Question: My daughter has gained weight with puberty, and her dad is constantly bugging her about it. We divorced over a decade ago, which makes it hard for me to help her since I’m not there for most of the conversations. She has told me that he frequently brings up her body size, and tells her she needs to watch her weight, exercise more, and eat less. Last weekend she told me that while her half-brother is encouraged to get seconds if she wants more food at dinner, her dad and stepmom will say that she shouldn’t get seconds because she needs to watch her weight.
Now I’m noticing that she seems confused about eating and is watching her weight more closely. She asks me if she’s fat, and I often find her looking at herself in the mirror critically. She seems really vulnerable when she comes back from her dad’s house, and sometimes I find her eating a lot more food than normal. She tries to hide it from me, but I can tell that lots of food is missing. Alternatively, she will refuse food, saying that she’s not hungry, already ate, or will eat later.
I’m so upset, but I really don’t know what I can do about this.
Answer: You are correct that your ex-husband’s behavior is damaging and hurtful to your daughter. Biologically, females are required to gain weight in order to begin menstruation, and so weight gain during puberty is perfectly normal and healthy. This weight gain often comes on fast and furious, but over time, as long as we don’t mess with it, our bodies find their own way to their best health. But regardless of her weight, it is never appropriate to tell someone what they should (or should not) put in their body.
In terms of the dinner table and the issue of seconds, what your ex is doing is called “food shaming” and it can take many forms. Most people have bought the diet industry’s assessment that our bodies are as simple as calories in and calories out. In other words, that if we eat less, we will weight less. This translates into the false belief that people who weigh more are eating more than they “should.”
This is factually incorrect, as each body has its own complex metabolism system, and many people who are living in very large bodies actually eat the same amount or even less than people who are living in smaller bodies. At the same time, many people who live in large bodies exercise more frequently and eat a generally “healthier” diet than many people who live in small bodies.
You’re right that it may be very difficult to stop your ex and his wife from criticizing or judging your daughter when she is eating with them. However, you should have a conversation with your ex in which you describe what you are observing and ask him to stop focusing on food and weight with your daughter.
You can tell him that even though we live in a culture that believes it is correct to tell women what to eat and how much they should weigh, it is not healthy to do this, and can cause serious health complications for your daughter. Let him know that you are observing some signs of disordered eating in your child and that you would like him and his wife to stop mentioning food and weight in any way.
Of course, they may refuse to change, or even flat-out deny that there is a problem. You can still help your daughter by giving her some tools to stand up for herself. First, reassure her that her body is fine just as it is and that the worst thing we can do for ourselves is restrict our food when we are hungry. Consider reading Body Respect by Linda Bacon together so that you can both become educated about body weight.
Next, come up with some phrases that her dad and stepmom say to her and possible responses. For example, if dad says “are you sure you want more?” she can say “Dad, when you ask me that, it makes me feel as if you don’t trust that I know how to feed my body. I’d like you to trust me, please.”
If her stepmom says “I think you’ve had enough,” she can say “Sheila, when you say that, it makes me feel as if you think you know my body better than I do. I’d like to make my own decisions, please.”
These examples are both assertive and polite. Notice that she is not telling them to “lay off” or “shut up,” nor is she withdrawing into silence or tears. She is learning to stand up for herself, which will serve her well in every life situation.
Write some options down, and do some role-playing so that she can practice this with you in a safe place. You can play-act possible responses from dad and stepmom. The first few times your daughter speaks up for herself, she may meet resistance and even anger from them. She may try to blame herself for their reaction to her reasonable requests to respect her body as her own. Help her understand that she is not responsible for their reactions to her reasonable requests.
She should not stop standing up for her bodily autonomy.
We can never control other people, but we do have the power to control our own bodies. If her dad and stepmom continue to disrespect her body, she has every right to limit her time with them and avoid eating with them.
Meanwhile, please continue to observe your child’s behavior. If you continue to see the body image disruption and disordered eating behavior you described, please consider talking to a trained professional, either a psychotherapist who has clinical training in eating disorder treatment or a non-diet dietician. You are looking for someone who follows a Health At Every Size (HAES) approach. A professional can provide helpful assessments and tools to help you navigate the coming years as your daughter’s body develops.
Linda Bacon has an excellent video that you all can watch to become better educated on body weight issues: