How to Keep Teen Daughter from Becoming Obsessed with Thinness?

By October 24, 2012

I am a recovered anorexic with a healthy, athletic 13 year old daughter. She thinks she is fat, has a big belly-etc. She is just starting to go through puberty, so her hormones are up and down. She comes to me sobbing because she isn’t a twig like her friends, can’t wear Hollister clothes…etc. I have no credibility with her because she wears my clothes- and in the case of shirts-my clothes are too small. We found a female pediatrician who explained to my daughter that she was a normal weight. We size up when we shop – I know my daughter is a Jr. size 5, but we start with a 7 or a 9 – especially if we are unfamiliar with the cut of the brand she is trying on. We stay away from brands like Jordache and lei that tend to be cut smaller. My daughter has several adult female contacts she feels comfortable talking about “stuff” to. We cut exposure to TV. The ads and programs were not helpful. All of the above were done to combat the obvious messages about thin being the only acceptable body style. There are so many subtle bombs that body image sensitive kids exposed to – innocuous magazine covers with fudge cake pictures and lose 10 pounds in a week headlines.. Even with all of these things in place, I don’t have a clue what to say – beyond “it will be ok” when she feels awful about her body. I don’t know if there is anything else that I can do to keep her from becoming obsessed with body weight and thinness, but I am open to suggestion. – S.

Dear S.,

I want to begin by talking about your closing salutation: “I don’t know if there is anything else that I can do to keep her from becoming obsessed with body weight and thinness.” I am in agreement with you. You can not wall out the “world” and its values and cues. But you can equip your daughter with the ability to determine truth and to make good decisions.

When I first read the submitted panel posting I had to pause and re-read. Although one could at first glance be completely appreciative of the lengths to which you have gone to be a loving parent to a hurting daughter, my opinion is that it can backfire. When you cut back television, size up when shopping, and avoid certain brands or stores, you are actually confirming for her that there is a problem. You are acting in a way that may be conveying to her, “I will help you hide it… I will help you figure out a way to be half cute or partially hip since you can not wear my clothes or shop at Hollister.”

Be careful. As parents, we can hover in such a way with a child’s issue that we silently send the message, “You need me to help you deal with this,” and we rob them of their own ability to argue for their worth and be who they were created to be.

I sense that due to your own battle with disordered eating, the emotional ties involved in a mother/daughter relationship, and the risk for enmeshment and weak boundaries, it is best advised that you seek a counselor. It is my hope that this therapist will be able to:

  1. Advise you on exactly what your boundaries need to be with your daughter (how you talk to her, the words you use, and how you give her permission to solve her own problems).
  2. Provide accountability to you that you are indeed role modeling healthy eating, healthy exercise, and healthy self talk about your own value and identity.
  3.  Challenge you on the idea that you lose credibility because you wear a smaller size.

Credibility is not physical. Credibility is that our walk matches our talk—how we behave when no one is looking. I think you may need to be challenged to review where you are about you.

My concern is that this developmental hurdle of accepting her body, understanding who she is and how she is wonderfully made is getting too much attention. Decreased television watching should be encouraged not because of weight issues, but because it is non-productive and could be time spent reading and discovering new talents.

It seems as if you are doing a lot of work on her heart issue. When an adult parent works harder on an issue (how your 13 year old thinks of herself in comparison to others) then the youth does—the youth will let them. This means that she may rely on you to do the lion’s share of the thinking by figuring out what cues her and how to get the negative feeling to go away instead of her plugging in to her own gut and figuring out how she needs to solve it.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not a proponent of a permissive parenting style. I do not ignore my own children’s needs or struggles. I do appreciate that you are an aware, caring, parent. But what may need to happen when she comes to you sobbing is that you guide her to solve the problem instead of solving it.

If you do not know what else to do, tell her the truth. Sit down and share with her “I want to help but I also think you need to deal with some of this on your own. The real world will always try to feed you that you have to bend to its will to have value or purpose. I have struggled with this as well. I am going to consult with someone to make sure I am doing my best as a mom with you. If you should decide that you want to consult with someone as well let me know and we can set that up. Just know I plan on living in a way where I get to be me and I don’t conform to what someone wants me to be. If you ever need ideas on how to do that I will be happy to share.”

Allow her to come back to you when she is ready and keep your end of the deal. Go consult with someone. You may not be able to control the world but you can control you and what you role model. Good luck! Please keep us posted as to how it goes.