I firmly believe that as a parent I could always “do better”. There are always opportunities to improve, grow and learn. That’s not to say I don’t think I rock it most of the time, but I feel like there are occasions when I let my daughter down and I let myself down. One of them – which is still ongoing – is how I talk about myself: to myself and to her.
Most of us are guilty of saying negative things about our looks. I often give my 11 year old daughter a pretty scathing look at my body, which is unacceptable and I know it. I say and think things about myself that I would never think or say to anyone else. As with many people, this has accelerated for me since Covid-19.
The last few years have been the most stressful and surreal time of our lives. We’ve all been through something we never imagined until it happened. A by-product for many of us was that our bodies changed.
In recent years I haven’t been as active as I used to be. I allowed more glasses of wine, ate at odd times, and was generally not in the same shape as before. I have a repetitive conversation in my head that goes, “You need to get in shape.” Then I open a large bag of popcorn and sit to watch Only murders in the building!
The next day I get annoyed with myself, especially when my jeans button cuts into my stomach or I feel my top tightening around my arms. Then I let the negative, hard thoughts creep in. I can rationalize that this isn’t nice or helpful to me, but the cycle is hard to break. I look in the mirror and most of the time I’m disappointed in my looks which isn’t healthy – I acknowledge that.
So what I need to do is be better about myself and take steps that will make me feel better about my body. To be kinder to myself and to absolutely stop sending any messages, directly or indirectly, to my developing daughter that there are things to be ashamed of with our bodies. That there is an overall concept of something ideal. It’s honestly an outdated, harmful, and shameful way of thinking for any of us, but I still think of myself that way. What I also have to acknowledge, though, is that while I have serious improvements to make, I didn’t grow up in a bubble .
My mother died when I was 19 and unfortunately she had a very bad opinion of her looks. She was so petite when she was younger – something her generation valued (as did generations after) – but she never felt pretty. As she grew older, she was no longer satisfied with her figure and no longer felt pretty. My twin sister and I were unaware of the way she spoke about herself. I might not have understood the implications when I was growing up, but I certainly do now.
She never commented on other people — and she certainly never made my sister and I feel anything but perfect. But she proved in no way the same kindness. Growing up, she was always hiding from photos, which is so tragic. She didn’t see in herself what others saw… and that’s why we have very few photos of her.
How do we break this cycle? Admittedly, I am more self-confident and happier with myself than my mother. My Instagram is full of selfies – something she would never do. But again, how can I make it better? How can I stop thinking that I look gross or too big or unattractive? And how can I absolutely stop saying any of this in front of Joan?
I wanted proper advice and guidance on this subject, so I contacted Ellen Jennings, Communications Officer at Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland.
Ellen began by saying that it is crucial for our children to model positive relationships with food and our bodies—and what is and isn’t appropriate in how we treat ourselves. Those who tend to turn to taking control of food and their bodies to cope are often very aware of their surroundings and tend to absorb any negative or other comments made around them – regardless whether they refer to our own body or that of another.
We now know that negative body image and body dissatisfaction are closely linked to the development of eating disorders, which is why it is all the more important that we do not reinforce negative talking about our own body.
Ellen’s advice to parents and caregivers concerned about this issue is not to blame themselves in the first place. Instead, her advice was to send the message to our children that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that this is something beautiful to celebrate. Try to model self-compassion and develop a positive relationship with your own body so that it affects other aspects of your life in positive ways.
Along with Ellen’s advice, Bodywhys has helpful body image resources that can be used by anyone, including school teachers, to support positive body image. You can find the resources at bodywhysbodyimage.ie. Some of the resources discuss what we can do to support positive body image in school, such as emphasizing that how we look is just a part of who we are and that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
Bodywhys discourages talking about dieting or placing moral value on food by labeling it good or bad. All of these things contribute to our children having a healthier and more confident attitude towards themselves and others.
I also wanted to work with early childhood education educator and author Dr. Talk to Mary O’Kane. Not only did she reinforce what Ellen was talking about, Mary also told me, “Research also tells us that body dissatisfaction does not differ significantly between younger and older women. So as mothers, we often deal with our own body issues while trying to support our children to be more body positive than we feel about ourselves.”
Mary also told me about a recent study that looked at the effects of social media on physical dissatisfaction and found that its effects were weaker in teens with more positive maternal relationships.
I then asked Mary what we should be doing to model better body image behaviors in our children. Her advice was: “Try to be aware of how we think, act and talk to our children about their bodies. And try not to pass our own worries on to our children. Instead, we can encourage our children to value their bodies for what they are capable of, not for what they look like.”
Like Ellen, Mary suggested that we could try not to label food as good or bad. Instead, try to encourage them to eat a wide variety of foods. Mary also spoke of the need for us as parents to encourage our children to be critical of what they see on social media and to challenge the narrow view of beauty presented online.
I know I’m not alone with this problem. It’s endemic. Most of my friends have at some point spoken to me about how they feel about their looks, and often it’s not positive.
“It’s so important to stop this cycle, not just for our own happiness and sanity — we need to stop the cycle for our daughters and our sons.”
Speaking to a friend, I asked her how she avoids speaking out in front of her daughters, even on days when she just doesn’t feel great, attractive, or confident.
She said: “I’ve always struggled with body image. I’ve never been to a place where I’m 100 percent happy. However, when I start to feel that way or want to say something, I’ve gotten into the habit of stopping and thinking, “Would I ever want my girls to think of themselves like that?” Or ‘How would I feel if I ever heard her talk about herself the way I talk to myself?’ The fear of this happening actually makes me stop myself.”
The reason it’s so important to stop this cycle isn’t just for our own happiness and sanity—we need to stop the cycle for our daughters and our sons. How can we expect them to be able to rationalize all the external messages about weight, food culture and the ideal body when at home they see and hear their direct role models feeding into these harmful narratives?
I can’t tell my daughter Joan in one sentence that the perfect body doesn’t exist and then let her know that I don’t think mine is ideal.
Along with that, I’ve worked hard to be aware of how to build my daughter’s confidence and self-esteem. I focus on her accomplishments and the qualities I really admire about her as pillars of things to be proud of. I always emphasize her kindness, how she treats her friends and how she talks to people. I commend her for being thoughtful and considerate. I value the skills she learns and how she approaches a challenge without giving up.
Of course, I’ve complimented her a lot on her looks too, but I don’t want her to become overly conscious of any part of herself. Going back to Ellen’s thoughts on this, she suggested that if you ever compliment someone, we should always avoid details and instead focus on the whole person.
It’s just one of the many challenges we face as parents and I’m very aware that I need to improve – not only for myself but for Joan as well. And I am determined to do that.
For more information, resources, and support, visit bodywhys.ie and drmaryokane.ie
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/i-tell-my-daughter-that-there-is-no-such-thing-as-the-perfect-body-while-criticising-my-own-42030720.html “I tell my daughter that the perfect body doesn’t exist – while I criticize my own”