Source: Photograph by Grace Madelin. Copyright free. Unsplash
Everything we feel— whether it’s pleasure, pain, anger, angst, or fear—we feel through our bodies. But one of the most under-discussed effects of not being loved in childhood; of not being listened to or heard; and of needing to defend yourself against criticism, disparagement and emotional pain is the daughter’s relationship to her body. This is a complex issue with ramifications that color our self-image and our ability to see ourselves clearly, may shape our relationship to food, affect our ability to manage our emotions, and may cause us to disconnect from our physical selves in myriad ways.
Many daughters find themselves coping with this estrangement from the physical self in maladaptive ways not just in childhood and adolescence but long into adulthood, in part because it’s not consciously perceived. It’s not unusual for a daughter not to see the root source of her discomfort because the mother wounds are hard to see, as are the effects of a toxic childhood on her behaviors in the present. (For more on this, please read my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.)
Let’s begin with the physical body first.
Her mother is the first mirror in which a daughter sees herself
As infants, our first sense of ourselves is reflected in our mother’s gaze and her gestures. As we grow older—and begin to speak and explore the household and pieces of the larger world outside of it—our sense of ourselves as separate beings grows and, depending on the depth of our mother’s bond to us, our confidence will either burgeon or falter. Our mothers are the first women we know intimately and, as girls who will someday be women, much of how we see ourselves is gleaned from how they see themselves. We may learn that being strong and athletic defines us or that beauty is paramount as is being slender, and if we don’t fit into that categories, we see ourselves as lacking or deficient by definition. If we are body-shamed as young girls—told that we are fat or ungainly, clumsy or awkward—and that our bodies signal to the world who we are, we view our bodies with distrust and feel shame. We may be told that our noses are too big or our bellies not flat enough or that we look just like the relative no one likes. We may even hate our bodies and the way we look, making it easy to hate ourselves in more general ways.
Mothers high in control or narcissistic traits often use looks as a way of setting one child against another or playing favorites. Physical attributes can be used to make one daughter to feel as though she’s the Odd Girl Out, as one woman explained:
My mother was blonde and thin, as was my younger sister, and both were athletic stars. I was dark and stocky like my dad, prone to gaining weight, and a bookworm. I was made to feel like the Ugly Duckling—yes, my favorite story—and it’s been a long road out. Even now, at 38, with a husband who loves how I look, I still am self-conscious and uncomfortable with both who I am and how I look. Therapy is helping me heal.
Even clothing comes into play. Gayle told me how her mother’s insistence that she alone knew what was flattering was yet another way of controlling Gayle and denying the validity of her thoughts and preferences:
I loved blues and purples but my mother said only autumnal colors—browns and oranges—suited me. I hated these clothes and everything she bought me was baggy and too big. My mother has been overweight all of her life and I now think she resented how thin and tall I was. Anyway, she ignored my thoughts and feelings and always insisted I didn’t know what I wanted, and she used her authority to convince me of that. I grew up, feeling that what I wanted was either wrong or didn’t matter much.
The truth is that the unloved daughter’s body can easily become a battleground in a toxic family of origin.
The body, food, and control
In most families, mothers are in charge of feeding the family and food often becomes another symbolic counter in the tug of war between an unloving mother’s need to control or marginalize her daughter and the daughter’s need to garner her mother’s attention and love. Humans eat not just because they need the fuel to survive but to experience pleasure and comfort. The latter—the need for comfort—can easily become problematic when a daughter is starved for love. In her book When Food is Love, Geneen Roth, who was the daughter of a physically abusive mother and an emotionally distant father, writes that “Food was our love; food was our way of being loved.” Unlike the emotionally withholding, controlling, or narcissistic mother, food is available; the unloved daughter cannot be shut out or abandoned by food. A child can steal food from the fridge or pantry or buy and stockpile it as a bulwark against the hunger she feels for her mother’s love and love generally. But Roth notes that as a substitute for love, food is a poor one because “Food is not, nor was it ever, love.”
Cynthia at 36 is both under the care of a therapist and a nutritionist in an effort to break the patterns:
I ate when my mother yelled. I ate when my mother ignored me. I ate when my mother made me feel like nothing. And when she mocked me for my weight and made me the butt of family jokes, I ate because I didn’t know what else to do. Eating made me feel in control and out of control at once.”
In her book, The Hungry Self. Kim Chernin explored the primal connections between food and female identity, as well as mothering and emotional hunger. The unloved daughter may think of food as giving her control and helping her to defend herself; this sense of control is an illusion because she can’t change what she wants to change—her mother’s treatment and response to her. But the illusion that eating—or, alternatively, denying herself food— is control may be the only strategy she has at hand, still living under her mother’s roof. That what Jen, 43, described:
As an adult, one of the most lasting legacies of my toxic childhood has been my oh-so-twisted and complicated relationship to food and my body. I am constantly on a diet but the second I’m stressed, I start to eat. I don’t think I’ve liked how I look since I was 6 or 7. Just a look in the mirror is enough to set me back and make me start believing every nasty thing my mother ever said about me again.
Disordered eating is often described by girls as a tool of control when they feel that there is nothing else in their lives they can control or be in charge of. Nothing could be further from the truth.
And, yes, unloving mothers body shame their daughters as a tactic to control and manipulate. I can speak here from personal experience. I have tried finding the fat girl my mother described in old photographs but I don’t see her. However, I do see the truth of my mother’s manipulations; her naturally thin, almost boyish body type was the perfect weapon to use on my curves and to shame me. I started dieting as a preteen.
The problem of pushing off from emotions and the body
When infants and toddler don’t get the maternal responses they need, they self-protect by shutting down emotionally, as a renowned experiment conducted by Edward Z. Tronick called “The Still Face” over forty years ago showed. Babies and small children need the back-and-forth interaction of a responsive caretaker in order to thrive, learn to comfort themselves, and manage their emotions. When that necessary interaction is consistently absent or only present now and again and a mother doesn’t react to coos or cries, vocalizations and later words, gestures and tugging, the child simply stops trying. It is less painful to avoid interaction than it is to deal with the feelings that come with being ignored. These children display insecure attachment; as adults, their attachment style will be anxious-preoccupied, fearful-avoidant, or dismissive-avoidant.
All three of these attachment styles display deficits not just in the management of emotion but in emotional intelligence as well; these adult daughters have difficulty knowing exactly what they’re feeling with precision. Additionally, because many have issues with their bodies, they are sometimes insensitive to or have unconsciously learned to ignore bodily changes that securely attached people use to inform their behaviors and identify their emotions. Unloved daughters miss the cues such as a tightening of the chest or throat that signal fear, or the flush of anger. Having pushed off from their bodies as children, they have to reconnect as part of their healing.
Unloved daughters who were mocked or shamed for showing emotions by crying, shaking, or trembling, or were told that they were “too sensitive” or “being dramatic” also have to regain the ability to let their feelings show.
The body and sex
Not surprisingly, for some unloved daughters, sex becomes a substitute for love, just as food is for others; emerging into adolescence and young adulthood, these girls try to fill the hole left in their hearts by multiple sexual partners and promiscuous behavior. Like food, sex is not a substitute for love. Her sexual behaviors and relationships may be complicated, too, by what the daughter has learned about love in her childhood—that it is a transaction, that it must be earned, and that it is always conditional. These daughters may confuse sexual attraction with love, both in themselves and their partners. If she has an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment, she will see sex as reassurance that her partner cares but she’ll remain vigilant and potentially jealous nonetheless; of course, her heightened fear of rejection is often a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the daughter’s style is fearful-avoidant, sexual intimacy may be threatening, especially with someone she cares about. The dismissive-avoidant has sex for her own pleasure, and nothing more; she stays above the fray of commitment and caring.
And some daughters who loathe their bodies derive no pleasure from sex or even touching; stuck in isolation and still hurting, they have sex because they see it as a quid pro quo for being in a relationship.
Lack of maternal love and support can shape how you see your body in myriad ways but what was learned can be unlearned with hard work, best accomplished with a gifted therapist. But, even on our own and in the quiet of our homes, we can begin to connect the dots between our childhood treatment and how we eat, manage our emotions, look in the mirror, and feel when we’re naked and vulnerable in the present. Every realization moves us forward. Making peace with our bodies and enjoying the envelopes that hold our psyches and souls are the signs that we are finally healed.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2018