IT’S Mother’s Day. My daughter is at her dad’s house, and I wake up to a text message that’s both made my day and made me think. In it, she says how happy she is that she can talk to me about anything. I’m glad. Talking to her is one of my greatest joys, but also one of my greatest responsibilities. As mothers, what we say to and around our girls, directly or carelessly, can build them up or leave deep grooves that take a lifetime to fill.

Recently, I’ve been gathering women’s stories about their feelings towards their bodies. About how they felt as girls, how they feel now, and what’s changed if anything. In hearing their testimonies, I’ve learned two things: that being critical of or ashamed of our bodies starts early (sometimes by six, almost certainly by 10); and that the deepest grooves are left by those who are supposed to love us the most. A negative self-image is the gift we help give our daughters without realising it.

It’s theorised that our sense of self is shaped by peers, parents and media. If we were to think of what teaches girls to obsess about their bodies, magazines and TV might be the first thing that we call to mind. Our culture affirms our mistaken beliefs about our bodies, but reinforcement of those erroneous beliefs so often happens at home. Over and over again in my discussions, the careless words or deliberate actions of a family member were the catalyst for considering what their bodies mean to other people.

I was told about a mother who invited her eight-year-old to diet with her. About the impact of another openly criticising her own appearance. There was a family of women who spoke affectionately of “puppy fat” to girls while lamenting it in their own bodies. It’s clear: how we treat our own bodies around our daughters teaches them how to value their own. Without thinking of it, what we’ve learned to hate about ourselves from forces outside of our control is passed down the maternal line. It’s made me think about all the things I’ve said or done that might have left this sort of imprint on my own child without my ken.

I’ve spent the majority of my life torturing myself about not fitting the template – what Susan Bordo calls “the hegemony of the blue-eyed blonde”. I was taller than my sisters, my mother and everyone else in my family including the men. I felt like an ogre next to them. Being taller meant being broader too, with hips that were never going to find their way into a size six without shaving down the bones. It didn’t stop me trying for most of my life. Despite therapy, my complicated relationship to food has been omnipresent in my 11 years as a mum. I know I’ve not always been so great at hiding it. There have been many diets, many fitness regimes, a lot of lovingly-prepared meals I could have had with my children but skipped for a bowl of spinach or Special K. My mirror has been grubby, reflecting a warped sense of self my daughter has undoubtedly seen at times.

The past few years I’ve been working hard to shine it in her presence. Not just working on my sense of self, but doing it in front of her because I can’t teach her to challenge messages about female bodies, while tearing my own down for failing to meet the impossible benchmark. I need to show her what loving your body looks like, not just tell her.

Figuring out how to do this has meant unlearning all the life-long messages I’ve received about what my body should be. Thin, smooth, flawless, with perfect hair and perfect skin. Skin that is less an organ and more an advertisement. White teeth, long nails, big boobs, thigh- gap. No bags, no pores, no cellulite. It’s an impossible standard that weighs heavy on us our whole lives. An impossible standard we’re expected to strive for regardless of its futility.

It’s no surprise that my daughter has already been thinking about her body, how it compares friends’, and how she would like it to look. What’s been most eye-opening is that she fixated on parts of herself, even though she has the sort of body I wished I had at her age. She’s slim, slender and athletic but even so, she worried she was “too thin”, that she “needed” to gain weight, that she “must” get braces on her teeth. In a girl’s world bodies are never neutral. They point us on a journey of self-improvement, however close to the cultural ideal you might be.

Fundamentally, it’s a journey we’re under no obligation to make, and I’m trying to teach her that. For now, at least, her self-esteem is not only robust but flourishing. She’s found a sport that shows her what she’s capable of and a community of girls who are getting strong together. The fixations are lessening.

I’m trying to back up her growing confidence at home by making our house a safe haven from body criticism. In our house when we talk about bodies, our own and others, we don’t use improvement language and talk honestly about our feelings. We talk about our body, we list what we like about it, the sensations that bring us joy and the experiences it’s given us. We know our bodies don’t belong to anyone else and so they’re not up for negotiation, or to be worked on for anyone else. It’s a magazine-free zone. Instead we have a growing library of books about and by incredible women. If we’re feeling bad about ourselves, just looking at them is a reminder of our capabilities, and that appearance has nothing more than a background role in the story of our lives. It’s making a difference to us both.

“Mum – isn’t it amazing that our bodies can make actual, people?” she chirped recently. “It’s so awesome. Womb-five!”

This morning, she lamented that she doesn’t have a gift for me yet. What she doesn’t realise is that watching her grow has prompted me to make peace with my own body, and learn to love mine through hers. What could be better?