“I was always at odds with my mother’s expectations of me”: How mothers shape queer daughters’ body image and physical activity engagement throughout the life course


Mothers often model the “doing of femininity” for their daughters by engaging in diet and physical activity to retain slim, toned, and youthful appearances. How queer women have embodied these messages surrounding femininity has been absent from the literature. The purpose of our study was to examine how older queer women storied their mother’s involvement in their physical activity and body image experiences throughout their life course. Four narrative themes were constructed from a thematic narrative analysis of life history interviews with 17 queer women aged 65 to 86. Participants experienced body freedom in early life; deriving pleasure and confidence from sport and play. Puberty triggered a sense of self-consciousness about their bodies, hindering physical activity, while their mothers' simultaneous emphasis on maintaining slim figures through dieting urged daughters to appeal to the male gaze. This messaging taught participants to corset their embodiment via the performance of feminine appearances, often creating a tension with their desire to express their ‘tomboy-ness.’ In emerging adulthood, participants met other queer women, which provided expanded narrative scripts of womanhood, and catalyzed self-exploration and opportunities to resist the “doing” of idealized femininity. Despite this newfound sense of body-related authenticity, age-related body changes, and accompanying body-related shame and anxiety, compelled them to re-lace the corset. Consequently, they resorted to (or resumed) physical activity as a means to regulate their body shape and size. The findings highlight the importance of interpersonal relationships, age, sexual orientation, and gender expression in shaping women’s body image and physical activity participation.