Body image in adolescence is a growing concern for parents and psychological experts who focus on eating disorders. It’s an ephemeral thing that is easily affected by outside factors, and in many cases, it’s young women who are most affected. According to USA Today, body image in teenagers isn’t most heavily influenced by the factors you might assume. Social media is not to be blamed completely, and neither are the Hollywood starlets with their impossible-to-attain bodies and figures.
The primary influencer of teen body image is the same-sex parent. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Our parents are our role models, caregivers, heroes, and villains all rolled into one.
With that in mind, here are a few reasons why Mom’s influence is the most prominent factor in a daughter’s body image.
Children Are Known to Mimic Parent’s Behaviors and Thoughts
The foundation of a person’s adult body image begins to form well before adulthood – even before adolescence. Little girls do a lot of things like their moms do, especially if they spend a lot of time with their mom.
Just like a young female may learn how to dress from her mother, she will also pick up on certain personality traits. For example, if Mom is constantly concerned that she needs to lose weight, her daughter may mimic those same concerns throughout her teenage years.
Mom’s Body Image Is Often Reciprocated by the Daughter
The fact is, a teenage girl’s body image can be a reflection of the mother’s body image. When a parent is outwardly concerned about losing weight and dieting or has a noticeably poor body image, impressionable children often begin to copy these attitudes and project them onto themselves.
It’s a cycle that begins in childhood but can carry all the way into adulthood. Worryingly, a distorted and negative body image and obsession with weight are prime causative factors in the development of virtually every eating disorder.
Eating Disorders Have a Genetic Dimension
Although eating disorders can come from a variety of factors, including sociocultural factors like race, gender, and economic status, several studies have shown that there is a genetic factor as well. One of these studies estimated that children of parents with an eating disorder developed anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa at a rate of 7 to 12 times higher than children whose parents did not have one of those disorders.
This means that in the nature vs. nurture debate, both parts have some influence on whether a person will present an eating disorder. On the other hand, it’s important to remember that having a parent with an eating disorder is not a guarantee that an adolescent will be subject to the same fate.
The overall rate of eating disorders is about 1% of the general population. That’s a significant number, being roughly 3 million people in the US, but many of those parents will not pass an eating disorder on to their children.
Remember That Children Watch and Learn
We’re back to “nature vs nurture.” For moms, with or without the presence of an eating disorder, a primary concern should be cultivating a healthy relationship between their child and a nutritional, healthy attitude about food and eating. They should instill a balanced diet early on, and match that by eating well themselves – a child that sees Mommy getting a nutritional food intake will be more likely to do the same.
To the same end, mothers should also teach and demonstrate body acceptance and the concept that people can be healthy at any size. Criticizing their own weight or that of others can have a ripple effect that parents can’t predict – sometimes with catastrophic results.
Finally, if you’re a parent and you’re concerned your daughter is developing an eating disorder, don’t panic – and don’t punish! Treatment is available, and it benefits from gentle, non-judgmental conversations about the problem rather than coming down on the child. Reach out to your physician or psychologist and get ready for the next steps to recovery.