Friday, August 25, 2006


The Oprah show recently focused on the body dysmorphia now common, even amongst little girls. The show featured two pre-schoolers and a teenage model, all of whom hated their appearance or took drastic measures to conform to a beauty ideal.

The first guest was a three-year-old little girl, a regular Victoria Secret catalogue reader, who throws tantrums when not allowed to wear make-up like her mom. According to her mother, the girl screams, “I hate you Mommy!” when she doesn’t feel pretty enough. Explanations for this? Her mother seems to spend quite a bit of time prepping herself when going out, applying make-up and performing multiple mirror-checks. Mother says, “I don’t recall ever being told ‘You’re beautiful,’ so I’m constantly telling her how beautiful she is.” So, why doesn’t her daughter listen to her? It seems the adage, “Do as I say, not as I do” is most illustrative here.

The second guest, a skinny four-year-old is intensely afraid she’ll become fat. How might such fear arise? Her mother insists that her daughter’s pre-school classmates called her “fat,” stating, “I honestly believe that she’s learning it from just being around other girls.” You do? Because what about, as the show later reveals, your history of anorexia? Turns out mom struggled with anorexia for years, and even now limits all food intake to servings “smaller than a cup” and exercises daily, sometimes twice a day. It’s not surprising that her daughter is restricting her portions and leading her own makeshift aerobics class in the home, is it?

The third guest is a 19-year-old model and soccer-team captain. She reports that at age seven, she couldn’t go to school because her face was “too ugly,” and today, she tends to shatter mirrors and destroy pictures of herself. She, at times, turns her destructive impulses on herself, reporting suicidal ideation and a history of cutting. After hearing from this young woman, we meet her mother, whom her daughter often overhears as saying, “I’m so ugly!” Mom and daughter, from time to time, compete in the “Who’s fatter?” game.

In all three cases, we see daughters, despite well-intentioned mothers, who internalize their self-reproach. A daughter whose mother struggles with body acceptance will likely do the same, as her mother tacitly, but forcefully, conveys that thinner is better and condemns any shape that does not conform. It is my contention that for mothers, no matter how much love you give your daughter, or how much regard you show her, if you dislike your body, your daughter will do the same.


FatMom said...

Jeez, sounds like how I grew up! No wonder I was anorexic, then became an overeater and am now fat, fat, fat! That being said, I am extremely sensitive to the fact that I have children, one of whom is a daughter (age 9). I will NEVER tell her she needs to lose weight, or that she's chubby. I do, however, encourage her to make healthy food choices and to stay active. If I limit the amount of a certain food she eats, it's simply because it's not healthy to eat anything to excess. And that's what I tell her. I don't say: no more than one, or you'll get fat (a la my mom). We have such an extremely important role in the shaping of our children's self image and it's one I take very seriously. Thanks for the post, Dr. Stacey!

Anonymous said...

"am now fat, fat, fat!"

I think what Dr. Stacey is also implying is that by explicitly stating your own dissatisfaction for your body, your children will begin to mimic that type of behabiour as well, not only because you say that they are fat. Dieting in front of your children without saying anything is still implying that you dislike your own body.
Anyway, thanks for raising this topic Dr. Stacey. As someone who currently suffers from an ED, I can relate to a great extent, now especially. I think my mother is having a midlife crisis of some sort and I can't help but notice that she rarely eats and weighs herself compulsively several times a day. It worries me in more ways than one...

PalmTreeChick said...

My mom never talked about her weight or worried about it so I don't know where I got my "issues" from. Oh well, I guess it doesn't really matter where they came from because they're here.

Beth said...

I agree, PTC, didn't get mine from mom, either. Not that any of those mothers were bad, just perhaps insensitive in their attitudes around their daughters.

If a mom criticizes her daughter or focuses too much on her own looks, she is most likely to inflict self image issues upon the child, perhaps unaware so. However, a mom with a history of anorexia or being overweight and now limits/weighs portions and works out more than the rest of us, can absolutely find a way to do that without costing her daughter. If that is what the mom does to maintain a nice figure, and it satisfys her lifestyle needs, then that is her right. How many moms do you see that have kids and let their figures go because they don't take care of themselves anymore? Self awareness isn't necessarily a bad thing...

Anonymous said...

I agree that with the right amount of care and attention, someone who has had an eating disorder can raise satisfied children, but it's probably best not to express that you think you are "fat" in front of anyone. What *should* be the focus is health. When someone says "fat" it sounds much more appearance-focused than on health.
At the same time, mothers aren't the only ones at fault, but the most influence a child receives is from his/her parents, whose opinions matter greatly (for those who have them). Either way, nobody's perfect, so you can't expect everything from a parent, so I don't blame mine, I never have. I still hold myself responsible for everything that I do.

flowerchild said...

So depressing. I have worked so hard to have enough self-awareness and insight into my own problems with food, body, etc., but I still don't know it it will be enough for my son to escape the evils of disordered thinking around food and body things. I have made him aware that I am trying to lose weight because I want to be more healthy, but maybe even that is too much information. I talk to him about healthy food choices....
Looking back, I had such a distorted view of what I looked like. I remember seriously thinking that my butt would get bigger if people were looking at it. I was in school and a teacher asked me to hop up on the chair behind me to shut a window and I seriously felt my butt blow up like a giant beach ball. Now that I have gained quite a bit more weight, I sometimes think I am thinner than I am. What the hell?

littlem said...

Beth, IMHO, the phrase "let their figures go" is exactly the kind of pejorative expression I think we're talking about here.

I think I get your point, and I would totally not have a quibble if you said "didn't keep herself strong" or "didn't keep herself healthy".

But "let one's figure go" implies that the MOST important thing about the mom's body is NOT whether it functions optimally, but how it looks.

And that's exactly the sort of phrase, when repeated and repeated and repeated, by mom, or dad, or whoever's in the house, that burns itself into a girl's mind as an example of what she'll likely face if she doesn't "keep her figure together" -- endless judgment, ridicule, and shaming.

Which is what can lead people to resort to stuff like bulimia.

Such a drag to try to be conscious, isn't it?

Beth said...

Little Em,
So you're saying I'm not conscious? Just because I used a phrase you found offensive doesn't mean I put little thought into these issues. "Letting ones figure go" is semantics, and while I'd never want to hear my mom accuse me of it, the truth is it is happening all aroud us.
Tell me, if 60% of the US is overweight, and 5% have ED's, then how is this an acceptable state of health for an adult or role model for kids? Many moms "let themselves go" by eating the leftover crap they feed their kids and not taking time to exercise at all. Letting your figure go (in my terms, gaining so much weight)in no way optimizes the body's health. Unless, of course, it's muscle. Recent studies show being even slightly overweight is hazardous to health. Thats why I'm saying anyone, including former anorexics or overweight people, should be conscientous of their dietary habits. There are ways to do this without hurting your daughters.
Taking pride in your figure (secondary to health, of course) is not a crime, and a wonderfully feminine thing to do. Maybe if more moms did this, their daughters wouldn't fear getting fat like them.
A great mom is one who can take care of her own needs after her child's, and not pass on any internal issues she may struggle with.

littlem said...

"Little Em,
So you're saying I'm not conscious?"

No, Beth.

I'm saying that it takes more effort to be aware of the impact that specific words have, and NOT to toss it off as "just semantics."

I think that it's interesting that the other suggested phrases (e.g., "didn't keep herself strong" or "didn't keep herself healthy") DO seem to be what you meant, primarily, judging from your reply's emphasis on health -- although I also get your point that you believe it's equally important to take pride in one's appearance -- and yet you choose to cling to the more exclusionary word, "figure", which DOES NOT, on its face, include health considerations.

The specific words we use DO have power, for us and for the people around us. It's NOT just semantics.

That's all I'm saying.

drstaceyny said...

fm--I'm glad you've committed to using this type of language with your children.

anon--you're right--it's not just the explicit language, but the subtle messages that kids internalizes--the dieting, the frowning in the mirror, the frequent weighing. . .

ptc--I think these types of maternal messages are sufficient, but unncessary, as there are other factors, as you know, that may contribute to an eating problem.

anon--I think it can be done, but that it requires a great deal of mindfulness.

fc--it is intersting how, often, body image has nothing to do with your body. It sounds like you've worked hard to keep things in check now, which should help your son.

lm/beth--interesting discussion. I do think that word choice is important, though it seems that you have a similar bottom line (health is key). I hope that we can continue to have debates like this, attacking ideas but not each other.

Jennifer said...

I remember seeing this episode of Oprah the first time it aired. As someone who comes from a father with a binge eating disorder and a mother who has anorexic tendencies, it was easy for me to see where I developed at least some of my issues. I think this is part of why I'm so hell bent on getting this disorder under control before I consider starting a family of my own. I know that my grandparents had issues, my parents have issues, and now I do. So what does that tell you?

blubbah said...

What about children who see mothers diet (in various ways, with various successes) and are frustrated or dismissive of such practises? I'm sure they'll still be affected by their mothers' actions, but if you roll your eyes at powdered fasts and cabbage soup diets, and think your mother is fine as she is - is society or your mother more to blame when you start obsessing over your body at an older age?