We live in a society that preaches that women’s bodies need to be thin, toned and tight, so it’s not surprising that parents often watch daughters’ bodies anxiously to monitor how well they will fit into the ideal body image. Many worry, based on the media’s messages, that if a daughter grows up to be chubby, heavy or even fat, she will be unhealthy and have fewer opportunities for success and happiness in life.
So before we talk about what you should say when you worry about your daughter’s weight, we first need to address what you think about your daughter’s weight. Here is what we would like you to know before you say a single thing about what your daughter weighs:
Adolescent Girls are Biologically Coded to Gain Weight: During adolescence, girls become biologically prepared to make a baby. And making a baby requires body fat. As her hormones change, your daughter might go through remarkable body fat changes, from skinny to fat to slender, and all over the place. Her body at 10 years old may not be anything like what she will look like at 16.
Weight is in our Genes: The set-point theory of weight says that people are genetically pre-destined to weigh a certain amount. Identical twins raised separately to adulthood have startling similar body weights, regardless of their lifestyle, diet or activity level. To think that you can change your set weight is like thinking that you can change your height or the length of your fingers. You just can’t.
Fat is not Proven to Cause Disease: There is no scientific proof that any disease is CAUSED by overweight. There is correlative evidence that diseases co-occur with severe obesity, but correlation is not the same as causation. The fact is that we don’t know enough about the complexity of the human body to determine how these correlations work.
Diets Don’t Work: There is no proven way to reduce a person’s weight for life. Of the millions of diets that work in the short-term for millions of people, only 2-5% of people keep the weight off for life. At least 95% of everyone who diets returns to their former weight, often with a few extra pounds added on. Worse, dieting has been shown to lead to a loss of health, weight gain, and is heavily correlated with eating disorders.
Weight is a Feminist Issue: Ever since women have been rising in power, the focus on becoming smaller and thinner has risen as well. A woman’s weight is a major distraction from the impact she can make in the world. Attempting to maintain a low number on the scale is not where our daughters should be investing their intelligence.
Parental Criticism is Deeply Damaging: Eating disorders are complex and have no single cause. Many studies have observed a strong correlation between parental criticism and eating disorders. Children can’t separate their bodies from their sense of self, so if you criticize her body, you are criticizing her very being.
OK – So What Do I Say?
You say nothing about your daughter’s weight.
Never focus on her body. Never talk about reducing calories or the size of her legs, hips, breasts or waist.
Instead, talk to her about her emotional state. If she has signs of anxiety or depression, seek professional help immediately. Both can lead to weight changes and are strongly correlated with eating disorders.
Find out how she is feeling about life and her body. Look for signs that she might be consuming food as a substitute for processing her feelings. Many people with binge eating disorder and bulimia learn to use food as a numbing agent. Like a drug, the food numbs their painful feelings. This numbing can lead to a total disconnection from any sense of satiety – the stomach and brain become so disconnected that there is genuinely no sense of when they have eaten “enough.”
Your daughter’s body is not the issue at all. It is her heart and her mind that you should be concerned about. Work with a professional to help her heal from her eating disorder. The sooner you help her, the better her chances are for recovery.
Being free of an eating disorder is a much better indicator of success and happiness in life than the number on the scale.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.