Friday, September 19, 2008

Check Your Body Issues at the Door

All of my life I have struggled with body image issues. I can remember being as young as 7 or 8 and feeling very self conscious about how I looked, especially in a bathing suit. Looking back I have often wondered where those ideas came from, especially since my television viewing as a child was strictly limited and I only read age-appropriate books. I don’t believe that my “media exposure” at that age was intense enough to form any body hating images. It wasn’t until I was perusing the book “You Have to Say I’m Pretty, You’re My Mother” by Stephanie Pierson & Phyllis Cohen that I had my little “A ha!” moment.

Growing up my mother was ferociously obsessed with her body. She was never happy about the way she looked and my father often made very disparaging remarks about her figure. My mom was never heavy when I was little but she was striving for perfection and I was witness to it all. My mom was always on a diet or taking diet drugs during my youth. I remember one of the cabinets in our house was filled with a food scale, diet pills, various supplements and powders. All things my mother took on a daily basis to be thin. Whatever messages I was not receiving from the media I was receiving them at home and receiving them loud and clear “thin is good. Fat is bad.”
As I’ve gotten older I have heard the stories from my mother and her sister about their mother and her weight obsessions. I have learned about trips to the doctors to receive diet pills at the tender age of 14. I am often reminded by my mom or my aunt that there were times in their life where their mother ha turned them into “speed” junkies since that was what diet pills were in their youth.

Parents pass down many genetic traits but there are also ingrained issues that can be passed down from generation to generation. In my family it is a negative self image. My aunt recently realized that in her head on a loop are my grandmother’s words “if you are thin you have everything. The only way to have everything is to be thin.” As a rebellion of sorts my aunt gained a significant amount of weight in her 30’s and 40’s. She now sees that in her own way she was trying to buck her mother’s influence but instead she just swung her eating disorder in the other direction.
One of the interesting things that Pierson & Cohen cover in their book is that often times when a mother has had body image issues her entire life she may try to “correct” those problems in her daughter. The authors believe that this is counterintuitive. By pushing a specific body image agenda mothers could unknowingly do more harm than good. That often the message girls get is to feel shame about their bodies and they still receive the same negative image of “thin is good, fat is bad.”

What is scary to me is that child psychologists now believe that a child’s body image is determined by age 6. This is really before there are media pressures and peer pressures. Body image is mostly determined by the parents. Think about the messages that children receive on a daily basis and obviously body shame is quickly becoming something that children learn from the high chair.
I would never say that women need to get over their body issues prior to having children but, what I am saying is that women have to mindful of what they are passing on to their children. So many women struggle with their body image and it seems like second nature to make comments like “that food is bad”, “I look fat”, “I need to lose weight”, ”If only I was thinner”, etc but, we have to be mindful because our daughters are listening. Children learn so much from their parents and eating habits and negative body image is something that is taught on a daily basis. If we could change the way we speak about our bodies we could change how a generation of young women feel about themselves. If women could talk about health as opposed to fat or thin it may make things easier. If the language was changed to stating that certain things were “healthy” or “unhealthy” it may be a better message. After all as adults we know that thin does not always mean healthy and that “fat” doesn’t always mean unhealthy.

I suppose that a lot of this imprinted body image has really come to light for me lately. I have been interested in learning what gave rise to my negative body image. Listening to my mother talk nowadays I see that the same things she struggled with when I was a small child are what she is struggling with as an adult. I know that none of it was purposeful, I would never say that. I know that my grandmother was a woman obsessed with looks and being as thin as possible. She pushed her body image agenda hard on her children. She would punish them for weight gains and reward them for weight loss. If I remember correctly I think that if my mother didn’t lose 20 pounds my grandmother was going to refuse to pay for her to go to college. Obviously, her actions were quite severe and my mother did always try to build me up. But, her words did fall on deaf ears since I was witnessing her do the opposite of what she was saying. While she may have told me that I was not heavy and that I was perfect just the way I was I would watch her strictly control her diet and complain about her body.

I do recommend the book “You Have to Say I’m Pretty, You’re My Mother” for just about anyone. I think its an interesting conversation about body image. I know that it has made me more aware of how I talk about myself. A few years ago I stopped using the word “fat” when I meant bad (i.e., “do I look fat?” what we always really mean is “do I look bad?”) and I found that my body image got better. I started looking at clothes are fitting well or fitting poorly not making me look thin or making me look fat. I digress, I think that the authors accomplished their goal, they certainly got me thinking about body image!

1 comment:

Beautiful Women Project said...

At The Beautiful Women Project ( we believe that it is the sum of a woman's life experiences that make her beautiful. It is how we meet our challenges and carry our experiences that really shape each individual's beauty. And beauty is just that - individuality. Throughout our lifetime we need to really look at who we are and who we strive to be and take the time to pack and repack our personal luggage. What may have worked for us at a another time in life may no longer be working for us in our present place. In fact, it may be keeping us from being the woman we really want, and know that we can be in our lifetime. Life + Experience = Beauty.

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