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Moms and Daughters: Promoting a Positive Body Image

Moms and Daughters: Promoting a Positive Body ImageDoes this sound familiar? You’re standing in front of your full-length mirror scrutinizing your hips or thighs, and whispering to yourself how you should really lose some weight ASAP. However, as you’re engrossed in self-criticism, what you might not have expected is that your little girl — or older daughter — isn’t too far away, watching and listening and internalizing what you say and do.

Recently, two books have been published on how mothers can influence their daughters’ body image (see here) along with practical advice on helping daughters foster a healthy body image.

In You’d Be So Pretty If…, Dara Chadwick discusses how her mother’s weight struggles shaped her own image. Seemingly harmless statements have affected the author into adulthood. Barbara Kantrowitz and Pat Wingert paraphrase one of Chadwick’s experiences in Newsweek:

She [Chadwick] 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.”

Self-criticism and constant dieting are habits that can get passed on to your daughter. In one study, mom’s negative feedback, disapproval of her daughter’s body and eating attitudes and behaviors — from her daughter’s perspective — influenced her daughter’s body image. Other research found a link between frequent dieting in moms and daughters. Also, moms who were concerned about their weight were more likely to have daughters who were concerned about their bodies. Another study found that 5-year-old girls whose moms dieted were twice as likely to know about dieting and other weight-loss methods than kids whose moms didn’t diet.

But it doesn’t have to be all bad news. These studies highlight that moms have a say in their daughter’s body image, which means they can play a pivotal role in helping their daughters build better, healthier images.

To honor Mother’s Day, we’ve come up with several simple ideas on how moms and daughters can weather the self-critical storms and celebrate this special day:

  • Examine your body image. We know that how parents view their own bodies can affect how children think about their appearance. Your own body image also might make you more concerned about your child’s weight (see here).
  • If you’re a parent, try asking yourself a series of questions to evaluate your own body image. Check out more suggestions on helping your child build a healthy body image here.
  • Focus on inner qualities — the ones that truly matter. Amid the countless workout tips for your best bikini bod (ever!) and the array of dopey diet ads — since when is hunger an orange gremlin who looks like he’s about to eat you? — it’s tough to focus on the inside. When you or your mom starts to self-criticize, terminate the terrible talk and instead say what you respect about each other. For instance, I’d tell my mom how much I admire her for being an ER nurse for over 25 years and how much I appreciate her strength and sacrifice. It’s OK to get sentimental!
  • Focus on your relationship. Moms and daughters have a complicated, beautiful relationship. Stop for a minute and think about what you’re thankful for in your relationship. I’m thankful that my mom is my best friend. She’s my shopping buddy, the person I call when I need help making a decision and someone who’s never criticized or scrutinized my appearance — unless it was to check if my clothes were fingertip-length.
  • Watch “What Not to Wear” (or similarly positive shows). Though the fashion industry holds up ridiculous standards — which I try my best to ignore — I’m still a girly girl who loves clothes and can’t get enough of shopping. If you, too, have a love for fashion, try to block out the bad stuff and embrace shows that promote healthy messages and a range of beautiful bodies. For several years now, my mom and I have watched What Not to Wear every Friday. It’s a fantastic show that emphasizes looking your best whatever your body shape. Hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly advise women to dress their current size and to be confident. This is in stark contrast to other shows and women’s magazines, where we’re told to lose weight or tone up.
  • Toss the tabloids and other magazines that promote unrealistic priorities. It’s bad — and traumatizing — enough having to walk through a fog of People, US Weekly and women’s glossies just to buy groceries. Actually picking up one of these can be disastrous. Truth be told, resisting the lure of losing five pounds in four weeks, finding clothing for your shape and investing in a $500 suit isn’t easy (except for the latter, which, for me, is quite effortless). These magazines and their messages cultivate a mindless mindset, where thin and rich reign supreme. The tips and tricks are often contradictory to good health advice — even in women’s health magazines.
  • Take the time to talk. Talk about the things your mom has taught you throughout the years and ask what you’ve taught her. Talk about your history, about when you were born, your childhood experiences and your mom’s personal memories. Talk to your mom about the generation of women who’ve come before you. What impact have they had on her life, or yours? What were they like? You can find great information about interviewing mom and grandma about their lives and your history here.
  • Consider the history of Mother’s Day. This day has a fascinating history. Long before we crafted homemade cards and made mom iffy-tasting breakfast, the day represented advocacy, peace and justice along with one woman’s unwavering dedication to honoring her mom. One organization is even campaigning to return the day to its original meaning.
  • “Will” yourselves to a better body image. Eating disorder experts Michael Levine, Ph.D, and Linda Smolak, Ph.D, have created a valuable list of “Will-Powers” for improving your body image. Some examples: “I will practice taking people seriously for what they say, feel, and do. Not for how slender, or ‘well put together’ they appear” and “I will treat my body with respect and kindness. I will feed it, keep it active, and listen to its needs. I will remember that my body is the vehicle that will carry me to my dreams!” Download the entire list here and print two out, one for mom, and one for yourself.

And celebrate! Celebrate your mother and the other special women in your life. And celebrate your own wonderful qualities, some of which you probably have mom to thank for.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Moms and Daughters: Promoting a Positive Body Image

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2019). Moms and Daughters: Promoting a Positive Body Image. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 16 Mar 2019 (Originally: 9 May 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 16 Mar 2019
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