Beauty Redefined Blog

Body Image and Bonding: Healing the Mother-Daughter Hurt

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Far too many mother-daughter relationships are suffering under the lie that we are just bodies to be looked at, judged, and fixed. This painful belief manifests itself in moms appearing to be judgmental and overly critical, and daughters feeling like they will never be good enough to meet mom’s expectations. Dig down, and you’ll find much of this conflict stems from living in a world that profits from us believing our most important contribution to the world is the look of our bodies – not our actions, contributions, and talents. Girls and women are divided against each other by this objectifying culture, but we can unite to fight this damaging system in our family relationships if we choose to.

girlsinmirrorDeborah Tannen, a linguistics professor, analyzed hours of conversations between mothers and daughters as research for her new book, “You’re Wearing That?” Surprise, Surprise! Tannen identifies the 3 most common sources of friction in mother-daughter conversations as: hair, clothes, and weight. Each of these, of course, is related to physical appearance – which reflects the problems women face in our objectifying culture that begs us to believe our value comes from our appearances.

“Women in our culture are judged by appearance far more than men are,” Tannen says in an interview here. “Because women have so many hair- and clothing-related choices — and can expect to be judged for those choices — of course mothers are going to have opinions on which choices their daughters should make. And because mothers want what’s best for their daughters, of course they’re going to express those opinions. And that’s where the caring-criticism conflict arises: what a mother intends as well-meaning advice, a daughter interprets as devastating criticism.”

Ever wonder why so many mother/daughter relationships seem to drown in pain and angst around the time girls become teenagers? Research tells us that about the age girls hit puberty, they are TWICE as likely to experience depression as males. This is directly associated with our objectifying culture, which leads us to evaluate and control our bodies in terms of our sexual desirability above all else. Growing into womanhood means being pushed into a world where our bodies are objectified for others’ profit and pleasure and we are asked to observe ourselves – to self-objectify – every hour of the day to make sure we are appearing in a desirable way for those looking at us. Some of our favorite scholars say that “the habitual body monitoring encouraged by a sexually objectifying culture may reduce women’s quality of life.*” We know this to be true. We also believe this demeaning view of women terrorizes mother-daughter relationships in a particularly brutal way.

Let’s get personal.

Today, my mom is Beauty Redefined’s biggest fan. She believes in this work and is as committed to it as Lindsay and I are. And I’ve learned that I can’t earn my mom’s love — or my own happiness — by changing my looks. We almost never talk about each others’ looks at all these days, on purpose. But during my childhood, I was a little stuck living within a system that taught me I would only be happy and “healthy” if I worked forever to fit unattainable beauty ideals. Though my mom is my closest friend now, my teenage journals revealed a few angry words about her from my past. About the time I started officially growing into womanhood, I couldn’t shake the idea that my mom thought I was a fat, ugly, disappointment. Mom never told me that – she was a great mom who loved me dearly. I interpreted her occasional comments on my looks or clothing (usually in the form of guidance on dressing  more appropriately) as brutal critiques of me as a person. In her well-meaning attempts to help me present my best possible face to a world that can be very harsh to girls, I interpreted the idea that I was disgusting and in need of fixing. My journals from 8th grade on largely recorded lists of why I needed to lose weight, what clothes and makeup I bought or wanted to buy, and food journals for days I was strictly dieting. I truly believed my reflection defined my worth. After arguing with my mom about any number of things, I’d race back to my journal and record entries like this, from June 12, 1999, when I was 14 years old:

girlnobackground“Mom told me about 100 times today that my shirt was too short and my butt and back were hanging out. I tried to pull down my shirt but I wasn’t home to change all day. She’s told me this about almost every outfit I own, and I know she is implying how huge and fat I am… I’m gonna go on a diet tomorrow and stay on it. I’m not gonna watch TV or sit hardly at all. I’m gonna show her. I’m gonna be skinny, and she won’t have to look at me and think ‘Look at her. She’s SO big,’ like I know she does.”

In my self-conscious teenage state, my mom’s comments, now matter how well-meaning they were, triggered deep feelings of shame in me. Body shame triggers a feeling of wanting to hide or fix our parts that don’t meet certain ideals, and in today’s objectifying world, any looks-based comments from moms to daughters can open the floodgates of shame. Shame is a cruel and powerful demotivator, especially with regard to health and happiness. It fuels overeating, poor nutrition choices, sedentary lifestyles, cosmetic surgery, and broken relationships. Shame is also a cruel and powerful motivator with regard to self-harm. It fuels disordered eating like bingeing, purging and starvation, as well as exercise bulimia, cutting, isolation and pain.

It turns out that the conflicting desires Tannen describes in her study – the mother’s desire to protect vs. the daughter’s desire for approval — set the stage for painful misunderstandings, objectifying messages, and self-objectifying thoughts and behaviors. The well-meaning mother gives advice, and she often feels like she has not only a right but an obligation to say it. She wants things to be as easy and successful as possible for her daughter, but many times, she has often internalized these objectifying, demeaning beauty ideals as “expected” and “necessary.” The approval-seeking daughter takes offense, which triggers body shame, anxiety, anger, and sadness. The bond between mother and daughter chips away each time this pattern takes place.

How do we heal and empower mother/daughter relationships?

In a world that teaches us we are our bodies, moms and daughters can expose this lie for what it is and use their relationship to prove how valuable women are for more than being looked at. The truth is, our bodies are far more important and powerful as instruments for our use than as ornaments to admire from the outside. Getting past the obsession with the outsides of our bodies is key to developing a positive perception of our own bodies, which is the definition of positive body image. Having positive body image isn’t believing you are beautiful. Instead, it is feeling good about your body in general. So many times we confuse “my body” with “how my body looks” and think of them from an outside perspective. Women are more than just bodies, and when we learn to *see more* in ourselves and others, we can *be more* than just objects to look at.

highfive1. Change the conversation.

Instead of commenting on your daughters’ appearance, change the conversation. While the temptation to “help” her get ahead in this looks-based, objectifying culture is very real, encouraging her to fix her hair or try a new skincare product or pointing out that weight gain or weight loss will often trigger feelings of body shame and create a wedge between you. Of course it is appropriate for moms to offer guidance to daughters regarding dress and grooming. Where we want to take caution is when the guidance is directed at improving what an outsider sees in your daughter. Instead, advice should focus on how your daughter feels and how she can control the image she presents in any situation, rather than how and why your daughter could improve what others see when they’re watching her. You and your daughter are already bombarded by messages convincing you your body is your most valuable asset and you are worthless without meeting innumerable beauty ideals. Do not buy into those lies. That also means ending all fat talk NOW. If you say something negative about your body or your looks, SHE WILL HEAR. It will negatively affect her view of her own body. That also means being careful of the compliments we give each other. Wade out of the shallow waters of women as bodies alone by complimenting her on her character, her talents, how much you love her, etc. Be your daughters’ most powerful advocate by standing between her and the lies the world throws at her about her value.

2. Use your bodies as instruments – not objects.

Instead of bonding over beauty products, procedures, and looks-based conversations, improve your body image and verify your worth beyond being looked at by setting a fitness goal together. As mother and daughter, choose a physical activity you both enjoy and set a goal to perform that activity together as often as your schedules allow. Walk around the block every week, take a water aerobics class, do yard work, take dancing lessons, etc. If you can’t do it together, talk on the phone while you do it or email each other to report back on your progress and motivate each other when you can. If your health or abilities do not allow for much physical activity, set a goal to draw, paint, sculpt, sew, sing, play the piano, or write together. Whatever you do, you will strengthen your bond and prove what you are capable of.

3. Stop Photoshopping ourselves out of reality. 

What would happen if confident, beautiful women decided to forego painful and expensive anti-aging procedures, breast lifts and enhancements, liposuction, all-over hair removal or tanning regimens that effectively mimic the Photoshopped ideals we’ve become so accustomed to? How could that change the way your daughter perceives her own body and her own “flawed,” lined, real face? How could simply owning (and treating kindly and speaking nicely about) our so-called “imperfect” bodies affect not only our own lives, but those over whom we have influence? This includes encouraging our daughters to not feel the need to physically Photoshop themselves with products and procedures, too. Is it possible to slowly but deliberately change the perception of these “flaws” as something to shame, hide and fix at any cost to something acceptable and embraceable in all their human, womanly real-ness? We say yes. Read more here.

Whether you are a mom to daughters or you love and care for a girl or woman in any capacity, you have an amazing opportunity to unite as women instead of divide against each other. Be an advocate for other girls and women to show them how valuable they are, no matter what. Stand between them and the lies the world throws at them about their value (or lack thereof) and shelter them from a little of the pain and shame they don’t deserve to feel. Let your relationship be a light on their paths and yours as you move toward a place of empowerment and positive body image. 

Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.

*Fredrickson & Roberts (1997)

*Fredrickson et al. 1998; Fredrickson & Harrison, 2004; Gapinski, Brownell, & LaFrance, 2003; Harter, 1993; Hebl, King, & Lin, 2004; Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990; Simmons, Rosenberg, & Rosenberg, 1973; Steinberg, 1999; Steingraber, 2007

 

  1. sarah
    sarah05-14-2014

    Love this. I have four daughters and this is my goal for our relationship, although it is a work in progress. I grew up with my mother constantly hating her body and when I grew up to have one just like hers, it made it very difficult to love myself. I still feel like I’m faking it till I make it. My eldest is 11 and she’s already noticed that we have the same body types. Since I don’t talk bad about myself she hasn’t absorbed self hate from my example but I do fear that I’m not doing enough. It’s a work in progress for me I guess.

  2. Kimberlee
    Kimberlee05-14-2014

    Beautiful! Thank you for the suggestions and explanations about what a healthy mother-daughter relationship should look like.

  3. Ashley
    Ashley05-16-2014

    This is wonderful, thank you for all the information and personal experiences you share with the world every day. I hope everyone is listening and applying these things in how they interact with each other. It would also be interesting to see what you have to say about the Father-Daugther relationship… If there’s a request box I’d like to add that one. :D Keep it up, the world needs you!

  4. Samantha Ueno
    Samantha Ueno05-18-2014

    Very insightful post. Mothers really need to be mindful of the language they use to their daughters. Even a warm, loving, caring mother’s well-meaning comment can be twisted around by the mind of a sensitive, hormonal teenage girl.(In my case, I was directly told that my skin looked awful, my friends were ugly and fat, and that I was a horrible person which wreaked exponentially worse havoc on my already fragile teenage girl self-esteem…) I’m taking steps to heal myself and gathering all of the knowledge I can to give my daughter all of my love in its best form. Thank you for this post!

  5. KS
    KS05-19-2014

    This is so great to read. It certainly was/is the case for me and my mom. It’s hard to even talk about with her, since she firmly believes it’s her “right” to comment on anything and everything. I’m just so validated to read that this happens in so many other mother/daughter relationships, too, instead of me just feeling like a terrible person for trying to help her understand – gently and not so gently – her comments are hurtful.

    Also! Just want to throw in that I have a son, and am still very careful about how what I say about myself around him. I think the conversation extends beyond mother/daughter relationships, because I want him to be raised to appreciate women for more than their looks, too, and to see me valuing myself for what I can do, not for my looks.

    Keep up the great work!

  6. Carli
    Carli05-24-2014

    How absolutely true! My mother was one of my biggest critics growing up, as she also suffers from anorexia. She still refuses to get help, which is incredibly sad and it is causing many health problems after years of starving herself. She even starved herself through her pregnancies.

    I, myself, was bulimic for many years in high school. I still remember the day I threw up blood. I told my mom, thinking she would be on board with me getting help. Her response was “Well, you haven’t lost that much weight, so it can’t be that bad.” When we moved away from Idaho Falls, I reached out to my new doctor, but my also worked for her. When I went for the appointment, I asked my mom to stay in the hallway and told the doctor I was bulimic, couldn’t stop on my own, and I was vomiting blood nearly every time I purged. The doctor convinced my mom to let me go to a counselor. It helped, but the ultimate reason I stopped was because I met my now husband, and he told me from the beginning that I was not allowed to hurt my body and it was an absolute deal breaker to be in a relationship with someone that treated their body poorly. I stopped that day and never looked back.

    The thing that is difficult is when the daughter moves past these unrealistic beauty ideals, but it still in an environment where weight and beauty are judged for “approval”. My entire family (Mom’s side) does nothing but diet, work out all the time, and obsess over how much weight they gain. I have heard it from day one, and I’ve grown tired of it. As I mentioned before, my Mom is still anorexic. She consumes an average of 800 calories a day. She has her meals planned out every single day and eats the same thing on Monday, Tuesday, etc. Her husband is the same way and nothing ever changes. If I were to call my Mom and ask her to go out to dinner, she would decline because it wasn’t in her “plan”.

    There have been times in my adult life where I have truly though my worth was determined by how I looked. It makes me laugh now. I’m so much happier now that I’m myself; I enjoy my body and what it DOES for me. What a beautiful and powerful machine the human body is!

    Sometimes our mothers don’t change. Sometimes the adult children become the more mature ones, and it’s hard to take the high road and allow yourself to be free from the criticism. But, it isn’t doing anyone any favors if you don’t even accept YOURSELF. What a miserable existence that must be! You can try to help someone see the truth, but you can’t force them. Some people have lived their entire lives with false ideals, and it is hard to change. But, you don’t have to accept mistreatment based on someone’s idea of what beauty is. Toxic relationships are toxic relationships, no matter if they are blood or otherwise. It is okay to love from a distance for your own protection.

    I’ve learned this the hard way. All you can do is educate. The rest is a personal transformation that no one else can control. Sadly, some will never see the beauty of the human body as it is and as it functions. I wish everyone else could see what we see.

    • Carli
      Carli05-24-2014

      I see many typos now that I posted. Sorry!

  7. EmmieK
    EmmieK06-26-2014

    I’d like to know how you heal when your mother explicitly and openly hated how you looked. From puberty onwards, my late mother was constantly attacking me about not just weight but hair, clothes, teeth, everything – it was as if nothing other than my looks mattered to her. The worst thing was, any time I got a compliment from someone else, she’d claim they were ‘lying to be polite’ and that she (who never had a good word for me!) was the only person who’d ever tell me the truth – that really screwed up my head. In my 40s, I’m still trying to deal with the emotional fallout, and the myth that all mothers ‘only want what’s best’ for their daughters doesn’t make it any easier. I’m just glad that back in the 80s, the culture in general wasn’t quite so weight-obsessed – if it had been, I don’t know what would have happened to me. This stuff is so, so damaging when it comes from someone close to you.

  8. alfa
    alfa10-11-2014

    This also resonates w/ me in so many ways. Beginning in my teens, my mother was preoccupied w/ my looks & even insisted I wear a full face of makeup including eyeliner every single time i ventured out of the house. When I was growing out my bangs @17yrs old she berated me constantly saying my forehead was huge (when in reality my forehead is smallish). In recent yrs I’ve done a lot of work on healing this dynamic w/in myself & things are much better for me & our relationship now. But I have had an intense experience of this b/c I was in a state of absolute self-objectification for all of my teen & young adult yrs. At age 22 & I had “mastered” appearing absurdly pretty & devoted all my energy to this for yrs, I was getting compliments daily from all sorts of people & I worked in high-end retail & had hopes of modeling. Then I developed a rare systemic disease which caused giant, gross lesions to form on my skin on my face & all over my body. I was suffering in a very severe way that impacted my body in countless ways besides the skin lesions. But it was having sores that made it difficult for me to even go on living after a few yrs & b/c my sense of worth had always been based on my looks, I was only able to be a miserable wreck of suicidal ideations & consumed by helplessness for yrs. The emotional toll was key in disabling my body’s potential to even begin to heal physically. It was yrs after Drs gave up & I gave up that I began exploring psychospiritual emotional healing modalities & working w/ them & the result was that it jumpstarted a physical healing process that had evaded every trick in the allopathic & integrative medicine handbook. I’ve learned that no matter what the external world seems to say, when u make a firm decision to identify with your courage, your sense of love & compassion, and venture w/in yourself to cultivate resilience & accept response-ability for yourself & your life, this paves the way for improving quality of life in ways that are extraordinary. My relationship w/ my mother is exponentially better. I forgive her unconditionally. & for the first time she began to see me as an actual person & not as some object that is an extension of her. After so much angst & effort over avoiding rejection from others, I learned in a most painful & profound way that self-acceptance truly is crucial to improving our relationships w/ others, esp when nothing else seems to work. Tho what I endured to gain an expanded perspective was real torment, I am grateful beyond words for my life now, and the quality of authenticity & enthusiasm that i experience is far greater than ever before.

  9. Jessica Childers Salas
    Jessica Childers Salas01-12-2015

    This is so so good. I’m still struggling a bit with what exactly to do in my situation. I totally understand what not to do. My 11 year old daughter has been coming to me saying she is too fat. She physically pushes in on her stomach all the time (it’s almost second nature to her now), and she never likes the way she looks in her clothing. I have been EXTREMELY careful about how I talk to and about her, and even about myself; I have always been hyper-aware of these things due to my own body image struggles in life. She’s at that age where she will typically gain more body fat than she has in the past, and she isn’t teeny-tiny like many of her friends, but I’ve NEVER said she is fat, overweight, or that I am. In fact, I’ve never commented on her body, other than when I tell her it is healthy. I’ve never said she needed to lose weight or that I needed to lose weight. So when she comes to me complaining about how she looks and says she feels gigantic…I just don’t know what else to say to help her change her perspective….