Moms: Show your daughters how to lead a healthful life

In the late 1960s and '70s, Twiggy became the first superstar teenage model. She weighed 90 pounds and was the idol of young teens. Her body had no curves, no noticeable fat — she truly earned the name Twiggy.

I was an adolescent during that era and remember well the huge impact Twiggy's fame had on my girlfriends and me. Many young girls strived to look like her and were willing to do what it took to be like Twiggy. This just happened to coincide with fad diets such as Stillman and Atkins.

All this focus on thinness helped start the epidemic of eating disorders, a societal preoccupation with dieting and unrealistic expectations of how women should look.

In the field of psychology we have seen women with eating disorders who have raised daughters with eating disorders and who have, in turn, raised another generation of young girls exposed to this preoccupation with dieting, weight and their bodies.

This weekend, as we celebrate mothers, it seems a good time to talk about how this sad pattern might be swapped for the gift of positive messages about health, body image and self-worth.

The power of moms

Many women who grew up during the Twiggy years now are grandmothers. They have struggled with the legacy of constant messages about physical perfection and thinness.

Some became chronic dieters, some developed eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, and some simply battled with a constant feeling that their bodies were never good enough. Those who made it through totally unscathed are few.

Even women who did not develop an eating disorder still came through that time with ideas about bodies and weight that have not been good for their children. Girls are particularly affected, but today, boys also are falling prey to eating disorders and body image problems.

Most girls learn from their mothers what it means to be female, how to think about their bodies, what their worth is.

Part of that education is centered around food. The daughter of a woman who talks about her weight frequently, constantly diets and frequently criticizes her own eating habits is more likely to develop poor self-esteem and body image. She is more likely to become preoccupied with being fat and worry about how she looks to others.

What if this mother is careful to tell her daughter at every opportunity that she truly wants her to be healthy and happy?

The words won't matter if the mother's own actions betray her unhealthy preoccupation with diets and body image.

MODEL BEHAVIOR

So, what can a woman who has been raised with body image issues do to stop perpetuating the pattern in her own child?

Hard as it may be, Mom needs to stop trying to subsist on celery and cottage cheese, freaking out at the sight of a carb, or inspecting her own body for signs of fat. No amount of love and kind words will overcome that example for a child developing her own self-esteem and body image.

Instead:

• Model healthy behaviors you would like to see in your daughter rather than telling her what you want her to do. Practicing is more powerful than preaching.

• Don't say, "I just want you to be happy." If your actions don't show that this is your priority, the words will not have an impact.

• Look closely at what you say about yourself and how you treat yourself. Rather than moaning about how you need to go on a diet, make healthy food choices and invite your kids to exercise with you. Working on your own body image and self-esteem issues is a greater gift to your daughter than anything you could buy her.

• Focus on the abstract rather than the concrete. Your child's feeling of self-worth is more important than how her body looks. If she feels good about herself, she will make better choices — from what she eats for lunch to how she picks her friends.

Lavinia Rodriguez, Ph.D., is a Tampa clinical psychologist who specializes in weight management. She can be reached at (813) 240-9557 or DrRod@FatMatters.com. Her book, "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management," is available at FatMatters.com

Moms: Show your daughters how to lead a healthful life 05/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 6, 2010 6:43pm]

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