Girls actress Zosia Mamet may have had a leg up on breaking into Hollywood as a result of having an actress for a mother, but it didn’t come without a price. In her latest My Zo-Called Life column for Glamour magazine, the actress admits: “To be totally honest, I was always jealous of her body. She had been a dancer growing up and had the body to match—flat stomach, small chest. I remember as a girl taking baths with her; I would stare down at my pudgy stomach and feel deep pangs of envy. I prayed I would grow up to have her body.”
Mamet goes on to share that she has struggled with her body image for her entire life, causing her to feel “desperately unhappy” and eventually endure an eating disorder as well. “She struggled, so I struggled,” the 28-year-old says of the relationship among herself, her mother, and the body issue demons that afflicted them both. Mamet reports that her mother was “always on some sort of diet, and everything I was fed was nonfat or sugar-free. When I was hungry, her first response was, ‘Are you sure?’”
Studies show that “fat talk,” a term coined by researchers to refer to public body self-disparagement, is in fact contagious. When women refer to themselves as fat, other women around them are more likely to chime in with their own self-deprecation. Worse, they’re more likely to report higher levels of body dissatisfaction and shame as well.
It begs the question: Are body issue struggles inherited? Whether drawn by nature or nurture, how straight is the line between our attitude about our body and our mother’s attitude about hers?
When my first child was still a baby, maybe 10 months old, I met some friends at the local kiddie pool one summer day. I didn’t lose the last of the fifty pounds (yes, fifty) that I gained during pregnancy until well after my son’s first birthday, and I was a hot mess of insecurity and internal self-shaming as I put on my bathing suit that day. My friends, whose kids were older than mine and who were both active in CrossFit and distance running, looked tan and toned in their bikinis. I made up an excuse to leave my cover-up on over my bathing suit. As we settled into our lounge chairs and started unpacking sunscreen, snacks, and water bottles, we mindlessly slipped into the female greeting ritual that we had participated in so many times before.
“Oooh, that bikini is so cute,” one of us said to another.
“Ugh, it totally cuts into my fat love handles,” came the reply, accompanied by grabbing at a mostly flat stomach and a look of disgust.
“That’s nothing,” another friend chimed in. “Look at my stomach when I bend over.” She bent over and dramatically pointed to her well-defined abdominal muscles that fell maybe a half inch downward, the result of three healthy pregnancies and gravity.
The banter was thoughtless and lighthearted. These are not meaningful confessions of self-struggle nor requests for support. They are greetings. They are compliments that are not able to be received. It is a dance we’ve been trained in since our youth, and this is merely a warm-up.
Suddenly, though, I was pulled out of my own body as I noticed my friends’ daughters, probably around 3 or 4 years old at the time. They were giggling and wiggling and splashing and running in circles around us. They were not paying attention to us, but I knew in my gut that they were listening. With their adorable cherubic bellies popping out, their colorful goggles tangled up in their messy hair, their mouths wide with laughter and hungry for Goldfish crackers—they were listening.
And I knew, in that moment, that I would never participate in that ritual again. How on earth could these sweet little girls grow up to think of their bodies in terms of healthy, capable vessels that allow them to experience the world around them when the voice that’s been playing in the background of their childhood is one that criticizes? How could these girls grow up to feel good enough when they’ve never heard their mother simply accept a compliment about her body? How could these sweet girls demand that their bodies be treated with respect when their mothers voice such careless disrespect for the very bodies that gave them life?
I vowed in that moment that I would never speak ill of my body in front of my children or anyone else’s children. I had my own body image issues at the time, but in that moment of clarity, I recognized that there was a time and a place to discuss them honestly, and this was not it.
Five years and one more son later, I’ve kept that promise. As I raise two boys, I see the value in the way I talk about my body from a new angle still. While statistically, as boys, they are less likely to suffer from negative emotional outcomes stemming from perceptions about their bodies, in just a few short years they will be the boys that their female classmates want to be noticed by. And when that time comes, when they “discover” girls, I want the voice in their head to be one that understands exactly how complex, wonderful, and beautiful a woman is. I don’t want them to have a script in their mind that picks apart waist circumference, butt shape, and thigh gaps. And I know that it’s up to me to write that script. Just as Mamet experienced with her mother, how I talk about my body around my kids is how they will learn to think about girls’ bodies. So I speak carefully and with great respect. And while I help them write their scripts, I rewrite my own.
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