Q: I’m watching my daughter gain weight and trying to keep my mouth shut, but it’s hard to watch her harm herself in this way. She keeps insisting she’s fine with the way she looks. How can I get her to see that she’s being unhealthy?
A: Hi, Kristy, thanks for your question. Time for a tough love answer, and I hope you’ll reach out to me if you’d like to talk more in depth about this.
It’s important that, as parents, we first try and do no harm when it comes to developing a healthy body image.
Teenagers, especially girls, already have enough societal and social pressure to look a certain way – they don’t need us adding to that pressure in a negative way.
I hear that you are concerned about her weight, and you probably want to shield her from negative messages. I would first start with looking at your own internal identity and emotions around body and weight issues.
I know that might be an uncomfortable ask, but it’s important to know if/when we are projecting our own thoughts and fears onto our children.
What does it mean to you to carry extra weight? What is your idea of the “ideal” body weight, shape and size? And if someone is not at that weight, shape, size, what does that mean?
Getting clarity around these questions will helps illuminate reactions that might be getting triggered in you when you see your daughter choosing foods that don’t fit your definition of health.
If your daughter is, in fact, gaining weight, I invite your first question to be around her “why” rather than her “what.” Focus on why she’s choosing certain foods rather than focusing on what she’s choosing.
For example, notice the situations when she chooses the foods that concern you.
- Does she seem to need food to comfort negative emotions or anxiety?
- Might she be reaching for food to avoid feeling altogether?
- When does the food tend to be eaten? In private in her room? In hiding?
The context around the food gives you much more information than the food itself.
If it becomes clear that food has become an emotional coping mechanism, I would invite you to first address those issues and see what unfolds.
Whether or not you feel your daughter is using food to cope, it’s important that you stay mindful about the messages you are sending her about her body.
It starts with your relationship to your own body. Do you speak negatively about your own body? Pinch, pull or tug at areas you are unhappy with?
She’s picking up her first messages about what a “good” body looks like from you. She’s also picking up on how you talk about other people’s bodies. Do you or your spouse or partner comment on other people’s appearances? Is a negative or positive connotation attached?
For instance, even if you’re saying “Wow, she’s beautiful she’s so skinny” or “…so fit” or “so lean”, it’s still sending the message that in order to be beautiful one must be skinny, or fit, or lean.
I’m not suggesting you never comment on someone else’s appearance. I’m suggesting being mindful that your comments include people of all shapes, sizes and colors. This lets your children know that you feel positive about a wide variety of unique bodies and appearances.
When it comes to making comments to or about your daughter’s body even more mindfulness and intention is necessary.
As I said before, your daughter is already susceptible to society’s pressure to be thin in order to be accepted. Please be sure you are not perpetuating that message in the home.
You mentioned that your daughter is telling you everything is fine and that she’s OK with the way she looks. If you believe she is being genuine, celebrate and encourage this regardless of her weight and size.
No one was ever shamed into a healthier body or healthier behaviors. I encourage you to give her love and support exactly as she is — while also providing every opportunity for her to make healthy decisions around food and physical activity.
If after considering these ideas you’re still concerned but feel stuck in your interactions with her without a clear way forward to help her, that’s when it’s very reasonable to reach out for professional help.