The Blog

Body Image - A Concerned Mother's Story

She tells me she has no self-esteem or body image issues at all, but if that's the case, why does she feel she needs cosmetic surgery? Did my worries and fears about my breasts rub off on her as a child? She was no stranger to my obsessions, and I really worried that my low self-esteem and negative body image had tainted her view of her own body image, and clouded what's really important.

What does a mother, who also happens to be the CEO of a National Self-Esteem Initiative, dedicated to helping others improve their self-worth, do when she is confronted by her daughter who decides she wants cosmetic surgery for no medically based reason?

That mother is me, and to say it's upsetting and extremely confronting is an understatement. The thought of my own daughter going down a path that is so very against what I advocate caused me to look at myself and what role I may have played in her decision.

I suffered at the hands of a verbally abusive, neglectful father. As a teenager, he mentally and emotionally put me down on a daily basis. I was ugly-I was fat-I was stupid. Even on my wedding day he told me my marriage wouldn't last. I weighed 57kg then and I was considered beautiful.

Move forward 20 years. My father was right. My marriage did finally come to an end, and during the years I was married I nurtured a terrible obsession with my body, and more importantly, with my breasts. I developed an all consuming phobia about breast cancer. I wasn't worried about dying, that wasn't the issue; I was worried about losing my breasts. You see my husband told me that if I ever lost a breast he would leave me. I was 20 at the time.

As my phobia took over I even went to a surgeon to ask if he would remove my breasts so I could lessen the chance of getting cancer. There was no logic to my request, I was physically fine. I was lucky to have a great confidant in my psychologist, and he intervened when I told him my plan. I didn't go through with the surgery, but I never stopped worrying about my breasts and my appearance the entire time I was married.

My body image was below zero. My weight went up and down, I was still worried about my breasts, and on the day my husband and I finally separated, I tipped the scales at 95kg.

Looking back I can't understand why I stayed for so long. I should have left many years before, but like so many others in this type of relationship, I didn't believe I was worth anything better. I had no self-belief at all, so after 20 years of marriage I decided I should start working on it.

It was a labour at first, but I worked hard. For the first time in my life I started to feel good about myself. To believe in myself. My marriage ended but the world didn't. I had a career, great friends, some travelling adventures, and for the first ever, a glimmer of a healthy self-esteem. Here I was, middle-aged, and finally starting to feel good about myself!

Skip forward to 2014. My son is a journalist by day and rock singer by night. My daughter owns two cafes and runs another four. Both of my children are extremely successful in their own right, and I'm so proud of their achievements.

My daughter is amazing. She is determined and confident, and very beautiful. She tells me she has no self-esteem or body image issues at all, but if that's the case, why does she feel she needs cosmetic surgery? Did my worries and fears about my breasts rub off on her as a child? She was no stranger to my obsessions, and I really worried that my low self-esteem and negative body image had tainted her view of her own body image, and clouded what's really important.

I encouraged her to take the route that helped me, and see a psychologist. At the moment, the jury is still out on that. We've been doing some research on the surgery too, and I found that one of the leading cosmetic surgeons in Australia is based not far from where we live. I naively thought (and hoped!) that he would tell her to go away, or scare her with horror stories of surgical risks, but no such luck. He not only gave her a price for the surgery, but even offered to book her in on the spot. He never even asked if she had any mental health or body image issues! I had hoped for more.

I'm lucky though. I now have the support of my ex-husband who also researched the consequences of elective cosmetic surgery, and agrees that the risks are all too great. It's made things easier, and we hope that with the love and support of both of us, we can convince her to look deeper into herself so she can see how beautiful and special she is.

We all know that there are many factors that make some people more likely to develop a negative body image than others:

• Age. Body image is frequently shaped during late childhood and adolescence, but body dissatisfaction can affect people of all ages, and is as prevalent in midlife as it is the young.

• Gender. Adolescent girls are more prone to body dissatisfaction than adolescent boys; however the rate of body dissatisfaction in males is rapidly approaching that of females.

• Low self-esteem and/or depression. When we're really down on ourselves or suffering from a condition, we can become our own worst enemies and fixate on our appearance as a fault.

• Personality. People with perfectionist tendencies, high achievers, 'black and white' thinkers, those who internalise beauty ideals, and those who often compare themselves to others, have an increased risk of developing body dissatisfaction.

• Teasing. People who are teased about their appearance/weight, regardless of actual body type, have an increased risk of developing body dissatisfaction.

• Friends and family. Role models expressing body image concerns can increase the likelihood of an individual developing body dissatisfaction regardless of actual body type.

Dr Lars Madsen confirms that, "Taking steps to counter your negative self-image can include changing how you perceive physical appearances, letting go of your personal assumptions about your appearance, disconnecting from damaging forms of media and challenging reassurance-seeking behaviours. Your goal should also be to lead a healthy lifestyle and achieve a healthy body weight, and talk to someone you trust or seek professional help." Overcoming these types of difficulties, essentially, is about developing body acceptance.

This can involve doing the following:

• Focusing on your positive qualities, skills and talents can help you better appreciate your whole self.

• Say positive things to yourself every day.

• Avoid negative self-talk.

• Focusing on appreciating and respecting what your body can do will help you to feel more positive about it.

• Setting positive, health-focused goals rather than drastic weight loss goals is more beneficial for your overall well-being.

• Admiring others can improve your own body confidence but it is important to appreciate your own beauty. Avoid comparing yourself to others, accept yourself as a whole and remember that everyone is unique and our differences are what make us special.

• Remember that many images you see in the media are unrealistic and represent a minority of the population.

The reason why people undergo cosmetic surgery is because they don't believe they look good enough. Simple. We all know surgery is not the answer to that problem. There are too many horror stories of surgery gone wrong, or of expectations not being fulfilled, and a distinct lack of satisfaction, and this is because their bodies are not the problem. How they feel about themself is.

Being a mum is hard work. As the mother of a beautiful young woman who truly believes she needs cosmetic surgery to make herself "look" more "feminine," and my ethical obligations as CEO of Mind Shift - the National Self Esteem Initiative, it is my utmost responsibility to encourage her, and all others looking to take elective cosmetic surgery, to seek pre-surgical psychological assessment before going "under the knife".

There is a great need in our society to be much more accepting of ourselves and our circumstances. This is not the same as doing nothing or being resigned. What we're suggesting is that people focus on making a significant mind shift in thought, not just a superficial or surface change. Life can be so much more enriching when you accept you for you. And yes, from personal experience, it's a constant journey and hard work, but it's worth it.