Avoiding the Fat Trap
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The F-word, I am calling it now. The dreaded F-word. Even if you have trained yourself to never ever utter those words in front of your long-suffering boyfriend or husband, or are still stuck in that place of discharging your anxiety and expecting to be reassured when they say back, as they are trained, with an inward roll of their eyes: "Of course, you don't look fat!", when your daughter first utters those words, you will be at a loss.
"What do I say?!" "How can I reassure her how beautiful she is and make sure she doesn't develop an eating disorder?!" Anything you think to say feels like a trap. Reassurance feels like a temporary balm, just like when your husband in the rote way he may have developed by now says back: "Of course you don't look fat, baby!" (Or, in the film, The Ya-Ya Sisterhood , the daughter says back to her Mom: "If anything, you look a bit too thin!") We can laugh about it amongst ourselves, but when our daughters start saying this, we really can be at a complete loss.
My tip: It is pure anxiety, and self-consciousness and some kids, like adults, are more self-conscious earlier on, and more anxious than others. (Of course if a child truly is overweight, there are ways you can help them deal with it without also creating an eating disorder, I promise!) But that is for a different blog! This issue truly can come with the territory with teenage girls.
So, a few tips here:
- Don't ever, ever, ever in front of your daughters, complain that you yourself are 'fat.' Good rule to live by. Try to be aware of how often you say it.
- Don't fall into the trap of responding in any way. This is one of those things that whatever you say won't be the right thing. Of course you can try and probably will, but you will realize gradually that it doesn't make a difference.
- See if you can target what they seem to be nervous about. Sometimes you just have to limit it, keep them moving forward. Don't let them get stuck. If they are stuck in front of the mirror, get them moving. It is anxiety. Teach them to deal with the feelings, it is not the 'fat' even though people often "feel fat" and get anxious with the feeling. Physically speaking, after eating if your stomach sticks out more, of course you will feel fatter. You need to wait for the food to digest. But women and girls, often get exquisitely sensitive and generalize the feeling from their stomach to other body parts.
- Teach them about good and bad. We all have parts of us we are not thrilled with, strengths and weaknesses and all that. This is part of what helps us deal with body image issues; who has a perfect body? Unless you are in the entertainment industry, it is not necessary and I always say, clothing hides a multitude of sins! Thank God for 'good enough'!
- Maybe they are saying something else like: "I have a crush on someone and he doesn't know I am alive." or "My best friend is closer now with another girl and they are freezing me out."
Lastly though, prepare to feel lousy as a mom when confronted with this. It is part of the job and part of our daughters' discharge. You will get frustrated and sick of it too. But if they aren't restricting food or compulsively eating all the time, just ride it out. It is part of them 'passing the hot potato' of their feelings and intensity.
You don't have to be perfect in parenting. Good enough, is not only good enough, it is what counts. So if you lose your cool sometimes, move on. You will think twice the next time you say it to someone else, particularly yourself.
Donna Fish is a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in Manhattan.