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What About Our Sons?

Photograph by Getty Images

I’ve seen and heard endless hand-wringing about the negative effects of a mother’s poor body image on her daughters. And more than once, I found myself wringing my own hands because I’m terrified my own daughter will pick up my occasional self-destructive habit of hating on my thighs or wishing away my poochy stomach.

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But what about my son? I’ve never heard a parent fretting over the effects of a son seeing his mother hate on herself or her appearance. I’m concerned, though. I’m not a child psychologist, but I have to think there are deleterious effects on boys’ psyches when they are subjected to their mothers’ self-hatred.

I’m sure that the effects are different for my son than for my daughter, who may internalize for herself the messages I communicate about my body. As I understand it, the thinking is that a daughter learns how to think about and treat her body from her mother. Therefore, if mom hates her body, the chances are good that the daughter is learning to be similarly self-critical and body-hating.

I don’t believe our sons emerge unscathed.

But my son is learning something, too, when he sees me frowning at my reflection or making a fat joke about myself. He’s learning not only that I am unhappy about my appearance, but also that it matters to me. I’m the first, and arguably most important, female adult in his life, so the impression I make will last a long time. And when he ventures out into the world to date and find love, he will carry a template from our relationship. I want that template to serve him well and enable him to find loving relationships with healthy women. Namely, women who have a healthy love and respect for their bodies.

The body image issue is a huge one—it affects all of us trying to sift through the destructive cultural messages about which bodies are beautiful and which ones should go through diets or starvation or extreme exercise. While the most destructive effects fall on the heads of young females like my daughter, I don’t believe our sons emerge unscathed. And any solution to the perplexing problem of attaining a healthy body image in the face of distorting media and societal forces should involve both our sons and our daughters. After all, both genders contributed to this unhealthy situation; so the hope for a new way of seeing our bodies also lies with both genders.

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That’s why body image issues and the care with which I treat my body matters to me in my relationship with both my daughter and my son. I want them both to see in me a woman who takes care of her body and accepts it as it is, so they, in turn, will have that kind of relationship with their own bodies.

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