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:
- 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.
- 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.