How to respond when your daughter says she’s fat

I recently had someone email me asking me for advice after her 13-year-old daughter complained about being fat while trying on clothes in her closet.

I fortunately have not had to face this yet with my own daughters. I’ve had children shove stuffed animals up their shirts and arch their backs and say things like, “Look at my big belly.” (Then they “give birth” and giggle when the furry friend drops out quite unexpectedly.) Also, my oldest once did remark her face was fat as she was puffing out her cheeks while looking in the mirror. When she said this, I remember flinching as an avalanche of feelings from my own body angst-ridden past cam crashing down inside of me. I was about to launch into a lengthy sermon about respecting your body and looks and appreciating all body types. However, fortunately before I had a chance to she breathed the air out and giggled, and I realized “fat” didn’t have any negative connotation for her yet. There was no shame. She was just being silly, giving her face a puffer fish look.

But more recently one of my daughters commented on how pretty one of her sisters was. I agreed, but the next thing she said tugged at my heart. “I’m not very pretty though,” she said. She didn’t say this sadly; it was just like it was a matter of fact. This did encourage us to have a conversation about what it really means to be “pretty” and also just about feelings because when our daughters or anyone we know disparages her body or her appearance, we have to separate the facts from the feelings.

And this is precisely what I told the mother of the child who had recently commented that she was fat.

Allow me to explain. I’m sure most parents’ knee-jerk reaction to a child saying she’s fat or doesn’t like her body or looks is to dispute the facts.

“That’s not true! You’re beautiful.”

“You’re not fat.”

“You’re perfect the way you are.”

I used to hear statements like this from my own caring parents and I wanted to believe them, but I didn’t. My parents said I wasn’t overweight even when I was so when I grew too thin and they still insisted I was thin, they lost some credibility. That’s what you said I wasn’t even close to being thin. I’m not blaming them. I know they saw me as beautiful no matter what the scale said or no matter how loudly some vicious boy oinked at me when I walked by, but their affirming statements didn’t offer me affirmation. Sometimes they might make me have fleeting feelings of happiness. Maybe I’m not so bad after all. But often they made me a little sad or even angry because it felt like they didn’t understand me or what I was going through.

See, I don’t think it’s about the facts when one of our beloved daughters says she hates her body, feels fat, and/or thinks she’s ugly. The fact is they may be at a perfectly healthy weight. They’re surely beautiful to us. These are facts, but our girls aren’t looking to debate the facts. They’re looking for a validation of their feelings.

Let me illustrate with a scenario many moms have probably found themselves in. After a bad day, we vent to our husbands and say something like, “I’m tired of being a mom.”

Let’s consider the husband’s possible responses:

  1. Maybe he says, “No, you’re not. You’re a great mom and you love being a mom.” These are probably factual statements, and maybe they even make us feel a little better. But maybe not. We may feel angry or just mildly annoyed that he doesn’t see how exhausted and overwhelmed we are or that he’s not giving us permission to express how down we feel. We don’t want to hear the facts right now – that we probably are a good mother and that we often do enjoy motherhood. We don’t want him to replace our statement with his own. Right now we just want our feelings acknowledged.
  2. In turn, consider him saying something like this, “I’m so sorry you feel that way. What’s going on? Tell me about your day. Then let me help with dinner.”

In all likelihood, response number two will make us feel better because our feelings are being validated.

Now what will feel even better is if he not only validates our feelings and gives us permission to have a crappy day and allow us to admit that sometimes we don’t feel like being a mom is if later on – not the same day we express our parenting angst – but maybe later that week without bringing up our meltdown is if he tells us how grateful he is for all we do as a family, mentions what a great mom we are, or says how lucky our children are to have us as a mom.

This isn’t a perfect analogy, but this scenario helps illustrate how we have to handle our girls’ body barbs. Of course, we want to tell them, “You are not fat! You are so beautiful.” And this may even be a temporary balm to our children. Maybe they will believe us for a bit, but because we didn’t validate or address the feelings beneath the surface, they are likely to occur again.

Even if a child is overweight there’s more to them “feeling fat.” There’s a sense of hopelessness or perhaps an ache of inadequacy. When I used to complain about my body, which I did both when I was Dachau-thin as well as chubby, what I was really saying is, “I don’t feel lovable.”

Now I personally had other, big issues to contribute to these feelings of self angst, namely a compulsion to be perfect and in control while growing up in a family touched by addiction. So I know not every young girl’s situation will mirror my own. Certainly, the culture we live in often perpetuates an unrealistically thin image and can contribute to making our girls feel not thin enough or pretty enough. But there is always something deeper going on, too, when a woman of any age berates her body or equates her worth to her appearance or the number on her clothing tags. Women as well as some men frequently use their weight and body image as a vehicle for expressing other things. A tween or teen can have some pretty big feelings to navigate, control, and understand. When she feels at a loss, when she feels lonely or confused or unpopular or like she’s stuck on the social margins or is stupid or too smart or frustrated or whatever, she might complain about being fat.

So how can we help these beautiful, young women in our lives? A mother knows her own daughter far better than I do, but I’d start by acknowledging her feelings. The negative statement she makes about her body or her looks is not really a statement of fact. It’s a statement of feelings. Think about when you’re less than thrilled with what you see in the mirror. I know my “ugly days” tend to arrive when I feel exhausted or hurt or when my kids are driving me crazy and I realize that even a stellar control freak such as I am has absolutely no control over their behavior or whims or bowel movements. Or maybe I feel “not good enough” as a wife or a mom or a homeschooler.  It’s not about how fat I am or the zit on my nose. It’s about my heart and what’s going on in the inside.

So first acknowledge the feelings. Next, try to gently dig deeper to see what is fueling the statements she’s saying.

Also, resist the urge to get all rational on her by saying things like, “Well, you’re growing. That’s why your clothes are feeling tighter.” This is a good, true, and, yes, logical message, but it’s the wrong message for your child at that moment. What she needs more than anything is to feel understood.

What I think I’d do with one of my girls if they said something similar is to first say something like the wise husband says. “I’m sorry you are feeling this way.”

I might also try to discern if anyone else or any situation contributed to their feelings, especially if these feelings are something new (this is the digging deeper component). “Do you feel this way? Or did someone else make you feel like this?”

Ask about how you can help. “How can I help?” Maybe she is afraid to ask for some new clothes even though her jeans are feeling snug and a little uncomfortable. Ask her about what makes her feel beautiful. Don’t at the moment tell her she’s a beautiful child of God or point out her many talents,  but do make a note to marble in positive affirmations like this more often. Take her shopping and help her to pick out fashionable clothes she feels lovely in (so much easier said than done with the immodest trash that ends up on hangers these days).

I would also try to remind her that it’s hard to feel gross when she’s doing something she is passionate about. Help her to cultivate a talent or passion and to pursue it with fervor.

And then I would pray. You can do everything “right” and she may still wrestle with feeling fat (i.e., feelings of worthlessness). Don’t we all? But that’s because of just how lovely we are and how much power we have to transform the world with our goodness and yes, our beauty! Our culture is constantly telling young girls and women of all ages,

“You’re not good enough the way you are.”

“Wear this to get noticed.”

“Slap on this skin cream to erase the signs of aging.”

“Date this boy to be accepted into the cool crowd.”

“Be a super woman and you might just have it all.”

“Start roaring if you want to be heard. Forget the namby-pamby girly stuff.”

“Lose some weight if you want to look pretty.”

“Bring sexy back.”

Meanwhile, the language of God is a beautiful love song. We are the crown of creation. We are good enough because of Him. He loves what He created. We are like St. Gianna Molla said – a monstrance through which the world should see God. We have to believe in our own beauty, give it value, and share it with others. We don’t have to do it all or be everything to everyone. We simply have to accept God’s love as well as the love of others and then share this love with everyone we encounter. We have to help our girls tap into their God-given strength and to know and trust their dignity.  We have to encourage them to see their bodies, not as objects that are in need of a makeover, but as instruments to bring love, beauty, and goodness into the world. We have to show them that being sexy and beautiful do not mean the same thing and that we don’t have to have  a gaggle of guys notice us to feel worthwhile. Once we understand our innate beauty and goodness and believe in it, we can’t help but attract others. A daunting task indeed. But we must fight for our daughter’s dignity and beauty – no matter her clothing size or what she sees in the mirror. While we’re at it, let’s fight for our own dignity and beauty as well.

Enter the Conversation...

9 Responses to “How to respond when your daughter says she’s fat”
  1. Kathy says:

    I believe the most important thing we can do for our daughters’ self-image is to model a healthy attitude ourselves. We do not ever talk about being this weight or that weight in our house–not ever! We only talk about healthy eating–eating to live, not living to eat; taking care of ourselves so we can feel good and do our best in what we are given to do.

    My dd just turned 13 and weighs 160+ lbs (5’5″)–she has “substantial” hips and thighs like her mom and her aunts, but she has no sense that she is overweight. I don’t believe she is though the culture around us would definitely say she is. If she went out to school, I’m certain she’d have serious issues about her weight–one huge reason to keep her home to school. I don’t know how you can avoid this with girls if you send them away for school.

    We have to pretoect our children from the deadly culture. That’s all there is to it.

    • Beth says:

      I wish it were that easy. My 13 year old is thin, always has been. I don’t talk about being fat, but healthy eating, balanced diet,etc. Yet she is still thinking aand feeling fat. I believe this article is on the right track. Thank you fir another point of view.

  2. Kris says:

    Great ideas, Kate. I would love to see you address this topic as it relates to boys. I have one who struggles with body image – constantly comparing himself to his big brothers, worried about his “belly”, etc. I’ll incorporate some of these techniques into our conversations, but boys definitely receive messages differently than girls. They often DO want practical steps to “problem solving” and are not as wrapped up in the emotional aspect. Plus, with boys, puberty has the opposite effect on their bodies – making them leaner and more muscular, rather than adding weight – so it’s a different type of conversation. Anyway – love the post!

  3. Nancy says:

    I love these thoughts — and I can see how they also apply to my boys (“I’m not very smart/good at sports/etc.”), and to my husband. I think one equivalent for men is the nagging fear that they will never be “enough” — successful at work, good father, and more. I love the idea of acknowledging the feelings first, and then talking about what’s driving them, before offering some truth or facts.
    Nancy recently posted..Film and novel about Partition

  4. Linda says:

    My daughter is 16 and has gone through quite a bit in her young life. She has seen a struggle in our family since she was little with her 3 brothers rebelling in different ways against us. Then she lost her father to cancer after 7 years. I had to sell or home 3 years after losing him and now, she has started to be obsessed with her body and thinks she is ugly and fat. She is 5’9″ and absolutely beautiful and she is not fat at all. She is constantly fighting with me about it and I can’t look at her or talk at all even if it is about the weather or she will tell me that I do not understand at all and it will turn into a fight. I do not know what to do. I am so tired and am trying to understand her. I am a stay at home mom and am always here for her but now she tells me I am never there for her.

  5. Gabrielle says:

    Hello,I’m a 13 year old girl and as much as your opinion and the idea’s for this will help her a good amount emotionally. I cant help but feel you don’t have enough from an pre-teen girls point of view.

    I for one have been battling to tell my mom for a while about how i feel about my weight. You see i went through puberty very young. So when i did,i gained a bit of weight during it…[Not to mention the terrible stretch marks]. I gained about 20-30 pounds i would think.

    So yes i’m a bit chubby. I constantly grab at my fat and squish it,always telling myself how much i want to be rid of the god awful thing that clings to me always. So of course when i’ve thought about confronting my mom a couple things go through my head.

    1. I don’t want her to just give me sympathy and tell me how beautiful i am and that it doesn’t matter whats on the inside it matters whats on the outside. Yes i understand that. I believe myself to be a very nice mature person. But i can’t help the fact i want to be comfortable and healthy in my own skin. Seriously,when it has come to the point i cant simply go to bed at night without measuring how much of my belly sticks out when i lay on my side!

    2. I want her to help me lose weight. I want to excersize. I want vitamins. I want sculpted legs a tight tummy and i want to feel good about myself!

    Thats some of the things. Before i get questions on it yes,other people have influenced this idea of me. My good group of friends are all very pretty,skinny athletic girls and every time i’m with them. Its pure torture! Not being able to be comfortable showing any skin. I can’t wear shorts because i hate my legs without having a lack of confidence.

    My emotional state is on a downfall because i want to be skinny. I WANT TO BE FIT. It hurts so bad i want to scream it out loud. For all good holy things,don’t be the mom who shoves these feelings to the side.

    You hear those voices too,when you try to tell yourself you look decent or pretty and all they want to say is. ‘Fat’. You’re fat.

    Lord almighty if your girl feels the need to tell you this. You help her!

    • Kate Wicker says:

      Hi, Gabrielle. I am so sorry you’re struggling. I believe, however, we are saying the same things. In fact, I suggest in my post that parents do not argue with the facts that the child believes (whether they are true or not). I encourage parents not to say you’re pretty on the inside, etc. And then I write: “I used to hear statements like this from my own caring parents and I wanted to believe them, but I didn’t. My parents said I wasn’t overweight even when I was so when I grew too thin and they still insisted I was thin, they lost some credibility. That’s what you said I wasn’t even close to being thin. I’m not blaming them. I know they saw me as beautiful no matter what the scale said or no matter how loudly some vicious boy oinked at me when I walked by, but their affirming statements didn’t offer me affirmation. Sometimes they might make me have fleeting feelings of happiness. Maybe I’m not so bad after all. But often they made me a little sad or even angry because it felt like they didn’t understand me or what I was going through.” I also suggest parents ask how they can help, which would include helping a daughter make healthy choices, exercise, etc. I am encouraging moms to not “shove those feelings aside.” Please slowly read the post again and then possibly share it with your own parents. I think you may have seen the statements I listed thinking that that is what I was suggesting parents should tell their children when I was suggesting the opposite. We are on the same page. I was chubby once. See this post: I used to hear statements like this from my own caring parents and I wanted to believe them, but I didn’t. My parents said I wasn’t overweight even when I was so when I grew too thin and they still insisted I was thin, they lost some credibility. That’s what you said I wasn’t even close to being thin. I’m not blaming them. I know they saw me as beautiful no matter what the scale said or no matter how loudly some vicious boy oinked at me when I walked by, but their affirming statements didn’t offer me affirmation. Sometimes they might make me have fleeting feelings of happiness. Maybe I’m not so bad after all. But often they made me a little sad or even angry because it felt like they didn’t understand me or what I was going through. – See more at: http://katewicker.com/2013/04/how-to-respond-when-your-daughter-says-shes-fat.html#sthash.v7efm4Gz.dpuf But I will tell you that it’s hard to make positive changes when you don’t love yourself or think that being skinny is the path to ultimate bliss and fulfillment. The allusion of being thin is greater than the reality. Trust me. Also know that you are very young. Be kind to yourself. Please don’t spend a lifetime thinking about thigh gaps, calories, or how “fat” you are. It will be a wasted life. You have more to offer the world than skin.

      God bless you in your journey. Please feel free to email me if you have any questions, etc.

  6. Robin says:

    Thank you for what you write. I am still struggling to see how it will work for me. I would love your feedback.

    I have a 14 year old daughter who definitely developed a (perfectly normal)”hips and thighs” body in this overwhelming and intense last year of puberty. She is still very thin, BMI is perfectly good, she is very average weight, but she talks ENDLESSLY about being fat, screaming at me (her mom–I’m a single mother) that she’ fat she’s fat she’s fat, and no matter what i say, no matter how supportive, she screams at me that I secretly agree with her that she’s fat, but I just won’t say so. She screams that I buy terrible food (I don’t, though I probably eat too many sweets myself) and that I don’t “support” her. She says I don’t help her, that I”m not supportive…that the only thing I could do to be truly supportive is to agree with her that she’s fat. She says she needs me to help her eat better and exercise….I have agreed to that many times, and have bought endless healthy food, make and pack healthy breakfasts and lunches every day, and cook really healthy meals. I encourage her to exercise as well, as she has asked me to do, but she refuses…she prefers to stay on the couch. The problem is not really that we are on different pages, or that I’m not compassionate, it’s that she really screams at me about it day and night, no matter what I do.

    I think her perspective is very much like the 13 year old who posted above.

    What do I say to her? What do I do?

    • Kate Wicker says:

      Hi, Robin. I am so sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to you. I’ve had to ponder your words and situation for quite some time. I can only offer you insight based on my own experience. I wasn’t really outwardly angry with my parents; I was more sad than anything. It seems like your daughter is using her weight and her anger directed at you for making her that way (not that you have done that at all; this is just what she feels for some reason) as a scapegoat for some big feelings that she’s not sure what to do with. She wants to blame someone, something for the angst she is experiencing. If one of my daughters started to get angry at me and do some of the things you suggest your daughter is doing, I would first and foremost acknowledge her feelings. “You’re clearly angry about something and even angry at me. I’m not sure why, and I am sorry you feel this way…” Or something like that. Maybe even write her a letter so she can’t lash back out at you. But then you also need to let her know that no matter what she is feeling, she can’t treat you like that you. You are trying to be compassionate. You don’t deserve to be yelled at. Anger is a normal emotion, but we can’t leave our loved ones hurt in the wake of our fury. It almost seems like you guys might need some professional intervention. This is no longer about food or your daughter feeling fat. She’s using her weight as a vehicle for expressing other emotions. She’s unleashing anger directed towards you perhaps because she feels that if you hurt more, she will hurt less. I agree with you that she’s similar to the 13-year-old who also posted above. I feel like that young lady only read what she wanted to read. It was as if she was so wrapped in her feelings that she was reading an entirely different post. She told me I needed to have a perspective that is the exact perspective I do have and shared in the post. Similarly, your daughter doesn’t hear you when you say you want to help her. She doesn’t see the healthy food you have provided. She is blinded by her feelings. Does this make sense?

      Now what to do about it? That’s the tricky part. First, like I said earlier, it might be time to seek professional advice. Second, I’m not sure if you’re a praying sort of person, but prayer can help offer you some peace. You never give up on your child, but sometimes you have to give her up to God. I recently read this Jen Hatmaker post on parenting troubled teens. It was wonderful. I grew up with an older brother who was troubled teen, and it was very difficult for me and I know it ripped my mom’s heart apart. Maybe this post will offer some peace for you…

      I haven’t read this book, but it seems like it might have some helpful insight for you as well: http://www.amazon.com/Why-She-Feels-Fat-Understanding/dp/0936077298/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1403269838&sr=8-1-fkmr1&keywords=daughter+who+thinks+she%27s+fat

      Sidenote: It has a very similar feather on it as my book cover does!

      The Body Image Workbook is a good one. I have read this book. http://www.amazon.com/The-Body-Image-Workbook-Eight-Step/dp/1572245468/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1403270022&sr=8-1&keywords=the+body+image+workbook

      There’s also one for teens that I haven’t reviewed before: http://www.amazon.com/Body-Image-Workbook-Teens-Image-Obsessed/dp/1626250189/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1403270104&sr=8-3&keywords=the+body+image+workbook

      I know I haven’t really provided you a great answer. I am sorry. I can’t imagine how you’re struggling knowing your daughter is hurting and that you are an unfortunate receptacle of her anger. Your beautiful daughter needs to know that she has a choice to live a life of sadness or a life where she chooses joy. The latter doesn’t mean she will be impervious to pain. No. Living too often begets pain. But she can’t be seduced by the thinness or anything else – glamour, popularity, money, etc. – or the illusion that achieving these things will mean she can live a life free of pain.

      This old post I wrote about helping women we love with eating disorders (and even though your daughter may not have a clinical eating disorder, from what you wrote, it’s clear she suffers for a disordered approach to food and her body image) might help as well: http://katewicker.com/2010/12/helping-women-we-love-who-have-eating-disorders.html

      Peace and prayers…

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