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Mothers and Daughters

On Body Image

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Passing on a Legacy of Love
By Sil Reynolds

Sil and her mother, Alden

When my friend Melissa's daughter Lucy was about 12, she noticed that her belly was expanding. It looked as though a lifesaver was gently encircling her hips. It was with some alarm that she said to her mother, "Look Mom, I'm fat!" Like all of our daughters, Lucy was beautiful and unique. She was a creative introvert, a reader, and she loved nature. What she didn't know, until Melissa reassured her, was that nature was creating a literal lifesaver on her sweet belly. Mother Nature, in all her wisdom, was preparing a reserve for Lucy's imminent growth spurt. Furthermore, the adipose tissue (that would be fat) on her belly was busy making estrogen, so that she could become the beautiful twenty-three year old woman she is today.

But this story would be incomplete if I did not tell you how Melissa reassured Lucy. (Melissa, who is an extrovert, a health coach, and a gifted mom.) To Lucy's comment, "Look Mom, I'm fat!" she said, "Fat! Fantastic! Let me see your beautiful fat!" And she proceeded to explain to Lucy what her beautiful and smart body was up to. In the same way that she would celebrate her daughter's first period a few months later, the appearance of the fat around her daughter's middle was cause for celebration. Clearly this F word was not a bad word in Lucy's family.

When I was a teenager, the model Twiggy was the rage. Stick-thin with no breasts to show, no hips, and a tiny butt, we girls dreamed of looking like her. It did not matter that she was either anorexic or a genetic rarity: we thought that if she could be skinny, so could we! In my day, Twiggy's body image was the impossible and unhealthy standard and many of us began out first diet.

These days there are too many too-thin models and actresses to name or to count. Furthermore, we can't trust the bodies that our daughters are seeing in magazines or online because most of them have been airbrushed. Our daughters are constantly inundated with images of women's bodies that are not only impossible to obtain (without an eating disorder), most of them are not even real! It is no wonder that eating disorders are epidemic and that the demand for cosmetic surgery is at an all-time high.

What's a mother to do? Plenty. Research has shown that no matter how inundated our daughters are by these impossible images and standards, we are still their greatest influence. We are our daughter's example, and trust me: she is watching you for cues on how to be a confident woman in this crazy world of ours. If you have conflicts with food or your body's size or shape, I urge you to heal those conflicts. Then your daughter will be part of the healing and the evolution of your matriline.

Like many in her generation, my mother started dieting after the weight gain of pregnancy. Like many in my own, I began dieting when I was a teenager. And now, in Eliza's generation, there is an alarming trend: girls are starting to restrict their food intake even before puberty. As their natural womanly curves develop, a growing number of preteen girls think they are "getting fat." These girls have made skipping lunch cool and dieting a "grown-up" thing to do. Whether their dieting begins before or after puberty, I believe that we need to know and to teach our daughters that diets aren't healthy and furthermore, that diets don't work.

This was a revolutionary piece of information that I learned in my early twenties when I read the groundbreaking book, Fat is A Feminist Issue, by Susie Orbach. Thus began the healing of my poor body image. I had begun dieting as a teenager because I did not like my body, and the more I dieted, the more I binged and gained weight. Geneen Roth teaches us what she calls the Fourth Law of the Universe: "For every diet there is an equal and opposite binge.." I learned to love my feminine curves and to trust my body's physiological cues and I made peace with my body and with food. When I became a mother, I was able to trust my own instincts because I had embraced Susie Orbach and Geneen Roth's very sane approaches. I raised Eliza as a mother with a healthy body image, and she inherited a sane attitude about her unique, developing adolescent body. Here are a few of the guidelines I recommend to mothers:

Heal your issues with food and your body. It is never too late to do this and it will have a big influence on your daughter's self-image and self-esteem.

Consider making your home a scale-free zone. Recently, at age 20, Eliza thanked me for doing this. She is grateful that through the teen years she did not have a number in her head to obsess about.

Keep fashion magazines out of the house. Research has shown that girls' self-image plummets when they look at fashion magazines regularly. Teach your daughter that these images have been airbrushed.

Teach your daughter that there is way more to life than body image. Teach your daughter that she is uniquely beautiful inside and out! In spite of the insanity that surrounds us, if you know this about yourself, you will be able to show her the way.

Body Sane
By Eliza Reynolds

When I was 17 years old I had a profound, nay a reality-shattering, realization: I was simply born in the wrong time; I should have been born in Renaissance Italy. To be exact, I should have been in Florence, Italy circa 1486, the year that Sandro Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus.

Let me explain. Have you ever seen the painting of the goddess-of-love-incarnate on her foam-flecked half shell? Just take a peek at those pastey white, soft curvy thighs, without tone or tan... Got 'em. And that soft lower belly curve? Mine, baby. The rather flat, but wide, large, white butt? Yup, mine too. And the flowing brown hair? All mine! Gosh, there I would have been a real STUNNER.

And that was the point of my profound realization: every single society, from cavewomen to our own modern times, has had an "ideal" of beauty. And not only that, but each and every single ideal has been different (when and where should YOU have been born?). Indeed most of these ideals seem quite ridiculous to us today: the Ancient Aztecs who favored cross-eyed women, or the Chinese who practiced childhood foot-binding for centuries, or, heck, look at the Victorian, rib-breaking, daintily-fainting, corseted beauty. We, today, are yet another "ideal" obsessed culture, with impossible, unattainable visions of "beauty", no less ridiculous than the societies of yesterday. Let the statistics speak this truth: only 1 in 40,000 women has the natural body type of a model, and so $109 million is spent every day in the US on diet or weight loss products. We are in the midst of not just a culture, but a cult of the obsessed. And somewhere in your life --- whether it be a friend, a sister, a mother, or yourself --- surely there is a girl trying, trying, trying to reconcile this "ideal" with her absolute, human realness.

So when I moved into my freshman dorm room, rosy-cheeked and nerve-wracked about my friend-making ability, I hung a cheap copy of The Birth of Venus strategically by the full-length mirror - let my roommate think I was arty and sophisticated, but it was my link to body sanity in this culture gone mad.

I am 20 years old, and I was raised the daughter of an energetic women's healthcare provider whose specialty was issues of weight, food, and body image. I was, I believe, by classic definition, predetermined to be "body sane." And yet something seemed to have gone terribly wrong, because at age 15, there I was (night after night, as I squeezed out of my jeans and slipped into my PJs), staring down my thighs in the bedroom mirror, scheming up ways to tighten them, shape them, and shrink them. Except here's the thing, none of my many exercise or food restriction brainchildren ever seemed to quite make it to fruition: I never wanted to run up the hill behind my house (not once and definitely not the 10 times a day that I had so carefully mapped on the margins of my 9th grade planner). I never managed to skip lunch for more than 4 days, or eat less of the healthy, buttery, delicious dinner put on my plate. Instead, I obsessed. And, as anyone who has been there can tell you, body obsessions are a daily, time-consuming, energy-sucking, totally disempowering DRAG.

Here are 3 body truths I have learned (because in order to be body sane, you need to find the body truth). These are for teenage girls (and for anyone else who needs them for that matter), because sometimes it can be kind of overwhelming, no matter how strong we are (and I am quite a strong young woman).

(1) Fat is not a dirty word, or a synonym for lazy, dumb or mean. Fat on someone's body (be it belly, boobs or butt) is not an excuse for a stranger to comment on your "health" or "developments" (your body is yours). Fat is not an emotion either ("I feel so fat today") or a way of skipping the process of discovering what you really feel.

Fat is a natural part of the body. Fat is a nutrient that we all need to eat. Fat is human, healthy, soft, sexy and squeezable. And, speaking from all of my 20 years of experience, I have yet to kiss or date a person who doesn't LOVE my fat.

(2) Hear Ye, Hear Ye: skipping meals to "lose weight" is counter productive and in fact usually has the exact opposite effect. Instead your body goes into starvation mode: it thinks you are entering a famine, a time (like the Dark Ages or something!) where there was simply not enough food to go around. And so, to protect you and your daily body functions, it slows down your metabolism, the rate at which your body processes food. You are actually more likely to gain weight. Regular, balanced meals (yes, carbohydrates, proteins and FATS) are the best plan for having a healthy, strong, well-fueled body. It's simple science. Spread the word (some girls really need to hear this one).

(3) You, me, and all of us lovely animals, have a genetically inherited body shape, size, weight and natural cycle. Whether you think about it as your "set point" (the natural weight range that is your body's healthy state) or just the fact that, hey, like it or not, you look a heck of a lot like your biological parents. Perhaps then our job is just to accept it, and even learn to love it.

Let's fight to be body sane - we need it, our friends (and moms) need it; our world needs it.


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SilElizaEliza Reynolds:
Eliza Reynolds will be a junior at Bown University in the fall, where she is studying Psychology, Gender Studies, English, and nonfiction writing. This year Eliza has been taking a gap year and she is working for Women Without Borders in Vienna, Austria. In 2009, Eliza served as an advisor to Eve Ensler for her newly released set of monologues for girls, I Am An Emotional Creature: The Secret Lives of Girls Around the World. She and her mother, Sil Reynolds have led mother/daughter workshops for mothers and their 10-12 year-old and 13-15 year-old daughters at The Omega Institute and the Esalen Institute since 2007. Their book, Mothering & Daughtering: Keeping Your Bond Strong Through The Teen Years, will be published by Sounds True in January 2013.

Sil Reynolds
Sil Reynolds, RN, has been a nurse practitioner and therapist for thirty years, during which time she has specialized in women's health and eating disorders. She is a therapist in private practice in Stone Ridge, New York. Sil has been an ongoing advisor to Omega Institute's Women and Power Conference and a consultant to Eve Ensler's V-Day projects related to body image and eating disorders. For over 10 years, Sil assisted and led Geneen Roth's reaking Free From Emotional Eating workshops across the country. Sil is a graduate of Marion Woodman's BodySoul Rhythms© Leadership Program. Sil and her daughter Eliza have led mother/daughter workshops for mothers and their 10-12 year-old and 13-15 year-old daughters at Omega Institute and Esalen Institute. Their book, Mothering & Daughtering: Keeping Your Bond Strong Through The Teen Years, will be published by Sounds True in January 2013.

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