The Jenny Craig representative whispered my weight in my ear and wrote it down in the first box on my weekly weight log. The number rang like a death sentence in my 12-year old ear as I joined my mother for my first official attempt at dieting. The trip to the diet center was my mother’s loving and well-intended response to my growing body anxiety.
I was called an “elephant” at my new school and it broke both of our hearts. The obvious answer seemed that I should learn how to eat right so that I could lose weight and never again be bullied. What neither of us realized was that the diet actually colluded with the bully. It was a subtle and unintended message from my mother that the bully was right. He was simply pointing out my obvious flaw and I was the one who needed to change.
Within a year the bully at school moved onto someone else. But I was not spared for years. The bully became a voice inside of my head that perpetually told me that I was too hungry, too fat and worthless and could only be saved by weight loss. You would think that with a voice like that in my head, I would have been enormously successful at dieting. But I wasn’t. Truth is, dieting is a high calorie habit.
When you become a food and weight bully to yourself, you actually make yourself hungry. The voice in your head leaves you hopeless. Not only do you miss the foods that are now on the “bad” list, but you feel so demoralized by the war within that you rebel against the diet and eat more than you need or want just to find comfort from the pain and side effects of feeling flawed (isolation, poor boundaries, bad relationships and missed opportunities).
Dieters lose and gain weight perpetually as they battle back and forth with the bully within. If we were to make a graph of a dieter’s weight fluctuations they would look like the stock market: up and down with a cumulative upward direction over time. Check out this TED talk.
Research shows that dieting at a young age actually predicts weight gain. That’s right folks, DIETING PREDICTS WEIGHT GAIN! But what should my mom have done? Wasn’t it true that my weight made me a target? Yes, it was true. The bully targeted me for my size.
But kids (and adults) get bullied everyday for lots of things –not having the right friends, looking different or being in a different socioeconomic class. We don’t send them to a program to change themselves….we empower them (hopefully). And that’s exactly what you should do when your daughter tells you that she’s fat.
Here’s how. Below is a short summary of what I needed when I turned against my body as a teenager. And it’s how I believe my mom would have responded if she didn’t feel her own anxiety about her body and pressure to be thin.
First of all, no matter where your daughter’s pressure comes from (a bully, the media, her friends, her grandmother, etc.) take a stand for her. You might want to jump in and start exercising and watching your weight with her. But don’t. First, talk to her about the person or thing that failed to see her immeasurable worth as a human being. The media is a bully by nature. Teach her that when the media dresses up extreme thinness and calls it beauty, they intend to create insecurity. By making an extreme an ideal, they put the masses in a state of insecurity. Insecure customers are the best consumers because they buy more stuff to fix perceived problems. Teach her that she is more than a consumer. And teach her how to see real beauty in herself and all around her.
Regarding peers, friends or family, teach her that anyone who would demoralize her has a problem of their own. Your daughter is living in a social and cultural world full of body and weight pressure. When she says she’s fat, what she really means is that she’s scared. She doesn’t need to lose weight. She needs to gain tools to navigate her social and cultural world. She needs to know how to defend herself, get support, be assertive, make friends, develop talents and challenge the bullies in her home, school and culture.
Second, normalize weight changes, don’t demonize them. Body insecurity often happens during the preteen and teenage years because bodies are naturally changing. We are misled by thin images in the media to think that we’re supposed to grow like a string bean into our womanhood. That’s a lie. Our bodies are wise. When womanhood approaches, our bodies begin to increase hunger and store weight for use to develop breasts and reproductive ability. Many girls haven’t grown tall enough to distribute all that precious fuel, so it gets stored in places that make them look a little odd until a growth spurt comes (welcome to adolescence). The weight that was stored in my mid-section during my preteen years was the weight that was targeted by the bullies at school and a few bullies in my family. Help your daughter to recognize that what is happening to her is normal and fundamentally important to her health and development.
Third…and truly third, if you see that your daughter might have an unhealthy relationship with food it is appropriate to address it. But it must be done in a way that empowers her, not shames her. Don’t start her on a diet. Don’t single her out by making special, restrictive meals for her. Instead, bring more health and wisdom into the whole, home eating environment. Start noticing and honoring the sensations of hunger and fullness in your stomach. Encourage your whole family to check in with their bodies at mealtime so that each person can begin to perceive how much and when they need to eat. (Here’s an example of how I’ve been doing it with my kids since they were old enough to sit at the table.)
My friend likes to say, “Oprah doesn’t know how much I should eat”. We know. Our bodies are always trying to communicate with us. We just need to tune in and listen. If you need help, seek an intuitive eating professional or come to one of our in-person or online 8-week groups that help you to get healthy by listening to your body instead of dieting.
Raising healthy girls who love their bodies is a challenge in a culture that teaches us that food is love, dieting is virtue and thinness is worth. If you can rise above those unhealthy and conflicting ideals, you can raise a daughter who is free of the chains that bind so many girls and women.
The bullies in my home, school and culture stole my power for a while. It was only when I recognized that they were the ones with the problem that I was able to empower myself. I write the following for all the little girls who deserve to feel good in their bodies and the moms who love them dearly:
Worth is not a number on a scale.
It is not a day without hunger.
It is not a diet kept under x number of calories.
Worth is not an outside job.
It comes from within.
It comes from knowing who you are,
Trusting that you have a little something special,
And having the courage to be you.
Want help making the shift into a healthier mindset and body? Join us at Center for Eating Recovery for an 8-Week Eating Psychotherapy Group, Heal the Hungry Brain, or for Repair Your Reflection, our monthly, body image workshop where you will update the lens through which your see your body and start to build body esteem.
Alison Ross is the founder of Center for Eating Recovery in Agoura Hills, California. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in eating and body image. Alison was inspired to start the Center after healing her relationship with food and her body. Her mission is to help others rise above the obsessive and self-hating diet mentality in our culture to find true health through empowerment, awareness, love and self-care. The Center offers treatment for eating and body image problems across the spectrum including food addiction, binge-eating, emotional overeating, yo-yo dieting, bulimia and anorexia.