I don't think it's a new revelation to say that a mom has an incredibly powerful influence over her daughter's body image. This includes her approach to exercise, her relationship with food, and how she feels about herself as "a woman" entering adulthood. In a report from USA Today, Dr. Leslie Sim, clinical director at the Mayo Clinic said, "Moms are probably the most important influence on a daughter's body image."
The influence is multidimensional; it comes from the way the mother herself acts (and leads by example), and then the actual parenting: the words used, the rules set in place, the direction. The smallest of words or actions can have a huge impact, and it can be either positive or negative.
Unfortunately I've seen so many friends develop an unhealthy relationship with food, or addiction to exercise that stems from their childhoods, with a pressure to be healthy or "skinny," or to look a certain way; to live up to a standard. I've seen young women with a tendency to constantly nitpick their appearance and obsess over their weight, and these aren't habits or mindsets they've picked up in the last year or so . . . it's been brewing and developing and snowballing over decades.
The flip side? Moms also have this incredible opportunity to do just the opposite. Not to brag, but my mom is definitely one of the winners in this field. I feel unbelievably fortunate to have been parented by someone who embodied self-love, balance, and positive body image. Here's what she did right, and what I've learned for when I have a daughter or two of my own.
Balance Is the Key to Health
I grew up in a household that never portioned out cereal, never had diet sodas, almost always had some kind of snack cake available, and made a lot of pizza. Sounds pretty bad, right? It wasn't! Key to success: we had vegetables with every meal. Since basically birth, I've loved veggies — they've always been a staple in my diet. Mom cooked them in all sorts of ways; we had well-rounded meals, and she hit all the areas of nutrition. In fact, I didn't know about the concept of calorie counting until I was in my 20s, because we just ate a really balanced diet. She prepared homemade meals we enjoyed, we all indulged now and then, and didn't blink twice. Our meals truly were healthy, even if they weren't low-carb, low-fat, sugar-free, etc.
Know What Goes in Your Body
On that note, my mom would always educate me on why we'd eat certain things. I remember getting notes in my lunches in sixth grade on a yogurt or pudding cup: "This has protein, so it will make you feel full!" She'd explain that "more protein is better to feel full for a long time, so you won't be as hungry later," and "this spinach has a ton of iron, which your body needs to be healthy and have energy." (Also, "aspartame is evil and terrible for you!") I learned so much about food from my mom; by focusing on the positive (and providing delicious, healthy foods we all loved), I've never really wanted to reach for greasy, sugary foods all the time, and I've also focused on the nutritious options first. But let me tell you — when we want dessert, we GO FOR IT. The outcome? I have a healthy relationship with food. I know that food can be nourishing, and provide joy — they're not mutually exclusive ideas.
Move Because it Makes You Feel Good
I was never forced to exercise, do sports, or anything I didn't want to do as a child. Was I a couch potato? Hell no! I was still encouraged to move. I loved swimming at the pool or beach, running around outside with my little brother, learning to surf in middle school, walking everywhere with my parents (including taking sunset beach or lagoon walks before or after dinnertime), and being active in ways that weren't traditional. In high school, I danced because it was fun and I loved performing — not because I was trying to "stay in shape."
That said, my mom showed me how working out makes your body and brain feel good, too. My mom never had me focused on a scale — just on how I feel, how my body feels, and how happy something was making me. When she got me to start running and walking, we had no body goals, just mile goals, and I got into the best shape of my life, which opened up an entire world of fitness. My favorite activity is going to a workout class, and it's not because I'm going for a goal weight, it's because I genuinely enjoy the experience.
Self-Love Is Essential to Everything
My mom's best quality? Her happiness and self-assuredness comes from within. It doesn't matter what a scale reads, or the number on the inside of her jeans — she finds joy within herself, and has taught me to aim for the same. It's much easier said than done, but I've learned so much from her about finding your strength within. From her I learned that if we root our happiness and how we feel about ourselves in something external (i.e., a weight, how much people compliment us, what other people say or think), then we are so fragile and set up to be destroyed emotionally.
It also didn't hurt that my mom totally showered me with compliments. She wasn't trying to sugarcoat anything, she just celebrated me. I knew that her words were honest, and she would absolutely tell me if a dress or a swimsuit wasn't the right cut for my shape, but she never once blamed anything on "my shape." Her words of affirmation soon became mine, and I learned to embrace myself with the vocabulary she gave to me through example.
I've learned to appreciate all my body can do for me, through ups and downs, weight fluctuations, injuries, etc. My mom showed me (and my body!) unconditional love, which has taught me to love myself and my body unconditionally as well.
Prioritize Happiness, Health Will Follow
Through looking back at all these categories of how she shaped me, I've been able to pinpoint her main message: when you focus on what makes your body and brain feel good, the health will come as well. And look, I know that everyone has a different body, a different story, and that this concept may not be for everyone, but it really worked for our family, and set me up to be happy and love myself. We did and ate things that brought us joy (wow, Mom, so KonMari of you! so ahead of your time!), and as such I am better off — body and mind. Thanks, Mommy.