Vicious cycles: mothers, daughters, eating disorders

Over the weekend, this postcard was posted at PostSecret. For those of you who aren’t familiar with PostSecret, it’s a long-running crowd sourced art project in which people put their secrets on postcards and mail them in. Pretty simple concept, really powerful results.

This card, which I have to assume was created by a woman, certainly isn’t the first one that has dealt with body image issues. As you can imagine, it’s a popular topic at the site because, well, lots of people have deep, dark, secret shit to confess about how they feel about their bodies.

But I was really struck by this one, because it serves as a reminder that insecurity about our bodies doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Eating disorders and poor body image have myriad causes; there are biochemical and psychological components, of course, and there’s some evidence that eating disorders might be genetic. There are myriad social causes, too. Pop culture has an impact, and there are plenty of studies showing that consuming media that focuses on idealized images of female beauty makes young women more likely to hate their bodies.

Above all, though, it’s our relationships with other people that most influence our relationships with our own bodies. Our friends, our siblings, our significant others all shape our attitudes about bodies in general, and about our own bodies specifically. They are the most tightly wrapped layer of culture, the layer we are exposed to early, often, and intimately, throughout our lives. And for women, possibly no intimate relationships have more impact on our body image than the ones we have with our mothers.

Courtney has written about this, as has Naomi Wolf. In Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Courtney wrote about the inevitable transmission of insecurities from mother to daughter, if the mother has them:

All daughters say to all mothers – sometimes in words, more often with our own bodies as a substitute for words – I came from you, your body was my first home, and you didn’t suspect I sensed how you felt about it?

And in The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf wrote about observing her mother’s eating disorder, just as she herself was in the grips of one:

… I passed the small notepad kept by the dishwasher. I knew what it said, though it was my mother’s and private: “1/2 grpfruit. Blk. coff. 4 Wheat Thins. 1 Popsicle.” A black scrawl: “binge.” I wanted to tear it up. Some memoir.

Of course, if a girl or young woman develops an eating disorder, it’s not always her mother’s fault. As I said, it takes a village – and a culture, and sometimes some genes and brain chemicals – to raise an eating disordered child. And sometimes, the village will raise that child up with to have an eating disorder in spite of her mother’s best efforts to instill her with positive body image. But there’s no denying that mothers, assuming that they’re present in their daughters’ lives, can have enormous influence over how a daughter perceives and relates to her body.

So for those of us who want to have children one day, positive body image isn’t just about our own well-being, it’s about the next generation as well. It’s about making sure that our daughters, should we ever have daughters, don’t repeat our painful mistakes. It’s about remembering that our relationships with our bodies are inextricably tangled up with our most intimate emotional relationships. Eating disorders and poor body image are cyclical, and they are vicious. The solution, then, is to do everything we can to break the cycle ourselves, so that our daughters don’t have to relive it .

Are you a mother, or considering becoming one? Have you had to consider how your own body image might impact your daughter? Tell us about it in comments.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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