No Mother's Day would be complete without one key emotion: guilt. Dara Chadwick, author of You'd Be So Pretty If...: Teaching Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies—Even When We Don't Love Our Own, explores how moms' subtle behaviors shape their daughters feelings about weight and body image.
As a young teenager, I once heard someone tell one of my older brothers that if he wanted to know what his girlfriend might look like years after they’d married, he should take a good look at her mother. I stole a glance at my own mom and wondered: Was I looking straight at my own body destiny?
Not bad, I thought. Not model material, but not entirely unappealing either. There was just one problem: She didn’t see it that way.
She’d talk about waiting for the day that a rich blind man would sweep her off her feet. She’d joke about having taken on the shape of her own mom: a barrel on two sticks.
Growing up, I got the message loud and clear that my mother didn’t like what she saw in the mirror. Her looks were something to be “coped” with: Clothing had to be loose or black, its goal always to hide and minimize the body underneath. And compliments on her appearance? Forget it—those were brushed away faster than crumbs on our kitchen counter.
But always, there were the jokes. When shopping for a dress, she’d talk about having to find something designed by a tent-maker. She’d talk about waiting for the day that a rich blind man would sweep her off her feet. She’d joke about having taken on the shape of her own mom: a barrel on two sticks.
I never quite understood exactly what she saw that was so “wrong” in her eyes. I remember her wearing a size 12 through most of my childhood. But as I got older and started to look like her, it occurred to me: Many of the insults, jokes, and complaints she had made about her own body could now be applied to mine. I don’t remember her criticizing my shape, but really, she didn’t have to. I heard it all in my own head when I looked in the mirror—especially the day I bought my first pair of size 12 jeans.
Now, I’m the mom of a 13-year-old daughter and I see firsthand the way my feelings about my body are shaping her feelings about hers. Two years ago, I lost 26 pounds as Shape magazine’s Weight-Loss Diary columnist—an adventure to which my little girl had a front-row seat. We talked a lot during the year I wrote the column—about good health, good habits, and learning to love the body you have. Still, as any parent knows, talk is one thing when it comes to kids. How you behave is an entirely different matter.
As a writer, I couldn’t let go of the idea of how a mother’s feelings about—and behavior toward—her body affect her daughter. As a mom who loves her daughter deeply, I simply wanted the body-bashing cycle to end with me. That was the spark behind my book, Y ou’d Be So Pretty If…: Teaching Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies—Even When We Don’t Love Our Own. In it, I share what I’ve come to see as the most important truth about raising girls who feel good about themselves: If you want to help her love the body she has, start by accepting your own.
How? For Mother’s Day, promise yourself that you won’t say another unkind thing about your body or make your shape a punchline in her presence this year. If you need to think it, then think it. But don’t let her hear those words come out of your mouth. And while you’re at it, let her hear you say something nice about your appearance. You’ll be teaching her to focus on the good in herself—and you might just find yourself feeling better, too.
Make no mistake: Mothers matter. But it’s not about blaming moms; it’s about realizing that we can control what we model.
If you’ve been a lifelong dieter obsessed with calories, it’s time to reframe that conversation, too. Ditch the calorie talk and let her see you make healthy food choices most of the time, without agonizing over your food. Hide the scale in the hall closet or toss it out with the trash. Invite her to take a walk with you after dinner. And if you choose to have dessert? Have it without one single word about how you shouldn’t.
Watch the praise and criticism you direct at other women, too. When she hears you “ooh” and “aah” over a celebrity who’s dropped weight or whisper to a friend about another mom who’s put on some pounds, you’re sending a message to your girl about her own body and its attractiveness. Make sure it’s the one you want to send.
I’ve been asked a few times now if mothers really matter in all this. After all, girls are bombarded by media images, peer pressure, and outside forces that we can’t begin to control. Make no mistake: Mothers matter. But it’s not about blaming moms; it’s about realizing that we can control what we model. Our own healthy habits and self-acceptance help shape not only how she feels about the teenage body she has today, but also the adult body she’ll have tomorrow. Treat your body well, right now. It’s a Mother’s Day gift for you—and for her.
Dara Chadwick is the author of You’d Be So Pretty If…: Teaching Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies—Even When We Don’t Love Our Own (Da Capo Press)