Mom guilt, that trendiest of emotions, is generally not my thing. But there is one notable exception: when I catch myself looking at myself disapprovingly in the mirror, showcasing my insecurities about some real or perceived flaw in my appearance while my 18-month-old daughter stands by as my audience of one. I feel shame because she is watching all my cultural, social, and familial conditioning about female appearance play out in front of her. It’s an internal monologue I am not eager to pass down.
As it turns out, my mom guilt may be warranted. Kids are sponges, according to an old truism. They are also monkeys, closely copying what others do. Even as mothers take pains to point out good role models for girls—for instance, those pioneering women on the soccer field or in the presidential race—we’re also transmitting to our daughters, sometimes unconsciously, our own destructive fixation on beauty. We should be doing the opposite. Indeed, deflecting attention from how girls look is one of the most important, if fraught, issues of our time.
A 2016 study in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology called “Body Dissatisfaction and Its Correlates in 5- to 7-Year-Old Girls: A Social Learning Experiment,” revealed what I feared: When mothers and their young daughters are put together in front of a mirror, girls emulate how their mothers talk about their own bodies. In the experiment, the mothers had to describe their body from top to bottom. One group had to say only negative things and the other group only positive things. Marisol Perez, one of the lead researchers of the study and a body-image expert, says some of the women couldn’t find anything redeeming to say about themselves. And what mothers said made a strong impression on their daughters.