Moms' struggles with body image have ripple effect on daughters

Posted at 6:58 AM, Jun 07, 2017

(CNN) -- When Kristin Hensley, a mom of two, complained to her friend Jen Smedley, also a mom of two, about having to put on a bathing suit with summer approaching, Smedley's wheels started turning.

The two women, both with extensive experience working in comedy, are hosts of the hit "I Mom So Hard" digital video series, which tackles all things parenting in a hilarious way.

As Hensley spoke about the dread of yet another bathing suit season, Smedley thought they should focus one of their weekly videos on that exact feeling, something every mom can relate to.

But to really do it right, they both knew they had to wear bathing suits in the video. So they did, making sure to mention how some modern suits, with their cutouts and low necklines, are not exactly made for mothers trying to keep tabs on toddlers at the beach or women carrying that baby weight they can't quite shed.

The video now has 17 million views and counting.

"As women, we're hard on ourselves, and I think this just gave women permission to laugh at it" and hopefully get past their own insecurities and just be with their children, said Hensley, whose kids are 4 and 6. "Get outside, get dirty, get off your towel, get out of your house, have fun and be playful, because I honestly believe as I get older, it truly is about how you feel and not how you look."

Another video, this one by Scary Mommy, another humorous and popular digital destination for parents, conveyed the same message.

"Your kids won't remember your muffin top, your spider veins or your saggy ass," declares the video, with scenes from decades ago of mothers playing with their kids at the beach. "They'll remember you."

"We were trying to think of something that was sort of universal in its appeal and would speak to all moms, and I think that's such a common experience over the summer, where you sort of just are sitting at the edge, and you are like, 'Oh, I don't want to go in. I don't want to do this. Definitely don't look at me,' " said Jill Smokler, founder of Scary Mommy and a mom of three, with a 13-year-old daughter and 9- and 11-year-old sons.

Why our body image affects our girls

Both videos tackle that same theme: Don't obsess about your body when you are in a swimsuit. Discard the insecurities, and just be with your child. The videos send another message along the way: How we feel about our bodies has a direct impact on our children, namely our daughters.

Consider this: Five- to 8-year-olds who think their moms are unhappy with their bodies are more likely to feel dissatisfied with their own, according to a report by Common Sense Media, which was a compilation of all the existing research on how kids and teens feel about their bodies.

Mothers play a "huge role" when it comes to affecting their daughters' body image, a much larger role than most moms realize, said Laura Choate, a professor of counselor education at Louisiana State University and author of "Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture."

"Any time that we are criticizing ourselves, acting negatively or saying negative things about ourselves or engaging in dieting behaviors or other kinds of unhealthy eating behaviors, our daughters are watching this, and then they internalize that message and feel badly about their own bodies in return," said Choate, whose experience includes more than 15 years as a licensed professional counselor. "So one of the best predictors of whether a girl will have negative body image is if her own mother has negative body image."

Even if we as mothers constantly praise our daughters, telling them they are beautiful and that they shouldn't worry about what other people think, if we talk negatively about ourselves, that is the message they are going to receive.

"If you in turn are talking negatively about yourself and she sees you engaging in dieting behaviors and acting critical about yourself constantly, then she, no matter what you say to her, she is going to feel badly about herself," said Choate, who is also author of "Adolescent Girls in Distress: A Guide to Mental Health Treatment and Prevention."

Smedley, the co-founder and co-host of "I Mom So Hard," recalls when she started having negative body image thoughts. "I almost remember when I started saying bad things about myself in college, that message in my head or being harder on myself than I needed to be, and I've just made the conscious effort to not say those things in front of my kids," said Smedley, who has a 4-year-old son and a daughter who is about to turn 2.

"I want them both to have realistic standards about health and beauty and body image, and love themselves how they are," she said. "I remember my mom, who was adorable ... saying bad things about herself, like, 'Oh, I need to wear this skirt swimsuit to cover my thighs,' and it's just what she was taught, and I want it to end with me."

Hensley remembers a moment in which she said something negative about how she looked in front of her daughter. "I was like, 'Ah, I just look so fat in this,' something like that, and my daughter looked at me as though I hurt her feelings by saying something bad about myself," she said. "I realized in that moment that what I say about myself is how she's going to feel about herself or she's going to learn how to form those thoughts, and I want to avoid that as long as we can."

So instead of talking in a negative way about her looks, she turns to the positive, such as saying that she feels so strong or she's happy her legs are thick so she can pick up the gardening soil, "just sort of shifting it from 'How do I look? What am I wearing? Am I filling the quota of attractive?' All that crap," she said. "I like to pivot away from it altogether and just try to have a different conversation, because you can easily get sucked in, and I don't want to do that in front of (my daughter) or my son, because I don't want my son to think that we equate a girls' worth with the way she looks."

Scary Mommy's Smokler said that if you are always putting yourself down for how you look, that's what the kids are going to have in their heads for the rest of their lives.

"It's so hard not to do that, but I think it's so important," said Smokler, author of the best-sellers "Confessions of a Scary Mommy" and "Motherhood Comes Naturally (and Other Vicious Lies)." "You are setting up their self-confidence and self-worth for the rest of their lives at this stage. I think it's, not only for ourselves but for them, so important to just be more accepting of all of us."

How to help girls feel good about their bodies

So how can we give our daughters a healthy body image?

First, avoid talking excessively about your weight or appearance, said Choate, the professor and author, who details a number of strategies for promoting positive body image in a post titled "Moms, What Will Your Body Image Legacy Be?" for Psychology Today.

If we frequently talk about our weight and appearance, then our daughters will start thinking the most important part of a woman's worth is her physical appearance, her weight and shape, Choate said. "We don't want her to believe that. We want her to be able to emphasize all of her many strengths, which includes her physical appearance, but it certainly includes a lot more in terms of her intellectual development, her spiritual development, her relationships."

Girls are already going to get the message in the media that their worth is connected to their looks, so parents should be intentional about counteracting it, she said.

"Girls are so bombarded with it through the media that if parents don't take a stand and say, 'I'm going to actively fight these negative messages,' (then) it's hard to override them."

Choate also said it's not just what you say as a mom around your daughter but what you do, including engaging in unhealthy dieting and exercise behaviors.

Moms who diet are more likely to have girls who start dieting early and are then at risk for negative body image, according to Choate, who also wrote a book titled "Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Counselor's Guide to Prevention and Treatment." Dieting behavior in girls is also a leading risk factor for the development of eating disorders, she said.

"If you want to protect your daughters in that way to avoid dieting, don't talk about dieting. Don't talk about the need to diet, and certainly don't promote it in your own child, encourage her to diet, which most kids today say that they think they need to lose weight and that they want to go on a diet," said Choate, who advises not having a scale in your home, either.

The Common Sense Media report found that more than half of girls and one-third of boys as young as 6 to 8 think their ideal weight is thinner than their current size.

By age 7, one in four kids has engaged in some kind of dieting behavior, the report said.

When our daughters are younger, we can protect them as much as possible from negative media influences, said Choate. That means if you subscribe to women's fashion or fitness magazines, don't necessarily leave them around so your daughter can skim through them. And if you are watching something on TV or on the Internet, help your daughter develop media literacy skills and ask questions such as why women are portrayed the way they are.

Being honest also goes a long way. Jenna Bush Hager, a "Today Show" correspondent, recently wrote a letter to her girls about body image that got a lot of traction online. In it, she spoke about how unsure of herself she was when she was younger.

"You will see images on TV and in movies and magazines to which you will inevitably compare yourself," Bush Hager wrote. "And you will feel that you come up short. I know that I did."

It is very helpful for our children to know that we can relate to how they feel, that we've had similar struggles and we've learned so much from them, Choate said. "We've been through these experiences that where we've come through to the other side where we realize we are so much more than our bodies and if somebody doesn't appreciate us for all aspects of us, then maybe they're not somebody that we need to have in our lives."

Being honest and open certainly resonates with other mothers.

"I just think it's so universal. We're so hard on ourselves," said Smokler, of Scary Mommy. "We compare ourselves to everybody, and we want to look a certain way. We want to be perceived a certain way, and we just spend so much time in our own heads obsessing about all that stuff. ... I don't know any woman who is 100% confident in her body and herself and just puts on a bathing suit without thinking twice about it."

Talking about body image issues -- and laughing about those insecurities getting into a bathing suit -- definitely help, said Hensley and Smedley, who are taking their "I Mom So Hard" act on the road for a 40-city tour beginning this month.

"I definitely think that when you become a parent, your priorities immediately shift, except for some reason, the one thing that doesn't go away is this standard of what you're supposed to look like or present yourself as," Smedley said.

In response to their swimsuit video, on their Facebook page, several women of all shapes and sizes posted pictures of themselves in their swimsuits, Hensley said. "They're like, 'I didn't want to go out today, but I'm going out today, and I'm wearing this,' " she said.

There were 50 to 60 comments per picture, she said, all positive. "It doesn't always happen like that, but in this case, it did, because I think women are awesome, and we're proving at the end of the day, we all just want to have a good time and sort of like ourselves, so let's help in that cause."

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.