MESSAGES FROM THE PAST
Certainly you can remember having a body image. You had mirrors, clothes that fit or didn’t fit, a host of people around you making comments here and there, scales, and the pressures of the media. You probably had many thoughts about your body starting from your grade school years.
Were you ever called “pleasantly plump” by a well-meaning relative whom, you disdainfully thought, felt herself clever for avoiding the word “fat”? Did you feel proud as you strutted the beach or lakefront in a bikini, or did you shop for the cutest cover-up you could find, your selection hampered by a sense of unremitting shame? And when you reached into the freezer for a quart of ice cream, did your mother hand you the scoop and say, “Here honey,” or did she cluck a bit and warn, “Not too much now,” at which point you put the ice cream back?
In other words, what was your world like in which your body image evolved?
While there is much you consciously transmit in your home today that reflects your views and values, there is also likely much that is long forgotten or unconscious that plays into the way in which you relate to your family members. Thus, it’s important to learn to recognize what drives you. It is the first step in beginning to understand how you became who you are at this moment and to perhaps get in touch with the empathy, understanding, and vision you will need to support your adolescent. Below are some questions to help you begin the necessary self-reflection.
What Do You Remember about How Your Mother Felt about Her Body? How Did You Feel about It?
Daughters can often experience an intense identification with their mothers, and it can be a beautiful thing. It can also be fraught with fears and anxieties. Did you, for the most part, have a benign view of your mother’s body? Did you admire it or envy it, or did you in some ways actually dread it?
“My mother had very heavy thighs, though she was quite athletic and the rest of her was slim. She used to try to break up the fat by massaging her thighs. Supposedly in our house a ‘fun’ activity while watching TV was to massage her thighs for her, ‘to break up the fat.’ I was somewhere around 8 to 10 years old. At the time it seemed kind of funny, but it also felt a little scary. When I passed through puberty I noticed that my thighs were a little heavy as well, and I spent most of my teens and twenties worrying that they would eventually look like hers. They didn’t. But I also worried that if I had a daughter she’d be stuck with those fat, chunky legs my mother tried so hard to massage away.”
This mother grew up to have two boys, so she didn’t feel that she had to worry about their thighs. When she reached her forties she became obsessed by her own, and while both boys were away at camp she had liposuction for her “saddlebags.”
Would she have had the operation if her mother had simply enjoyed her various sports and ignored her “figure flaw”? It’s hard to say, but she is quite clear that the anxiety about her own legs began as she concentrated on her mother’s. She could recall on many occasions commenting on feeling “fat” to both of her sons. She’d heard this could be a problem with daughters but assumed herself free of risk given that she had sons. That is until she caught her younger son, at age 11, slicing away at a pair of jeans to make very long shorts. When asked why he couldn’t just wear his regular shorts, he replied without skipping a beat, “My legs are fat.”
HOW DID YOUR MOTHER/FATHER FEEL ABOUT YOUR BODY?
We are perfectly capable of generating our own anxieties about our bodies with the help of the outside world, without a word from our parents. Still, it is at home where we begin to develop our self-worth and sense of what we can be. And, perhaps, what we aren’t. Even your well-meaning parents may have had a bit too much to say about your developing body. Perhaps they jumped in too soon as puberty hit to warn you of weight gain and how you might appear in the eyes of others. Maybe your house was tightly controlled emotionally, peopled by disciplined parents and siblings who towed the line, and you were expected to stay as slim and controlled as everyone else. Maybe you hovered a bit too closely to an eating disorder. Then again, maybe no one said anything, but you watched your father play tennis twice a week and stay sleek and lean, and sometimes, you thought, he looked at you with disappointment. Consider these questions:
“My mother was a beauty. Slim and tall. My biological father was kind of overweight though handsome, but around the time I turned 9 they divorced. My mother moved back into the city and soon met a wealthy, rather vain man who took great pride in my mother’s looks and his own sleek, aristocratic appearance. I tended to be a little pudgy. At around age 14, feeling unhappy at home and missing my father, who had moved far away, I decided that I really needed a boyfriend. Around this time my mother made a ‘loving’ remark. It went something like ‘Honey, you could have such a lovely figure.’ And so I went on a diet. This wasn’t too hard, because both my mother and stepfather had gotten very body-conscious. Everything in the house was ‘lean,’ as they would put it. So I got very lean, which they seemed to think was great. I did too, but I was constipated a lot and very uncomfortable. I felt very lonely—and very hungry. Fortunately, I got a boyfriend who was a bit overweight but so adorable, and he insisted that I needed to put on a few pounds. I was glad, as I was always starving. But I still stayed vigilant for a long time. It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I allowed myself an average weight.”
This mother grew up to have twins, a boy and a girl. Her husband is tall and thin. She is slightly overweight. She’d like to lose a few pounds but talks incessantly about how hard it is to do so. “It’s just not my body type,” she sighs. “I’m not my mother.” Possible translation: “I can’t be as beautiful as she was.”
Pictures of her mother, however, reveal that while she was tall and lanky, it was her daughter who had the more beautiful face. But somehow to this mother of twins, it was the poundage that counted for true good looks.
HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR BODY?
As we stated earlier, our children are not the first generation to grow up battered into semisubmission by the media. You likely had a great deal of experience as an adolescent dealing with the celebrities and models of the day. But then, of course, if you were not bothered by the media, you still had the mirror, your peers, and your family. How, given all these influences, did you feel about your body?
During adolescence, body satisfaction can be frustratingly elusive. It wouldn’t matter if you were proportioned as our society would deem “perfect.” It’s a new body, there are different ones all around you, and it’s hard to know what’s okay. It’s hard to feel that one is good enough or downright attractive.
“My breasts developed early. By the time I was in seventh grade, I was in a size C cup. All the girls stared at me. Almost more than the boys. But the boys, especially the older boys, seemed to think I was ready for something to happen between us. I wasn’t. But I couldn’t seem to get close to any girls, and so I went along with the boys. I hated my body. My mother was freaked out about my behavior. She was always buying up extra big tops for me to wear so ‘things’ wouldn’t be so obvious. That was another THING. How come she couldn’t call them breasts? Was the word bad? I’d sneak out; different boys would call every night. I had no idea what I was doing. It was as if my body had a life of its own. Everyone else seemed to crave it, but I felt as if it were my own personal curse.”
By the time other girls caught up with her, this future mother was not in a position to feel relieved. A pattern of disdain and confusion concerning her body had already been set. She still walks with hunched shoulders, embarrassed by her breasts, and she fears that her 10-year-old daughter will go through the same thing. But, of course, her daughter may not if mom can engage her in a positive way and help her feel comfortable with who she is.