Even the most body-positive parent with a strong knowledge of Health at Every Size can feel overwhelmed when their sweet child calls herself fat. We can talk about positive body image all we want, but when negative body thoughts inevitably find their way into our daughter’s head, we may feel frozen and ill-equipped to respond.
What not to say when your daughter calls herself fat
There are many ways we can respond to bad body thoughts, and most of our automatic responses are pretty bad. Don’t worry if you have said things like this before, but do try to avoid saying these things in the future:
- You’re not fat!
- You can lose weight/suck your stomach in/stand up straighter
- Your body is perfect!
- You have your grandmother’s body – you’re just going to have to fight it
- If you weren’t such a couch potato it might help
- If you ate fewer sweets it might help
- Let’s go on a diet together!
These comments are all dangerous because they support the idea that being fat is a bad thing and that being fat is something over which we have control. Parents need to be very careful about supporting society’s fatphobic beliefs and completely inaccurate diet claims.
Quickrecap of the truth about diets: up to 95% of intentional weight loss efforts (via any method) result in weight regain (often plus more), and 25% of diets lead to eating disorders.
Our daughters need our help
Girls and women live in a heavily fatphobic society and are exposed to hundreds of anti-fat messages, the deeply ingrained belief that fat is bad, and that “good” people can and should control their body weight even though it’s dangerous and scientifically proven not to improve health!
We live in a fatphobic society. When our daughters have bad body thoughts, it’s not a sign that they need to change their bodies. It’s also definitely not a sign that they have particularly low self-esteem. In a fatphobic society, it’s completely normal to have bad body thoughts.
There is nothing wrong or unusual about a girl who has bad body thoughts. In fact, it’s unlikely there are any girls who don’t occasionally experience bad body thoughts. It may hit us in the gut to hear our daughter hating her body, but it is sadly normal in our society.
That doesn’t mean we need to allow bad body thoughts to fester and grow. Here is a letter or script (depending on how you want to use it) to guide you when your daughter calls herself fat or has any other bad body thought. This advice applies to spontaneous bad body thoughts in response to looking in the mirror. It’s probably most appropriate for a girl who is at least 12.
If your child is on the receiving end of weight-based bullying or any negative feedback regarding her body, you need to begin by protecting her from such situations before presenting this letter’s content.
Letter to daughter who called herself fat
My Sweet Girl,
Yesterday I heard you tell your dad that you looked “fat.” It hurt my heart to hear you say that, and I’m afraid I didn’t know what to say or how to respond. After thinking about it some more, here is what I would like to tell you.
Most of the time when we call a body “fat,” we mean it in a hurtful way. This is because we live in a society that believes that to be fat is a bad thing. I know we’ve talked about this before, but it has to be said over and over: there is nothing wrong with fat. It’s gotten a bad rap, and it doesn’t deserve its reputation.
But knowing this is not enough. Even rebels have bad body thoughts. So the next thing you need to know is that when we have a bad body thought, it’s usually standing in for a difficult feeling. When we feel tired, lonely, overwhelmed, sad or afraid, our minds can’t figure out what to do, so instead they give us a bad body thought. Our minds figure a bad body thought is better than feeling sad, lonely, or afraid.
“I feel/look/am fat” often means “I feel overwhelmed,” “I feel angry,” “I feel lonely,” etc. I’m pretty sure that when you said “I look fat” last night you were both exhausted and overwhelmed. I’m pretty sure you were also a little bit frustrated.
This is why it’s helpful, any time you have a bad body thought – any time you look in the mirror and say any version of “I look fat,” to get curious about the difficult feeling that it’s hiding. Bad body thoughts are going to happen, and you’re not wrong, stupid, or bad when you have a bad body thought. Even the strongest rebels have them. I only ask that when you have a bad body thought, you close your eyes, and think to yourself:
I’m having a bad body thought. What’s the feeling underneath this bad body thought? Am I lonely? Am I scared? Am I overwhelmed? Am I sad? Am I angry? What am I really feeling?
You don’t need to have the answers to these questions. Also, this isn’t some sort of magic spell that will take the bad feelings away. But just asking the questions is a good way to take the sting out of the bad body thought. And it’s better than the alternative, which is to believe the bad body thought and take it at face value. Remember: bad body thoughts are a cover for difficult feelings.
I’m so sorry that we live in a society that tells us our bodies are wrong. I’m so sorry that as females we face more scrutiny of our bodies and pressure to conform to societal expectations. I wish I could change our society for you. I wish I could tell you that you will never have bad body thoughts. But I cannot. All I can tell you is that it’s normal. And that you’re OK.
Oh … and that you can fight back with all of your rebel heart.
But also … when your rebel heart gets tired, and when your bad body thoughts are raging, I hope you will reach out to me. I promise to acknowledge that your bad body thoughts are happening. And they suck. And they make sense. I’ll be here when the difficult feelings underneath the bad body thoughts show their faces, and I’ll be here to give you more love, more attention, more support, and a shoulder to cry on as you work through them.
I love you so much.
Important: results may vary
You can write a beautiful letter or make an amazing speech, but your child may not respond positively. In fact, your child may be pissed. That’s OK. Sometimes(!) parents say things that are irritating or annoying to our tweens and teens. Their snarls, eye rolls, and stomping feet are not an indication that we did it wrong. They are an indication that what we said was received. It’s OK for us to tell them things, and it’s OK for them to respond in their own ways. Release the fantasy of any single letter, conversation or interaction making things perfect. Remember that we’re in this for the long haul.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders.