9 "Helpful” Common Lessons Your Mom Taught You About Your Body That Are Actually Toxic
While it's possible you grew up in an toxic environment, where your mom taught you unhealthy life lessons without caring about the impact they might have, it's also plausible that she had the best of intentions, and just didn't realize the impact these "lessons" might had on your self-esteem — or on your relationship with your body.
"I believe that everyone does their best with the knowledge and resources they have at the time," mental health coach Tiffany Toombs tells Bustle. "Especially with the amount of change between today’s generation and their parents ... moms simply didn’t know any better about the impact they were having on their child’s psyche." It could be your mom was just parroting things she'd learned from her mom, who adopted unhealthy ideas from her mom, and so on.
Whatever the case may be, even if you were taught toxic lessons, it's possible to move past them and heal. "The first step is to have an awareness that this pattern is playing out in your life somewhere and that it is coming from your mom," Toombs says. "The power of self awareness is often downplayed, but is the essential first step in changing any negative pattern."
Here are a few life "lessons" about your body (and really, life in general) that you may have learned from your mom. If they feel toxic to you, then it may be time to adjust your thinking — perhaps with the help of a therapist — so that you can replace these lessons with healthier beliefs of your own.
1. "Warning" You About Sexuality & Intimacy
It's a parent's job to talk to their kids about sex, and give them the info they need to make smart choices. But experts say moms often overstep here, and make sex into a "taboo" thing.
As a result, women "can feel like they need to shut down their sexuality in order to be 'good,' otherwise they’re defying their parents and are 'bad,'" Ashleigh Edelstein, an LMFT-Associate, tells Bustle. "This tells [women] they can only be pure or a [super sexual] and nothing in between. Their worth as a person boils down to just their bodies."
And that's toxic for so many reasons. "[Women] ... receive the message that they’re not allowed to learn about their bodies and what brings them pleasure, leaving them confused and lacking autonomy over their bodies," Edelstein says. "They learn they can’t trust their own bodies, that these perfectly normal feelings are wrong and dirty, something to feel ashamed of."
Overcoming this "lesson" can be tricky, as you learn to enjoy sex and focus on yourself and what you want to get out of it. Your mom's voice might echo in your head, but it is possible to view sex in a healthier way, with a little effort.
2. Saying "You'll Never Find A Partner If You..."
If your mom made it seem like you had to do something differently or change something about yourself in order to find a partner, she was definitely sending a toxic message.
"This tells girls their only value is whether they can find [someone] to marry them," says Edelstein. Again, it's something your mom may have learned from society, or picked up from her own mother, so it can help to be compassionate with her and with yourself as you remember that this toxic "lesson" isn't true — despite how often it's said.
3. Placing A Ton Of Importance On Procreating
There are so many parents out there who pine away for grandchildren, but that doesn't make it OK to push their daughters into that role — especially if said daughter doesn't want to be a mom, isn't ready, or is only feeling pressured to procreate because she's "getting old." Comments like these send the "message that personal needs don't come first; that a woman's only value is in procreating," says Edelstein.
And since that's obviously not true, it can help to be honest with your mom about plans for the future. If you don't want kids, say so. But if you do, remind you mom that yes, there may be some biological restraints on having your own kids naturally, and age may play a role there. But you're still planning on taking the time you need to think about your future, and will let her know the moment you make up your mind.
4. Being Overly-Critical Of Herself & Others
If your mom was in the habit of saying things like, "You're beautiful, but I'm so ugly," then it may have taught you that it's OK to criticize yourself. And coming from your mom, this "lesson" can really be incredibly damaging.
"For a lot of people, mothers are our earliest exposure and are often our first role models," Nicole Lambert, LMHC, a therapist who specializes in body image issues, tells Bustle. "However, some of the messages that moms send to their children seem helpful on the surface, but can have negative impacts on their children's self-image." Such as comments and compliments like these.
"This statement gives praise to the child but is putting themselves down at the same time," Lambert says. "A child sees their mom being critical of themselves and putting themselves down. This teaches [you] that it is OK to put [yourself] down while giving praise to others."
The good news is, this lesson can be unlearned if you're willing to put in the time and energy. Lambert suggests replacing critical thoughts with positive ones, focusing on your strengths as a person, and boosting your self-care routine, perhaps by meditating or adding more activities to your day that are meaningful to you.
5. The Importance Of Shaping Yourself To Society's Standards
Speaking of beauty, many moms, without even realizing it, teach their daughters that their value in society is closely tied to how they look, often by talking about what they eat, going on one crash diet after another, or telling their daughters that they shouldn't eat certain foods.
Comments like these, for so many reasons, are incredibly unhealthy, and are a lesson you should feel free to drop from your memory banks whenever you like. As Toombs mentioned above, your mom may have had good intentions, or she may have been going off old-fashioned ideas. And yet, as we all know, a person's worth is tied to so much more than their outer appearance.
If your mom spent a lot of time drilling into your head that it's important to look a certain way, it's likely a message you've carried with you ever since. It is possible, however, to let it go by focusing on all the other important things in your life — such as your career, relationships, friends, hobbies, etc. — that make you a whole person. And, of course, seeing a therapist to help adjust your way of thinking, if you can't seem to get there on your own.
6. That Beauty Is Everything
Similarly, you may have been taught that beauty is everything. But, as we all know, that way of thinking is incredibly toxic, mostly because they imply that you need to look a certain way in order to find love. And that, in it's own way, is also detrimental.
"All these comments promote the belief that the most important thing a woman needs to do in her life is to attract a [partner]," says Toombs. "It can create belief systems that a woman’s worth is tied to her ability to attract [someone], and if she can’t find a partner, then she’s not worthy or lovable. It perpetuates the belief that a woman’s beauty and physical appearance is more important than her brains or what’s in her heart. I often see this in my clients who have depression, control issues, perfectionist, or people pleasing behaviors." As with the other issues, it is possible to overcome, especially if you chat about it with a therapist.
7. That You Need To "Keep Going" Even When You're Tired
It's one thing to try to instill a healthy work ethic in your kid, but it's another thing to try to turn her into a martyr by telling her to ignore her body and push through, despite being tired. And that's exactly what many mothers model for their daughters.
"Mothers who martyr themselves and put everyone else first — this teaches their daughter that in order to be a good woman/wife/mother you must continually burn yourself out and put yourself last," Toombs says. "This pattern has been carried down for countless generations now and leads to a lack of self-confidence, burn out, and depression," because it teaches the lesson that everyone else's needs should always placed ahead of your own.
Of course, you occasionally have to do things you don't want to do — like stay late at work. And there certainly are benefits to occasionally being selfless in a relationship. But when it comes to self-care and meeting your own needs, remember: you definitely don't need to burn yourself out in order to be a good person.
8. The Imptorance Of "Watching What You Eat"
If your mom taught you this lesson, it was likely tied into the conversations about looks and weight. But, as you know, that's an incredibly outdated way of thinking.
"This is a toxic because it promotes an unhealthy relationship with food in that it creates a belief that food is the enemy and we need to be scared of what we put into our body," says Toombs. "...Teaching daughters to 'watch what they eat' also instills the belief that a woman’s value and lovability is based highly on her physical appearance." Obviously, your looks don't determine your value by any means. But if you do find you do have an unhealthy relationship with your physical appearance or food, it's important to seek help.
9. Reminding You To Dress A Certain Way
Remember when you were a teenager and wanted to dress a certain way, but your mom made you feel bad about it? Without meaning to, she may have taught you that it's not OK to be yourself, or shamed you out of wearing "revealing" clothing.
If that was the case, try to give your mom a break. "The teen years are particularly difficult for mothers to navigate," clinical psychologist Forrest Talley, PhD, tells Bustle. "Young girls are experimenting with makeup, clothing, how to establish a healthy relationship with [love interests], etc. The point at which many mothers error is in communicating that this experimentation is bad, that it somehow reflects poorly on the teenager's character or desires."
If your mom made it seem like you were responsible for how others reacted to you, simply by wearing a certain type of clothing, that was obviously setting a toxic example. And yet, it's one you can shake. "It's hard work to recover from the toxicity we internalized growing up, particularly if you still hear those messages from mom today," says Edelstein. "The key is to acknowledge where they came from and choose new messages that align with our values." In doing so, you can get rid of these toxic messages, and fill your head with healthier thoughts of your own.