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Mothers May Influence Daughters' Outlook on Body Image

In today's weight-obsessed culture, it seems like girls are starting to diet younger and younger, and a lot of that may be due to their mother's influence. Ann Kearney-Cooke, director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute and an expert on body image, talks to us about the effects a mother has on her daughter's diet, and what you can do to help your own daughter keep a healthy outlook on her body.

The effects that a mother has on the eating habits of her daughter are huge. Many mothers, and even grandmothers, try to prevent the girls in their families from becoming overweight. But in an effort to help, many moms end up making matters worse.

Data shows that especially girls in kindergarten and 1st grade are counting their intake of fat and reading labels to see how much fat is in food. Research shows that women who are critical of their own bodies are more critical of their daughters' bodies, so their daughters engage in more serious dieting techniques with laxatives and eating disorders.

It isn't used to be like that because this is the first generation that wasn't allowed to keep weight on after having babies. Now the message seems to be that everyone can be a size 6 with a little discipline, and 50 years ago that wasn't the message. People have different body types, and that used to be acceptable, and years ago people understood that you look different at 60 than you do at 30.

Identification and Internalization

There are two ways that girls can get the message that they need to watch their weight, the first is identification--where really each girl identifies with the same sex parent. So she absorbs her mom's attitudes about feelings and bodies. Your mom might not be critical of your body, but you'll take in her negative feelings about her own body, and this will affect your body image.

Internalization--You take in comments that are made about your body, as well as experiences that occur with your body. Comments are branded into your brain. So if someone calls you piggy, people often hold on to those comments. I ask people all the time if they have been hurt by painful comments, and if they still hurt the same as when the comment was made? They say yes. This becomes part of our body image. It involves things that have happened to our bodies.

A lot of times people who are really obsessed with their body may have been teased a lot or made fun of when they were younger, so they're careful about their weight and shape, and they don't want their daughters to experience that pain. On the other hand is that self esteem that comes from being attractive, and they want the same thing for their daughters.

Advice on how to feel good about one's body image

One thing encourage women to do is to challenge themselves to define their body image by the choices they make each day, not how people respond to their body, or the fact that people made fun of them before. They shouldn't be critical of their body. They should keep track of any self-care of the body (sleep, exercise, resting when tired, bathing when stressed out) and teach other people how to talk about their body. Talk back when people comment about how you look like you've stopped exercising and stop apologizing.

It's important for moms not to talk about weight in front of their daughters because kids take it in. Also, do you talk a lot about other people's bodies? Be careful what you say about other people's bodies. Help kids realize the pluses of different body types, like tall people can reach things, muscular people are strong, etc.

What if your daughter is fat?

Wait for your daughter to bring it up to you, empathize and say that it must feel awful that people are making fun of her. And if she says, can you help me? Say yes, but first ask if the daughter can teach you to do things to help her, like making low-cal meals. In general, use this as an opportunity for the whole family to eat healthier and taking hikes together or going canoeing. And talk about eating in terms of health rather than weight.

You have to be really careful about bringing up your daughter's weight to her, because if you bring up the weight, she'll get in a battle with you. So she'll change her habits when the battle is going on within her. If you bring it up, the daughter may feel ashamed or rebellious. But if they say to you "no one's inviting me to sleepovers" and you say, "I wonder why that is", and let it come from them, let them say "I think it's because I'm fat". And then you say, "do you want to do something about it?" And then try to work together as a team.

A lot of kids overeat during transitions, like from school to home, so helping them during those times by talking, sharing about your day, taking a walk, almost developing a ritual to help deal with that can help. And having healthy snacks available can also help.

Things to do

First thing is to model positive body image. Take care of your body, and find clothes you look good on, and don't talk negatively about your body around them.

Don't criticize their bodies; focus on positive things like how good they are at something.

Encourage healthy eating, downtime and relaxation time and movement (riding bikes, etc.)

Don't tolerate anyone in the family teasing anyone else about their shape or weight.





Things not to d

Don't be obsessed and complain about your body

Don't model using food inappropriately (eating when you're stressed or angry)

Don't focus just on how they look, focus on their overall being

You don't have to talk to your kids about weight, but you can change the atmosphere at home if you feel that they're overweight. You can change foods, make sure there's someone at home after school to talk so they're not eating. Plan a vacation so you can rent bikes, etc.






Watch what you say

Respect her comfort zone (if she feels uncomfortable in bathing suit or shorts, and let them choose what to wear)

Listen between the lines

Edit her influences (surround her with magazines and books that really show a variety of images)

Be active together

Never say:

Are you sure you want to eat that? (really says you shouldn't eat that)

If you keep eating like that you're going to get fat

You have no discipline

You'd be amazed at how much people remember about what's been said to them.

From the onset of puberty to maturation, a girl is going to double her height and gain 30-40 pounds. In the first few years it's not distributed the way you'd want it to be. Just keep eating healthy, and educate girls about their own bodies.

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