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Barbie, Mom and Body Image

In Barbie's 50 years as the doll America loves to hate, there's been lots of hand-wringing over the fashion icon's role in shaping girls' self-image. Do those big breasts, wasp waist and mile-long legs make us gals feel so inadequate that we fall into punishing dietary habits and other self-destructive behaviors?

The author of this article suggests that her own mother's strong sense of self allowed for Barbie to take on a positive role in her own developing sense of self. But other women's relationships with Barbie may not be so healthful, as this article notes.

I'll be looking at the Barbie phenomenon in next week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column. This week's column, though, suggests that when it comes to damaging girls' body image, mothers' feelings about their own bodies can wield enormous influence. Women who let on that they hate their thighs, waistlines, breasts and behinds send signals to their daughters that prompt girls to question their own bodies and sense of self-worth, says Dara Chadwick, author of the forthcoming (due in May) book You'd Be So Pretty If....

In my own case, my many Barbie dolls left no discernible mark on my feelings about my body. And my own mother seemed pleased enough with her own figure that I didn't learn my self-disparaging ways from her. But her occasional comments about my weight and waistline, however well meaning, have affected me in lasting ways.

What about you? Who -- or what -- has most influenced your feelings about your body? Cast your vote in this week's poll, and please share your stories in the comments section. Men, let's hear from you, too!

This week's poll:

Results of last week's poll: Judging from your comments, breaking a food habit appears to be tough whether you go cold turkey or simply cut back. The vast majority of you, though, voted for the cold-turkey route: Only 36 percent said moderation works for them, versus 64 percent who favored going cold turkey.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  March 3, 2009; 7:20 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , General Health , Motherhood , Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity , Pyschology , Teens , Women's Health  
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My body image was most profoundly affected by my participation in sports. First soccer, and then (and especially) swimming. During swim season, food was fuel, and I never obsessed about what I was eating, or whether eating made me "bad," in part because I was swimming thousands of yards every day in practice. Swimming for fitness during high school instilled a commitment to fitness for life, for me. I graduated from high school more than 20 years ago, and I don't swim year-round anymore, but I do make sure to stay active. My body-dissatisfied moments come when I don't get enough exercise.

Posted by: dmla | March 3, 2009 7:40 AM | Report abuse

I would say that both of my parents had an influence on how I see/saw myself for many years. Both were skinny - my father naturally with his crazy metabolism, my mother due to an eating disorder that I now know about as an adult - and there was a constant mention of how my sister and I were fat, even when we were both small children and teens going through puberity.

In retrospect, my sister and I were both healthy, normal children. At the time, however, I can remember thinking of myself as a hideous, disgusting monster and spent from ages ten until twenty desperately trying to hide any curve or definite shape of my body with oversized, baggy clothes. Puberty was hell because my petite mother couldn't get her mind around how I had 38D bustline by thirteen that wasn't my fault for "being fat".

My sister and I never played with Barbies 'cause we had Ninja Turtles - April O'Neal being the only female reference point to body image - and our mother didn't approve of how Barbie looked or what she stood for. Ultimately, parents are the ones who hold the power of how little girls see themselves, not plastic dolls made for children to play with.

Posted by: sciencegirlmsu | March 3, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

I was actually teased for being skinny ("birdlegs" was a favorite taunt). Wish I could have those bird legs back!
As far as Barbie - she was just a doll to me, something to play with. I guess I didn't have the media around 24/7 telling me I should feel inadequate next to a piece of plastic.

Posted by: Catwhowalked | March 3, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

My mother passed away when I was about 2 years old and my dad remarried when I was around 5. I wasn't overweight as a child. I didn't even have any "baby fat" I was, as the doctor said, "Just right." My stepmother, on the other hand, was an overweight woman.
If at dinner I wanted seconds she would call me a fat pig or make some sort of reference to me eating too much, which wasn't something I did all the time and I was very active as a child. I was constantly outside running around with my friends or riding my bike. I remember distinctly, one night after dinner I was still very hungry because all she fed us was lentil soup for dinner and I hated lentil soup. She had made tater tots and steak for my dad and the tater tots were sitting in a huge pile on a plate on the stove waiting for him to come home. I went to take just one when she wasn't looking and she caught me and her exact words, I'll never forget them, were "Get your hands off of that you fat pig!" what did I become? A fat pig. I started gaining weight in 5th grade and in middle school and junior high she started saying things like "You really should lose weight. You'll never get a boyfriend. Boys don't ask fat girls out. Fat girls stay home alone on Friday and Saturday nights." Now mind you, I wasn't huge then. In my Freshman year of college I went "away" to school. I really didn't go far. I was only about a half hour from home but I wanted the whole college exeprience, so I stayed on campus. I was free! No one to tell me how much I can eat! No one to call me names if I ate a little too much. Lo and behold, I gained 40lbs in 3 months! I went to Spain on Spring Break and when I saw those pictures I just about died. I had no idea how I looked. I was HUGE! So I decided I was going to lose weight. Now, of course my step mother thought that me finally wanting to lose weight was all her doing. It wasnt. But whatever. In about a year and a half I lost 80lbs. I looked and felt great! And wouldnt you know, my stepmother knew it, too and she was going to do something about that! One night out of the blue she says to me "Where are the chocolate covered pretzels that were in the cabinet?" so I told her I had no idea what she meant. I hadn't eaten anything sweet in almost 2 years. I wasn't craving it. And she said with this smirk on her face and condescing tone "Oh c'mon think if no one sees you eat it then you won't gain weight!" Yeah exactly! That's how I lost 80lbs! By eating in my bedroom closet. Whatever. But...that was all it took. As much as I disliked her, she knew what buttons to push to make me want to give up. So now...I battle my weight everyday and it's winning. I am about 120lbs overweight and I don't know how I will ever get rid of it. I'm fighting a losing battle.

Posted by: SupahStah75 | March 3, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

At the age of 70, I just recently lost more than 300 pounds. I always remember my mother being very over weight and supposedly trying to lose. As a child, I was what you could call "average" in build; but short like my mother and with a general body shape like hers. I did know that in all the years growing up I did not want to end up looking like her, and she use to tell me that when I got older, I would. That alone made me determined not to--ever.
I was quite slim when I got married at the age of 18 and was able to control my weight through having three children. I did this mostly because of what my mother had always told me--wait till you get older--I was determined not to end up like her. At 40, I did let every thing get "out of hand" and that was when I gained until I weighed 400+ pounds. Four years ago I once again was determined to lose the poundage, this time mostly because of health reasons and I do feel better being slim.
As for the Barbi doll, I had one as a child and mot only lived how she liiked, but loved to make clothes for her. Some I even designed myself. I don't remember my mother ever making any comment concerning her, but she is the one who got me my first Barbi as a Christmas present. In the years since I have made Barbi clothes for my daughters and granddaughters. The doll never has made any impact on any of their body image; and, I might add, neither have I.

Posted by: bethjanek | March 3, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

thank you for writing about this very complicated subject between mothers and daughters. it is particularly meaningful to me right now because my daughter just turned 11. I'm afraid even my well-intended comments about some of her adorable body parts when she was younger may have had a negative effect on her as she moves into her pre teen years. Even a couple of lighthearted references to my own body may have done the same thing. It is another reminder of how careful we have to be about what we say in front of our children.

Posted by: jane26 | March 3, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

THANK YOU for writing about Body Image!! As women, as a society in total, NEED to discuss the dangers of body image issues on par with the dangers of drugs and alcohol...The only difference: we need to begin talking about this with girls and boys even earlier than we begin educating them about substance abuse. ~ I work in the field of Eating Disorders education prevention, and advocacy. I work with clients as young as three --'babies' who "feel fat", who are throwing up, refusing to eat, etc. We know there is a correlative effect between young children and the role models in their lives, in relation to their body image and self-esteem. ~ The number one question I am asked at presentations is, "how can I help a friend or loved one who is dealing with body/eating issues?" My answer always begins with the same simple, yet profound, suggestion: First --learn to love YOUR body, talk nicely about it, embrace all you have as a gift, not 'despite perceived flaws'. The gifts we pass on by loving our natural and healthy bodies protects our loved ones from self-esteem issues that lead to body image suffering, eating disorders, co-occurring disorders of depression, alcoholism, etc. (ie: loving your body can actually save lives --really). ~ We just launched a bill in congress called The F.R.E.E.D. Act --The Federal Response to Eliminating Eating Disorders --part of the bill deals with education and prevention of these deadly and insidious disorders. It's time we recognize the severity of the words, "I feel fat."
peace and gratitude --Kathleen MacDonald

Posted by: cathemac | March 3, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

I'm 28, and my mother NEVER EVER made any negative comments about my body, her own body, or other women's bodies. She frequently complimented me growing up, telling me that I was a pretty girl.

Although I had flashes of self-doubt when I was a teenager (about my braces, small bust, etc.), overall I had a strong body image. And today, I am very confident in my body, much more so than most of my friends.

My message to mothers who may be reading this is that you CAN set your daughters up to love their bodies.

Posted by: Katherine4 | March 3, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

My brother's comments were the most hurtful. Whenever he wanted to 'jerk my chain' he'd say I was fat and ugly. My mother never defended me or told him to stop it. My mother, however, had a weight problem herself. She ate out of anger and stress and I think to get back at my father. Dad could eat anything and not gain weight (his job was very active). Then later when I was in my 20's and actually had hipbones and ribs, I still felt 'fat and ugly.' As for Barbie, I always thought it was rather perverted to have a toy that looked like a grown woman with an extensive wardrobe and accessories. Very materialistic. My baby dolls all looked like actual babies.

Posted by: Baltimore11 | March 3, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

For me it wasn't my mother, it was the endless peer pressure. I was not in the "popular" crowd for a great many reasons, and I was picked on incessantly through middle and high school, so my image of myself definitely suffered. My mother tried to combat it, but when you hear that you're "ugly" or kids set you up to think that someone likes you and they really don't... it's hard to battle against that.

Posted by: annwhite1 | March 3, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

My mother TOTALLY affected how I viewed myself. She and my 2 older sisters (from a father different from mine) were both skinny ... I was "lucky" to get the linebacker build from my father's side of the famiy. I was teased & tormented by everyone in my family - I was the "fat kid" out of 8. My mother told me no one would ever love me, I would never get married, etc., etc. I responded by eating in secret, being extremely overweight, leaving home as soon as I turned 18, and I don't see my famiy very often. At 39 I weighed almost 325 pounds and I'd had enough. It took me 5 years, but I finally got all the weight off and am now a size 8 thanks to Weight Watchers and hard work. My mother and sisters, on the other hand, are all size 16's (up from size 4/6). I exercise & pay attention to my diet - I still get teased about my size - but now they say I'm too skinny! I've learned the only person's opinion who matters is MINE ..... and guess what? There WAS someone who loved and wanted to marry me - even when I was heavier. And now that I'm in shape, he says he's a lucky man to have such a beautiful "trophy wife."

Posted by: ktzmom13 | March 4, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

As far as I can tell, none of those things listed in the poll significantly affected my body image. The biggest influence on me was and are the people with whom I interact on a daily basis, what I would just call "society." It's all around us all the time: girls constantly complaining to each other that they are fat, guys making comments about not wanting to date fat girls, attractive people getting treated differently at work or by the public at large, etc.

Posted by: pinkstate | March 10, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

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