I was sitting at my daughter’s dance class recently when another mother sat beside me with a distressed look on her face. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I was just in the lobby,” she said, “and the 8-year-olds were getting ready to start their class. I overheard one of them say to her friend, ‘You’re so skinny. I wish I was skinny like you.’ And then she turned to another girl in line and said, ‘Don’t you wish we were skinny like her? Instead of both being so chubby? We should probably skip dinner tonight.’”

This mom was shaken, and I was too. Our daughters are only 3, signed up for the pre-K class at the same studio. But could this be their future? Could that level of body scrutiny really begin so young for them?

When it all starts

I was 13 years old the first time I stuck my finger down my throat. It was the start of what would become a nearly 10-year battle with an eating disorder. As a grown woman, I’m not sure I’ve ever been especially confident in my own skin. There are absolutely things about my body that I loathe, and I can’t think of a time in my entire life when I haven’t wished I could shed just 10 more pounds.

I look at pictures of myself in high school, when I was so skinny — too skinny — and so convinced that I was fat. And it terrifies me. I don’t want that future for my daughter. I don’t want her growing up with the same body issues I’ve always had.

A 2013 study in the Journal of Eating Disorders (and plenty of other studies, both before and since) found a strong correlation between a mother’s words about her own weight, and the way daughters grow to feel about their weight. Mothers who are constantly talking about dieting, or wanting to lose weight, or not liking the image in the mirror, are more likely to raise daughters who feel the same.

And so, I’m cautious, and forever conscious of the words I use about myself and other women in front of my little girl. Even when she isn’t around now. Because I’m forever aware of the potential for her to overhear, or for my underlying feelings about my own body to rub off on her.

But one thing I hadn’t thought about was a daily habit I never rid myself of from my eating disorder days. The habit of stripping down naked every single morning, before a bite of food or drip of water touched my lips, and weighing myself before beginning the day.

I’ve judged myself by those numbers for as long as I can remember. I’ve paid attention to how they ebb and flow along with my monthly cycle, and even now, years past a point where I was deemed “healed” from my eating disorder, I’ve restricted my diet on days when the number has been higher than I would have liked.

The worst part? I’ve never before considered just how unhealthy that habit might be.

‘I want to be like Mommy!’

That is, until the day my daughter stepped up behind me. “My turn, Mommy,” she said, stepping onto the scale just as I stepped off. I stood there in shock, unsure of what to say. I hadn’t even realized she was behind me. I hadn’t realized she was watching.

She looked down at those numbers and sighed, just as she must have seen me do. And I froze, sick to my stomach and completely unaware of what to do next.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to think about it for long. She stepped off and then smiled. “Waffles?” she said, asking for her favorite breakfast food. And so we went to the kitchen and made waffles, and I pondered.

I knew she couldn’t possibly have known what she was looking at, or what she was doing as she so closely mirrored my actions. But I also knew that one day, she would. That the longer I continued this habit, the more likely it would become one she began as well.

And so, as soon as my daughter was safely off at preschool that day, I came home and I walked that scale right out our front door. I threw it in the trash, and I haven’t looked back since.

Who knew that after years of therapy and treatment, it would take having a daughter for me to shed the last of my disordered behavior?

Breaking bad habits for better health

It’s been a few months since I tossed the scale away. I have no idea what I weigh today. I know my clothes still fit me fine, and I’ve decided that’s the barometer by which I should judge.

Because basing my value on a number every day? That wasn’t good for me. And it would never have been good for my daughter.

The reality is, health can’t be determined by a number on a scale. And strength isn’t valued in that way either. So maybe it’s time, as mothers, we start sending the message to our daughters that healthy is achieved by getting outside. By being active. By eating quality foods to sustain our bodies, without worrying so much about calories or arbitrary numbers that don’t speak to how far we can run, or how high we can climb.

I can’t pretend that tossing the scale suddenly rendered me free of body image issues. But I can say that it’s been one more small step toward healing for me. And that my daughter has been the catalyst in a lot of the most recent healing that’s taken place.

Because I know she’s watching. And I want to treat myself in a way I would want her to learn from — a way I would want her to emulate.