Motherhood and The Battle Against “Thin Ideal”

When was the last time you ate consciously and freely without calculating or rationalizing your food choices? If it’s been longer than you care to admit, you’re not alone. We live in a culture that’s consumed with weight and body image, which is especially detrimental to mothers who have a heart to “do it all” and look like a picture of perfection.

By Charryse Johnson, LCMHC, NCC

As a clinical therapist and community educator, I constantly come across moms holding themselves to intense standards of beauty and living in a tug of war between what they see in the mirror and their internal dialogue. They live with the underlying battle against their body and have convinced themselves that high food standards are the ticket to their lost confidence and worth. As a culture, our relationship with food is playing in the background and feeding us a steady source of shame and regret. It leaves us disconnected and determined to keep ourselves in line by eating according to the rules. Christy Maloney, RD, LDN, CED-S, CPT a Registered Dietitian specializing in disordered eating profoundly acknowledges, “We live in a world where simply listening to hunger is a radical act”. This statement is a reminder of the way diet culture has created a chain of discontent and disconnection from our ability to honor our hunger and fullness cues.


Infants and young children provide us with a distinct example of our innate ability to honor our preferences. When our little ones are hungry, they proudly proclaim that cue through crying or expressing their need, and when they are full, there is no forcing them to push beyond that point. Yet, somewhere along the way that “gift” becomes distorted and challenged by the perception of others or even family messages around thin ideals or fear of fatness, commonly called fat phobia.

Chasing the thin ideal is an unsustainable pursuit that leaves us caught in comparison and potentially feeling we will never measure up.

- Charryse Johnson
Thin ideal became prevalent around the mid-1990s, and it refers to the extent to which an individual buys into socially defined ideals of attractiveness and engages in behaviors designed to produce the idealized result (Thompson & Stice, 2001). This belief system has been further complicated by social media and the constant access to depicting women who seem to have it all. They appear to have the idealized body, marriage, children, and friendships, leaving those on the other side of the screen overwhelmed and reduced by comparison. As these images and perceptions are consumed, it can leave many of us believing thinness is a prerequisite for living our best life. First, here are some common ways you may have unintentionally been provided negative messages toward food, weight, and body image:
  • You were told what and when to eat and criticized for any instances of hunger outside of these times.
  • Diet culture was a prevalent part of your family, along with consistent language about being fat.
  • Food has been viewed as a moral value. In other words, eating “clean” provided a sense of identity, worth, and accomplishment.
  • Warnings were given around your portions, ie. “Haven’t you had enough?”

In your own life, know that healing your relationship with food will have a direct and positive impact on your body image and self-esteem. This process of healing can be challenging, but also create a sustainable source of contentment and acceptance. Chasing the thin ideal is a unsustainable pursuit that leaves us caught in comparison and potentially feeling we will never measure up. To begin this process, here are some active and intentional steps you can take:

 

Clean up your social media. Reduce or eliminate following accounts that perpetuate your pursuit of thin ideals or leave you feeling bad about yourself. (This may be difficult, so consider eliminating a few accounts at a time)

Build body appreciation. When you notice body judgement, pause, breathe and begin thinking about the function of your body. When we focus on how our body supports us and gets us through our day, it moves us towards body neutrality.

Practice intuitive eating. Learn about the principles of intuitive eating and work towards understanding the principles of “all foods fit in moderations”. Ultimately, you want to trust yourself to honor your taste preferences, hunger cues, and fullness.

Create a daily self-love practice. Even 5 minutes of consistent and intentional self-care can create huge improvements. This could be listening to an encouraging song, reading affirmations, listening to a podcast, etc. The goal is to “consume” anything that supports self-acceptance, gratitude, and reducing perfectionism.

Build a positive community. If you’re comfortable, share your journey with other mom friends who have similar goals. Check in and encourage each other to pursue body appreciation, intuitive eating, and positivity. You might even consider a commitment to show love towards one another without comments directed toward weight loss and body change.

References:

Thompson, J. K., & Stice, E. (2001). Thin-Ideal Internalization: Mounting Evidence for a New Risk Factor for Body-Image Disturbance and Eating Pathology. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(5), 181–183. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.00144

Charryse is an experienced licensed clinical mental health therapist offering over 20 years of experience serving as a counselor, consultant, and educator. She holds a B.A. in Human Development, an M.A. in Professional Counseling, and is currently pursuing her PhD in Counseling Psychology. She is a strong community advocate and has been a contributor on local radio, social media, local news outlets, and documentaries and is passionate about reducing the stigma around mental health. She is founder and owner of Jade Integrative Counseling and Wellness.

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