Our moms, our bodies, our attitudes

From left: My daughter Analisa, my mom Lisa, and me

Author’s note: This blog explores sensitive topics, such as eating disorders, which may be triggering for some readers. Discretion is advised.

You should be receiving your May/June issue of TOPS News annnnnnny day now, and it’s a strong one! Once you crack the issue open, you’ll soon pick up on a theme: Moms. We intended to include a story or two with a “maternal” theme, which kind of fell in line, considering May means Mother’s Day. But really, the issue went well beyond the 1-2 articles we had envisioned — and they were all SO strong, we couldn’t cut anything!

Well, since this is the “TOPS Of Mind” blog, and you’re supposed to be getting the unfiltered story from HQ, I’ll rewrite that sentence a bit more accurately: MY story got moved to an online-only situation! 😉

I was right up against our print deadline, and I figured my story might make for a nice discussion piece — it’d work well as a blog or an online extra, instead of taking up real estate in the physical magazine. So with all that said, welcome to an extension of May/June TOPS News … I bring you one EXTRA story all about moms + daughters.

A big shout-out to the members who helped answer questions for this piece; another hat tip to my own mother and my oldest child (pictured above!) who I’ve written about previously; and I’d just like to plug my 8-year-old, Ana, especially, because she is SUCH a refreshing kid [see linked blog entry]. I’d like to think I’m doing things differently, or trying to operate as best as I can in the topics we’re about to explore, for her benefit — not to mention, my other two wonderful children.

Anyway, onward! Here’s my story:

Scientists and doctors have studied the relationship between mothers and their children when it comes to body image, weight perceptions, and attitudes toward healthy living. There are complex factors that come into play that influence kids’ development of body image, eating habits, and overall health behaviors.

For example …

1. Modeling

Children often look to their parents as role models, mimicking behaviors and attitudes, including those related to food, exercise, and perceptions of body image. Research indicates that mothers who exhibit positive body image and healthy eating behaviors tend to foster similar attitudes in their children. Conversely, if a mother expresses dissatisfaction with her body or engages in negative dieting behaviors, her children might adopt similar attitudes.

2. Communication

The way mothers talk about weight, body shape, and health, both about themselves and others, can significantly impact their children’s body image and self-esteem. Studies have found that kids, especially daughters, can be affected by their mothers’ comments about weight and appearance. And it’s not only WHAT they say, but also the frequency and context of these comments that play a role in shaping children’s self-perception and body satisfaction.

3. Emotional support and validation

The emotional support provided by mothers, including validation and affirmation of the child’s worth beyond physical appearance, is crucial, too. Research highlights the importance of fostering an environment where children feel valued for their abilities and character, rather than their appearance, to promote healthier body image and self-esteem.

4. Diet and physical activity environments

Mothers play a significant role in setting dietary patterns and physical activity levels in the household. Studies have shown that a home environment that encourages healthy eating and active living, without emphasizing weight loss or dieting, promotes a healthier relationship with food and body image among children.

We asked our TOPS family, via social media, if anyone would be open to sharing, when it comes to this rich and complex topic. Here are some excerpt from those interviews, directly from members (edited for length):

Jacinta DaCosta

“I love my mom, but she has always been very negative and overprotective,” said Jacinta DaCosta, a member of NH 0152 who has been with TOPS for 6 ½ years. “I learned to use food to cope with any and all of my emotions. I was overweight as a child. (My mom and I) butted heads a lot, and still do to this day, and I still live with my parents.”

“(My mother) was very, very thin growing up, and when she was married. I am not sure if she gained weight after having me or if it was after we moved to the United States in 1978. After that, (my mom) just continuously gained weight. She would make comments (about) getting fat, but never worked on losing weight. She would laugh or make comments at me any time I’d say I was going to work on losing weight. (And because) I’d never succeed, she would say, ‘Yeah, OK, here we go again with you saying you are going to lose weight.’ So that would always discourage me. I always wanted to prove her wrong, but in the end, she would always be right. Everyone would always let me know when I gained weight, as if I didn’t know.”

“There was no healthy living. It has always been about cheap living. I remember going to Burger King often to buy a Whopper for dinner because it was only 99 cents. We never ate vegetables. I don’t really remember eating fruits besides maybe grapes in the fall, but I am not 100% positive on that one. Burger King and McDonald’s were our choice of meals because it was cheap (at the time) and easy/fast.”

“I am an emotional eater; a comfort eater. I use donuts, Hostess cupcakes, Cadbury eggs – almost anything with cream or frosting – as a drug to help take the edge off of my feelings, whether it is depression, sadness, aggravations, etc. It is the only way I know how to cope. I honestly am not sure how it even started, nor why it started. But I just know I can’t get rid of it, and I have been trying for many, many years. It has gotten so bad that even now, I have a fear of dying (due to an incident that landed me in ICU in 2012) that I use my binge eating to keep me awake at night so I don’t fall asleep and ‘die’ in my sleep. I have a serious disease that needs healing.”

Jeanine Olmstead

“My mom was very sick when she was 3 years old. Back in the ‘40s, she was told that she needed to eat or she would die,” said Jeanine Olmstead, a member of TOPS NE 0504, who’s also an Advocate for her area and the Kearney, Nebraska region. “So by the time (my mother) was 6, she was overweight. Growing up, she always had 50-75 pounds extra on her. She joined TOPS in the 1960s. We were from Wisconsin. She saw (TOPS founder) Esther Manz in Milwaukee. I never had a weight issue growing up, so I could never relate to her. I just know her TOPS friends were her closest friends. Even though she was overweight, I never saw her struggle. Her struggles were her own. When I started gaining excess weight in my 30s, she was very supportive of me.”

“When my mom moved to Omaha from Wisconsin to be closer to me, we joined TOPS together. We would challenge each other (and) keep each other accountable. Our TOPS friends became our closest friends. After my mom died, I became an Advocate in her name. I know she would be very proud of me.”

“I have 10 grand-kids. I have an 11-year-old granddaughter who is starting to battle weight issues. I can see my mom in her. I now have a clearer understanding of food obsession. I have talked to my granddaughter about it. I am hoping she gets the help she needs before it gets too out of hand.”

“I had a wonderful relationship with my mom. She passed in December of 2017 at the age of 76. She was a wonderful person. My best friend. A kind woman, but also stubborn and independent. She was an RN. She was a great role model for me, my sister, and my daughter. … I miss her tremendously. Growing up, we had a great relationship. I never felt unloved or unwanted by her. … She was always interested in my life. … My mom struggled with her weight all of her life. But I never felt embarrassed or ashamed of who she was. She was the healthiest overweight person I knew until it caught up with her heart.”

Pat Johnson

“My mother always struggled with her weight,” said Pat Johnson, a member in Alberta, Canada. “She had eight children, seven girls and one boy, so you can imagine the toll that has on the body. Losing weight seemed to be the main issue, and we girls were very aware of the word ‘diet.’ Mom joined TOPS in 1972 and did quite well. … Mom’s whole family had weight issues. Her one younger sister was bulimic, and at one point, actually discussed it with me, her 12-year-old niece, as a way to control your weight. It’s not surprising that there were periods of my life when I was purging, too. At one point, I was anorexic, but luckily, had great doctor’s care. My goal was to weigh 100 pounds, even though I was 5-foot-9. And I did get down to 115, but it wasn’t healthy by any means. But I was happy. I measured my self-worth by my weight.”

“I have always tried to be aware of my children’s weight, but not making that important. I knew how badly I felt growing up, and I didn’t want my daughter feeling bad if she was heavy. Eating healthy was important, but not heavily stressed. … Today, I am a strong advocate for eating healthy and no dieting. Diets don’t work. Changing the reason for losing weight from ‘outward appearance’ to inward health must take priority.”

Johnson brought up another important point – it’s not just our mothers whose comments and attitudes matter.

“I had a good relationship with my mother. As for my father, I felt he judged us on our weight.”

And as to why she joined TOPS?

“In 2018, I received a picture of myself and was totally disturbed by it. I immediately decided enough was enough. I stepped on the scale and was shocked to realize I weighed over 310 pounds. I began eating much healthier and began losing weight. Two of my sisters belonged to their individual TOPS groups and were doing quite well. By November 2018, I made the decision to join a chapter in Medicine Hat, Alberta. While I had already lost, I wanted and needed the support. I weighed in at 287 or 284. That was the best thing I have done for myself, ever.”

Overall, the relationship between mothers and their children regarding body image and health behaviors is multifaceted. Interventions aimed at promoting positive body image and healthy lifestyles often focus on enhancing the quality of maternal influences, including encouraging positive role modeling, mindful communication, and fostering supportive environments. Research continues to explore these dynamics, including the growing impact of digital media on children’s body image and the role of fathers and other caregivers in shaping behaviors.

Journals such as the “Journal of Youth and Adolescence,” “Eating Behaviors,” and “Body Image” regularly publish studies on the relationship between parental influence and children’s body image and health behaviors. There are a number of books on child development, psychology, and family studies that delve into these topics, as well, including “The Body Project” by Joan Jacobs Brumberg or “Beauty Sick” by Renee Engeln. Finally, organizations like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publish guidelines and research findings on child health, obesity prevention, and the importance of family in promoting healthy lifestyles.

Hopefully this has given you some “food for thought,” especially as you comb this newest TOPS News! Thank you again to our members who got vulnerable for this one. I appreciate you so much!

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6 thoughts on “Our moms, our bodies, our attitudes

  1. Great blog, Michelle. I plan to use this at my “close to Mother’s Day” meeting for discussion. This is not about bashing moms, but coming to a place of peace and understanding why and how we developed how we view ourselves and the environment that created some not so great food habits. The only thing I wanted to add was that my mom didn’t directly say negative things about my weight, but she commented on everyone else’s obesity. That did not escape me.

    1. Thanks, Kim! You’re right — it’s really not about bashing moms, and I thought it was important to include Jeanine’s comments for that reason. (Her mother sounded especially wonderful). I think it’s one of those cases that’s like “when you know better, you do better.” These are all great things to be aware of, so that we don’t continue the cycle. And yes, I hear you on comments here and there, even if they’re not directly about us … we definitely pick up on those.

  2. What stories! my daughter, her 14 year old, and myself each have different body builds and we each take after someone else. My daughter somewhat resembles her paternal Grandma while I am, or was, 4 ” inches taller than she is. The 14teener is now taller than either of us and takes after one of her uncles, my son, in both body shape and energy. I more resemble my tall Irish father, both in coloring and disposition. Thank You for allowing me to be so analytical.

    1. Isn’t it funny, how it works out like that sometimes? My mom and I have very different body types as well, and I remember her saying she’d rather be built like me (which was nice actually, and perhaps made me appreciate my long legs as an adult). Grass is always greener; there’s that, too!

  3. really enjoyed reading this. It explains a lot about why I gained my weight and how much the comments of others affect our self image.

    I am struggling. t get my KOPS back and know that I am health thanks to TOPS.

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