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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Join the Conversation

  • ellestar

    I’m not a mother, but my own mother had plastic surgery (breast implants, up to a B cup from an A) and I only found out when I was 24 years old, so I can’t say that knowledge of her plastic surgery affected me at all.

    I think from what I could tell, that my mother had the average (for an American woman) body consciousness and desire to fit in with what is considered beautiful in our society. For what it’s worth, I think that media images of what is considered beautiful has impacted my own feelings about my body more than watching my mom do her Jane Fonda workout once a week.

    My sister, though, is anorexic. And part of it is because my mother has always been thin. My sister and I take after our father’s side and have a more athletic, curvy build. I just accepted at age 12 that I would probably always be bigger than my mother, but my sister has tried to starve herself to my mother’s size, and then even thinner. I wouldn’t say any of my sister’s anorexia is due to my mother’s influence.

    If I ever have a daughter, I expect that she’ll probably notice my own desires to fit in with the societal ideal and also feel the pressure from society to be thin and beautiful. However, I will always be sure to eat healthily in front of her, show her an appetite is a good thing, and explain the wonders of using your body as an instrument to go out into the world and have fun doing things.

    I don’t know. I feels so much like an uphill battle to combat beauty standards, not only for myself, but for any potential daughter I may have. :(

  • tylik

    It’s hard from me to see how much of my mother’s dislike of my body was because she saw me as like her, or because she saw me as different than her. Much of her discussion was of how much I resembled my father, or, contrarily, her mother. Looking back, I think she was both terrified by my differences and the ways in which I was non-feminine or differently feminine (I am tall, full figured, and athletic, where she is tiny and flat chested) and deeply threatened by me. When my breasts became bigger than hers, when I was about eleven, she declared that I was fat, and began a campaign to dress me in oversized baggy clothes. She obsessed about whether men would find me attractive. She frequently described me as bull necked, and as having a strong body odour.

    Both of my younger siblings have fought with eating disorders. So far, I have not.

  • Kristin

    I’m a mother and I knew growing up that I had food and body image issues. My mother is beautiful. For as long as I can remember, she has yo-yoed on the weight. She constantly says she needs to lose weight or makes derogotory statements about her weight. While I was growing up, when I was 10-12, I started to really hate my shape and size. I would tell her I wanted to lose weight and she would tell me no, I don’t need to lose weight. She would tell me that the scale at the doctor’s office was off by 20 pounds and not to worry about it. I love my mom, but now I try to set a good example for her and my daughter (age 6) by: making smart food choices, focusing on health, excercising regularly and learning to enjoy those things. I think that is the one thing I hope to transfer to my daughter – a love of being healthy and enjoyment in her own body.
    She knows that I want to lose weight, and we talk about it sometimes, but the focus is always on health and I never disparage myself for being overweight.

    I’ve been conscious about this since I saw how much she wanted to be like me.

  • Starlyn

    I am very mindful of this issue. I said something about my “fat belly” in front of my toddler daughter and was horrified to hear her repeat those words to one of her stuffed animals. I now make a strong effort to be aware of the language that I use in regard to my body AND to rethink the way I feel about it. I’m not even considered overweight on any weight chart and think that I am pretty well balanced. My daughter’s words were a real wake up call for me.!

  • Christine

    The media is a powerful force in shaping body image, but I don’t think I paid it much attention until I first got the message from my parents. I remember when I weighed 110 lbs in 7th grade that I was pretty excited because I thought that grownups weigh at least 120 lbs and I was getting close. However, I told my parents and they said I didn’t need to gain any more weight, and that 110 was a fine adult weight. Of course my weight continued to increase and I felt fat probably since 111 lbs.

    My mom goes on and off Weight Watchers, but I don’t really encourage her anymore ever since I learned about fat acceptance. At first I told her about my new views. I told her I thought that “weight loss” was just a big scam to keep women perpetually trying to starve themselves and failing so that they’ll feel bad and buy more stuff. But that just made her feel bad (oops!). Shortly after that, she said something about her diet and I didn’t say anything. So she said, “I know, I’m evil. I’m trying to lose weight.” Now, several months later, she gave into “temptation” and was eating some cookies or something and then she referred to herself as evil for breaking her diet. I had not intended to make her feel bad for both dieting and not dieting! I guess it’s harder to influence your parent’s point of view than it is for your parent to influence yours. If I have a daugher someday I know I will not obsess over cookies and put so much focus on my weight. I’m thankful for having learned there is another way.

  • Christine

    Body image and disordered eating issues have haunted me my whole life and I know this comes from my mother. She is a tall woman and growing up and she was very thin. I think that the ways her body changed as she aged and birthed four daughters made her very insecure.

    I can remember her doing workout videos in the living room and teaching me that if you crave dessert it’s best to just have one small bite of it then get rid of the rest. She masked her disordered eating habits with “health” and subsequently taught me to do the same. She put me and my sisters and herself through homoeopathic treatments that included weeks of fasting. She would make comments on our bodies… once expressing jealousy at my “flat stomach”.

    In my teens and early 20’s I would track my calories, measure and weigh myself, work out and then deny myself food. I hated my body. But I also never thought anything was wrong with hating my body. It was normal. Until I took an abnormal psychology course and read about eating disorders and how excessive exercise and masking through “health” reasons was now being considered for diagnosis. It was like a bright light was turned on and I could see everything that was wrong. I tried to talk to my mother about it but she just kept talking about a new diet book and how it was “healthy”.

    To this day she sees nothing wrong with how she treats food and her body or how it has affected her daughters. And this frightens me for when I have children of my own. I do not want to pass on the kind of shame and hate that I experienced with disordered eating and body image. But what if no matter how aware I am of myself I still say or do things that I learned from my own mother?

  • toongrrl

    Ugggghhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I’m not a mother or planning to be one. But I dislike it when my family treats their own bodies or other relatives bodies so shabbily! *Names changed to protect the innocent and not so innocent*
    1. A cousin of mine told me that her mom said about our cousins Angela and Ronnie. My aunt said that Angela is prettier than Ronnie!
    2. Same Aunt who always has been a piece of work. The same cousin, we’ll call her Trisha, commented to me when hearing our moms talk in loud spanish that she hears her mom talking about how fat she is (Trisha). I was shocked and replied: “Well that’s not very nice of her.” My cousin is heavy, but that never stopped her from looking so of-the-moment of fashion and the reason she’s heavy is because both sides of her family tend to have curvy women, her’s more so. And because she tends to eat when she’s mad or sad, because our families love to eat, the food in her house is more junk food or fried heaven than healthy, and because when she was a baby that she had a nasty tumor on her stomach that resulted in her having a really rounded tummy no matter what strenous diet or toning exercise plan can do. WTF Auntie?
    3. I’m not naming who. But there are plenty of moms that bug their daughters about their eating habits and/or weight gain. Said stuff is implied as though the sinners *sarcasm* have stole from orphans or killed an old lady.
    4. People talking crap about their bodies. About how “fat” they are or how “fat” or “skinny” they used to be.
    5. Pointing with little kids at heavy people saying in spanish or english (shame comes out the same): “You don’t want to get as big as this person.”

    It’s not easy to overcome such attitudes and habits when you’re around family that you love and tend to underestimate how much you can learn and teach. Also when you’re trying to lose weight just for health reasons and good habits. It’s one thing to say that it’s just a fucking piece of cake, if you want to eat it eat it. If not at all, don’t. If really that concerned about portion, cut a small slice and stop acting like you’re King Solomon!!!!!

  • kathi

    So rough. My mum was always taller and bigger than all her classmates (at 5’8″ was VERY tall for her era b. 1932) and HATED it! i never ever heard her say a kind word about herself or her body, used diet pills, didn’t exercise (she hated sweating and felt like a ‘cow’)
    constantly dieted and made derogatory comments on other women’s bodies. She has 3 out of 4 daughters with an eating disorder. i have been struggling with mine for 40 years now.
    i am beyond hope – it seems not to have been merely learned but absorbed as a part of our collective family being – hopeless, hopeless.

  • Amanda

    This has very much been on my mind. I appreciated Christine’s story above because I feel similarly about my mother. My mother has struggled with her weight all of her life. I could tell at a young age that it was a painful subject for her. But she was usually very secretive about her struggles. She is of the opinion that makeup is a waste of time, and told me I spent too much time worrying over my appearance and trying to change it with make up and clothes and hair dye. Perhaps she didn’t want me to know that she did actually struggled with how society expected her to look. She only spoke openly about her frustration after her military health evaluations. The evaluations were unforgiving, she said, and harsh. I could see that they upset her.

    This all happened while I was growing up, all the way from K to 12. By now, my mom has gained a little more weight, and has begun to talk openly with my dad, my brother, and me. She remarks that she is going to the “fat lady clothes” section of the store, and points out her weight to us frequently. Perhaps this is because she feels more defeated than before. I think too, though, that it is because she knows that I have grown up into someone she can trust to share these feelings with. I worry about her. I can see the damage that the cycle of weight gain and depression is inflicting on her self-esteem. I haven’t known how to respond her self-accusations of fatness, so I’ve taken to just responding with “And I love you,” and point out what makes her beautiful to me.

    Now I am a pretty healthy person, and shapely, and strong. I wear a size 4, so I know that my insecurities seem silly to many people. But, like my mother may have felt being in the military, I feel doughy compared to many of my fellow athletes. I too let my rigorous schooling overwhelm my need for regular exercise. And I too have problems overeating, usually when I’m up late trying to finish a paper. I try to tell myself that I lead a healthy life overall, and that I should not be ashamed for my food choices. For the most part, I eat anything I want, and I still get a good nutritional balance. But I know that my eating behavior is sometimes compulsive, not based on actual desire or hunger. What gets me is that, while I do worry a little over what it may mean for my health, I worry much more that it may be the same compulsion that has got my mom.

    I feel like this article leaned towards a reproach of moms. I have met moms who can say damaging things; once, a friend asked me “Didn’t your mother ever tell you to suck in your stomach?” (Mine, apparently, was hanging out.) I can proudly say that no, she never did. I want to say loud and clear that my mom is the last person on Earth I would ever blame for my own food- and weight-centered anxieties. I feel like fat-phobia and fat-hate, popular images of women’s bodies, one-size-fits-all clothing, and a high fructose corn syrup laden food industry have been cruel to all of us. In fact my mother is the reason I have endeavored to recognize combat fat-hate in myself, and to love myself and others with all our pounds included. Because my mom is amazing, and I love everything about her. Everything.

  • Katie

    I’d also like to point out that the lesser known/acknowledged eating disorder–overeating–is also likely passed on from generation to generation. Both of my parents are obese, and while my mother doesn’t necessarily overeat, she encourages it in everyone else in the family (both with her comments and how she constantly makes way too much food and expects it all to be eaten). My older brother has struggled with his weight, trying to keep from following the same path as my parents. I, too, have the same problem. And, compounded with an unrealistic and healthy body image, I yo-yo between overeating and binging/purging. When I attempt to manage my eating in a healthy way, I am often ridiculed and made to feel as though I’m a nuisance for refusing to eat pizza or other fast food 5-6 times per week.

    I think it’s unfortunate that, especially in America, no one seems to take notice of the parents who are teaching their child that eating 4 hamburgers plus fries and a soft drink counts as a proper meal. My boyfriend works at a McDonalds and he comes home almost every day with stories of obese parents who have overweight children and who are encouraging appalling eating habits. It makes me sad, and a little bit angry, that these parents don’t understand what they’re doing (or understand, yet do it anyway).

  • Liz

    This post really resonated for me. My mother has alternated between anorexia and compulsive overeating for all of my life, and I would wager, for most of her own. Not only did she model her idea of “healthy eating” for my sister and I, but once we hit puberty she embarked on a mission to monitor and control our weight, shape, and size. I first remember her telling me I was too fat when I was 10– as we grew older, she would frequently take food out of our hands, deny us access to the kitchen, command us to go exercise (or worse, make us go to her aerobics class with her, where she would publicly mock us for being so ungraceful and out of shape), and comment on specific areas of our body. Once, after my sister completed a race for the track team, my mother greeted her with the comment, “Those thighs are getting awfully big. We better put you on a diet.”

    I suspect my mother was worse than many– her eating disorder was combined with severe drug and alcohol dependency and a personality disorder– but I can certainly attest to the fact that mothers make a huge difference in how we perceive our bodies. As I work through my own eating disorder, I frequently stumble across the realization that certain behaviors that I thought were totally normal were in fact only normal in our house.

    I’d also like to point out the influence of fathers. In my case, my father was pretty absent, but his commentary about women’s bodies and his acceptance of my mother’s eating behaviors as totally normal (for a woman, that is) contributed to my sense that starvation and shame were normal and necessary parts of women’s lives.

  • Jenn L

    My mom diets like it’s her job. Her copy of The South Beach Diet book is dog-eared and well read. I can’t say that my mother’s actions haven’t informed or influenced my own take on food and fat, but we do take very different approaches to the same problems. Sometimes it’s hard for me to watch and listen to her hate her body and moralize food. (My personal favorite is when she’s complaining about “feeling fat” [fat is not an emotion] while eating peanut m&ms. I love that she eats food that makes her happy, but the juxtaposition is always priceless.) But we are at this impasse. She knows that I don’t diet because I love my body. She wishes that I were skinny, but she knows that she can’t change me. She still worries about me (my health, my future, my marriage prospects etc.), but she also respects my decisions. She’ll buy the next new fat diet book, and I’ll reread The Handmaid’s Tale. To each our own.

    But I think that this article fails to address the idea that children will eventually be able to form their own opinions and make their own decisions. Sure, a parent can have a huge impact on a child. I probably have a fondness for peanut m&ms and red vines because my mother does. But that doesn’t mean that I am going to be the person that my parents trained me to be. A good chunk of parenting is letting your children be the people they are. Sometimes that means they’ll be really similar and have some of the same problems, but sometimes that means that they’ll do their own thing. I also have problems with feminist critiques of the media that fail to acknowledge and address the autonomy of women’s thought. (Sorry Betty Friedan, but this means you.) Yes, we have a patriarchal society in which people are influenced by the messages in the media, but that doesn’t mean that all people conform to what’s presented to them. Huge could have done a lot for the normalization of fat people, but it was canceled because no one watched it. And because it “glorified obesity.” Critiques of the “powers at be” are important and useful, but they have to acknowledge that the powers at be exist because we continue to give them power. Revolutionary social change happens when individuals decide to act against the norm because something compels them. And it’s generally not an ad on TV or the disordered eating all around you.