Pressure from mums can play on daughters’ body image

Appearance pressure and ‘fat talk’ by mothers significantly influences body dissatisfaction and future disordered eating in young women, according to a new study by Flinders University in South Australia.

Previous research has linked the influence of female family members – mothers and sisters – to body dissatisfaction. 

The study by Flinders University is the first to investigate and compare the relative influence of parents and siblings, publishing the results in Body Image.

Body image and eating behaviours are thought to be influenced by parents, peers and media, in what researchers call the ‘Tripartite Influence Model’. These three forces affect appearance comparisons and internalisation of culturally defined physical ideals (such as the thin ideal).

Researchers surveyed 422 young Australian women (aged 17 – 25 years) measuring participants’ attitudes to appearance; levels of family ‘fat talk’ (the phrase coined by the researchers defining the extent of body-related conversations within the family context); appearance comparisons (comparing one’s physical appearance with others); body dissatisfaction and disordered eating.

The results show an association between appearance pressure and ‘fat talk’ from both mothers and sisters on levels of body dissatisfaction, restriction and bulimic behaviours.

Fat talk is a term used to describe self-critical, negative body-related talk and conversations such as “I look big in this dress”.

Participants surveyed perceived significantly greater pressure from mothers than sisters, and reported mothers were more likely to use fat talk.

Previous research has emphasised the importance of peer pressure and social media on body image. The Flinders University paper highlights the important role of the home environment and family attitudes and behaviours.

Professor of Psychology Eva Kemps, an author of the study, says parents, peers and the media are the main influences on the development of positive or negative body image.

“These findings demonstrate how important mothers and sisters are, highlighting the need to promote positive body image and model a healthy relationship with the body within the home.”

Body image evidence and impact is the focus of the 2023 Flinders University Investigator lecture on 24 October featuring keynote speaker Australian of the Year Taryn Brumfitt. 

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