By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
If you asked your daughter how you feel about your body, what would she say?
My 15-year-old would report that I think my thighs and butt are too big and my breasts are way too small.
Those are, in fact, the main things I think about my body, and I suppose I haven't been shy about sharing my feelings with her. Why is it that I don't talk more often about how strong my arms are (I can do a handstand!) or that my abdominal core muscles allow me to do many challenging yoga poses with ease? Or the fact that this ol' body of mine has given birth to two healthy children?
Last week's Health section featured an article by Joanna Chakerian about how parents' stray -- or not-so-stray -- comments about their daughters' appearance can set in motion an insecurity, even self-loathing, that can manifest itself in a lifetime of eating disorders and an unhealthy relationship with food and with their own bodies. The message: We parents need to be very careful not to criticize, or even comment on, our girls' bodies, their weight, shape or size.
But there's more to the equation. Dara Chadwick, author of the forthcoming book "You'd Be So Pretty If . . ." (due in May from DaCapo Press), argues that even as we must watch what we say to our daughters about their bodies, we should be mindful of the signals we send them about our regard for our own.
Chadwick knows whereof she speaks. In 2007 she was selected on the basis of her passionate application to write the "Weight Loss Diary" column for Shape magazine, documenting her efforts -- and those of the team of experts supplied by the magazine to help her -- to drop 25 pounds. In the process Chadwick became aware that her then-11-year-old daughter was watching her every move and might reasonably wonder why her mom felt the need to change her body, and why she was willing to sweat it out for hours at the gym just to lose weight.
Chadwick addressed the situation by talking with her daughter, over and over again, about the challenge; rather than speak of her dissatisfaction with her body, she opted to focus on her efforts to become healthier and to eat foods that were better for her. That seemed to work.
But Chadwick notes that we all learn our self-image lessons from our own mothers (and grandmothers) and have to work hard not to pass damaging lessons on to our daughters. As she reports in her upcoming book, although her premeditated conversations seemed to work well, she was surprised to hear what came out of her mouth on less-guarded occasions. Memorably, she recounts a moment during a holiday meal when she "snapped" at her daughter as she took a third dinner roll: "Do you really need that roll?"
"As I watched Faith's eyes fill with hurt, I realized that I'd done what I swore I'd never do," she writes. That incident echoed one from Chadwick's own childhood, when her mother chided her for taking a cookie to eat after dinner. "You know, you might want to cut back on the cookies," her mother reportedly said.
"In that single moment," Chadwick writes, "I became a girl who had to worry about what she ate."
In most instances, of course, we moms say these things out of love and concern. But those sentiments are often rooted in our own insecurities. We love our girls, so we don't want them to suffer the indignities we have suffered for being pudgy. We love them, so we want them to be able to wear the jeans they want and not have to shop in the plus-sizes shops.
But as Chakerian's article pointed out, our comments don't save our daughters from distress; more often than not, they contribute to their struggles with their body images.
So how do we break the cycle? Chadwick offers excellent suggestions, most of them subtle but surprisingly hard to practice.
-- Resist the urge to focus on your weight when talking about yourself. Shift to positive comments about your hair or your smile.
-- Also resist the urge to "constantly recheck the way you look," she says in an interview. That means not stopping to examine your reflection in every store window you pass.
-- In the clothing-store dressing room, rather than say, "Oh, my thighs look terrible in these pants!" say something like, "Hmm, the cut of these jeans isn't right for me," or "I don't like the way this fabric drapes," she says.
-- Have a sundae now and then. She says: "When the family goes out for ice cream and you just order a Diet Coke, that sends your daughter a message. Make good food choices for the most part, but try to make room for a treat. It's a balance, and it can be hard to get there, but if you do, it's a freedom from constantly trying to make yourself something you're not."
-- Accept compliments graciously; don't brush them off, especially in your daughter's presence. In fact, it would behoove you both if you learned to pay yourself a compliment now and then.
-- Be patient with yourself: You're not going to undo a life's worth of body-image problems overnight. But until you do get to the point where you're comfortable with your own body, Chadwick suggests in her book, "fake it."
"None of this means that we never have a negative thought," Chadwick writes. "But it's all about balance, what you focus on, what you consciously decide to say to your daughter."
-- Finally, recognize that it's never too late. "Fortunately, it's not too late to change the message you're sending," Chadwick writes. "The good news is that you can talk to her about it. If she's open to it, ask her how she feels when you talk about your body [negatively]. Or if she's following your example and putting herself down, tell her that you feel responsible for teaching her that behavior. Kids understand that adults make mistakes; in fact, it makes us seem more human to them."
"Your daughter is looking to you as her role model for what healthy middle age looks like," Chadwick tells me. "Even if she says you're a dork, you're still her role model, whether she likes it or not."
Check out today's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer continues the conversation about moms, daughters and body image. Subscribe to the weekly Lean & Fit nutrition newsletter by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com and searching for "newsletters." Go to the Wednesday Food section to find Nourish, a new feature with a recipe for healthful eating every week. And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org.