When I was a teenager, people often commented I looked just like my dad. Not a welcome thought for a teenage girl! Later he researched the Frasers and gave us pictures of our grandfathers four generations back. I can see now what people meant. We all have the same forehead.
Skin, hair and eye color run in families. Basic body types like tall and lean or short and stocky are also genetic. For decades, researchers have been studying the effects of nature (genetics) vs nurture (environment). For practical purposes, we can have minimal effect on what we were born with. We can do a lot to see and heal influences of our environment.
We absorb beliefs about our bodies from our families at first then the wider culture. What do you remember hearing and seeing when you were a child? What were the attitudes in your family?
Was physical fitness valued? Were intellectual prowess and verbal skill rewarded or was it more about Friday night football games? Most families lean in one direction.
What were your family attitudes about bodies? My mother’s family were farmers and they valued both intelligence and being able to use their body well. My grandpa lost three fingers in an accident with farm equipment. In many families, there would have been shame, but in ours, he was admired for his determination and for the dexterity he developed with that hand. Being able to express your feelings was a lower value than the high value that was placed on being able to survive through hard work.
Reflect on the experiences of your generation, your parents, aunts and uncles, and your grandparents.
Were people in your family generally healthy? Did many of them have heart disease, cancer or other life threatening diseases? Alcoholism or other addictions? Mental illness?
Were you pampered when you were sick or told to get your butt out of bed and go to school anyway? Was sickness despised as weakness? Was there catastrophizing over minor illness or minimizing over major illness?
Did a parent or sibling die or have significant health challenges? When this happens, fear and distress permeate the family. Everyone is affected.
Parents are becoming more aware of the effect on their children of shame they feel about their own bodies. We live in a culture of body shaming and coercion, where only certain sizes and looks are valued and others are not. Even when parents are careful about what they say, children pick up on how they feel.
What do you remember about body image in your parents and grandparents? What was their posture and body language? Their sense of ease or unease in their body? This wasn’t something that was ever discussed in my family but I can remember how they held themselves. What is your sense of how they were affected by the culture around bodies, their families and events in their lives?
Looking at ourselves and our families through this perspective can help us in cultivating compassion for ourselves and others in our family. We can see patterns, more clearly understand the origin of our beliefs, and work with letting go of beliefs that are holding us back.