Sometimes the most innocent comment, the one intended to support, or even simply be shrugged off, can contribute to a child's unhealthy body image or distorted ideas about eating.
Janet age 13, and her mother sat in my office both clearly stressed. Janet had been food restricting and had just announced she was a vegetarian who, wouldn't you know, disliked pasta of all kinds.
"I'm so worried about her," said her mom. "She's such a wonder girl. But she thinks she's fat and look at her! She's so slim!"
Janet shrugged. "I'm eating fine," she argued. "I had plenty of chicken for dinner."
"You ate one small slice" her mother sighed "I don't get it. I can't fit in my jeans and you're falling out of yours. I'm the one who shouldn't be eating!"
Loving? Absolutely. Well intended. Certainly. Subtly suggesting an unhealthy way to diet? Unfortunately, yes.
Here's the problem. If a parent is sitting with a child/adolescent who isn't checking the fat content of every container in the fridge, who doesn't stand on the scale three times a day and who thinks her body shape is fine (these adolescents do exist though I rarely meet them), Mom commenting that "I need to stop eating," will merely elicit a chuckle.
But if your daughter is scanning food labels with the intensity most of us read "Silence of the Lambs," comparing her body shape with those of the photo shopped stars in magazines, already food restricting and avoiding pizza parties and thus her friends, then "I'm the one who shouldn't be eating" will be heard as "Listen to mom. She'd cut food out too if she had my willpower."
Consider some rough statistics. Up to 60 percent of all teens diet regularly and up to 50 percent exercise to improve their shape or weight. Approximately 70 percent of girls feel that their shape is critical to their self-esteem. And perhaps the most frightening trend of all is that the age at which eating disordered behaviors begin is getting younger and younger. Eight-year-old girls who should be licking ice cream cones for pleasure, are now tossing out half eaten apples for the high of fending off weight gain.
The reason any girl develops an eating disorder is multi-faceted. There's peer pressure, the media in all its forms, family dynamics, genetics, idiosyncratic personality traits and more. There is a great deal over which you have no control. But since the odds of your daughter harboring some eating disordered thinking are pretty high, it might be wise to pause before you send out a seemingly innocuous statement about you own weight issues. If your daughter is harboring embers of body anxiety, instead of helping to dampen them you actually may actually spark a flame.
Here are a few classic "not so throw away" comments which are uttered in most households and how you might alter them to a achieve a more positive message.
"I'm miserable. I feel so fat." Try, "I think I'd feel better eating healthier (or more carefully)." Fat after all is not a feeling and it is not a mind/body connection you want to make for your daughter. If you are truly unhappy, chances are there are other issues upsetting you as well. And if there aren't and you just think you'd feel better about yourself thinner than go on a healthy diet. A lot of depressed girls blame it on their bodies. They need to realize that there are deeper causes for their poor self esteem.
"I think I look a little heavy in this dress." Instead say," I'm not sure this dress is very flattering on me." You will be teaching that the problem isn't the body. Clothes have to be cut right to suit the body one has.
"Thank goodness I went to the gym today. I worked off last night's birthday cake!" Simply point out "I felt great at the gym today. I think I'll sleep well tonight." Pairing up exercise with a sense of well-being is good. Exercising simply to lose pounds is not. Too many young girls are spending hours in the gym feeling faint and exhausted and then hopping on scales to check the results.
"No more dessert for me. I've been putting on weight." Just say, "I'm skipping dessert. My body doesn't crave it like it used to. I must be getting older!" You have a right to adjust your eating to your changing metabolism. Just do so making it clear the reasons are not just weight gain and that you and your daughter are at very different stages in your life.
"My stomach is huge. " If your daughter catches you at the mirror holding in your stomach just smile and say something like "At some point I'd like to lose a pound or two." Say it in a relaxed way. Make it obvious this is not a matter of the most earnest importance. A bit of extra weight is, well, part of life. Young girls have a tendency to isolate parts of their bodies they hate instead of stepping back and looking at the whole picture. You don't want to contribute to that perspective.
In other words while there are forces out there that are out of your control, the messages received at home are not. They can be potent weapons against some innocent dieting turning into an obsessive quest for the perfect body. So use them. Make sure your words underline the importance of health and sense of well-being as opposed to diet as the road to beauty.
Because ironically once girls step on that road they never do feel beautiful. It's always just out of reach.
Follow Meg F. Schneider, MA, LCSW on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MegFSchneider