How do I stop my daughter fixating on her body when I can’t stop myself?

body image

Women and girls are often told that their worth is based on appearance. Beauty alone is seen as a sign of success. But Annie Ridout wants her daughter to believe that she can be active, involved and powerful – no matter what size her waist is…

Years ago, I went to a talk by psychotherapist Susie Orbach (author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, and On Eating). She explained the correlation between a mother who looks in the mirror, criticising the size of her bum or belly rolls, and how that woman’s daughter will view her own body.

Like the mirror, your daughter is a reflection of you. She studies you; she imitates your behaviour – Orbach explained.

I was way off having children, but this resonated with me. Of course a daughter looks to her mother for ideas on body image and self-worth.

Seven years later, I gave birth to a baby girl. She was a ‘big baby’ (10lbs 7oz). She never lost an ounce of weight – she loved feeding, and the pounds piled on. We celebrated every new fat roll and kissed her beautifully rounded belly. And as she went on to solids, delighted in her finishing her bowl of mush and asking for more.

She was healthy, and that was what mattered most.

But as she has got older and began fussing about food (like most children her age do at least occasionally), I’ve thought back to that Susie Orbach talk. Does she look at me selecting what to eat from the array on the table (lots of the salad and veg, not so much of the potatoes or pasta) and wonder if she should do the same?

This thought terrifies me. It terrifies me that she will start looking at her body and feeling that it’s too big or wide or curvy or tall.

While chatting with a friend recently – an independent, empowered, beautiful, feminist friend – about body image and weight, she casually noted that she lists everything she’s eaten each day in her head. Ask her what she had for breakfast and she’ll know instantly. So will all her female friends, she said. Including me.

Most women, it seems, fixate on their bodies and what they’re putting into them. We diet, count calories, starve ourselves, skip meals, obsess about thinness, feel disgusted by our own fat. And for what? To achieve ‘perfection’. To have what society considers the perfect body. Because then we’ll be happy/loved/sexy/successful.

But who decides what perfect looks like? White middle-aged men, most often. Like Billabong CEO Neil Fiske who allowed a deeply misogynistic ad to be displayed in which a (very thin) woman lies back in a seductive post – doing nothing, while a man rides waves in the sea. She is an object, for the male gaze. He is active, enjoying himself. This blog does a good job at berating Billabong for being so shortsighted.

And then there’s the Clarks faux pas. Where their ‘back to school’ range has a ‘Dolly Babe’ shoe marketed to girls, while the boys’ shoe is called ‘Leader’. Really, Clarks?

This is in addition to the ‘beach body ready’ ad a few years back – telling women that before they hit the beach, they will need to make sure they’re in shape. And ‘in shape’ has very specific criteria: white, thin, toned, pert breasts, long legs. No stretch marks, definitely no traces of motherhood (something I wrote about in an angry piece on postnatal swimwear).

These advertising campaigns perpetuate what we’re already being told, time and time again: men are successful, active and important. Girls are pretty, passive and good at being looked at. And these are the rules, messages and codes that our daughters will be growing up with if we don’t make some changes.

Did you know that girls as young as eight are developing eating disorders? 

When I was eight, I barely even had a relationship with my body. I enjoyed food, enjoyed being active (dancing, running around, playing games) and would have been confused by a question about my weight, or body image. I fear it won’t be the same for my daughter.

I really don’t know. Because body fixation is so ingrained in me and my culture, that I find it impossible to ignore. Like most women, I’m scared of being fat. I try diets, cut out food groups and exercise to stay fit.

The only thing I can do is to continue telling my daughter that her body is brilliant: at climbing, eating, dancing, skipping, running. And that appetite is something to be listened to, not controlled. But in order for her to hear me and believe me, she’ll have to see me treating my own body with a bit more love and respect.

How do you talk to your daughter about her body, and your own?

Photo credit: top left portrait by Charlotte Emily Gray, image on right by Annie Ridout