As I have often written, a mother’s face is the first mirror in which a daughter catches a glimpse of herself, and what is reflected there shapes her sense of self in myriad ways, many of them unarticulated and unconscious. Her mother’s smile tells her she is loved and appreciated, while her strokes and touch give her a sense of being cared for. Her mother’s encouragement teaches her that she is capable, and gives her permission to explore. Her mother’s words begin to limn how the daughter sees herself as a person, adding details over the years.
An unloving mother does none of those things and, in their absence, the daughter’s sense of self fails to thrive. Even worse, if her mother is hypercritical, controlling, dismissive, or combative and weaponizes her words, there is real damage done to how the daughter sees herself. Some of that, often, is aimed at her physical being.
Body-shaming: a specific kind of bullying
Many unloved daughters report that, in some profound sense, they don’t know what they look like; I was certainly one of them. My mother told me I was fat from the time I was little and I believed her because, in truth, my body looked nothing like hers. She was naturally thin—she never dieted—and had a boyish build; I was a slightly chubby child who grew up to be a busty and curvy teen who was always on a diet. I wasn’t overweight by any stretch of the imagination but between my mother’s carping and the ideal body image of the 1960s and 1970s—boyish, small breasted, with a concave belly—I looked in the mirror and saw a fat girl. Old photographs tell me something else entirely and make me sad for that young woman who fretted so about being fat and was always trying to starve herself.
When asked, my mother always said that she focused on my weight to help me look my best but, in retrospect, it’s pretty clear that she did it out of jealousy and the fact that she was thinner than I was one of the few things she could lord over me. And I think she enjoyed seeing me feel lousy about myself.
Body-shaming is often used by unloving mothers to humiliate, demean, and marginalize their daughters but it’s rationalized as an effort to be helpful or caring as the following examples make clear. They are all drawn from stories shared with me for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life and while they are different in detail, they all depend on the mother’s misuse of her power and they are all verbally abusive. The intention is to make the daughter feel inadequate and ashamed.
“My parents had an acrimonious divorce when I was three and my sister was seven. I had the misfortune to look like my father and his side of the family—tall, dark, and broad-shouldered—while my sister was a petite and blonde clone of Mom. I became a stand-in for my father and she carped on how much I looked and acted like him constantly. It segued into scapegoating as I got older.”
This is a persistent theme in many daughters’ stories—looking like someone disliked or hated and having that person’s looks and flaws projected onto you. It might be an ex-husband, as it was for Alyssa, but it could easily be some other relative.
“I always felt like the ugly duckling in the story except I didn’t grow up to be a much-admired and beautiful swan. My mother, father, and two brothers lived and breathed for sports, and I was the klutz in the family. They ragged me for my weight, for my lack of grace, my inability to play tennis or ski decently. The boys joined in, of course, and I was the butt of every joke. Never mind that I am the first person in our family to become a doctor; that only raised the ante. It didn’t even stop when I married and had kids so I ended up cutting them all out of my life.”
In Ella’s case, her looks and lack of athleticism were used to exclude her and make her feel as though she didn’t belong—which is, of course, what bullying does.
“My mother insisted on absolute control over what I ate and what I wore; she insisted that how I looked reflected on her and if I looked bad, she’d look bad in everyone’s eyes. She didn’t do that to my sister or brother who were seven and eight years older; I was her DIY project. As a teen, I rebelled against the dowdy clothes she made me wear, and I spent most of high school grounded because of my rebellion. I left home at 18. I still have trouble seeing myself clearly and I am an emotional eater. She still picks on me and I am thirty-four and trying to figure out whether I can stay in contact. She makes me feel horrible about myself.”
Mothers high in control or narcissistic traits see their children as extensions of themselves and how they look is always a part of it. They mete out attention based on how well the children play by their rules; in Brianna’s case, it was a recipe for disaster.
Seeing body-shaming as a form of verbal abuse
The end goal of all verbal abuse is to make one person feel powerful and the other humiliated and powerless, and body-shaming is no different. Body-shaming packs a wallop because it’s echoed by society at large with its image of the skinny and perfect girl who seems to subsist on air. Body-shaming can be overt, as in the examples given, or covert as in telling someone that “You are brave to wear that piece of clothing” (translation: you are actually too fat to wear that) or “I’m not sure that prints suit you” (translation: you look like a walking couch) or “I know you love your chocolate but I try not to eat too many carbs” (translation: maybe you should try my approach and then maybe you wouldn’t be so fat).
Verbal abuse, including body-shaming, is never okay. See the word “never?”
Photograph by Sharon McCutcheon. Copyright free. Unsplash.com