My daughter is on the heavier side. I do my best to help her love herself by telling her how much I love her and that she’s beautiful to me.
The problem is other people. For example, every time we see my mother she mentions my daughter’s weight. Sometimes she does this right in front of my daughter, and sometimes she does it behind her back. It’s usually just small comments, like “still going up, huh?”
A few times my daughter has had a growth spurt that leads to a leaner appearance, and then my mom showers her with compliments that are followed with warnings. “You look great honey, now you just have to keep off that extra weight and you’ll be perfect!”
I have a feeling these comments are not good for my daughter’s self-esteem, but I’m not sure what to do. In every other way, my mother dotes on my daughter and couldn’t be more loving. Is this something I should address with my mom? What should I say?
Signed, Worried Mom
Dear Worried Mom,
This is definitely something you should address, and quickly. I’m afraid that a grandmother who comments on her grandchild’s weight is not being loving. Her comments may come from a well-intentioned place, but they are ignorant and dangerous. The examples you gave are alarming and need to stop.
We live in a fatphobic society. Everywhere we turn, we are told to avoid being fat at all costs. Fat stigma is tied up tightly with sexism, and women are likely to criticize each other’s body size without realizing that they are hurting the people whom they love very much.
You need to talk to your mom immediately. “Mom, I need you to know that I’m not comfortable with you talking about Katie’s body. I know how much you love her, but your comments are hurtful. From now on I’m going to interrupt you, and possibly even leave, if you mention anything – negative or positive – about Katie’s body. It’s just not OK with me.”
This may be really hard for you. It’s very possible that your mom made similar comments about your body, and you have internalized them and believe them on some level. We all live in a fatphobic society, and it takes tremendous energy to overcome our subconscious weight stigma. Just remember this: weight stigma has been proven to lead to disordered eating and higher body weight. Weight stigma is much more harmful than fat ever was. Fat shaming comments are never, ever helpful, and they must be stopped.
Once you have given your mom “the speech,” speak up and even remove yourself and your child if your mom can’t control herself. You can try an assertive but polite reminder like “Mom, I’m not comfortable with you talking about Katie’s body. Please stop.”
Your mom might get huffy, defensive or angry when you do this. That’s her problem and her responsibility, not yours. You are not in control of her reaction to your boundaries, but you are responsible for maintaining boundaries for your child’s health. If your mom can’t control herself and continues to talk about your daughter’s body, remove yourself and your child from her presence. You can simply say something like “Mom, we’re going to leave now. See you later.”
In addition to talking to your mom, you also need to teach your daughter to be assertive in body shaming situations. Give her a few statements that will help her be assertive when people are rude. “Grandma, when you talk about my body, I feel uncomfortable. Can we please talk about something else?”
Grandma may respond with a defensive “well, it’s only because I care,” or even “you are incredibly rude – I don’t like how you’re talking to me!” To which your daughter can say “That may be so, but when you talk about my body it makes me uncomfortable, and I’d like you to stop.”
Practice this at home and before visiting Grandma to help your daughter learn that standing up for herself is acceptable and necessary. Being politely assertive will be invaluable for your daughter as she moves forward in life.
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.