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Many of us wanted to grow up to be just like our moms, because that meant everything from being able to score an awesome promotion to fighting spiders with nothing but a romance novel. But while we were learning to be badass women, we were also watching our moms get up early every morning to do their makeup, pinch at that ring of pudge around their waistlines and call themselves “ugly.” And we internalized those aspects of womanhood too.
To be clear, mothers are not to blame for our society’s toxic standards of femininity. Rather, like ourselves, our mothers get caught in a cycle of oppressive beauty standards that’s reinforced by everything from advertisements and celebrities to social media and our peers.
Unfortunately, mothers do play a major role in their daughters’ self-image. Research shows that daughters tend to mimic their mothers’ level of concern over their weight and show similar amounts of dietary restraint. And it starts early: One in 4 children engage in some type of dieting behavior by age 7.
LIVESTRONG.COM hosted some of Instagram’s most inspiring fitness and wellness influencers to learn about their journeys toward body acceptance. Surprisingly, many of them began having insecurities over their body images at a young age because of their relationship with their mothers.
Creator of Blogilates, author and award-winning fitness instructor Cassey Ho shared that her mother had certain expectations regarding her weight growing up. “I look back now, and I feel like maybe some of my insecurities come from my mom because she grew up very thin and everything. I grew up chubby, and she would look at me and be like, ‘Why are you so fat?’” she says. “Like, how does that make me feel?”
Ho wasn’t the only one to suffer because of expectations surrounding her appearance. Before ClassPass founder Payal Kadakia became the CEO and then executive chairman of a multimillion-dollar business, she was almost a beauty pageant queen.
“When I was younger, in our towns [located in Northern New Jersey] there were all these Indian beauty pageants that would happen. It was terrible because it was run by all males,” she says. “And my mom and my dance teacher were like, ‘We want to sign you up, you’re a great dancer.’ And I was like, ‘No. I’m going to create a name for myself one day, but I’m going to do it based on my intelligence.’ I feel like I look back on that and I’m really glad I was able to do that because I don’t know what I would have become.”
Ho and Kadakia grew up not only in the shadow of Western society’s beauty standards, but also in that of their families’ cultures’ expectations. Studies show that many Asian cultures prefer thinness and pale skin, fostering a huge market of skin-whitening products and advertisements. One study found that Asian-American women who identified more strongly with traditional Asian values had higher levels of body-image dissatisfaction.
“In terms of Asian culture, a lot of times people just say it as a conversation starter,” Ho explains. “Like, ‘Oh, you look a little fat. Here, eat some more,’ which is really weird too.”
Ironically, both Ho and Kadakia are used to receiving criticism regardless of their weight. Kadakia expressed that she experiences anxiety around the holidays in anticipation of her family’s comments.
“Whenever you’re going to India, either someone’s going to be like, ‘You lost weight’ or ‘You gained weight.’ There’s never an in between,” she says. “And I always think about this with the holidays too, because I feel like people are always scared about their families. It’s like, why? Because you know people are going to judge you for your appearance, which is not a good sentiment.”
Ho agreed, adding, “And either way, they’re going to tell you to eat more anyway. If you don’t it’s offensive.”
Health and wellness blogger Brittany Vest, also known as @fittybritttty, mapped her 86-pound weight-loss journey on Instagram, sharing her experiences with more than 100,000 followers. Although she felt confident in her skin before she began dieting and exercising, criticism from her mother, father and grandmother brought on insecurities.
“My mom still talks, to this day, about losing five pounds or 10 pounds. And my grandma was very, very, very harsh to me growing up,” she says. Her grandmother even went as far as paying her to lose weight.
Her family members’ tactics never inspired Vest to lose weight. Instead, they sparked new anxieties that she might never have had otherwise. “When people would come to me and talk to me about my weight, like my family members or friends, it seemed to bother everyone else but me,” she explains. “I was never really bothered by it until somebody else would talk about it, and I would become very upset.”
But is there a way that adult women, mothers and grandmothers alike can avoid causing body-image dissatisfaction among young girls? Fitness and wellness influencer Lita Lewis, who’s of mixed Samoan and African descent, was raised in Australia by a single mother, whose supportive language gave her a strong foundation for body acceptance.
“Polynesian people show love with food, that’s my mother’s side,” she says. “My mother, as I was telling Jess [Jess Barron, LIVESTRONG.COM's GM and roundtable moderator], is very tough love. She raised three girls on her own. So as we’re getting ready for an event or something, where we would just fight for some mirror space in the bathroom and spend hours, and my mom would literally like, throw brushes out the door and be like, ‘You’re good enough, get in the car.’
“So I think it’s such a blessing, in hindsight, to realize I had a mother that gave us this idea of ‘You’re enough. Let’s go, let’s get on with life.’”
Fit Body Guide founder Anna Victoria, who recently launched the Body Love app, was raised by a single father. Because of this, she says, she “never had anyone poking at my appearance. And I feel like that’s why as a young teen I never thought anything … of how I looked.”
Her suggestion? “As adult women, we need to be conscious of how we’re speaking to our daughters and to the young, the little girls around us.”
Child psychologist Dr. Leslie Sim, clinical director of Mayo Clinic’s eating-disorders program, tells USA Today that female role models should not only avoid commenting on young girls’ weight and diet, but also their own. As women like the influencers we spoke to continue to work toward their own body acceptance, their habits will impact the next generation.
Check out the rest of our conversation here.