ATHENS, Ga. — Being a feminist may lead to someone having a better body image, according to researchers from the University of Georgia. Scientists found that mothers and daughters following feminist principles tend describe their bodies in more positive terms.
In comparison to women who did not ascribe to feminist ideals, feminist mother-daughter pairs felt better about their bodies and less shame about their appearances. On a related note, researchers add their work suggests mothers have quite an influence on their daughters. How a mother views and talks about her own body often affects how their daughter(s) views their own. Moreover, this effect held up the other way around; how a daughter speaks about her body can influence the mother as well.
Study authors focused on feminist embodiment, defined as “women rejecting societal norms and expectations about what they should look like while also feeling empowered and embracing their own bodies for their strengths and uniqueness.”
To research this nuanced topic, the team at UG surveyed 169 mother-daughter pairs. Importantly, however, the team did not ask the participants if they self-identified as feminists. Instead, researchers measured feminism by analyzing the group’s feelings on the following topics: Their own power as a woman, how connected they felt to their bodies, and how in control they felt over their own lives, as well as additional “measures of feminist values.”
Prior research reveals that negative comments about one’s body or appearance can lead to depression, eating disorders, and body dissatisfaction. This latest work indicates that when daughters hear their mothers talking badly about themselves, the daughters’ own body image may decline as well. Meanwhile, daughters who embraced their bodies and generally spoke about themselves in positive terms tended to serve as a “positive influence” on their moms. Study authors deemed mothers raising more body-positive daughters more likely to have a better body image themselves.
“I think one of the key takeaways of this study is the importance of focusing on moms as the agent of change,” says lead study author Analisa Arroyo, an associate professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, in a university release. “One way we can break the intergenerational cycle of negative body image is by empowering mothers to accept themselves and love their bodies, and that’s what we can teach our daughters.”
Body positivity enters a new generation
Of course, Prof. Arroyo points out that’s much easier said than done.
“There’s a whole group of people who’ve never been taught to think positively about their bodies,” she continues. “In fact, they’re ashamed of their bodies, whether it’s because of body size, gender identity, race ethnicity or something else. And their negative talk about their bodies is hurtful.”
Study authors explain that negative “body talk” is a fairly common occurrence among women. Prof. Arroyo notes that these types of conversations can turn into a feedback loop. Let’s say one woman tells her friend that she thinks she needs to lose weight, prompting the friend to reassuringly tell her “No, you look great!”.
“When people compliment us, that reinforces that behavior, but you can’t not say anything different, right? You can’t be like, ‘Yeah, maybe you could go on a diet.,’” Prof. Arroyo comments.
It’s also worth noting that the moms involved in this study grew up in the 1970s and 80s, a time when the very concept of “body positivity” didn’t even exist.
“They grew up at a time when thin was the ideal, and there was no embracement of the body,” Prof. Arroyo notes.
“The mothers in our sample were likely taught that their bodies, which naturally could never meet those beauty ideals, are deficient and should be subjected to ongoing improvements,” study authors add.
(Body) honesty is the best policy
So, should mothers just do their best to talk more positively about themselves while around their daughters? While that’s a step in the right direction, researchers admit there are no easy answers here.
“We can say, ‘Say this when your daughter says this. Act this way when she is watching,’” Prof. Arroyo says. “But if they don’t experience this embodiment and don’t really accept their body, that’s just acting, right? That’s faking it. That’s not what we want. We want them to truly accept the body that is carrying them through their lives.”
In summation, the research team believes moms can and should be honest and open with their daughters about any struggles they may have with body image. But, at the same time, moms should also try to be more accepting of themselves and encourage their daughters to follow their example.
“What we think is that the mother-daughter relationship is one of the few times that this kind of body talk is OK because they have a history of sharing and caring that might be different from two strangers who typically engage in body talk to fit in,” Prof. Arroyo concludes. “Mothers and daughters are very important for one another.”
The study is published in the journal Body Image.