Earlier this week on Good Morning America there was yet another story on the body image crisis affecting our pre-pubescent daughters.
We all know our society is hard on girls and women. It values thinness and "beauty" above all else, and propels our girls, at younger and younger ages, into understanding their worth as indiscriminate, sexually objectified things. Infant bikinis, thongs for tweens, sexually over-the-top pop stars…
But our society is made up of two genders. It’s not only men, but women who encourage girls to concentrate their attention and efforts in the pursuit of skinny, sexy "beauty". In the GMA story, for example, both a mother and a female teacher are called out as shaming little girls into dieting and chasing physical perfection as the ideal features of being female.
Although we don’t mean to, we mothers often model for our daughters our own insecurities and the way we ourselves succumb to ridiculous standards of beauty. When we do this, we pass down our self-loathing to them, and we consciously or unconsciously systematically campaign for their adoption of unhealthy physical obsessions. We talk of dieting, and weight loss. We say we feel fat or ugly. We judge other women. We jump on the bandwagon and buy magazines that pit women against each other, like the Who Wore It Best competitions. And we do this even as we fail to teach them an understanding and appreciation of their healthy sexual development, which would foster a healthy body image.
We focus on what’s unnatural, and disavow them from what is.
If we took the energy we spend, in effect, supporting our daughters in the development of eating disorders, anxiety and depression, and instead spent it on cultivating self assurance and ownership of their bodies, it’s possible it would be easier for them to hold their own against societal pressures.
When we inadvertently make life harder for our girls in these ways, we need to understand that they go on to carry this discomfort and lack of ownership over their bodies into adulthood with them. It undermines their confidence — interpersonally, academically, professionally and sexually — because it demands their attention in a crippling way every day.
A negative body image will affect a daughter’s self worth and her ability to be comfortable in her body in all areas of her life, because if she has a negative body image, then throughout everything she engages in she will, quite literally, be in a body that torments her.
Of the women in my research who expressed their feelings about body image, most reported spending 30-40% of every day thinking about body image, and 46% of them said they focused on it because their mothers did. And they resent their mothers for this.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, one study found 80% of ten-year-old girls had already dieted to lose weight, and another found that girls as young as five have a preoccupation with body image. It also stated that anorexia and bulimia are on the rise.
In addition to starting earlier than we think, these problems also stay with us longer than we’d like to admit. Eating disorder clinics are now treating significantly more women over 30, with one clinic reporting a 400% increase in serving women over 40. From pre-pubescent girls to women in their 60s, these statistics represent millions of females. By simple extended logic, they reveal the struggles of millions of mothers and daughters.
Depending on the intensity and pervasiveness of the body pressures we place on them, or on ourselves and other women in front of them, our daughters can come to believe they’re unworthy, undesirable and unlovable unless they look a certain way. They also witness how we don’t value ourselves as we are, which makes us less idealizable as women in their eyes, and sets them up to lose respect for us.
Women in my practice have taught me that daughters keep these fears and beliefs to themselves because they’re devastating and humiliating. They don’t talk to their mothers about this dynamic because they have little faith that we’ll be able to support them. It’s hard for our daughters to imagine we can help them inspire confidence in themselves when they see we can’t do it for ourselves.
Our own fixation with body image doesn’t just disrupt our relationship to ourselves, it by extension disrupts our daughters’ relationship to themselves. As women in my book confess over and over, a mother’s inability to appreciate the female body and authentic female sexuality causes daughters to lose faith in their mothers’ ability to be confident role models of health and happiness. Then our daughters go on to struggle with the same themes.
As women, we can’t help but be affected by the sexist attitudes we grew up with, but we focus on negative body image with a fervor that belies some of the strides we’ve made toward equality. The issue at hand at this point in history is whether we’re willing to evaluate our own behavior in an effort to lessen the harmful impact of that sexism on behalf of our daughters.