would have planted a seed that would eventually make a difference.
Lead by Example
Just as parents can be role models for self-love, they can be role models for diet and exercise as well. Taking care of yourself by eating healthy and engaging in regular physical activity teaches children that these are important values. After all, children learn much more through modeling than by telling them what to do.
As I mentioned before, my mom was a single mom and she worked a demanding job. She just didn’t feel like she had the time to make many home-cooked meals. We ate a lot of microwave meals and Hamburger Helper.
When she tried to feed me vegetables, I was no help. I hated them.
As I learned later in life, I only hated them because we were eating canned or frozen vegetables. Today, as an adult, I still loathe them. She placated my disdain for vegetables and fed me unhealthy foods instead. Literally every day in preschool she sent me with a lunch of mac and cheese, hot dog, and corn.
While it was at my request, I shouldn’t have been in charge of what I ate at four years old.
I’m certainly not scolding you if you aren’t able to make a home-cooked feast for every meal for your child, though in my humble opinion, non-processed “real” foods taste a heck of alot better and they are generally accepted as healthier.
Talk About Food Choices
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meats in moderation, fish, etc. all do the body good and are packed with nutrients. These foods in their natural unprocessed forms rarely made an appearance on my table growing up; however, those damn Olean chips sure were ubiquitous in our cupboard.
Olean/Olestra was a fat substitute that added no fat, calories, or cholesterol to products, including things like chips. That it replaced some fat didn’t make those chips healthy, it just made them have less fat. I won’t detail the side effects if you ate too much Olean either. I’ll let you Google those if you’re really curious.
The point is that it’s up to you to model what foods are healthy and to provide those foods to your children on a regular basis. The foods we eat as children become our habits and we know little else. My husband did grow up in a household with healthy home-cooked meals. Not until I met him did I realize there was a whole amazing world outside of frozen and boxed meals.
Cooking is now our favorite thing to do together. We have a huge garden of delicious vegetables and are planning to plant some fruit trees in the near future. If you don’t have the room or time for your own garden or fruit trees, there are plenty of great options at your local store or farmers’ market that are just as delicious and healthy.
Of course, we don’t eat completely healthy food all of the time.
Everything In Moderation
Moderation is a key principle in modeling healthy eating. Completely restricting all “junk” food from your kids is not only impossible, it’s likely to cause more harm than good.
One study determined that when mothers restricted certain foods, their children (especially daughters) tended to overeat those foods when given the opportunity.
I love Lisa Leake’s, of 100daysofrealfood.com, perspective on junk food for her kids. Her girls get a “treat” a week. At some point, kids will be old enough that the “mommy said so” reason on why they shouldn’t eat junk food all the time won’t work anymore.
Lisa’s goal is to “educate [her] daughters about real food vs. junk food so that they not only know how to make good decisions on their own, but so that they want to make those good decisions.”
Because Lisa was worried that she would make her kids too concerned about food choices, she lets them eat foods offered to them when not at home (think birthday parties, sleepovers, etc.) without that counting as their treat. She teaches them that because they eat so healthy regularly and get plenty of exercise, eating the occasional junk food once or twice a week will never erase that. Her kids response has been phenomenal and they often tell her proudly about healthy choices they made while not at home.
Finding A Balance
Food, of course, isn’t the only part of the physical health equation. Exercise plays a role as well.
Statistics show that only one in three children are physically active every day.
Sure, kids usually have recess when they are in elementary school or P.E. in later grades, but in my experience, neither is a guarantee of physical activity. In fact, my experience as an overweight young woman was that P.E. was embarrassing and it was better to put in as little effort as possible so that I could blame my physical shortcomings on laziness rather than lack of ability.
As a regular gym goer now, I am so thrilled to see parents bringing their children in to work out with them. I didn’t discover the gym until college. When I did, I engaged in severe over-exercise in response to how I was feeling about my body. That was unhealthy, unsustainable, and eventually I gave up and ballooned back to my previous weight – plus more.
In my last year of college I took a nutrition and an exercise class and learned all about healthy eating and proper exercise. I’ve used those tools mostly consistently since that time but I found myself thinking a million times during those classes, “Why didn’t I learn this earlier?”
The gym certainly isn’t the only way to get some physical activity into your day, but it is a great way to model that exercise is an important value. Of course, you’re probably not taking your five-year-old daughter to run on the treadmill and lift weights, but when your daughter is old enough, consider letting her join you.
This may sound surprising, but the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness suggests that because balance and postural control skills mature at about 7 to 8 years old, strength training programs can begin around that age. Some of you may have heard that weightlifting isn’t safe for children under 12 because it will stunt their growth, but this is simply a myth.
Ultimately, what age is appropriate is up to you and the gym you choose since most have age requirements. If you’re feeling unsure, you should always consult your pediatrician.
If your children are too young to hit the gym with you, then you can engage in plenty of other physical activities with them such as swimming or playing basketball at the local park, playing tag, taking an after dinner walk, etc.
Michelle Obama’s passion as a first lady has been to stop childhood obesity and her website dedicated to the topic is full of ideas for family activities. The main idea is simply to teach your daughter the value of physical activity. This can be done through regularly participating in it with your daughter, and/or modeling it for your daughter by exercising regularly yourself (or any other physical activity) so she can see how important exercise is to you.
This will help show her by example that exercise is an integral part of life.
Do What Feels Right
I believe that if you openly show your daughter your love for yourself and never voice disdain for yours or her body, she will be significantly less likely to criticize her own body. Talking about why the body shaming examples your daughter sees in the media are wrong and how non-physical traits like kindness and intellect are more important than her appearance, will help her value her non-physical traits more. I believe that if you model and teach your daughter healthy eating and exercise habits from the very start, she will follow your lead and mimic those habits.
I can’t tell you what to do as a parent. Nor can I tell you what’s right or wrong for you and your child. These are just my experiences and the things I’ve taken away from them. Chances are, if you’re a woman reading this, then you are one of the 91% of women that is or has been unhappy with her body.
I encourage you to think about your own experiences growing up and how you wish some things had been different.
Do what feels right to you as a parent to help nurture your daughter and break the pattern of self-loathing that has been perpetuated for so long.
I’d be remiss to end this article without emphasizing that my mother is amazing. What you have read is merely a small glimpse into my childhood. What you didn’t read about is how I was/am her whole world. I didn’t write about how she lugged me to ballet, gymnastics, band, choir, etc. or how she helped me study and supported my education.
She did everything in her power to give me this amazing life that I have. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. If I’m lucky enough to have a daughter one day, I hope she’s smart enough and brave enough to write an article about how I could have done something better so that future moms can have that opportunity.
 Palmer, Mario. “5 Facts About Body Image.” Amplify. Accessed February 24, 2014, http://amplifyyourvoice.org/u/marioapalmer/2013/05/21/byob-be-your-own-beautiful.
 Names are changed in this article to protect anonymity on this sensitive subject.
 See e.g., http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/science-compared-every-diet-and-the-winner-is-real-food/284595/; http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/10-reasons-to-cut-out-processed-food/
 Goncalves S, Silva M, Gomes AR, Machado PP. Disordered eating among preadolescent boys and girls: the relationship with child and maternal variables. Nutrients, 2012. 4(4): 273-285.
 National Association for Sport and Physical Education. The Fitness Equation: Physical Activity + Balanced Diet = Fit Kids. Reston, VA: National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 1999.