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Mothers can damage daughters’ body image

In her new book, “Do I Look Fat in This?,” Jessica Weiner says moms who fixate on dieting can influence their daughters’ behavior. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

There’s no denying that mothers and daughters have always shared a special bond with each other. Mothers have a powerful influence on their daughters that can be positive — or, sometimes, negative. Recent studies indicate that mothers who fixate on diet and body image can have a damaging influence on their daughters. Jessica Weiner, author of “Do I Look Fat in This?” was invited on “Today” to discuss this aspect of mother-daughter relationships. Read an excerpt and take a quiz.

It’s a Mother-Daughter ThingA girl’s relationship with her mother is a complicated and beautiful thing. We are born from her body, literally connected to her in the womb in a way that ties us early on to her nourishment: A baby feeds from its mother to live. It makes sense, then, that body-image issues and food issues between mothers and daughters are so prominent in our society. You are still feeding off your mother, in need of her approval, support, and unconditional love. Some of you get it. Some don’t.

My own relationship with my mother has taken many shapes and forms over my life. Early on I began dieting with my mom, becoming her body-loathing buddy. And I hated the way my mother hated her body. So I turned her inner rage and dissatisfaction about her body toward my own body and developed eating disorders that rocked my adolescent world. What I eventually learned about my mother — who now, at sixty, is zooming along in life with a healthier mindset about her physical shape — is that her own body-loathing was formed at an early age.

At the age of nine, she remembers, she was taken to the family doctor for a checkup. The doctor revealed that she was about fifteen pounds overweight. He immediately urged my grandmother to put her on a diet to take off the weight. What the doctor blatantly failed to notice was that my mother had matured early and was in fact going through puberty. So the extra weight gain was normal and would most likely work itself out as she continued to grow up.

But it was too late. By the time the doctor passed down the declaration for weight loss, my mother was sucked into the shameful and restrictive world of dieting. This pattern of bingeing, restricting, and punishing herself for being overweight — for being “bad,” in her point of view as a child — ended up staying with her for more than fifty years.

Family StyleDear Jess,

Help! My mother is driving me crazy! She criticizes me because of my weight. She reads the menu to me when we go to the restaurant; she tells me what she thinks would be “healthy” to order. She is constantly on a diet, but she doesn’t have any weight to lose. And I am not alone in my misery. She makes my poor father go on a diet with her. I swear, even the dog is on a diet. (I’m not kidding!)

She makes everyone in her life crazy with her incessant complaining about her weight. And when you try to tell her that she looks beautiful or that she doesn’t need to lose any weight, she goes berserk and talks about how fat she is and how we can all stand to lose a little weight.

Please help!— Frustrated in Tennessee

Our mothers are supposed to be our infallible family leaders. But they are also women, who are just as susceptible as anyone else to the messages of weight loss and to the beauty myths that our culture carries. Mothers can be quite damaging without intending to be. It is in these good intentions that your sense of self can get crushed. You cannot fix your mother. Just as she can’t fix you, and just as you can’t fix anyone who isn’t read to face their issues and take some action. You will have to learn how to decode the Language of Fat with your mother — or any family member, for that matter.

You can’t deal with your mother in logical terns until you realize that she is speaking another language. It’s painful for a family to watch their mother/wife be disrespectful to herself. Try sitting down with your mom one-on-one and telling her that it pains you greatly to see her so obsessed with dieting. Try to speak with her in a space that is not around food and not at a time when you are really angry or fed up with her. Tell her that she may not be aware of how much her own body-loathing spills out to others. Recognize that there is something deeper going on. If your mom wants to talk about it, great. Otherwise you are going to have to learn some simple self-defense moves in how to respond to her.

The next time she tries to tell you how fat she is — or you are, or your dad is, or the dog is — you can simply say, “Mom, I don’t want to speak the Language of Fat with you. What else are you feeling?”

Or you can tell her, “Mom, I love you so much, but when you speak like that it drives me nuts. Can we please talk about something other than your weight?” Use your own words, but the point is to say something in the moment and also to find time to talk in quiet, where some other truths may be revealed.

Rather than putting all the focus on losing weight, why don’t you focus on repairing this relationship with your mother? If you are finding that your relationship with your mother is getting in the way of you taking care of yourself, then it is your responsibility to do something about it.

More important, remember that you have to find some peace and solitude with your body — whether Mom approves or not.

Family MeetingFor those of you who have been labeled either the “thin one” or the “fat one” in your family, find a time to talk to your family about how this description makes you feel. Be as honest as you can. Tell your family that you want them to address you as a whole person, not just a size or shape. Also express that you don’t want to be compared to a different-size sibling. You don’t owe anyone an apology for being born the way you are. You need to embrace the body you were born with and begin treating it with more respect.

The Family Quiz

  1. Your father spots you eyeing a piece of dessert. He says:
    a. “Go ahead, honey, enjoy it!”
    b. “I thought you were going on a diet!”
    c. “Don’t eat the cake, it is full of nothing but sugar and fat!”
    d. “God, you have no control!”
  2. In one single conversation with your mother, how many times does she mention your weight?
    a.Never, we talk about other things.
    b. One or twice
    c. Five times
    d. Always — is there ever a time she doesn’t mention it?
  3. In one single conversation with your mother, how many times does she mention your weight?
    a. Asks you about your life and shares moments of hers.
    b. Talks about this new diet she wants to try…tomorrow.
    c. Talks about other people’s weight or appearance.
    d. Begins planning what she is going to eat at the next meal.
  4. You haven’t seen your father in six months. When he greets you at the airport, the first thing he says is:
    a. “I’ve missed you so much!”
    b. “Wow, you look like you’ve put on some weight.”
    c. “I guess that diet didn’t work, huh?”
    d. “Have you ever met a cookie you’ve said no to?”
  5. Name the thing you have most in common with your mother:
    a. Our wit, sense of humor, and love for shopping
    b. Our mutual disdain for our flabby arms
    c. Our shared diet tips
    d. Our desire to be thinner
  6. In order to motivate you to take better care of yourself, your father:
    a.Lovingly tells you that he’d like to see you stick around awhile.
    b. Offers to buy you a new wardrobe if you lose ten pounds.
    c. Practices tough love and won’t talk to you till you get in shape.
    d. Makes jokes at your expense.

If you answered anything other than “a” to any question in this quiz, you may have the beginnings of what is affectionately known as “Mama Drama” or a “Daddy Dilemma,” the prevalent and unfortunate bonding of mothers, fathers, and daughters through the Language of Fat. These dramas and dilemmas have been known to ruin otherwise healthy relationships, hurt people’s feelings, and basically drive you crazy! Approach them with the intention of decoding the language that is keeping your relationship mired in this misguided bonding. As with any of the advice you are given, it is up to you to choose to take action.

Excerpted from “Do I Look Fat in This?” by Jessica Weiner. Copyright © 2006, Jessica Weiner. All rights reserved. Published by No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.