How Toxic Diet Culture Is Passed From Moms to Daughters

August 15, 2021


By Deanna Schwartz

August 2, 2021


When I was a kid, I thought my mom was the most beautiful woman in the world.

She never seemed to think of herself the same way. My mom has been on a diet for almost her entire adult life. She started her first diet, she told me, when she was a junior in high school.

Every important woman in my life mirrored the same habits. My mom and my aunt would say the same things to each other at every Thanksgiving dinner, Mother’s Day brunch, or Yom Kippur break-fast:

“You look so thin! Have you been dieting?”

“God, I look disgusting. Tomorrow I start my diet.”

“I’ve been so bad this week.”

It’s no wonder that when I grew up to look like my mom, I also developed her feelings of body insecurity and harmful eating patterns. I was 10 when I first began to feel insecure about my body. At 11, I began to feel shame over food. At 13, I began restricting my eating. By 17, I was on Weight Watchers.

According to a 2015 review from Common Sense Media, children ages 5-8 who think their moms are dissatisfied with their own bodies are likely to have those same ideas about their bodies. Perhaps worse, one in four children have tried dieting by age 7. For today’s young girls, their mothers probably started dieting at just as ripe of an age, and their mothers before them. And, for different cultures, these pressures inherited from mothers can manifest in various, intense ways. The foods, methods, cultural lore, and terminology has changed, but the goal has remained the same — to become smaller, no matter what the negative consequences or personal repercussions may be.

Young people today are increasingly fighting against the idea of body ideals, and generations of fat activists have paved the way for the more critical lens many of us see diet culture through today. Still, despite more representation of different body types and outward proclamations of self-love, the lessons we learned in those childhood years about how we should look stick in our minds despite our best intentions.

A generation raised on diet culture

My mother was born in the late 1960s, making her part of Generation X. She was born during the rise of diet culture as we know it today — the societal belief system that prioritizes body shape and size over well-being, equating thinness with health and morality.

“It’s a whole system of feeling, and thinking, and moving through the world. It’s everything from gender norms that expect particular appetites and bodily shapes out of men and women all the way to how the media industry supports diet culture,” said Emily J.H. Contois, author of Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture.

“For women who have a history of dieting — even when they try really hard — I think they do sometimes pass on those destructive ideas."

Gen X and Baby Boomer women, like my mother, grew up entrenched in diet culture that told them being thin, white, and conventionally attractive were the most important things. Their celebrity role models were largely all thin (fat women in media still so often exist as the butt of a joke). Pop culture involved weight loss, and a new fad diet popped up seemingly every year. There was the grapefruit diet, and the cookie diet in the ’70s; cabbage soup and Slim-Fast in the ’80s; the low-fat craze of the ’90s.

These women then inadvertently passed their toxic habits down to their daughters. But their Gen Z and millennial daughters, like me, born into a growing revolution of body positivity — or, more recently, body neutrality — and self-acceptance, have come to recognize their mothers’ behavior as problematic.

“For women who have a history of dieting — even when they try really hard — I think they do sometimes pass on those destructive ideas about how you’re supposed to eat, how you think about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, what it means to be thin,” Contois said. “There’s lots of pressure on moms to figure out how to do that right.”

Annie*, a 22-year-old public relations professional, attributes her issues with food to her Gen X mom.

“My mom has always struggled with her weight, and my grandma was a food pusher, and so she wanted to be the opposite of that for us,” Annie said. “I think [my mom] started weighing me in maybe fourth grade.… That really started me down the path of being obsessed with my weight and having body dysmorphia.”

April, a 25-year-old woman in Pennsylvania, grew up watching the women in her life harbor unhealthy relationships with food. In high school, she began taking diet pills and skipping meals. She later developed binge eating disorder.

But in their best efforts to prevent their daughters from experiencing the same strife they did, our moms seemed to accidentally send the wrong message.

“My mom so badly didn’t want us to struggle with the same things she did,” said April. “[During certain times in my childhood] my mom was just projecting because she wanted me to be healthy, but it was too much.”

Annie and April both echo what I grew up hearing my mom tell me — that she didn’t want me to have to spend my whole life dieting like her.

But in their best efforts to prevent their daughters from experiencing the same strife they did, our moms seemed to accidentally send the wrong message.

Parents are agents of socialization, said Rayanne Streeter, a professor of sociology at Maryville College.

“If your parents have a particular idea about what a body should look like, or have their own feelings about their bodies and dieting and diet culture, you would be similarly socialized,” Streeter said.

Still, we can’t always fault our parents for instilling this culture, Streeter said. “They exist in the same world that we do,” she said, “and they probably have their own body trauma to deal with.”

Many mothers want the best for their daughters, but their ideals aren’t necessarily the same as their daughters’.

Meg, 57, grew up being shamed about her body. She was cajoled into dieting when she was very young and developed eating disorders that persisted through adulthood.

When Meg had her own daughter, Carson, who’s now 22, she knew she didn’t want to treat her like her parents had treated her. But when Carson gained weight naturally, Meg panicked and began restricting her eating, perpetuating the cycle.

“I knew I was doing it, but I didn't feel like I had a lot of power over the fact,” said Meg, a Los Angeles-based nutritionist and yoga teacher. “It was just so central to how I determined my worth as a human being, and therefore her worth as a human being."

“I had this inherent opinion that being in a larger body was bad,” said Meg’s daughter Carson. “So I spent a lot of energy and time as a kid trying to not have that.”

“There’s such a cycle of shame, and we're living proof that it's really hard to break.”

As Meg went through eating disorder recovery, she spent time reflecting on how her actions had affected her daughter. “I put Carson through the wringer,” she admitted.

Over the past few years, Meg and Carson have had many conversations about their relationship and diet culture. The road to self-acceptance has been hard for both.

“It’s a hard thing to unlearn,” Carson said. “It’s [hard to come to terms with] seeing your body change and being OK with it.”

“There’s such a cycle of shame, and we're living proof that it's really hard to break,” Meg said.

The pushback and tough conversations between mothers and daughters may be in part because of increased social awareness — within Gen Z and millennials, but also among society in general.

“We’re more conscious of [diet culture] now,” Meg said.

Contois explained that Gen Z has grown up in a different environment. “There’s a lot more diversity in size and shapes and what people will wear and how they'll put their bodies on display proudly,” Contois said.

Social media has led to a lot of the younger generations’ education. It has taught young women to learn about concepts like diet culture and examine how it’s impacted their own lives. For instance, I first saw the term “diet culture” on Twitter and learned about intuitive eating through TikTok.

“Social media has shifted the narrative about bodies and diet culture and has given younger generations a real accessible platform to talk about diet culture and push back against it,” Streeter, the sociology professor, said.

Breaking the cycle

The conversations happening between mothers and daughters are important, but they’re just a beginning. Education — on what diet culture is, how it manifests, how it impacts relationships, and how to combat it — may be the key to breaking this toxic cycle.

It’s not an easy thing to do. Contois said that for women who have known only diet culture and its trappings, a change in thinking and lifestyle can feel “destabilizing.”

“It’s really hard when you’ve spent decades of your life absorbing these ideas to just throw them away,” Contois said.

But the $71 billion diet industry probably isn’t going away soon. “There's too much invested in that,” Meg said.

But Meg — and others — are hopeful. Change is evidently coming, and the more we talk about diet culture, the more power we have to escape it.

I’ve moved out of the house I grew up in, but when I come home to visit, it’s difficult to not fall back into old habits. It’s even harder to see my mother continue to diet and restrict herself.

Last year, my mom and I sat down on the couch and had a conversation. It wasn’t easy, and we both cried. But it felt good to express how I had been feeling.

I’ve been able to educate her on diet culture and encourage her to see food without such a strict lens. Still, as Contois said, it’s hard for my mother — and other women — to change their outlook after 50-or-so years.

She’s learning and growing, and so am I. Most importantly — we’re doing it together.


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