Maternal Impact on Daughter Body Image and Dieting Behaviors

Many millennials and gen x-ers grew up with parents who were products of a diet obsessed culture.

From the Grapefruit Diets of the 1970s, to the Cabbage Diet of the 1980s, to the Low-Fat Diet and Blood Type Diet of the 1990s, these niche, quick fixes were everywhere. We had moms who hopped from diet to diet, spoke openly about their disdain for their bodies, and some children even had these ideas pushed on them through encouragement to diet themselves. I will give our parents a pass in that they did not have the information we have now; that these diets are detrimental, that celebrity bodies are not realistic and their images are photoshopped to high heaven, and especially, that their words and actions could be affecting us, their children.

Research has shown mothers play a primary role in her daughter’s eating behaviors and body regard. A mom’s encouragement for her daughter to diet, a mom’s own diet behaviors, and body talk may lead to a daughter’s increased drive for thinness, propensity to diet, eating disorder behaviors, and decreased body image. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in our own podcasts, the diets and fads haven’t stopped. Instead of eating grapefruits, we’re drinking skinny teas and eating baby food. As I step into motherhood for the first time, I know I will diet at some point (like flexible dieting in a caloric deficit….I’ll be staying away from the poop-your-pants teas). I am a competitor and as of now I plan on continuing to compete. However I want to do that in a way that does not negatively impact my children. So I wanted to look deeper into this research to better understand these correlations and how we can do better.

The Research

A 2016 study out of Notre Dame sought to find the individual and combined effect of  direct and indirect maternal involvement on daughters’ future dieting behaviors and body image [1]. A mother’s direct involvement was classified by the mother encouraging the daughter to diet or lose weight and openly discussing the daughter’s weight. This includes suggestive or subtle encouragement to lose weight and the mere mention of a daughter’s weight. This direct involvement on its own has been shown to increase a daughter’s drive for thinness, dieting behaviors, and decrease her body satisfaction. The second factor was a mother’s indirect impact through the mother’s own weight loss, weight concerns, and “overt” dieting behavior. These indirect factors alone have been predictive of weight control behaviors and binge eating [1].

The study was completed in 89 girls in the sixth grade, ages 11-13. They were brought in to have their BMI calculated and to complete a series of questionnaires. The same process was complete in the seventh and eighth grades. There were five questionnaires where the girls were asked to answer each question on a scale of zero (never) to five (always). The questionnaire topics were as follows:

– Mother’s Encouragement to Diet asked questions regarding the mother’s direct involvement. Questions included things such as “How often has your mom discussed your weight with you?”

– Mother Talk of Personal Weight Concern regarded the mother’s own weight. This included questions like “How often has your mother discussed her weight with you?”.

– Body Dissatisfaction of Own Body asked girls questions on their own body image. The girls rated how often they agreed with statements like “I feel my stomach is too big.”

– Drive for Thinness examined how preoccupied the girls were with being thin or fear of gaining weight. Statements included “I am terrified of gaining weight.”

– Dieting Behaviors asked questions such as “How often do you skip meals to lose weight?”.

Results

The researchers analyzed these questionnaires to determine how mothers’ encouragement to diet and/or mothers’ own dieting behavior and body regard affected their daughters body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, and dieting behavior. They found across the board, mothers who did not encourage dieting and did not discuss their own diet and body regard had daughters with the highest body image, lowest drive for thinness, and least amount of dieting behaviors. To the contrary, mothers who did encourage weight loss but did not discuss their own diet and body regard had daughters with the lowest body regard and highest drive for thinness and dieting behaviors. Interestingly, they found mothers who did encourage dieting and did discuss their own dieting behavior and body regard had daughters with lower dieting behavior than if the mother had not discussed her own weight related issues.

The researchers suggest a mother’s encouragement to diet is therefore almost buffered by the mother sharing her own experiences. This may be due to bonding through shared experience or the daughter feeling more encouraged than criticized. However, this does not mean it is a positive thing for a mother to discuss their weight or body image as a mother. It means it is merely less harmful than her only encouraging weight loss and not sharing her own experiences. The researchers also stress how much context is important. The way the topic is approached, the word choices, whether emphasis is on healthy behaviors or weight loss, and more all matter. So while the research is highly context dependent and may be difficult in application, there are several key takeaways from this research.

Key Takeaways

– The things we say and do regarding our children’s weight and our own weight, no matter how subtle, can and does affect them.

– The best thing you can do for your daughter’s body image and dieting future is to avoid talking about weight loss and your own weight related issues.

– If weight loss is necessary for health, approach it with a sense of togetherness and encouragement with health being the focus, not weight.

– Praise healthy behaviors and effort over weight loss, appearance, and outcomes.

– If you are unhappy with your body, do not express this around your children.

As the next generation of parents, we can change the way we talk about “dieting” and body image to our children. In the best cases, we can avoid discussing our children’s weight and our own body and weight. In other cases, instead of merely promoting weight loss, by any means necessary, we can discuss healthy habits with our children. We can be vulnerable, while maintaining boundaries, when discussing weight and body image. When our children struggle, we can empathize and encourage, rather than pushing the idea of weight loss on our children. By no means will be perfect but if we can be mindful of these things, we will be headed in the right direction.

References:

Hillard, E. E., Gondoli, D. M., Corning, A. F., & Morrissey, R. A. (2016). In it together: Mother talk of weight concerns moderates negative outcomes of encouragement to lose weight on daughter body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Body Image, 16, 21-27. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2015.09.004