I shook my head in agreement. My friend’s mother, like my own and many others, were Holocaust survivors and even though I thought that Europeans traditionally favored the rounded “Rubenesque” figure as opposed to the emaciated “waif” look, I was wrong. Our mothers had bought into the “thin – you’re in, stout – you’re out” mentality.
A whole generation of us grew up with conflicting messages. We were told on the one hand to eat everything on our generously-heaped plates – it was a sin to waste food – yet we were made to feel we were a lower form of human being if we were overweight.
Unfortunately, many girls were the targets of demeaning comments for no real reason, as the perception of their being fat was frequently incorrect. The same way that anorexics fail to perceive their stick-like arms and exposed ribs in the mirror, seeing only layers of fat, many mothers looked at their daughters and saw chubby, chunky girls – even though they were a normal weight.
I am not a psychologist and cannot offer a professional explanation as to why so many women are critical of their daughters, often needlessly so. I can only offer my personal take. Firstly, weight is often just a popular “flaw” to zero in on, but there are a myriad of others. One friend told me that as a teenager, as she got ready to go to shul dressed in a lovely new Yom Tov outfit that showed off her newly slim figure – her mother commented on how her hair was a mess, and she shouldn’t even think of going out. A neighbor visiting had heard the conversation, and exclaimed, “What are you saying? Pessy (not her real name) looks lovely!”
I am convinced that these mothers truly love their daughters (and sons, whose self-esteem they deflate in other ways) and want them to succeed. Yet, they undermine their children by unwittingly hammering away at their self-confidence. My guess is that these women have serious self-esteem issues and that is why they negatively view those whom they see as extensions of themselves – their offspring. “If I am flawed, my child must also be.” Hence the comments – “you’re too fat,” or “your grades aren’t good enough,” even though the child isn’t by any means heavy or s/he got a respectable A- on an exam.
When the people whom you have trusted since birth as being all-knowing tell you that you are inadequate, you believe them. When the caring, gentle mother who knew how to make your belly-ache and fever go away and knew how to fix your broken toys tells you that you are fat, stupid, lazy, or ugly, you accept it as truth, since she was right on so many other things as you were growing up.
The sad outcome – the child’s self-image and confidence are decimated. “Pessy” believed that she was ugly, gave up, and ended up gaining back every pound she lost. She ultimately married an emotionally abusive man who criticized and belittled everything she did. His behavior was familiar (the root of that word is family) and she was used to it. Only with therapy did she realize that this wasn’t how relationships were supposed to be.
Happily, Pessy got of this miserable marriage where she was an unappreciated schmatta and is doing relatively well. Sadly, many do not find their way back to a healthy appreciation of who they are and like their mothers (or fathers) before them, view their own kids as being inferior in some way and in turn degrade them.
It is very hard to change learned behaviors, but we should take a cue from baalei teshuvah. Despite having, for example, grown up eating treif, or opening lights on Shabbos, they have managed to learn how to refrain from doing so. In reforming, they have re-formed their life-long habits. When you are about to say something negative to your child, think how you felt when someone you looked up to said that to you. After all, isn’t this what Hillel explained to a gentile nobleman who wanted a short synopsis of what the Torah was all about? He said: “Don’t do to your fellow man what you wouldn’t want done to you.”
Children aren’t perfect and should be corrected, reprimanded or disciplined when necessary. But your words and actions should not be blows to their egos. The dents never go away. Most importantly, be realistic about their “flaws” and what they can or cannot do to improve them. Talk to your child (spouse, parent, friend) with love and gentle encouragement that will make them feel good about themselves. They will be motivated to reach the goals you mutually agree on. Your words can be the fuel that drives them – or the toxic fumes that stifle them.
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