Developing a healthy body image: Mothers, stop trying to fix your daughters
Editor's note: This post by Ashleigh Adkins originally appeared on StrivingOnward.com, a digital community where women across the world can support and inspire one another in their roles as friends, wives and mothers. It has been reprinted here with permission.
I consider my mom one of my closest friends. She loves her family, always puts God first and is a great example to me. I’m listing amazing characteristics my mom possesses because I don’t want you to criticize her when I tell you about how she passed on the habit of body shaming to me.
For as far back as I can remember, my healthy and athletic mom has critiqued her body. I can’t remember a time when she’s been happy with the way she looks. I honestly believe she inherited her body-shaming mentality from her mother, who inherited it from her mother. My great-grandmother would tell my grandma things like, “Why can’t you be as beautiful as your sister?” How could anyone grow up hearing things like that and not have body image issues? My mom was raised by a woman who was never “pretty” enough for her mother. Although my grandma is a strong woman, being told my mom wasn’t a good enough woman because she wasn’t pretty affected her, and in turn affected her children and grandchildren. Are you seeing a pattern here?
So guess what happened to me? I ended up not loving what I saw in the mirror either.
Out of my parents’ four children, I am the only one who inherited the short-and-chubby genes. I don’t know what it feels like to be a size 2 or 4 like my sisters. Something about me being chubby at a young age scared my mom and made her put me on diets in elementary school. Sadly, mothers do this to their children all the time. I remember attending a Weight Watchers meeting with my mom and looking around to find that I was the youngest person in the room. I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?” and then remembered that I was chubbier than my mom, and she worried about herself, so of course I needed help, too.
My mom’s insecurities rubbed off on me. It didn’t help that she would buy me clothes that were always too small or make comments about what I was eating. I noticed my siblings would help themselves to whatever food they wanted without comment from my mom. I noticed the double standards with food and clothes, while deeply yearning to be their size — it never happened.
In college nothing changed. My brain was so messed up that I associated everything with food and weight anxiety. I got tense every time my parents came to town and we ate together. One Thanksgiving a few years ago, my mom made another, “Should you really be eating that?” comment. I finally let her know how much those words hurt me. I remember yelling something along the lines of, “Why don’t you say that exact same thing to my sisters or brother?” And I realized at that moment that I was tired of her projecting her insecurities onto me; if I was ever going to be happy, she had to stop encouraging me to shame my body. My mom was definitely surprised I stood up for myself. I believe it shocked her into finally understanding more about my feelings and insecurities.
Today my mom is more sensitive to my need to feel accepted by her. What breaks my heart is how unforgiving she is still toward her own body. During one of my parents’ recent visits, I took my mom shopping. Clothes weren’t fitting her right (in her eyes), so she started making negative comments. I stopped her mid-sentence and told her to stop talking that way — which made her upset. I shared with her the things that I ‘ve done to find peace within myself. She was so mad at me by this point that I thought she wasn’t listening. But a few weeks later I learned that I was wrong; she had heard every word.
“You changed someone’s life this week,” my mom told me on our way home from Target.
“Mom, what are you talking about?”
“One of my co-workers came into my office upset about her daughter. She told me that her daughter is overweight and doesn’t know what to do. She told me that she finds herself asking her daughter if she should really be eating things or wishing her daughter wouldn’t eat what she does. Ashleigh, as I listened to her talk, I realized that this is what I have done to you. I told her about our conversation two weeks ago when you stopped me and told me to quit talking negatively about myself.”
I can’t tell you the peace and acceptance I felt hearing my mom tell me how she was able to help her co-worker because of something I said. At the time I said it, I didn’t even think she was listening to me explain to her about her need to accept and love herself, but she was.
Here’s something she wrote and shared me with about this experience:
"Being Shaped and Unshaped"
Learning by example. How potent the statement. I attribute my strong ability to grasp change and explore its adventure to my mother. I thrive on change, but not to my body. I thought it was normal to try to control my weight as I grew up as a gymnast and dancer and was required to weigh every Monday to control the weekend binges. After all, your agility is limited by rolls of skin. But what do you do when you grow past those days? Activity and agility decreases, but you are already shaped into a mindset ingrained solidly into your every thought ... you must not grow past a certain size or suffer the consequences of being evaluated by all those who see you in the revealing leotard. I gave birth to my last child 14 years after I quit gymnastics and would not even step on the scale in the doctor’s office as it was just too painful to watch. Ashleigh is my child that I unknowingly shaped because she received the signals that I gave off from how she ate to how she looked. I would watch her grow both up and out and try to stop the out growth. Our journey is not unique to families. I would like to think that with my contributions to her body image concerns, I also gave her the strong personality to unshape me and reshape herself. And I’ll always be grateful for that.
After having this powerful experience with my mother, there are a few things I would like you to take away from my experience:
1. Mothers, stop trying to “fix” your daughters. Skinny does NOT equal healthy.
2. Be an example for your daughter. Don’t talk badly about your body in front of her.
3. Make sure you give yourself compliments in front of your daughter. She will remember them!
4. Never stop fighting to change the culture of body shaming.
To see or know me you would never guess that every morning I have a battle within myself when I look in the mirror. It has taken me many years to get where I am today. I love things about my body that I used to hate. I am better at embracing my curves instead of covering them up. Every day I fall in love with myself again. My body shape comes from my mom, but the shape my life takes is up to me.
Ashleigh Adkins is an office supervisor for Women's Services and Resources at BYU. She received a bachelor's degree in sociology from BYU with a minor in women’s studies.
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