Book Chronicles Mothers' Influence on Daughters' Weight, Eating

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Who helped inform the ways that women view their bodies? Although we want to blame society (The fashion magazines! The commercials! The movies!), Susan Shapiro Barash suggests that often the starting point is our mothers.

     

    I received a review copy of Barash’s book, “You’re Grounded Forever…But First Let’s Go Shopping: The Challenges Mothers Face with Their Daughters and Ten Timely Solutions,” and found that she makes some good points about mother’s influence on their daughter. Let’s start with Barash’s list of questions for a mother to consider that may indicate they are putting too much pressure on her daughter:

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    • “Have you taught your daughter to count calories?”
    • “Do you tell her she’s too fat?”
    • “Does your daughter constantly wonder if she’s too heavy?”
    •  “Does she watch you yo-yo diet? (And does she do the same?)”
    •  “Are you concerned that your daughter has an eating disorder?”
    •  “Have you made a big deal about going to the gym or exercising?”

    I wanted to see how Barash's information related, so I asked for stories from some of my friends. For instance, Barash pointed to a study about “fat talk,” which is adolescent girls’ preoccupation with their weight, even if they aren’t heavy. In some stories that I’ve heard, mothers contributed to the “fat talk.”  As a kid, my friend Sandy heard her mother’s messages about her daughter’s weight. “I was a chubby kid, chubby teen, and overweight adult. I was the ONLY person in the entire family (extended too) that had a weight issue,” she said. “My mother made comments like, "You have such a pretty face," or "You would be so attractive if you lost some weight. She took me to the fat doctor when I was in 7th grade. He gave me the equivalent of speed and a very restrictive diet. I was the only one in the house following the diet. Then Mom had me try the Air Force diet. In high school there were the vitamin B-12 shots. All in all, the message was 'You’re fat, let's fix it.'” Those messages carried over to Sandy’s adulthood. “I rarely felt good enough, and never felt cute. The weight battle continues to this day, but now I don't give a damn what my family thinks,” she said.  “One sad realization: I really wasn't that fat. When I look back on school photos, I don't consider myself fat. Yes, I was bigger than my peers, but definitely not fat. I wish someone would have pulled me aside in junior high and said, ‘Just keep this same weight through high school and you'll be fine.’”

     

    Other friends said their mother did not link their daughter’s weight with her self-worth, which matches with Barash's description of a satisfied mother who provides a calm, secure environment.  “I was overweight from about 4th grade through 7th grade. My mom was very careful not to say anything, but I had three very skinny sisters, so I noticed,” my friend Teresa explained. “Mom says it was due to some kidney problems, and I really appreciate her blaming it on a medical condition. That probably helped more than anything. I ate and played just like my sisters, so maybe she was right.” The way Teresa’s mother handled the weight issue not only endeared her to her daughter, but also served as a template for the way that Teresa handled her own daughter’s weight issues. “As for my daughter, she started gaining weight at about the same time. Her kidneys were fine, and I blame it on the way I fed her,” Teresa said. “I slowly changed her diet (and married a man who could actually COOK), and her weight quickly returned to normal. I never said a word about her weight, and I made sure to complement her when she dressed in something that was flattering.”

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    However, having a satisfied mother doesn't ensure that the daughter won't develop her own issues, according to Barash. My friend Jeanell dealt with weight issues as a youngster, although her mother didn't make a fuss about weight. “I was never a skinny-minnie but I never remember my mother saying a word about weight,” she said. “For one year in high school, I did gain about 3 sizes (I think related to acne and feeling self conscious - ha - that is a great solution...fat and broken out) and I knew she was worried but she never said anything and just served really healthy food and encouraged me to avoid one particular fast food Mexican restaurant. About a year later, I stopped eating crap, my face seemed to get much better and I guess I progressed through that emotional stage of puberty. She probably suffered through with me silently...and actually, in hind sight, her not making a huge deal about it was probably good.”  Jeanell thinks that her own weight issues may have contributed to her daughter’s self-image. “My daughter is very lean and athletic but still thinks she could lose 5 pounds; she is very self- conscious of her weight,” Jeanell said. “I think this is a combination of probably absorbing some of my weight issues -- the proverbial 20 pounds up/20 pounds down -- and media messages. Now that she is in college, we make Whole Foods Market or Central Market an outing when she comes home for breaks and load up on tons of fresh stuff for both of us when she is home. I have tried to be positive about a healthy weight for both of us, but probably have taken my mother's approach and not made it a huge discussion topic through the years.”

     

    In her book, Barash also covers topics such as anorexia/bulimia, important studies, as well as other issues that mothers face in communicating with their daughters about weight and diet issues. She offers five excellent suggestions to mothers:

    •  “Keep your own preoccupation with weight from spilling into your daughter’s life.”
    •  “Guard your daughter against detrimental eating habits.”
    • “Have conversations regarding the negative effects of media messaging about body image and weight.”
    • “Do not pressure your daughter about her weight.”
    • “Take action immediately if your daughter shows signs of an eating disorder.”

    These tips as well as the knowledge that Barash imparts can help mothers raise daughters who have a healthy concept about weight and food. And those lessons can – and probably will – be transferred on to future generations of women.

Published On: February 23, 2011