How do mothers shape their daughters' body image and attitudes toward food? We asked a group of 10 women to share their experiences
Ask a person to name the greatest influence in their life and, nine times out of 10, they'll cite a parent. Like it or not, we pick up a lot of our attitudes and behaviours from our parents, and while most of these behaviours are healthy and positive, others can be damaging.
This ripple effect is especially pronounced when it comes to mother-daughter body image. Research suggests that mothers play a significant role in the development of their daughters' body image — and it's not always a healthy one.
We brought together a group of 10 women to discuss the influence that their mothers had on their body image. Some of them were brought up in households where diets started every Monday; others were brought up in homes where diets were never even discussed. Their stories offer a fascinating insight into the roots of body image issues, and while it's a small sample of women, it's hard to ignore the generational differences at play.
Here they share their formative body image experiences and the impact it had on their adult selves.
'I feel sorry for my mother and grandmother. They’ll be on diets forever'
"My mother — and her mother — have a completely distorted relationship with food. They have been on diets their entire lives and they think of skinniness as some sort of exalted state of being. I definitely inherited body issues from my mother and I struggled with disordered eating throughout my early teens. She would often remark on my weight and I went through years of starving and bingeing. A lot of people around me expressed concern when I lost a shocking amount of weight in my teens. My mother told me I looked amazing. Thankfully I got over that phase, and I’m really proud to have overcome it. I feel sorry for my mother and grandmother. They’ll be on diets forever." (Jean, 38)
'I've always been more influenced by my peers and social media'
"I can understand why some women might inherit insecurities about weight or body shape from their mams, but I'm blessed to say I'm not one of them. Yes, I have self-esteem issues – but for different reasons. I've always been more influenced by my peers and social media (the 'thigh gap' craze on Instagram a few years ago really messed with my confidence). If mam ever experienced body issues, she hid them well from me. Nowadays, both she and I have a very happy relationship with food (including treats). We like to eat whatever we want, regardless of the impact on our body shape. Life is too short to be worrying about that. Just be happy and (relatively) healthy, that's our motto." (Ava, 25)
'Outside influences such as friends and the media were my kryptonite'
"I struggled with body image issues for as long as I can remember, but luckily these never came from my mother. Outside influences such as friends and the media were my kryptonite. My mother always had a very healthy relationship with her own body, as did her sisters. Food was never spoken of as an evil entity, and I never heard them mutter a cross word about their forms. The reason for this is that their mother went fully blind at the age of 46. I believe because they witnessed what it was like for someone to lose one of our most sacred senses, rolls, cellulite and the image before you in a mirror were of little significance." (Sinead, 24)
'I lost three stone extremely fast and was rewarded every day with compliments'
"I had an eating disorder when I was in my early twenties. I lost three stone extremely fast and was rewarded every day with compliments. The person who complimented me most was my mother. We could finally share clothes, she exclaimed. I’m better now, or as ‘better’ as I can be. It took therapy and time. I know now that my mother’s 'I made you a HEALTHY dinner' and 'Don’t you wish you could just lose four pounds?' comments are more about her than me. I hope to pass on something different to my children." (Lorraine, 33)
'The idea of my mam commenting on my weight or urging me to go on a diet is very alien to me'
"One of the things I was always very thankful for about my mam was that body image was never brought up as a problem when I was growing up. I think she probably made a special effort to never really refer to my body at all, except in positives like 'that outfit looks lovely on you' or 'you look great today'. I grew up not really regarding my body as an issue as a result — of course, there was outside influence from magazines and music videos, but at home, I never felt that anyone really cared about how my body looked, as long as I was healthy. It wasn't until I got older that I realised that a lot of families operate very differently — the idea of my mam commenting on my weight or urging me to go on a diet is very alien to me, and I'm very grateful for that. I don't love everything about my body now — I think that anyone who says they love every single part of it all the time is lying. But I am very happy that none of the insecurities I have came from my mam — all I have from her are positives." (Stella, 25)
'When I was slightly plump my mother was always there with an unhelpful comment'
"My weight fluctuated a little throughout my twenties from very thin to perhaps a stone over my natural set point. When I was slightly plump my mother was always there with an unhelpful comment about a protruding tummy. When I was frighteningly thin, there wasn’t a word out of her. When I was at my ideal weight and looked good, an implicit disapproval was communicated without the need to ever say a word. The game was rigged. No matter what I did, it was never good enough. These days I can see it was never about weight – a power struggle lies at the heart of this dance. My father was in on it – over the years they have both felt entirely at ease pointing out physical flaws they see in me. It took a lot of work on my part but I reset the boundaries in recent years without any drama and now any attempt to upend my confidence is lobbed firmly back in their direction – where it belongs." (Denise, 44)
'So many of my friends focus on weight as a priority so I always wonder where it stems from'
"I think it very much depends on the environment you grow up in. I was very lucky in that my mother had a ‘thing’ about food — but it was that we had loads of it in the house! She was always afraid of not having enough food and encouraged us to eat and maintain a weight that made us happy. I tend to stay the same weight regardless so I never worried about it too much – but I notice so many of my friends focus on it as a priority, so I always wonder where it stems from." (Ruth, 32)
'‘Fat’ was always a dirty word in my house and there were never full-fat versions of any food item'
"I definitely inherited body issues from my mother, but I’d hate to tell her because I know it’s the last thing she would have wanted for me. I was a child in the nineties and overhearing my mother and aunties discussing the latest diet craze or how gorgeous such-and-such’s daughter was looking was totally normal for me. Slimfast and Weight Watchers were common topics of conversation and I have memories of my mother’s joy and pride in her weight loss, showing off her gold pins and certificates for every stone lost. ‘Fat’ was always a dirty word in my house and there were never full-fat versions of any food item if there was a low-fat or zero-calorie alternative. My mother’s slim figure is maintained by her careful consideration of every bite and I think I grew up being super-aware of my own food choices because of this. I have never had what the older generation of women in my family would call a ‘nice figure’, and I would often feel an element of guilt or shame about my eating habits. Having tried many diets myself, I was most successful a few years ago with Slimming World and my weight loss was praised and almost applauded for winning at life. It took a while for it to start to sink in with me that there is so much more to life than dress sizes and numbers on scales and, to be honest, I’m not even fully there yet." (Majella, 33)
'My mother and her six sisters were my major influences growing up, and I never remember any of them talking about diets'
"I frequently joke that the only part of my body that I actually like is my feet. It's accurate in the sense that I can find fault with most other parts of my body, but I don't 'love' or 'hate' my body in such a way that it impinges on the way I live my life. Most of the time, in fact, I think very little about what my body looks like. My mother and her six sisters were my major influences growing up, and I never remember any of them talking about diets, referencing each others' bodies or commenting in any way when someone may have fluctuated in weight. They were extremely comfortable in themselves, and still are. They are all different shapes and sizes and it's just a non-issue. As a result, as an adult, I now see my body as a functional thing, and I don't judge it based solely on what it looks like. Rather, I find myself longing to keep it as healthy as possible to thank it for its work. I don't always succeed — I am probably two stone overweight and could stand to cut down big time on sugar. But that is more to promote health than reduce my size." (Alice, 32)
'My mum always just wanted us to be comfortable in ourselves'
"Body size and body image were never really spoken about in our home. When I compare my experience with those of my friends, that was a good thing especially considering I am one of three girls. We all had and continue to have healthy relationships with food and exercise with the usual highs and lows. I remember being on the beach with family friends after school one day when I was 11 or 12. I was getting changed behind my towel and their mum laughed at what I might have to hide ('sure aren’t we all the same?') before she pointed out that I had 'no breasts yet' and how her daughters' were much more developed than mine. I still remember feeling such shame. Thankfully nothing like that would have been tolerated in our home. I had — and still have at times — my body confidence issues, but none of those came from anything my parents would have said. My mum always just wanted us to be comfortable in ourselves. We probably could and should have talked about issues like body positivity and body confidence in a more open way – we didn’t really speak about issues with an emotional charge. I think that would have been helpful for me in my teens, especially as I was in an all-girls boarding school. But I was lucky. I remember mum finding me crying after I dropped Christmas presents to a neighbour. I was a teen and the mother complimented me, saying 'you’ve lost weight, don’t you look well now!' I thought it was such a mean thing to say to a young woman. Honestly, I still do. Intrusive, reinforcing crappy social values and just mean." (Anne, 36)
Names have been changed to protect anonymity.