How mums can support their daughters' healthy body image

From Nine To Noon, 11:30 am on 18 April 2024

Negative body image is a lifelong issue for many women which social media only serves to fuel.

Yet the habits and self-talk of mothers can also have a profound effect on young girls becoming overly critical of their bodies.

Psychologists Janet Boseovski and Ashleigh Gallagher offer advice on what to do and what not to do in their new book Beyond Body Positive: A Mother's Evidence-Based Guide for Helping Girls Build a Healthy Body Image.

Image of mother and daughter looking at themselves in the mirror.

Photo: Pixabay

Not everything on social media is harmful, Boseovski says, but much is ;"very appearance-focused", including trends such as legging legs - the idea that to wear a pair of leggings you have to have a certain pair of legs - and girl dinner - " this concept of putting together a bunch of snacks and that's your dinner".

Parents need to be aware of what their daughters are looking at online, she says, to help them understand that "doctored images" don't reflect real life.

"You're not really understanding what it is that you're seeing yet, you're not cognitively mature enough to get that [the images aren't real]. You don't fully grasp that. So parents do need to be attentive but not over-monitor and not forbid either because that tends to not go well, as we probably all know, and social media isn't going away."

Rather than this being a "tween problem", the seeds of negative body image can be planted very early, Boseovski says.

From infancy, daughters receive indirect messages from their mothers about the right way to eat and to look.

"They're seeing what Mum is doing and Mum has been under her own pressures to diet. They might see that Mum is not eating what everybody else is eating at the table. They might see that Mum is not wanting to be in photographs and ... not participating. They might see or hear that she's making negative comments about her own body.

"We might think as mums that this is [just] something we're saying about ourselves, but actually that's having an impact on our daughters. And then, of course, we also have the media messages that we're bombarded with beginning very early in life. So it's really coming at us in multiple ways and at a very early age. 

A mother speaking critically about her own body is one thing, Gallagher says, but her behaviour also sends a powerful message.

"[For example] opting not to go into the swimming pool because we don't want to be in a swimsuit. So much of this is picked up on by our girls. Even if we are saying things that are contrary to that and we're saying things that are confident and positive, they're seeing our behaviours and those are so important for how they are going to feel about themselves."

Moralising food - ie calling certain foods either 'good' or 'bad' - is not the best way to encourage a child to develop a healthy relationship with what they eat, Boseovski says.

"One of the premises of Beyond Body Positive is teaching body-healthy behaviours. It's treating your body with respect, appreciating what your body does for you and learning how to balance that with having fun with food, enjoying food, but also realising I need to feed this machine, this amazing thing that carries me and that's going to make me feel better able to do the things that I want to do."

Concentrating on what your body allows you to do rather than its appearance is central to this approach, Gallagher says.

"It doesn't come naturally because that's not the culture that we've grown up in and been taught by but with practice, we do have the agency to change our thinking about that and to redirect our thoughts about that."

People will always judge themselves and be judged by others on their appearance, Boseovski says, but it should be "a pretty small piece of the pie" when it comes to self-image.

"Teaching children what it means to move your body for pleasure, getting them involved in activities that they enjoy … That's a completely different approach to respecting and valuing your body that doesn't involve being appearance-focused ... It's got to be enjoyable, and finding activities and doing that as a family."

While the body positivity movement has a lot going for it, Gallagher says, it still centres on the body's appearance rather than its function.

"What we really think the attention should be on is not focusing on what the body looks like in either a negative or positive evaluation, but to stop thinking about our bodies so much as a part of who we are. We really think the key here is taking away positivity even and just concentrating on expanding your self-concept to include so much more about who you are than what your appearance is and how you feel about it."