My daughter is plus size. Going shopping can be a real struggle since there are a lot of things that don’t fit and just aren’t flattering. When I tell her that something isn’t flattering, she gets really angry. How can I say it in a nice way so that she avoids buying things that make her look even larger than she is?
Signed, Shopping Mama
Dear Shopping Mama,
I understand that buying clothes when we live in a larger body can be stressful. Clothing designers have done a terrible job at clothing us, and it’s hard not to feel ashamed doing something that other people seem to enjoy so much.
But I need to challenge you immediately on your belief that your child should only buy clothing that is “flattering,” which I think you mean “slimming.” Your daughter should buy clothing that fits her body, that feels good, and that she likes. Her clothing should not be chosen to minimize her body size or make her appear to be anything other than the beautiful person she is. You need to let go of the idea that she will be more beautiful if she is thinner.
Our children are living in a disordered eating ecosystem. This means that they are bombarded daily with messages about the thin ideal and see images of models who weigh less than almost any other person can without seriously disordered eating and/or an eating disorder.
Our children live in this ecosystem, and they know what they *should* look like. They know exactly what the weight loss, fashion, and beauty industries say is “beautiful.” And there is not a single chance in hell that they will ever look exactly as they are told they could/should look.
Going into any clothing store is a stressful time for most people living in a larger body. Most of us suffer from some form of body dissatisfaction if not full-on body dysmorphia.
When a child who is living in a larger body goes shopping with her mom, she is exquisitely aware of the fact that many of the clothes she sees will not fit her or, if they do, will not look “good” on her body.
All kids know that “not flattering” is code for “not slimming” or, if we’re really being honest, “makes you look fat.”
If we want to raise children who are truly healthy, then we need to help them feel completely accepted and loved by their parents, regardless of their body size. When we make comments about how their bodies look in clothes, even though they may come from what we believe is a good place, we draw attention to their bodies, which does not help their self-confidence.
If you go shopping with your child, and a piece of clothing doesn’t look good to you, look at your child’s face. Look into her eyes. Does she feel happy? Does she like that t-shirt? Then let her enjoy it. Ask her what she likes about it.
Does she seem insecure? Ask her what she thinks of the color, and how the fabric feels against her skin. Ask her if the clothing allows her to move the way she wants to. There’s no need to reference her body size at all.
If she asks you “do I look OK?” tell her that what matters is how she feels in her clothes. It’s OK if she rolls her eyes. Even if she pushes you, don’t fall for the culturally-prescribed bait of women asking whether they “look fat.” Fat is not a look. Fat is not a feeling. Fat is a cellular structure on our bodies. Push her to define beauty on her own terms, not anybody else’s.
Then step back, and let her make her own choices. You may see them as fashion mistakes, but you have been engaged in this fashion/beauty/diet culture, too. So just relax, and remember that your child is wonderful no matter what she wears.
Here are some of the thoughts that may go through your mind. These are ‘normal’ thoughts, but that doesn’t mean you have to believe them. There’s a rule that says that the first thought is socially-constructed. Read on for the second thought, which is where we want to try and arrive for our child’s sake.
But she could look so much better if she wears something else.
Your child is not an ornament to be admired. She is a human being with much more important things to think about than how a t-shirt looks on her body. Parents don’t ever need to instill cultural body ideals upon their children – our culture does that all by itself. Be a safe haven in a culture that is very cruel to bodies.
But she will be teased if she wears that.
One of the first reasons kids get teased is that they feel insecure. If a mom has suggested that a shirt is “not flattering” and a kid wears it anyway, she will get teased because she feels insecure, not because of the shirt itself. If a child knows that she is not an ornament and a t-shirt is just a freaking t-shirt, then she may get teased, but she won’t care, and the teasing won’t continue, nor will it impact her sense of self-worth.
I know a lot about fashion, and I’ve learned a lot about what flatters me. I have so much wisdom to impart!
It’s OK if you really care about fashion and what people think about your appearance, but please don’t impose those beliefs on your child. Clothing does not make a child healthy and happy. Parental attachment and self-confidence make a child healthy and happy. If your child wants to wear a neon yellow t-shirt with a unicorn on it, and you think the color “washes her out” and you think it makes her belly look large, get over it. She is responsible for her body’s presentation, not you.
She’ll only wear it once, and then she’ll never wear it again.
First of all, that may happen. It happens with all people of all sizes. Everyone makes clothing selections that we later decide we don’t like. It’s not different because of her body size. Secondly, look carefully at past patterns. It’s quite possible that previously when you disagreed over a piece of clothing, you gave in and purchased the item, but first made your opinion that it was “unflattering” clear. Then, when she put it on at home, you wrinkled your nose in disgust and said something like “I still don’t like it.” Hmmmm. Maybe that has something to do with why she never wore it again.
I owe it to her to tell the truth.
First: you owe it to her to love and accept her for who she is, not for how she looks.
Next: the truth according to whom? According to the diet, fashion and beauty industries that show body types that can only be achieved by 5% of the population and, even then, require Photoshopping? Watch your bias carefully here. We have all grown up in this toxic ecosystem, but we can also do better for our children.
Don’t subject your daughter to the same narrow view about her body to which you have been subjected. There is no objective “truth” about what looks good or doesn’t look good. Self-confidence is the greatest beauty trick we can teach our children, and self-confidence doesn’t come off the rack.
Check your bias at the door and remember: your child is a person, not an ornament. Give more love, not more fashion advice.
Sending Love … Ginny
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.