Body image issues. We (or at least most of us) have had them, and in many cases are still struggling with them. As much as we are loath to discuss them, bound up by shame and discomfort as they are, there’s one thing I know for sure about them: they are universal, and they run deep.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized how much of my own issues had been, for lack of a better term, transmitted to me―a deplorable gift of sorts, passed from one generation to the next, rarely with any bad intentions but with an internalized sense of inevitability.
This epiphany―albeit a painful one―came to me upon reading Erin Brown’s magnificent book As Is, and spurred me into deciding that I’d do all that I could do to disrupt this cycle.
I’ve said often that I don’t consider myself to be unique in my experiences, and so I sought other women’s voices―women who were mothers of daughters, in particular, and over 40 of them answered my call―in order to learn more about their own. Through some powerful exchanges, where I was blown away by the raw vulnerability of what was shared with me, the broad picture I’d imagined existed did take shape.
So rich was the material that including everything into one post just wasn’t feasible. Hence, I present you with the first of a series, in which I dig into this first question: are our body image issues inherited?
For the majority of us, there’s a strong correlation between developing or not our own body image issues and the way significant women in our lives talked and behaved in regards not only to their own bodies, but to others’ as well.
Those of us who grew up in households where weight was discussed, or were involved in sports and activities where size was at the center of preoccupations, had our perception coloured―often very early on.
I did always seem to have body dysmorphia. I was on the gymnastic team growing up and, when I was 7 my coach told me that I needed to lose weight. That was the beginning of feeling never thin enough, always dieting and constantly comparing myself and my size to others. ―Mackenzie
I think that growing up I my own mom and my aunt weren’t well educated on body image type issues, exercise and nutrition. I remember them talking about the parts of their bodies that were “fat” or “gross” or that they didn’t like. I definitely remember them being on diets or “needing to lose weight”, and I don’t remember them loving exercise. So I’m sure that my own fixations were influenced by that. ―Justine
Many of us can recall similar conversations happening around us, and the behaviours that often came with them, namely the unending cycle of dieting.
My mom was overweight and always on or off a diet. I remember most women and some men were on diets. I thought that is what adults did. They got fat and went on and off diets. I was always the skinny kid, but was afraid I’d end up fat like my parents. ―Nancy
I remember my mother following ridiculous diets when I was a kid. The Scarsdale diet was very in at the time (it was all about grapefruits and dry toast if memory served.) I learned early on that trying to lose weight was something women did. That combined with a mystical obsession with models and fashion mags certainly impacted how I saw myself. Other women were something to compare myself to. Of course, I found myself lacking. ―Sandrine
From there, it’s very easy to slip from the diet mentality―where your success depends on you being good or bad―into assigning moral value to body size, and therefore reducing the quality of our very character to our ability to remain small.
My mother grew up in a household that considered weight a moral issue. Some members of her family were fat and were therefore “wrong”. Others were thin and were therefore “good”. She imbued these ideas into me. I went on my first diet around the age of ten. My thinness or fatness, depending, was always an issue. This carried into my adulthood. ―Lessa
Perhaps one of the most intriguing part of those conversations I had―for me, at least―were the testimonies from women who grew up in households where weight was simply not discussed, and where negative language surrounding bodies was non-existent. Unsurprisingly, this had a very positive effect on their own body image.
I was overly confident as a kid. I was extremely outgoing. I do not remember older women or role models ever speaking about body image. My parents were always super open and loving with me. They never made comments about bodies―mine or theirs. My mother always wore a bathing suit and swam with us―regardless of her weight. She never spoke about her size in negative terms. ―Jeanne
I don’t ever remember anyone in my family talking about body image topics. I can imagine that not being surrounded by those conversations helped instill in me the confidence I have now. ―Micah
This, if anything, can certainly give us hope.
Now that we’ve established where some of our body image issues―or lack thereof!―stem from, what is there to be done?
1. DON’T FALL IN THE BLAME GAME
While our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, teachers, coaches, and neighbours, have had an influence on the way we perceive our bodies, we must remember that those ill effects were unlikely to be intended, but rather a reflection of their own inheritance of those issues.
It would be, for lack of a better term, easy to just fall into blame―after all, these are the situations that caused us much unhappiness over the years. It would, however, serve no one: resentment isn’t conducive to growth, and it’s not grounds for healing either.
2. CHOOSE COMPASSION AND FORGIVENESS
This is just as true towards others as it is towards ourselves. By removing the focus on the damaging behaviours and remembering that they were fueled from a place of pain, we can more easily remember that we’ve all been doing our best under the circumstances that were given to us.
3. USE OUR AWARENESS TO DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY
Becoming aware of what’s been passed on to us gives us tremendous power: we can consciously and deliberately choose to act in a way which will allow us to either perpetuate the cycle, or put an end to it. By paying extra attention to our own words and actions, we can start to shape a reality where bodies are embraced instead of systematically critiqued, and where we get to decide where the conversation is heading.
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