How Mothers Influence a Daughter's Body Image

The next time you take a look in the mirror and find yourself asking, "Does my butt look fat in this dress?," it might be worth also asking whether you should thank your mom for such thoughts. That's the thesis of two new books that explore the influence of mothers on their daughters' developing body images. These aren't the typical "blame mom for everything" tomes that we usually want to toss against a wall. (After all, we are moms ourselves—as well as daughters.) Rather, both books—one by journalist Dara Chadwick and the other by Laura Arens Fuerstein, a therapist—offer reassuring and practical advice for raising confident daughters and overcoming negative messages you may have received from your own mother.

Chadwick had her moment of truth in a department-store dressing room, which is as good a place as any for this kind of epiphany. She was trying on clothes to wear to an upcoming business meeting and had her 11-year-old daughter, Faith, along for a second opinion. As Faith watched (and tried unsuccessfully to encourage her), Chadwick rejected far too many skirts, blouses and pants. She blamed the 20 pounds or so she'd accumulated in the years since her last pregnancy.

Finally, she found a black pantsuit that looked good enough. Not great, in her opinion, but good enough. Faith urged her to buy it. But Chadwick couldn't pull out her credit card, she writes in "You'd Be So Pretty If …" (DaCapo Press, 2009). There was a voice in her head, the voice of her own mother, and the memory of another dressing-room confrontation years earlier.

Chadwick, then in her 20s, had been trying to persuade her mother to buy an outfit for a wedding. Her mother was as unhappy as Chadwick would be years later with the image she saw in the mirror. When Chadwick told her mother she looked good, her mother replied simply, "If you think you are fat, you are."

Those words echoed in Chadwick's mind in the dressing room and she resolved then to do something about the negative messages about body image that mothers may unintentionally pass on to their daughters. Her book is a sensible and compassionate guide to understanding the intricate relationship between mother and daughter and how seemingly innocuous remarks can have lifelong consequences.

Memories of damaging messages—from her own mother and those of her patients—also inspired therapist Laura Arens Fuerstein to write "My Mother, My Mirror" (New Harbinger, 2009). Fuerstein uses examples of troubled mother-daughter relationships from fiction and history. She reports that such widely admired women as Princess Diana, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Onassis felt the sting of rejection from judgmental mothers.

Fuerstein focuses on the psychological mechanisms of how mothers influence daughters. Young girls (and boys, too) need to feel that their mothers are powerful so that they can feel secure, she says. But that power also magnifies the importance of a mother's every word or deed. "A woman's self-image begins to form at birth," she writes, "and sometimes even before birth, with her mother's fantasies about what her girl will be like."

Throughout the daughter's childhood, Fuerstein says, mother and daughter become like mirrors for each other's sense of self. The daughter, in particular, tries to fit into her mother's view of her. In a family with several sisters, for example, one daughter is often seen as the responsible sister while another is the popular sister. At the same time, the daughter is influenced by her mother's own self-image. This last is called modeling, Fuerstein says. When mothers have a realistic self-image, the modeling is healthy. But mothers who are unhappy with some feature of their body or personality can produce daughters who see themselves through the same distorted mirror. For example, mothers who constantly talk about how fat they are are more likely to produce daughters who feel fat as well—even if neither is overweight.

Psychologists who have studied this process say the influence of the mother is greatest in the years before puberty, although during adolescence and beyond, daughters obviously still feel the pull of their mothers' messages about body image. In a 2008 poll commissioned by the Dove Self-Esteem Fund (and cited in Chadwick's book), researchers found that 91 percent of girls 8 to 12 turn to their mothers when they are feeling bad about themselves, compared with 67 percent of girls 13 to 17.

Mothers aren't the only negative influence on young girls' developing ideas about their bodies. Media images of skeletal starlets don't help girls struggling to accept their constantly changing bodies during puberty. In a culture where thinner is better, Chadwick writes, eating disorders are a real danger for millions of young girls and women. She relates her own story of losing more 30 pounds in what she now recognizes as a bout of anorexia. "We wanted to maintain a certain body size," she writes of herself and her friends, "and to our teenaged minds, not eating seemed the logical way to do it." Fortunately, with her mother's help, she started eating and reached a healthy weight again.

How can we fight back against the negative images? At the end of each chapter, Chadwick offers what she calls "Body Image Builders," steps mothers can take to help their daughters. Some may seem obvious, but are nonetheless worth repeating: "Watch your words. Sure, sometimes it's tempting to let loose with a wisecrack or a disparaging comment about your body when you look in the mirror. But if your daughter's in the room, think of her and bite your tongue." Chadwick says mothers should model confidence by being a good example: "Don't refuse to wear a bathing suit or dance at a wedding because you think you're too big or don't look right. You'll be teaching her that only 'perfect' people get to have fun in life."

By understanding and moving beyond damaging ideas from our own childhood, we can be kinder and more loving to our daughters. It's something to strive for. And by the way, Happy Mother's Day to all of us.