Not In My World: A Daughter’s Body Image Starts with Her Mother’s

“blue eye photo” by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

Her eyes were deep blue and her hair fell in messy, loose curls around her shoulders. I can’t remember her name, but I will never forget what this nine-year-old girl said to me.

She was in a group of girls I was working with in my job as a counselor. We were talking about body image. I had asked them if they had ever heard their mothers talking about their own bodies. The blue-eyed girl said yes, she had overheard her father saying mean things to her mother about the way her mother looked. Afterwards, the girl privately told her mother she thought she was pretty. Her mother said, “No I’m not. I’m fat and ugly.”

Her daughter responded, “Not in my world.” I asked the girl if she looked at all like her mother. “We look exactly the same,” she said.

I remember derogatory comments my mother would make about herself and how sad it made me feel. As a little girl, I’d sit on the toilet, next to the scale, and watch her get ready. First came the blue eye shadow, then a spritz of Estee Lauder perfume, and then it was time to get dressed. Outfit after outfit, she’d survey her image in the mirror before announcing, “This makes me look fat.” I found this confusing as I thought she looked beautiful.

On Fridays, my mother had a standing appointment with her hairdresser for a wash-and-set. It was 1968 and she favored the look of Elizabeth Taylor’s bouffant to Twiggy’s sleek bob. I sat in the chair next to my mom’s with nothing better to do than swivel back-and-forth and observe.

Ladies lined up in chairs with hooded dryers, cigarettes dangling from one hand, flipping the pages of Life magazine with the other. Over the hum of the hair dryers I could hear my mother complain, “Do something with these curls!” I remember seeing my own mop of untamed curls in the mirror and wondering, if her hair is ugly, what is mine?

My mother assured me that I was beautiful the same way I attempt to affirm my daughter. But, I know from experience that my words mean nothing if I put myself down at the same time. Still, I struggle. The truth is, I have days when I do feel fat, old and ugly. These descriptions have slipped out of my mouth in the presence of my daughter and I can see her wince the same way I did as a child.

“No you’re not,” Gabrielle reassures me. I instantly feel guilty for putting her in the position of having to prop me up. Once I caught her studying her long, lean image in the mirror as she sucked in her belly. When I asked her what she was doing she said, “I want a flat stomach.” So did I and I’m sure I had said the same thing out loud.

I know the best way to teach my child to love and respect herself is for me to do the same. It takes conscious effort to share with her that I’m proud of a day’s accomplishments or that I’m going to exercise for “the energy it gives me” instead of “because I feel fat.” When my husband or daughter compliments my appearance, I work hard to respond simply with, “Thank you.”

To shame the parent is to shame the child, and self-shame — well that’s a mighty heavy burden to carry. When I put myself down, a little piece of my daughter dies too. When I am satisfied, I give her permission to seek the same personal satisfaction.

So, I asked the blue-eyed girl with the loose, messy curls to tell me about her world. How does she see her mom? “Oh, she’s really pretty! And she’s nice. I like it when she plays dolls with me and we talk. She has a pretty smile. I love my mom. I want to grow up to be just like her.”