Maybe you have your mother’s eyes, her laugh, or her neatness streak. But did you ever wonder if you inherited your mother’s wacky weight-loss tendencies, such as her penchant for flitting from one fad diet to another? It’s possible.
“When it comes to dieting, mothers are powerful role models,” says Leann Birch, professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University. In a study in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Birch studied 197 six-year-old girls and their parents and asked the girls questions about dieting, weight control and body shape. The study found that the girls whose mothers were dieting were more than twice as likely to have ideas about dieting, even at the tender age of six. “For some girls, dieting meant eating more fruits and vegetables. Others said that it meant cooking for the kids but not eating for yourself, or not eating at all,” says Birch.
The fact that mothers are the family’s eating trendsetters isn’t new. Other studies involving mothers and older daughters have shown similar results. “Mothers who are highly restrained chronic dieters tend to have teenage daughters who are more likely to do the same,” Birch says.
To break the negative bonds of your dieting lineage and avoid passing them onto your kids, here’s food for thought.
If your mother was a fad or otherwise dysfunctional dieter, be aware that you may have a tough time resisting the urge to follow suit—even now. “During your formative years, there’s a good chance your mother’s wayward dieting ideas—such as needing to starve yourself to lose weight—got into your hardwiring,” says Philip R. Costanzo, professor of psychology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Maybe you even began dieting like your mom when you were just a kid, which makes it even tougher to change your ways. “It’s difficult to alter early habits,” says Costanzo. But just being aware that you may be patterning your eating habits after Mom can help you break the cycle,” Costanzo says. To lose weight sensibly, consider also consulting a registered dietitian (to find one in your area, visit http://www.eatright.org) or joining a reputable organization such as Weight Watchers.
Meanwhile, if your have a daughter yourself, keep in mind that your weight-loss efforts have an impact on her. “It’s important to be aware of the modeling concept. If you’re a parent, you’re being watched,” says Birch. But if you lose weight sensibly by watching portion sizes, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and not being too restrictive about your diet, there’s a good chance your daughter will be less likely to fall into the same diet traps perhaps you once did.
Still, the pressure to be thin is exploding these days because of messages from the media. “Kids are well aware, even as kindergartners and first graders, who is fat, who is thin and that thin is considered better,” says Joan Chrisler, professor of psychology at Connecticut College in New London. That concept hit home one summer when my then six-year-old daughter, Rebecca, refused to wear shorts. Pants were her mainstay throughout the first grade. But enough was enough. It was July by then and sweltering in our 40-year-old, non-air-conditioned home. Still, no matter how much I cajoled, pleaded and demanded, Rebecca, who is as medium as they come, wouldn’t change into shorts. Was this just a power struggle or a kooky clothing fetish? I wish. “My legs are too chubby,” Rebecca tearfully confessed. They weren’t, but Rebecca couldn’t be convinced and the pants stayed on. Thinking back, I realized then that Rebecca had been covering her legs since preschool. When she was four, for example, she wore the same, mid-calf “favorite” dress every day that I’d wash at night, shrugging her behavior off as a harmless clothing jag. She later told me that compared to her skinny friend, Grace, she felt big. It didn’t help that Rebecca was being scrutinized by her eagle-eyed fellow preschoolers. One day, for example, when Rebecca wore a cute, gathered shirt, Grace, whose mother had just given birth, told Rebecca that the shirt made her look “pregnant.”
Body image issues start early and they aren’t just a girl thing. “We’re starting to see them in boys as well as girls,” Chrisler says. Besides trying to be the best diet role model that you can be for your kids, there’s more you can do to help them feel good about their self-image, no matter what their size. Emphasize that everybody is different. “If kids can learn not to be critical of others, then maybe they will be less critical of themselves,” Chrisler says. So if you overhear your kids or your kid’s friends call other kids or family members “fat,” stress matter-of-factly that we come in all shapes and sizes. Pick sports that focus on power. The message we often send boys is that bodies can help you do things, like kick, run and jump. For girls, the message is typically that bodies are ornamental, says Chrisler. Although bodies really serve both purposes, she suggests selecting at least one after-school activity that stresses the instrumental, such as soccer, softball, basketball, tennis, and swimming. Ballet and gymnastics are okay to have in the mix, but keep in mind that there’s a certain focus on how you look in a leotard, Chrisler says.
Don’t tease about appearance. Resist the urge to say things like: “Oh, your chubby legs are so cute,” or pat your child’s tummy. And caution others, such as your husband and your child’s grandparents, to avoid those seemingly harmless comments and gestures as well. Children can read into them and turn them into negative self-talk.
Don’t criticize your own body. Try not to talk about your own weight in front of your daughter or compare yourself to other women. “Even saying to your husband, ‘Do I look fat in this dress?’ can make an impression on your child,” says Chrisler. Also, don’t brush off well wishes. “Saying thank you and accepting them sends the message to your daughter that you think you’re worthy of compliments and that you feel good about your body and so should she about hers.”
Recognize that if your child insists that she’s flawed—that her legs really are the chubbiest legs of anybody’s in the whole school—she’s probably testing you. “React with a positive, consistent message, such as ‘You look great in those shorts and your legs are so strong,'” Chrisler says. In fact, I’ve been intuitively incorporating a lot of these tips into my own routine over the past four years and Rebecca, now 10, has come a long way. She still wears somewhat of a uniform to school, only now it’s jeans and big T-shirts. But she’s on the swim team and seems to appreciate her strong, “medium” status. Still, every now and then, I realize that bolstering her body image is an ongoing effort and that we’re far from out of the woods. When we ordered Rebecca’s backpack for the new school year last year, for example, she made me send the first one back. Why? Sigh. “It makes me look fat when I carry it,” Rebecca said.