5 Smart Things to Say When Your Daughter Tells You She’s “Fat”

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On a Monday afternoon after school, I was rushing to get my nine-year-old daughter suited up for ballet class when I suddenly noticed she had tears in her eyes. I was working on untangling the third leotard she’d tried on in as many minutes when I squeezed my eyes shut in frustration and thought: What NOW? We are already so late!!! But then—deep breath in, deep breath out—I had a flash of insight. Somewhere in my scrambled brain I recalled that she’d been stalling about getting ready for this class last week and the week before that. I opened my eyes and scanned the mess of wrap skirts and shirts that littered the floor between us and my chest tightened with fear. I kneeled down in front of her and in the silence, I asked, “What’s up baby? What is wrong?”

I’m a pediatric dietitian and talk to kids and parents about eating, foods, and nutrition for a living. I know the reality of how much girls (and boys and parents) worry about their weight because I hear about it almost daily in my office. I’ve read the research; I know that girls as young as six expresses being dissatisfied with the size of their bodies, that 91 percent of women report trying to diet lose weight, and so on. I’ve known for a very long time that there’s a good chance my own girls will one day feel the same. Yet, for all I know and think I know, hearing my daughter whisper to me “I’m fat” with a faceful of tears took my breath away. I hurt for her—and I also hurt for me; I felt as if I was sitting across from the body-hating little girl I’d once been myself.

5 Tips to Help Your Daughter Feel Good About Her Weight

Given that I’ve had these conversations with so many other mothers’ daughters, I had a few positive responses to the dreaded “I’m too fat” comment scripted on a mental sticky note and ready to go. While I was thinking (hoping) that I’d never need to have these conversations with my own daughters, I did (and do!). If you’re raising kids in a culture that rife with messages that “thinner is better”, then you’ll likely face this worrisome complaint from your own daughter too—and that’s regardless of her shape, size, or weight. Actually, regardless of gender, we all need to be ready. Here’s most of what I said to my own daughter, as well as one thing I made sure I didn’t.

“Thanks for telling me how you’re feeling.”

First off, it’s not the exact words you say to your child, it’s the sentiment and intention behind them which in this case is gratitude.

In my opinion, if your daughter feels safe and close enough to you to share her feelings about her body, then you’re definitely #winning! Seriously! Only a child that feels supported and connected to her mom will take a risk like that. Make sure she knows how much you appreciate it, which helps keep the door open to her sharing other possibly tougher issues with you by letting her know right off the bat that you’re happy (not mad or disturbed) that she told you how’s she feeling with you.

“What makes you say that?”

What you’re leading with here is curiosity. Use your own words just make sure your intention is for your child to share any details she can. This will give you some insight into what might be a trigger for her bad feelings about herself. Is it a particular situation, friend, environment (family events where people focus on her eating), habit (social media), or experience (dance class, bathing suit shopping) that’s tripping up her self-esteem or perception of her body? This can help you make some changes if possible and you feel necessary. Some things you can intervene on—say, a family member criticizing her eating or changing body or time spent on social media—and some things you can only help her put into perspective, such as the way it feels to move into a larger size clothing or handle a changing body. Also important: Don’t push too much here. Diet culture and pressure to be “thinner” is pervasive and invades almost every aspect of our lives, so she make not know exactly what makes her feel bad.

“All bodies have fat.”

The idea here is to be factual. “Fat” is a part of a normal, healthy body. For women, in particular, the amount of fat will change throughout life with puberty, pregnancy, stress, menopause, and more. You can help your daughter by telling her some straight-up facts, which are that body fat is normal, healthy, and protective. Having more of it than you used to or more of it than others isn’t necessarily a sign of bad health or bad habits and it isn’t something you need to battle against in order to be happy. In fact, fighting your body’s natural tendency to store fat is a surefire way to feel stressed and unhappy!

“I remember feeling the same way as you.”

Be empathetic and share that you understand her feelings. You can also normalize the situation by sharing that everyone struggles to love their bodies sometimes, moms, dads, athletes, and celebrities—and often those feelings aren’t a reflection of reality. If your child has a particular person they’re focused on, say a singer, dancer, sports star, actress, or friends, you might even find some proof to share. (You can google for comments from celebrities such as Beyonce or Taylor Swift, for example, who have shared about their own body insecurities.) You can also reassure her that these feelings can be temporary and pass, particularly if she focuses on all her body positives.

“Your body is amazing!”

Point out all of the wonderful things your daughter’s body does as opposed to how it looks. Do this often even outside of this conversation, which ultimately teaches her to do it herself. Point out all the joy her body brings. Be specific and consistent. “Your legs are so strong; you have so much fun when you run.” Or “You can move your arms and torso so gracefully; I love watching you dance because you have so much fun.” Or “You’re so good at climbing! What great balance you have.” Also, create as many opportunities for physical activity for her as you can: research shows that the more kids move, the better their body esteem—and that’s regardless of their actual body shape, size or weight. It doesn’t have to be “exercise” or even fast-moving, it just has to be fun.

“Have you noticed some of your friends’ bodies are changing too?”

Another way to help normalize feelings and give your daughter some perspective is to point out any peers who might also have a body that changing too. Encourage her to think of others around her. Being the same as peers is extremely important to kids are certain ages, so pointing out that she’s not the only one whose tummy, hips, or legs are getting sifter, bigger, or are otherwise changing can help her be more accepting of herself. You don’t need to be specific; let her think of them on her own to avoid inadvertently comparing her to someone she might not want to identify with right now.

AVOID this: “You’re not fat!”

While it is definitely my first instinct, I stop myself from saying this as often as I can—not only to my daughter but to friends and family, too. The reason? With your daughter, in particular, it hurts more than it helps because it dismisses how she’s feeling. This is not about the actual size and shape of your body or how much fat she does or doesn’t have. It’s is about how she feels about her body, and we need her to be able to process negative feelings towards her body shape in a positive way instead of telling her she shouldn’t have them.

Additionally, saying “you’re not fat” focuses your attention on her body size and shape, which reinforces the idea that you think these things are important. We want to minimize body size as an item of importance, so it’s best not to avoid commenting on it at all.

Lastly, insisting your daughter isn’t “fat” implies that being “fat” is a terrible, no good, very bad thing. Being fat is not the scary, horrible thing that culture, the diet industry, and the healthcare field has us believe it is—and it certainly isn’t as bad as dieting is.

Plus, she may actually be fat now or one day be fatter than she is now—women’s bodies change throughout life, as we all know. We want her to feel indifferent to those changes not afraid of them. Plus, people in her life may be fat or have lots of fat on their bodies. Neutralizing the fear of being fat will lessen the pressure on her to conform to unnatural standards. It will also help re-direct her to value things that are positive and within her control.

 

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