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THE CONVERSATION

Mothers’ dieting habits and self-talk have profound impact on daughters

Mothers’ dieting habits and self-talk have profound impact on daughters
Mothers play an outsized role in the formation of their daughters’ dietary habits. Image: Krzysztof Kowalik / Unsplash

Adopting healthy behaviors and thought patterns around food and nutrition takes time and intentional effort. But it will lead to more lasting change and positive outcomes than quick-fix dieting will.

Weight loss is one of the most common health and appearance-related goals.

Women and teen girls are especially likely to pursue dieting to achieve weight loss goals even though a great deal of research shows that dieting doesn’t work over the long term.

We are a developmental psychologist and a social psychologist who together wrote a forthcoming book, “Beyond Body Positive: A Mother’s Evidence-Based Guide for Helping Girls Build a Healthy Body Image.” In the book, we address topics such as the effects of maternal dieting behaviours on daughters’ health and well-being. We provide information on how to build a foundation for healthy body image beginning in girlhood.

Culturally defined body ideals

Given the strong influence of social media and other cultural influences on body ideals, it’s understandable that so many people pursue diets aimed at weight loss. TikTok, YouTube, Instagram and celebrity websites feature slim influencers and “how-tos” for achieving those same results in no time.

For example, women and teens are engaging in rigid and extreme forms of exercise such as 54D, a program to achieve body transformation in 54 days, or the 75 Hard Challenge, which is to follow five strict rules for 75 days.

For teens, these pursuits are likely fueled by trendy body preoccupations such as the desire for “legging legs.”

Women and teens have also been inundated with recent messaging around quick-fix weight loss drugs, which come with a lot of caveats.

Dieting and weight loss goals are highly individual, and when people are intensely self-focused, it is possible to lose sight of the bigger picture. Although women might wonder what the harm is in trying the latest diet, science shows that dieting behaviour doesn’t just affect the dieter. In particular, for women who are mothers or who have other girls in their lives, these behaviours affect girls’ emerging body image and their health and well-being.

The profound effect of maternal role models

Research shows that mothers and maternal figures have a profound influence on their daughters’ body image.

The opportunity to influence girls’ body image comes far earlier than adolescence. In fact, research shows that these influences on body image begin very early in life – during the preschool years.

Mothers may feel that they are being discreet about their dieting behaviour, but little girls are watching and listening, and they are far more observant of us than many might think.

For example, one study revealed that compared with daughters of non-dieting women, 5-year-old girls whose mothers dieted were aware of the connection between dieting and thinness.

Mothers’ eating behaviour does not just affect girls’ ideas about dieting, but also their daughters’ eating behaviour. The amount of food that mothers eat predicts how much their daughters will eat. In addition, daughters whose mothers are dieters are more likely to become dieters themselves and are also more likely to have a negative body image.

Negative body image is not a trivial matter. It affects girls’ and women’s mental and physical well-being in a host of ways and can predict the emergence of eating disorders.

Avoiding ‘fat talk’

What can moms do, then, to serve their daughters’ and their own health?

They can focus on small steps. And although it is best to begin these efforts early in life – in girlhood – it is never too late to do so.

For example, mothers can consider how they think about and talk about themselves around their daughters. Engaging in “fat talk” may inadvertently send their daughters the message that larger bodies are bad, contributing to weight bias and negative self-image. Mothers’ fat talk also predicts later body dissatisfaction in daughters.

And negative self-talk isn’t good for mothers, either; it is associated with lower motivation and unhealthful eating. Mothers can instead practice and model self-compassion, which involves treating oneself the way a loving friend might treat you.

In discussions about food and eating behaviour, it is important to avoid moralizing certain kinds of food by labelling them as “good” or “bad,” as girls may extend these labels to their personal worth. For example, a young girl may feel that she is being “bad” if she eats dessert if that is what she has learned from observing the women around her. In contrast, she may feel that she has to eat a salad to be “good.”

Moms and other female role models can make sure that the dinner plate sends a healthy message to their daughters by showing instead that all foods can fit into a balanced diet when the time is right. Intuitive eating, which emphasizes paying attention to hunger and satiety and allows flexibility in eating behaviour, is associated with better physical and mental health in adolescence.

Another way that women and especially moms can buffer girls’ body image is by helping their daughters to develop media literacy and to think critically about the nature and purpose of media. For example, moms can discuss the misrepresentation and distortion of bodies, such as the use of filters to enhance physical appearance, on social media.

Focusing on healthful behaviours

One way to begin to focus on health behaviours rather than dieting behaviours is to develop respect for the body and to consider body neutrality. In other words, prize body function rather than appearance and spend less time thinking about your body’s appearance. Accept that there are times when you may not feel great about your body and that this is OK.

To feel and look their best, mothers can aim to stick to a healthy sleep schedule, manage their stress levels, eat a varied diet that includes all of the foods that they enjoy, and move and exercise their bodies regularly as lifelong practices, rather than engaging in quick-fix trends.

Although many of these tips sound familiar, and perhaps even simple, they become effective when we recognize their importance and begin acting on them. Mothers can work toward modelling these behaviours and tailor each of them to their daughter’s developmental level. It’s never too early to start.

Promoting healthy body image

Science shows that several personal characteristics are associated with body image concerns among women.

For example, research shows that women who are higher in neuroticism and perfectionismlower in self-compassion or lower in self-efficacy are all more likely to struggle with negative body image.

Personality is frequently defined as a person’s characteristic pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. But if they wish, mothers can change personality characteristics that they feel aren’t serving them well.

For example, perfectionist tendencies – such as setting unrealistic, inflexible goals – can be examined, challenged and replaced with more rational thoughts and behaviours. A woman who believes she must work out every day can practice being more flexible in her thinking. One who thinks of dessert as “cheating” can practice resisting moral judgments about food.

Changing habitual ways of thinking, feeling and behaving certainly takes effort and time, but it is far more likely than diet trends to bring about sustainable, long-term change. And taking the first steps to modify even a few of these habits can positively affect daughters.

In spite of all the noise from media and other cultural influences, mothers can feel empowered knowing that they have a significant influence on their daughters’ feelings about, and treatment of, their bodies.

In this way, mothers’ modelling of healthier attitudes and behaviours is a sound investment – for both their own body image and that of the girls they love. DM 

This story was first published in The Conversation. Janet J. Boseovski is a Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Ashleigh Gallagher is a Senior Lecturer at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro
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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    On the one hand I understand that we need to be weary how much pressure we put on young people regarding their body image, on the other though I am starting to see tendencies that seem to coddle the mind by shielding from important realities. That overweight people are less healthy and generally seen as less attractive by society is really indisputable. There definitely are “good” food types and “bad” ones (no other way to defibe sodas and other heavy sugar food types), and I think its important to not shield kids and young adults from this. I am not saying we should be fat shaming or similar, but some of what you suggest in this article is being dishonest and not telling the full truth.
    And lets face it, leading by example as seems to be a core suggestion in this article will not work for many.

  • Carolin Gomulia says:

    Thanks for this article. I am so glad to read an article that moves away from dieting. I have dieted for 30 years of my life and can just confirm that it has detrimental effects on once physical and mental health. I have a young daughter myself and I am shocked how body conscious young children already are and how there is so much judgement on different body sized people. I recently read the book ‘Intuitive Eating’ and it was such an eye-opener. So much research that is kept from us to just confirm the mainstream teachings about body size and health etc. Would be great for DM to have more articles that focus on this topic.

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