The Generational Side of Body Image

By Tessa Yannone

How many times do you find yourself in a conversation with other women and the only topic of discussion is what their clothes look like, how their body sizes up, and how they wish they could change or alter their appearance in some way? When you keep your eyes (and ears) open for it, it’s astounding at just how many times our conversations veer towards body shame, body bashing, and body talk altogether.

The outside world is filled with body talk. We get it in the media that surrounds us, in our social groups, and in workplaces and extra curricular activities — but one place we shouldn’t be surrounded by it is at home.

I was fortunate to grow up in a household where body talk wasn’t a thing. My mom never talked shamefully about her own body and she never policed my sister’s body or mine. She let us wear clothes that made us feel comfortable and able (barring my request to wear the same t-shirt five days in a row and cargo shorts to church) and she encouraged us to be who we are no matter what. My dad never used the words pretty or beautiful to describe our best qualities and he was always pushing us to “do” rather than “be.”

As I grew up, the outside world broke through the little cocoon my parents had built around me and I was consumed with policing my body and comparing it to other girls my age. Fortunately, that strong foundation they had built for me would always be there — for so many other women though that isn’t the case.

When Body Image Issues Start at Home

Elizabeth Chadwell and Nicole Fetsis, two sisters born and raised in Indiana, were kind enough to share their stories with me. While they were both affected largely by their mother’s relationship with her own body, speaking about their experience isn’t a way of placing blame. Rather, it is a way of opening the conversation, connecting, and realizing that this happens to us all and we can only begin to make a change by watching the way we speak to our younger generations.

“Nobody ever called me fat growing up but I was never happy with my body,” says Fetsis. “My mom’s mentality and the way she spoke about herself really affected me a lot. I became very restricted in my eating habits and developed an eating disorder as a result — it was sadly very easy for it to happen.”

While Fetsis suffered from bulimia and anorexia on and off throughout high school and most of college, her sister fell on the other side of the spectrum. She called herself “gigantic,” saying people could roll her around if they wanted to.

“I was always so active when I was young,” says Chadwell. “I did tap, jazz, ballet, played outside all the time, and played volleyball, basketball, and tennis throughout high school. But I was always just bigger compared to other girls and as a result people didn’t expect much of me.”

With no nutrition guidance she quickly fell prey to many diet fads, leading to a poor relationship with food. During much of her young adulthood there wasn’t much of her life where she wasn’t on a diet — continuing to add to her insecurities about her body.

“Honestly, back then I didn’t realize how much you get judged by your appearance,” says Chadwell. “Which was probably a good thing for me back then. My size was a byproduct of just watching my mom and doing what she was doing — not really knowing any better.”

The Power of Mothers

Both Fetiss and Chadwell, taking different routes, suffered from the same thing — a body image complex manifesting in their home, which isn’t to say their mother loved them any less.

“As a mother the only thing you want are for your children is to be happy,” says Mary Fetsis, their mother. “As a single parent of three, I did my best but some things just weren’t top on my priority list.”

Renee Engeln, body image researcher and professor at Northwestern University and author of Beauty Sick, says she talks to many mothers who are concerned about passing on their attitudes to their daughters, feeling heartbroken when they hear their daughters say the same words they could have only heard from them.

“I think the two most important things mothers can recognize is it’s not too late and it’s OK to get it wrong,” says Engeln. “I’ve talked to a lot of women about breaking that cycle. We learn our body attitudes from a lot of things; the way other adult women in our culture talk about bodies is a huge one.”

As a mother to a daughter of her own, Chadwell says she wants her daughter to grow up knowing that she is more than what she looks like. “I think women, as a whole, we’re tough on ourselves,” she says. Having found a home at a gym where she’s embraced Olympic lifting and powerlifting she says she can’t wait to bring her daughter with her, to show her that being strong is OK.

I never really knew what it meant to get stronger. I was always active, but starting to push myself in a new way really helped me embrace what my body was capable of. — Elizabeth Chadwell

Engeln, who has been studying women’s body image for 15 years, says changing your mindset from how your body looks to what your body can do is fundamental to getting to a good place mentally. As we spoke on the phone, she was sitting in the parking lot of her kickboxing gym.

“I go everyday, not as a means to look like a supermodel but because it makes me feel strong and is a way for me to care for my body,” she says. “Exercising with the goal of changing how you look is one of the least effective forms of exercise. Instead, we should be exercising as a way to de-stress, to form community connections, and to care for our health.”

Fetsis, in her own journey, has also found her strength through the practice of yoga. “Right now, size doesn’t matter — it’s what’s on the inside that matters,” she says. “When I was lifting weights I was going to the gym to be skinny and with yoga I’m doing the movement for me and it helps me to feel confident in my own body.”

Their mom says they’ve both been very determined to succeed in whatever they’ve chosen to do and she’s always been their number one supporter. She’s watched them both, Chadwell weightlifting and Fetsis practicing yoga, and she couldn’t be happier that even though they’ve both found different routes, they’re doing what makes them happy.

How We Can Break Out of the Cycle

The way Engeln sees it, there’s no easy solution to this problem and it is going to look different for each woman, but the most free and easy way is to change the conversation in your home and circle of friends.

“Create a household where you don’t talk about appearance,” she says. “I make a conscious effort to do this with my niece and sometimes it’s hard, but I always try to correct it if I slip up.”

We need to start complimenting our girls on the things that reflect our values. The world is going to focus on their outward appearance, we need to cultivate a place that doesn’t so they can reach their true potential, realizing that pretty isn’t the only thing they can be. — Renee Engeln

Generationally, body image has always been something women have been worried about, Engeln says. But each generation is successively more worried about how they look. “I’m sure your grandma worried about it, but the intensity, amount of grooming, and money we spend is getting vamped up.”

Social media is also a huge driving factor for this generation, and future generations have to worry about — as previous ones weren’t growing up with the easy access we have to it now.

“I’m so grateful I didn’t grow up with social media, all we had were fashion magazines,” says Engeln. “But there’s something more powerful about constantly seeing perfected images of your peers and the need to feel like you have to keep up. It’s so easy to post pictures online and it’s done so regularly with filtering and editing.”

Engeln offers other ways of pushing back against this culture like watching where we spend our money and how much time we dedicate to beauty. She also urges mothers to use their teenagers “unlimited well of rage” to get mad at a world that profits off women’s insecurities.

“We need to remember our bodies are for doing and I think that’s a really great way of stepping away from the mirror and re-engaging with the world at large,” she says. “We have grown up in a culture that has told us the greatest thing our bodies are good for is being looked at and I don’t think we question that enough.”

Do you struggle with body image? Have you ever…

  • Felt anxious about clothes shopping or wearing certain clothes?
  • Dreaded going to an event (like a reunion or a wedding) — or even skipped the event altogether — because you felt too self-conscious about how you looked?
  • Found yourself not wanting to be in pictures or videos, or hiding behind other people in the picture to shield your body?
  • Scrolled through social media and felt worse and worse as you went?

If these sound familiar to you, you are not alone.

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About the author:  Tessa Yannone

Tessa Yannone is a health and fitness writer and strength coach based in Boston. She has a passion for strength training, body positivity, and balanced nutrition and believes all women deserve to feel healthy, happy, and empowered in their bodies. You can learn more about Tessa on her website, and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

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