Chapter One: Body Image Basics
There are a few core questions all mothers have: Why is my daughter so focused on her body? Why does she have such a negative body image? Do all girls have body image issues? Which girls are most vulnerable? Is my daughter one of them?
There are three core facts that are at the heart of all these questions. First, there are more factors than ever before (cultural, relational, sexual, social) that contribute to your daughter's having problems loving the way she looks.
Second, while there are many factors in your relationship with your daughter that will influence her behavior, how you see your own body (and communicate that) is the biggest influence on how your daughter sees hers.
Third, your relationship with your daughter is part of an ongoing process. In spite of all the discouraging and difficult things that may happen between you, time is on your side. You will find many ways over the next few years to help your daughter see her body and herself in a positive light.
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For many reasons, your daughter's focus on her body is only natural. Teenagers who are starting to separate from their mothers and fathers need to consolidate that separation by taking full ownership of their bodies. This long process -- a girl's gradual separation and her growing autonomy -- starts as early as ten or eleven and goes all the way to late adolescence, from seventeen to nineteen. What does this mean? Well, from our experience it means that during these years she will spend half her time looking in a mirror and the other half fighting with her mother about some aspect of her looks -- whether her skirt is too tight, whether her eye shadow is too bright, whether piercing her navel is a constitutional right. Most mother-daughter skirmishes are about control issues. Most of these control issues are about separation. And the battleground where they are all waged is the body. The question "Whose body is it, anyway?" comes up over and over in different ways.
The more you understand these issues and what your daughter is going through, the easier it will be for you to protect her from potential problems, to solve existing ones, and to exert a strong positive influence on what is an inherently bumpy passage. Easier, by the way, is a relative term. You may find that you feel paralyzed by your fears of a passage that you don't really understand and by a daughter you understand less and less. You may feel anxious and worried just knowing you're being pushed away by your daughter. You may react to her crushing contempt by feeling both angry and scared that she'll move even farther away from you. Or you may believe that her disdain and her anger are so fixed that you can't do anything to change them.
But while her attitude may go (in a matter of minutes) from the hysterical to the hostile, and while her "Leave me alone!" or "Get out of my life" statements aren't exactly conducive to a heart-to-heart talk, you can't give up or bail out. Mothers matter more than anyone else to an adolescent girl, and everything you are both going through is part of a process your daughter needs to go through to figure out who she is as a separate and unique person. This ongoing struggle is crucial both in contributing to and in resolving body image issues. Remember when you thought giving birth to her was hard?
There are understandable reasons behind your daughter's struggles. From her point of view, the mother she once knew is now someone who seems to understand her less and wants to control her more, so instead of loving you blindly and unconditionally as she did when she was younger, she now sees her relationship with you as ambivalent, combative, and puzzling. For her to successfully separate and gain autonomy, she needs to take some of the luster off the idealized image she has of you and replace it by criticism that often borders on contempt. From a mother's perspective, the child you once knew has morphed into another being whose behavior is mystifying and often disturbing. As far as you're concerned, this would be the part in the movie where someone from outer space has replaced the adorable, loving child with an evil alien adolescent twin.
It may be a small comfort, but in these moments and moods your daughter, the teenage alien, feels every bit as alienated from herself as she does from you. Remember your own adolescence? You know from your own experience how hard it is to reconcile the person you are with the person you really wanted to be -- how hard it was when you realized that your breast size was never going to be perfect or that your hair would never be shinier than it was. Adolescence is when our dreams and fantasies of "When I grow up, I'm going to be..." come into sharp focus. For your daughter, it's the first time that these girlhood dreams are hitting smack into reality.
This is when she suddenly realizes that she's not the best dancer or the star soccer player. She envies other girls who seem to have it easier or starts comparing herself (unfavorably, of course) with models, athletes, rock stars, and movie stars. The frustrations that stem from her disappointments cause her to devalue who she is. She's suffering from a very real sense of loss; it's painful for her to give up childhood dreams. It's especially painful for her to have to give up the idealized way she saw you when she was little. All those images of perfection that once seemed possible now stand in stark contrast to her new, distinctly imperfect, reality. Her face has zits. Her mother has flaws. Her life isn't going to be made into a movie starring Beautiful, Perfect Her!
The result is lots of anger that she directs against herself and sometimes you. Her body is the place these feelings settle, so she takes things out on her body. Her revenge might be something as mild as cutting gym to something extreme, like starving herself.
She critically examines every part of her body: "I hate my butt." "My legs are gross." "If only I had less flabby arms." Every day the mirror brings new disappointments and frustrations. And out of her obsession with what's outside comes her new internalized beliefs: "I hate my body" and "I hate the mother who gave me this body."
Suddenly the expression "painfully aware" makes perfect sense. Your daughter is painfully aware of who she isn't, and she hasn't yet figured out who she is. So she needs to explore, experiment, fail, and succeed by trying on many different personas. ("I'm a Goth," "I'm a hippie," "I'm into boys...body piercing...Buddha...") What's important is that you see this role playing for what it is and that you don't panic. Now is the time to pick your battles wisely. Is she making a harmless statement about her autonomy or is she doing something that could be harmful? By not saying no to everything, by not overreacting, by being the grown-up in the relationship, you'll be able to help your daughter get through this experimentation. You'll help her understand it and you'll be there to cushion any crash landings, help her right herself, and help her learn from her failures.
While she's trying out different roles and hair colors (usually the ones that don't wash out), your daughter also feels compelled to find some way to defend herself against her pain, her losses, her uncertainty. Her answer is not to find other things to focus on, but to concentrate even more on her body and to think in a new (and decidedly distorted) way about it. She is more proactive (good news) and less rational (bad news). She now believes that if she can just fix what's on the outside, she'll feel better about what's on the inside. Every mother knows this adolescent logic: "If I dye my hair pink, I'll be a knockout." "If I can look like the girl in the MTV video, then I'll be happy." "If I shave all the hair on my body and put on self-tanner, then I'll look so cool."
It's almost impossible for your daughter to understand that part of the process of becoming her own person is finding a place for her childhood dreams and wishes and knowing that they don't have to be lost forever. This is a very important part of your input as a mother. You can help by keeping her grounded in reality -- reminding her of what her real assets, skills, and strengths are. Your consistent reinforcement is like the lifeline in a tempest. She may whirl furiously around, saying, "You don't know what you're talking about," but your stability and positive, consistent validation of her will prove the most valuable asset in helping her separate and gain a positive self-image.
Every small, calm, rational gesture you make toward her is helping her achieve her larger long-term goals: to aspire to more realistic dreams, to gradually integrate all of her experiences, to successfully cope with her new reality, and in time, to attain a well-rounded sense of herself.
Your job, as always, is to keep a grip on reality and not feel decimated by her fitful progress, her distorted thinking, her inability to really hear what you're saying to her. Even if you have the patience of a saint, it's hard to hang in there through your daughter's inscrutability or toxic anger, her hostility, her deeply hurtful personal attacks. It helps to know that as profoundly painful as it is for you, your daughter would have a hard time growing and maturing without expressing some of these feelings. If you think your job is hard, your daughter's is even harder. In order to grow up, she has to do two contradictory things -- separate from the mother with whom she has had a lifelong bond and continue to identify with her -- both at the same time.
That is the job description of adolescence for mothers and daughters: A girl has to separate from her mother and develop a sense of who she is as she goes from being a child to becoming a woman. And her mother has to help provide her with the tools and guidance she needs to separate and to develop a healthy sense of herself that's more than skin deep.
Why is it harder for some girls than others? Are some girls more in danger of developing a negative body image and the problems that go with it? The answer is yes. There are some real, quantifiable factors that put girls at risk. The most vulnerable girls are:
A girl who, growing up, is either significantly underweight or overweight; one whose mother has attached great anxiety to this and made it clear that it is a problem.
A girl whose mother is preoccupied with her own weight, looks, and social success, and who projects these worries onto her daughter.
A girl who has had problems with social skills, shyness, or overattachment to her mother.
A girl whose father is critical of her and her appearance. This kind of father, threatened by his daughter's budding sexuality, may tease his daughter or find subtle ways to put down her developing body.
The more risk factors there are, the more chance there is that a body image problem will develop. And while the mantra today is, "Well, it must be the influence of MTV/a fashion magazine/the music," it's just not that simple. Media assaults and the lack of the consistent presence of a parent to help filter and moderate what a child is seeing are a potent combination. The bottom line is, a girl needs a loving, devoted, vigilant parent who can help her see through this distorted worldview and decode it.
If you know that your daughter is at risk, is there a way to anticipate problems? Yes. Once risk factors have been identified, you can be alert to signs and signals from your daughter that body image problems may be taking hold. Look for signs of depression, eating changes, isolation, extreme mood swings, loss of energy, loss of friends -- anything that signals that she's not herself.
At the same time you can look for opportunities to fight back -- to say or do things that are smart and supportive and helpful. How to help:
Provide a reality check. Very often girls who have a negative body image are negative about everything -- the whole world is sour. Help your daughter see that not everything is so bad. Be prepared: when you offer help, she'll probably be negative about that, too. As perverse as it may sound, don't be critical of her negativity; go with it and you'll get better results. For example, it actually helps to start off with something that sounds negative, like, "You may not find this helpful but..." Then say something supportive, such as, "If you'd like to get out and go to a friend's house, I'll give you a ride." The objective is to at least get her out of her room, where she is feeling isolated and miserable. Alternatively, agree to help her get whatever she is convinced will turn her life around (a new outfit, cool shoes, a totally different haircut, glitter makeup). Don't expect an instant attitude change and keep trying.
Don't be the kind of mother who feels upbeat about everything, the one whose enthusiasm feels inappropriate and false, who says to her gloomy daughter, "What a beautiful day! Why don't you go have a fun bike ride?" If you want to be cheerfully manic, be cheerfully manic on your own. And don't put your daughter down, telling her, "You have no right to be so depressed. It's a beautiful day. Snap out of it." Your daughter doesn't need a controlling mother trying to micromanage her every mood.
Don't be the kind of mother who has an answer for everything. If your daughter looks in the mirror a million times a day, don't say a word. It's maddening. But it's normal.
So is talking on the telephone about nothing for hours on end. Don't listen. Don't hover in the doorway of her room, looking for a good opening to have a "meaningful conversation." If you're going to stand by her door, quickly say whatever word of encouragement you want, then leave.
Do encourage her to form relationships with positive female role models. Osmosis does work.
What Every Mother Needs to Know
Fat is a code word for an emotion, not a number on the scale. Fat is also the vocabulary for your daughter's emotions; it may be the only way she knows how to talk about what's bothering her.
Listen to what your daughter says, but don't take what she says about her body literally. If she says, "I'm so fat," don't say, "Well, just go on a diet and lose five pounds." She's not talking about dieting; she's talking about her feelings.
Remember that she's growing into her body and it's not always a great fit. You're used to your body. She's not used to hers.
There are all sorts of fears and insecurities your daughter may have about herself and her body. Don't dismiss these; they are the best clues you'll get about her inner thoughts.
Your daughter is bombarded by girl talk about bodies all day long, and she believes her friends more than you. This is normal. Help her think things through.
Be aware of what you're adding to the mix: how you talk about your body, your weight, your appearance. Think about what kind of role model you are.
If your daughter really does have a weight problem, she has to be the one who decides how she wants to handle it. Or if she wants to handle it. Of course, if her weight is creating a serious health problem, you need to construct a plan that addresses your daughter's physical and emotional well-being, one that can help her lose weight and gain self-esteem.
Copyright © 2003 by Stephanie Pierson and Phyllis Cohen