Our Bodies, Our Daughters: A Mother’s Role in Body Acceptance [Guest Post]

By Jill Zimmerman Rutledge, LCSW, is a psychothrapist who has worked with teen girls and young women for over 20 years.  Jill is the author of 2 self-help books for teen girls:  Picture Perfect: What You Need To Feel Better About Your Body (HCI, 2007) and Dealing With The Stuff That Makes Life Tough:  The 10 Things That Stress Girls Out and How To Cope With Them (McGraw-Hill, 2004).  Both books earned a best book badge from Radicalparenting.com.  Jill maintains a private practice of psychotherapy in Evanston, IL.  Contact her at www.Jillzimmermanrutledge.com.

I am the proud mother of two children, neither of whom are daughters.  When I was pregnant with my first son, I had a dream that he was a she.  If it weren’t for my husband’s sensibility, I would’ve decorated the nursery in pink wallpaper and white wicker but he thought we should wait and see.  When Daniel (not Danielle) was born, I was shocked but ecstatic at the same time.  Three years later I was blessed with a second son, and my wish for a girl was relegated to a simple hope for daughters-in law-who would like me.  My “daughters” are actually other peoples’ daughters:  the young women I work with as a clinical social worker specializing in body image and eating disorders.

In this day and age, raising daughters is a big responsibility, and perhaps because I am the mother of sons as well as a psychotherapist for young women, I can both stay objective and feel the heat of this burning point.  Burning, because despite the feminist gains of the 20th century, girls today are in danger of having their wings singed as they navigate their way to womanhood.  Some of the flames are visible and condemned by society, such as physical and sexual abuse.  But girls and women are also subject to a smoldering, culturally accepted abuse, spearheaded by Madison Avenue moguls who bombard us with advertising that demeans a woman’s natural shape.  Some of us lay on bandages of political correctness as we strive to protect our daughters’ sense of self.  (One of my friends who has a particularly beautiful daughter makes a point of telling little Mara that she is smart, too, when perfect strangers talk of her resemblance to a well-known child actress.)  But we can’t control our daughters’ inevitable collision with the popular media purveyors who promote the message that unrealistic thinness equals sexiness, which equals beauty, success, and the good things in life.

Could this message, along with its young model/messengers, be related to the fact that eating disorders affect more than 7 million girls and women?  Could it have anything to do with a California study of 500 10-year-old girls that determined that 81% were (or already had been) on a diet?  Could it account for the fact that, according to the journal of The American Dietetic Association, “Sixty percent of girls between grades 1 and 6 (ages 6 to 12) develop distorted body images and overestimate their body weight?”  And how do we help our daughters save themselves from the statistics if we struggle with the message ourselves?

The data overwhelmingly substantiates the fact that most American women do believe in the myth of unrealistic thinness.  In the 1990s, even Beverly Johnson, one of the most famous “supermodels,” admitted to People that she is afraid of fat and will “always have an eating disorder.”  The editor of Sassy (a magazine for teen girls) also reported to People that “we get letters from girls who are 5 feet, 3 inches and weight 100 pounds who want help getting down to 95.”  Every day I listen to beautiful, bright young women in my office who punish themselves because they feel they are not thin enough.  They live on Diet Coke and lettuce because they are afraid of calories; they abuse their bodies with bulimia because they cannot tolerate the heavy burden of their appetites.

The media are a primary factor in the development and maintenance of women’s body-image problems. It is not simply, as feminist writers have suggested, the “patriarchal establishment” that is manipulating our self images by keeping us feeling insecure about our bodies.  To blame men is the easy way out; we give up our power when we shirk our own responsibility.

The fact is, we also hurt ourselves.  Hazel Bishop, Eileen Ford, and Diana Vreeland were some of the pioneers of the beauty, fashion and advertising industries—coaches in the cultural game in which women compete with each other for the prize of beauty and thinness.  And we’re all to blame.  We spend billions of dollars each year with hopes of achieving the myth of body perfection if we only buy the “right products.  Of course, perfection is never achieved, yet many of us continue to believe in the message.  We blame ourselves for not trying hard enough.

A little history lends perspective:  In the 1930s George Gallup found that women remember reading ads featuring sex, vanity, and quality–in that order.  Twenty years later, market research revealed that a woman will probably buy something “if it makes her look thin.”  Charles Revson put it all together in the mid-1950s as he launched his first major Revlon advertising campaign.  Ads for products called “Fire and Ice” and “Cherries in the Snow” featured ultrathin models, such as Suzy Parker, the first American “supermodel,” drenched in luxury and exuding sex appeal; lipstick and nail polish sales soared, so, naturally, other companies copied Revson’s formula.

Big-breasted, curvaceous women like Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day were certainly idolized in the Fifties as epitomes of sexiness and cuteness, respectively.  But the ideal mother and housewife was not expected to look like Marilyn; the fashionable, attractive woman was supposed to be more Audrey Hepburn-esque in physique.  Even models who advertised vacuum cleaners for Sears Roebuck had to wear corsets under their shirtwaist dresses.  The decade also ushered in diet food such as Metrecal, RyKrisp and Diet-Rite Cola, to encourage women to control their natural appetites.

The baby boomers born between 1948 and 1959 inherited a legacy of several generations of poor body image.  Their grandmothers were young women in the 1920s, when the tubular “flapper” body was the feminine ideal.  My mother, now 80, remembers “some contraption in the bathroom with a motor and strap that was supposed to vibrate the fat away…she (her mother) was always on a diet.”

In addition, the baby boomers’ mothers grew up during the Great Depression the 1930s, and had to “do without” during the war years in the 1940s.  Consequently, they were hungry for the luxuries that the prosperous 1950s heaped on them as suburban housewives, and they were image-conscious.  Advertising executives exploited this phenomenon.  (For example, a 1957 Vogue ad for Rite Form Girdles promised “the exciting, new hollowed-tummy look.”)  In other words, the women who were young mothers in the Fifties were acutely weight-image-and body-conscious.  Naturally, they handed down their perceptions to their own daughters.  This, along with the slew of aggressive diet advertisements and skeletal fashion models that cropped up in the 1960s, inadvertently helped to produce yet another generation of women self-conscious about body image.  And so the cycle continues.

I’ve always found it fascinating that some of the loudest voices touting the “superthin equals sexy” message comes from magazines written for tween and teen girls.  I extensively researched this subject, reading not only current issues of magazines such as Seventeen, Teen and YM—to name a few—but also decades worth of Glamour, Seventeen and Mademoiselle.  What strikes me is how similar the issues look; skinny sexiness is like a shiny ribbon running through each issue, regardless of the year.  Current media have magnified, not created, the message.  When the first model-as-pinup-girl appeared in an ad for Springmaid fabrics in a 1967 Seventeen, the comely, slender teenager (identified only by her first name) was pictured perched on a barstool with practically nothing on but a lacy, see-through blouse.  (The copy reads:  “MISS DECEMBER:  Springmaid of the Month.”)  Today’s controversial underwear ads are only an intensification of this sales pitch.

We can’t change society overnight, but a good place to start in is our own homes.  According to a 1994 Glamour survey of 4000 young women, only 19% had mothers who liked their bodies.  This survey points out, as has recent research, that daughters of dieters are apt to dislike their own bodies.  My clinical experience bears out that when a young woman hates her body, she’s vulnerable to emulating media stereotypes and prone to compulsive dieting, which may lead to serious eating disorders.  Do we complain about the 10 pounds (or 20 or 30) we’ve gained since our last child was born?  Do we cook separate meals for ourselves?  Do we (as one of my well-meaning friends has done) rid our cupboards and refrigerators of anything that isn’t “fat free?”  Do we reward ourselves with sweets, only to later chastise ourselves for indulging?  Do we project our insecurities onto our daughters, giving them a critical eye when we notice they’ve gained weight?  These are behaviors that our children pick up on (and that many of us gleaned from our own mothers), affecting the internalizations of their newly forming, fragile body images.

Perhaps the best way to help our daughters dodge media exploitation is to learn to appreciate our own bodies.  This is easier said than done, but when moms feel comfortable with their own bodies, it gives their daughters a fighting chance.  True, it’s only natural for girls to rebel against motherly wisdom, but if we could embody a solid acceptance of our physical appearance, that role model in itself would go a long way.  I’m talking about feeling whole inside:  showing our daughters, by our examples, that healthy eating, moderate, regular exercise, a passion for living, and skills for finding peace within ourselves are the permanent keys to feeling beautiful.

Babies aren’t born hating their bodies, but rather delight in the discovery of them.  They are their own best judges of their appetites, crying when they’re hungry and pushing away the breast or bottle when they feel full.  Likewise, most of us loved our bodies when we were small children and we can learn to retrieve this feeling.  And the best reward is what we can pass on to our daughters:  that they don’t have to look like a model to feel attractive.  It’s so simple, yet so complex:  one of the best things we can do to help our daughters feel good about their bodies is to learn to feel good about our own.

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