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"You Have to Say I'm Pretty, You're My Mother"

by Stephanie Pierson and Phyllis Cohen CSW

The following is an exclusive essay written for Feminist.com by Stephanie Pierson and Phyllis Cohen CSW, the authors of "You Have to Say I'm Pretty, You're My Mother" How to Help Your Daughter Learn to Love Her Body and Herself. (Simon and Schuster, May 2003)

Not long ago, I was giving a talk at my local library about our recently published book, "You Have To Say I'm Pretty, You're My Mother," an advice book for mothers of teenage girls who are struggling with body image issues. At the end, I took questions from the audience. While many people, particularly women, asked questions about their own teenage daughters, one attractive young woman (30 something) hesitated before asking the following: "My daughter is only two years old, but I just don't want her to have the body image problems that I've had and I want to do all the right things with her so she can feel good about herself."

While the audience was amused that this mother would be so concerned about body image so early in her daughter's life, the depth of her sensitivity and concern struck me. Of course these issues and questions - about everything from diets to depression to body piercing - really become paramount when a teenage girl hits puberty, but this young woman was onto something. She sensed that body image and self-image are being formed during the earliest years of her daughter's life. And she realized that her own body image problems could have a huge effect on her daughter. Whether she gained this insight from her own experience or from observing other mothers and daughters, her keen interest in this subject confirmed everything that we have learned in researching and writing our book.

The essence of our findings are that while there are many factors that help determine how a girl feels about herself when she looks in the mirror - everything from the media to peer pressure to perfect body messages - there is one indisputable fact: mothers matter the most to a daughter's developing sense of her body and herself. A mother needs to take a good look at herself and her own ideas about body image because, as her daughter's primary female role model, everything she says and does is absorbed into her daughter's female DNA. Even if she has a different body type, if she's adopted or her parents are of different races, her mother is the main influence on her ability to develop a positive connection to her body. A mother needs to realize that when she is worrying about her three-year-old's chubby thighs, her daughter is hearing her and in ten short years those thighs will become her daughter's her main obsession.

Naturally, mothers want to promote a healthy body image and strong self-esteem in their daughters. Just like the mother at my lecture, almost every woman is aware of the importance of growing up with a healthy body image. These concerned and motivated mothers want to do all that they can to help their young daughters grow into self-confident women.

However, because women focus on their own bodies - on gaining weight and losing their youth, sending these positive body messages isn't always so easy. Almost every woman you and I know has struggled with feeling dissatisfied with her body at some point in her life. It's difficult for a mother to deal with the inherent contradictions of telling her daughter to feel good about herself while she complains about her own figure flaws, goes on fad diets, obsesses about being a size larger than she wants to be, contemplates plastic surgery and lives at the gym. Does it have to be so tricky? Apparently.

In our body image focused world, even otherwise confident and slim teenage girls can be consumed by a fear of being "fat". If a girl really does have a weight problem her self doubt and struggles with her appearance can create psychological problems. We have seen eating disorders, disordered eating and depression in girls as young as eight years old. Girls focus on their bodies and looks from a very young age, because it is such a loaded issue, mothers don't know how to help and when to intervene. Telling a young girl that she shouldn't worry about her appearance because, "it's who you are on the inside that counts" and that "people will love you for your personality", is not helpful. It's a sad commentary that in this post feminist age, women, and in turn girls, remain so focused on attractiveness and appearance and that in our society, looks are still the key to success.

To help a young daughter develop healthy body image, mothers need to do some soul-searching and planning. In our book, we urge mothers to increase their awareness of all of the negative body perfect messages they may be unintentionally sending to their daughter. Good examples of the kinds of questions that only reinforce the belief that looks are everything can be seen the following:

Am I afraid that my daughter will be too fat or thin?
Are her eating habits a source of pleasure or pain to me?
Am I worried that she won't be popular because she is overweight?
Am I looking in her room and her school bag looking for candy wrappers?
Do I promise to buy her new clothes if she loses weight?
Do I bribe her? "If you lose weight I'll buy you that bikini".

It helps to understand some of the basics and some of the givens. Growing up is a process (not always a smooth straight line) and girls are concerned with body image at various stages of growth and sexual maturity. When she was a baby, the pleasure and delight a girl gave her mother (mother love), eventually became the essence of her child's future self esteem (self love). As an infant, her physical and emotional bond with her mother is her first experience of body pleasure. As a she grows the positive feelings she has towards her mother extends her own body. All of this nurturance helped her know her body belongs to her and this becomes the basis for her future emotional security.

Many mothers have a hard time allowing this process to unfold. They find their daughter's changing body image threatening. Imagining all sorts of troubles, they react by becoming overprotective and over controlling. These mothers tend to perceive their daughter's growing up as their second chance at being "perfect" and getting it right. When a mother doesn't handle her own fears and separate herself from her daughter's body image problems she unwittingly contributes to her daughter's insecurities.

A mother who listens to her daughter's feelings and learns about her experiences helps her the most. It's normal for girls to try on many different styles and personas (at four years old she wants everything purple, at eight she refuses to dress like "a girl" and at twelve she wants to be a rock star with pink hair). It helps for a mother to support her through these stages by giving her perspective on how she looks and providing her with a reality check. It does not help when a mother blames the media or resists her daughter's need to follow some popular, totally abbreviated style. The irony is that teenage girls act like they need no guidance or advice. They need their mother's guidance and feedback more than ever.

Since almost every girl will have to deal with some body image problem as she grows up, it's important for a mother to understand as much about these issues early in her daughter's life so that she can help prevent problems from occurring or respond when they do. If a mother has concerns that body image issues are affecting her daughter's emotional health and well being, a mother can speak to her daughter's pediatrician and get professional help. There is a great deal that we can do to help our daughters feel good both physically and emotionally, from the very beginning. Getting help will allow a girl know that she's valued and eventually, she will learn to value her body and herself.

The above is an exclusive essay written for Feminist.com by Stephanie Pierson and Phyllis Cohen CSW, the authors of "You Have to Say I'm Pretty, You're My Mother" How to Help Your Daughter Learn to Love Her Body and Herself. (Simon and Schuster, May 2003)


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