This is about a few personal, anecdotal experience and should not substitute medical advice. If you're having health concerns of any kind, we urge you to speak to a healthcare professional.
Our whole lives, we're led to believe our parents have superpowers, until one day we realize they're just an older version of us—mere mortals. Although, raising happy, well-rounded children while also attempting to maintain your own life, career, and relationships seem pretty damn spectacular. Inherently, our problems are their problems, and their baggage can become ours.
As someone who's struggled with an eating disorder (and the subsequent fallout) for one-third of my life, I often wonder about the role mothers play in issues with body image. Is there anything my own mother did that I can concretely say made a difference? I'm not sure. It's difficult to find something tangible within a topic so intrinsically murky. I discussed this very topic with other women to see if it brought about any new clarity.
Below, eight women share their thoughts.
"'Body image' has wielded a lot of influence in my life. I use the word wield because many of the connotations associated with those two little words—thoughts, diets, habits, stigmas, have exercised a significant amount of control. And, until recently, I definitely wasn't in the driver's seat. Plus, quite honestly, there are some days when I still decide to buckle myself in the backseat, instead.
"Growing up, both of my parents were extremely health-conscious. While some kids had goldfish, fruit snacks, and Lunchables in their backpacks, my mom would pack things like sandwiches made with flax bread, vegetables, and organic yogurt or soy milk. This wasn't a bad thing (and these days, it's actually something I'm quite thankful for!), but at the time, I always felt like an outlier because of the food I ate. Growing up, the approach to diet felt very black and white, which, as a kid, seemed to translate as strictly 'good' or 'bad.'
"Looking back, I think I cultivated a very dysfunctional relationship with food at a very young age. Additionally, my mom was always experimenting with diets and trying to lose weight. We never actually talked about body image or her dieting and exercise, but I definitely observed negative body image manifest—without any sort of narrative to help me make sense of it. I would watch my mom (who is honestly the kindest, gentlest, and most radiantly beautiful woman I know) beat herself down trying to lose those couple last pounds or fit into that of old pair of jeans. I think I inherently began to understand positive body image as something that was to be achieved. Something that teased and taunted but was never actually attainable. Because if the woman I thought of as Supermom couldn't have it, who could?
"When I developed an eating disorder in my junior year of high school, I was forced to go back to the drawing board. As I went through different levels of treatment, my mom and I finally had those conversations we never had when I was younger, and simultaneously we both had to put the training wheels back on. Which, in all honesty, was an incredibly raw experience. Never in a million years would I blame my mom for my eating disorder, and her support, love, and patience were absolutely pivotal to my recovery, but I do think to have open conversations with your daughter—and having a certain awareness as to what they might observe, and how the outside world will validate and explain for you—is key.
"After talking to my mom, I know that she would have been open to having these conversations (especially if she had an inkling of my future struggles), but it was just kind of this unsaid thing. According to the universe, everything she was doing was the norm. So it was almost like, why even talk about it or explain it?"
After talking to my mom, I know that she would have been open to having these conversations (especially if she had an inkling of my future struggles), but it was just kind of this unsaid thing.
"I grew up in a super-supportive single-parent environment (my mom's a social worker if that gives you an idea). I asked her how we talked about body image and how she created such a positive environment, and she said that we would do crafts together because then, instead of trying to force the conversation, we could talk freely. She also said (literally copying and pasting from a text she just sent me), 'You were also very intense/determined once you decided about something—like being a vegetarian! Instead of shutting it down, I told you to learn about it—and you spent about a year learning to count proteins and such—so [we were all about] respecting a person's own path.'"
"My mother was always very forward with her thoughts toward my body—maybe too forward. In Chinese culture, people talk about bodies much more openly—it's not uncommon for a family friend to comment on your weight casually or to tell you that you look like you've lost weight; that kind of comment is taken as a compliment, sort of like saying, 'You look really pretty today' (unless they're implying you look too skinny, in which case it's an insult—I know, it gets complicated).
"My mom made her opinions about my body very clear while I was growing up and would casually say things like 'You look like you've gained weight' or 'You look too skinny—you need to eat more.' It never caused me to struggle with my body image, but it certainly didn't make things easier, especially as a teenager. I knew it came from a good place, though, and that if I did end up struggling with my body, she would be the first to build me up. I think that I'll probably keep my opinions to myself when/if I ever have a daughter, but be there to offer words of support if I see her struggling."
"My dad has always been obsessive about my weight, which is ironic coming from someone with fast-food bags crumpled at the bottom of his car and whose daily water intake comes by way of Corona. Every time I would come home from college or for a visit post-graduation, he'd ask if I was maintaining my weight, and if I seemed like I had gained, he would comment. My dad is, by nature, a character, so I've never taken it too much to heart, but when I've stopped and thought about it after the fact, I realized how fucked up it was, and it made me question how I looked.
"The beacon of light in this situation is my mom, who's always been at my defense. She's never once commented on my weight and stuck up for me if/when he makes a snide comment. In the past few years, any quips my dad has made weight-wise has transitioned into him asking if I'm exercising because he's concerned about the number of hours I sit in a day. I think he's finally found the words to convey the point he'd wanted to make all along with the help of my mom's reasoning. It's also been a lesson for him on how to talk about a sensitive subject."
"In the wake of my eating disorder, I definitely still feel very conflicted about my mother's role in my perceived body image. To be clear, even if I might have done things differently in retrospect, I now empathize with her completely: Unless you're blatantly triggering someone for the sake of triggering them, there's no 'right' way to broach the subject. It might seem obvious, but things can still go awry. Through my own experience, I know that eating disorders are about so much more than looking a certain way. More often than not, they're the result of deep-seated hurt that has nothing to do with physicality whatsoever; while mine didn't manifest until I was 19, I can now look back at situations from when I was 5 years old and recognize that same kind of trauma, as subtle as it was at the time.
"Still, while I was in the thick of it, it was easy to think back to certain comments she made and assume she set me up to hate my body. This was further complicated by the fact that while I was still struggling with my anorexia, my mom revealed for the first time that she was an eating disorder survivor as well. I resented her so deeply for this—she had gone through the exact same thing and still wasn't able to prevent the same kind of pain for her daughter? It took me many years to realize how flawed this logic was. When we're kids—particularly kids who grow up in relatively sheltered homes—it's easy to give our parents this 'hero' complex, to subscribe to this idea that they should know better. I had to grow up to understand that my mom is a human being who was figuring it out as she went along and just trying to do her very best for her kids. Now that we can connect on this very human level, our relationship has never been stronger, and I really can't blame her for anything.
"This is all to say that I simply can't predict how this might go when I have kids. I do think it's important to just talk about it at all—I'm not sure we did that enough in my house. I really do want to emphasize honesty and to allow room for bad feelings. It's totally unreasonable to suggest that we fall head-over-heels in love with our bodies all the time—that's why I'm not sure I totally subscribe to the body-positivity movement, which can often actually feel exclusionary for this reason. We're human beings, and to suggest that we constantly feel positive about ourselves simply isn't relatable or authentic. Instead, I'm all for body neutrality, which is about recognizing the vessel you (and others) have, appreciating it for what it does, and allowing yourself to have those days where you're like, Ugh, I feel bloated today—and that's okay."
We're human beings, and to suggest that we constantly feel positive about ourselves simply isn't relatable or authentic.
"Even though my mom isn't the most confident when it comes to her own body image, she was always so good at making me feel comfortable with and proud of my own body. She'd talk about how she'd give anything to have a 'basketball butt' like mine, and any time I would complain about fat, she'd say it's better to be 'juicy' than stick thin. She always reiterated the idea of embracing your [body], allowing yourself to eat the cake, and realizing others are too busy worrying about their 'thing' to even notice yours."
"My mom tells me I'm beautiful to a fault—you know how moms are with excessive, exaggerated compliments. So I was completely taken aback when the summer after my sophomore year of college, my mom mentioned my weight for the first time ever. We were in the kitchen, and she said it looked like I'd gotten a bit bigger. It was my first full year on birth control on top of living in an apartment (meaning I had 21-year-old upperclassmen friends and no RAs watching); it was a recipe for a beer gut. But the fact that my mom had noticed, I was mortified. Because that meant it wasn't all in my head; it meant I had actually gained weight. However, by posing it as an Are you happy with your body right now, and if not, let's fix that scenario, I felt encouraged rather than pressured into doing so.
"I decided to go off of my birth control for a bit, and my mom stocked the fridge with healthy food, and that was the last time we ever talked about my weight. All said and done, it was a positive experience. What I appreciate most is that she wasn't critical, but rather concerned and supportive; if anything, I wish she would've said it sooner. We were a family who always helped ourselves to seconds—we were blessed with fast metabolisms. But because of that, I wasn't equipped to make healthy choices once I was on my own. My mother and father were and are incredible parents, and I have so much to thank them for. But I will encourage [my kids] to make health a priority."
"It wasn't until after I sought treatment for my eating disorder that I realized it was a difficult 'life thing' for my mother, as well. I think that goes to show how little teenagers peer into the lives and experiences of their parents. I overheard my mother talking about it with a friend on the phone, distraught over what to do and how to broach the subject with me. Wow, I thought, this is something she's dealing with too.
"When I think back to the way I grew up, weight was never an issue we discussed early on. That being said, my mother didn't bat an eyelash when, in seventh grade, I put myself on my first-ever diet. We have similar bodies, mostly thin, but we certainly fluctuate. She yo-yo dieted my entire life. Perhaps that created a guide for me to do the same, but I can't be sure. She's such a wonderful mom—cool, supportive, and fiercely feminist in a way I only now understand changed the woman I grew into. But comments from your mother cut in a way no one else's can. I remember her (rightfully so) suggesting my shirt was too small. Sure, she wanted me to wear clothes that fit, but what she couldn't have known was I felt insecure about gaining weight and growing out of my clothes. I cried the afternoon she said that.
But comments from your mother cut in a way no one else's can.
"Years later, after the post-treatment weight gain and a lot of subsequent struggle, I tried my best to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I was home for the summer, and my family was driving to get ice cream after dinner. I had decided I didn't want any but came along for the ride. My grandmother called while we were en route, and I'll never forget what my mom said: 'We're getting ice cream. Gemma's not having any.' I was humiliated. It was as if they talked about my weight gain behind my back and my mother was assuring her I was doing something about it. It was casual and cruel—but just innocent enough that I didn't say anything and she hardly realized it happened.
"When it comes down to it, I have no idea what the answer is—every situation is different. I don't blame my mother for my eating disorder; it's categorically not her fault. Was I sensitive? Yes. Could she have done better? Maybe, but who knows? I was an angsty teenager with deep-rooted body issues, and I don't think anything she said or did might have changed that. I think in the end, it's most important to realize mistakes will always be made, and maintaining honest communication is the only thing we can do."
Ed. note: Names have been changed.