Today we’re going to hear from a mom whose daughter hates her body. The body bashing is intense and hard to deal with.
My daughter hates her body. This isn’t the normal teenage stuff that I expected. She genuinely hates her body and can spend the day standing in front of the mirror picking at herself and crying. When I try to tell her she’s beautiful, she gets furious and argues with me aggressively. In fact, I think that my trying to make her feel better is making things worse.
I feel like a hopeless bystander, watching her spiral further into hating her body and not being able to do anything about it.
What can I do to help her love her body? Or do I just wait for this phase to pass?
Hi Kathy, I’m so glad you wrote to me. This is such a tough situation, and I can just imagine you watching her picking herself apart in the mirror and feeling so helpless.
When our kids have bad body image it really hurts. And while I understand why your daughter hates her body, we do want to change that.
Unfortunately, lots of kids don’t like their bodies.
A Journal of Pediatrics study found that more than half of children aged 9-14 years old were dissatisfied with their bodies.
There are reports of kindergarteners dieting to lose weight.
We’ve got a major social problem when children choose to restrict their bodies during a time when they should be seeing the world as full of fun and opportunity. I know that all of us want to see this change.
Body image is self-image
Because the last thing we want to do is raise another generation of adults who dislike their bodies.
A Glamour magazine survey showed that 97% of women report having at least one negative thought about their body image every single day.
Almost all women and about half of all men are dissatisfied with their body image.
While this level of body dislike may be culturally normal, it’s not healthy. Body image is self-image. It’s impossible to separate how you feel about your body from how you feel about who you are as a person.
And a child who is spending hours each day criticizing their body is spending those hours criticizing themselves.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of negative factors that influence our kids’ body image. We are raising kids in a body-negative culture. Fat shaming and weight stigma are literally everywhere, from the playground to the classroom, the doctor’s office to social media, and yes, even in our own homes.
Find a therapist
Your daughter has a serious body image problem, so the first thing I want to say is that she should see a therapist. I would make sure that you find someone who operates from a body-positive place.
This means the therapist assumes that all bodies are good bodies, that weight loss is never the path to positive body image, and that we can pursue health without focusing on weight.
The simplest question to ask is whether a therapist offers weight-loss support to their clients. If they do, that’s not the therapist for your child.
Therapists who provide weight loss counseling are perpetuating weight stigma, which is a core driver of your child’s body dissatisfaction. Poor body image will not be helped by weight stigma, dieting, or intentional weight loss. It’s an inside job.
Find someone who says they understand and agree with Health at Every Size® or a non-diet approach to health. Here’s some more information about this concept and more here. I also have a directory of non-diet therapists.
Change the culture at home
As you seek out therapy for your daughter, let’s talk about what you can do at home. Because while therapy is very helpful, your daughter’s body image will recover much better if you’re simultaneously changing the culture at home.
While it’s understandable that your daughter hates her body, you want to make sure you’re not supporting fat shaming in your home.
Body image is culturally learned. No child is born hating their body. But living in our culture is toxic to body image. Luckily, changing the culture in your own home goes a long way to helping your child reconnect with the body respect we’re all born with and deserve.
How do you feel about your body?
The first thing I’d like you to do is consider your own body image. How do you feel about your body?
If you’re like most women, you probably have moments of body shame. This is understandable, but it’s also a sign that you need to work on your own body image.
Few of us feel great about our bodies every day. And I think of body image as a hygiene practice. Just like I brush my teeth and care for my skin and hair every day, I work on my body image a little bit each day.
If you have serious body image issues, please seek out support. Healing yourself will help your child feel better much faster and more effectively. Your own body image is a worthwhile investment in your child’s body image.
How do you talk about bodies?
Next, consider the culture in your household. How do you talk about other people’s bodies?
Many parents accidentally perpetuate negative body image by talking about other people’s bodies as either good or bad. And, predictably, in our culture, we label thin bodies as good and fat bodies as bad. Now you may use different words, like healthy or lean, but the concept is the same.
The idea that a larger body is bad is deeply embedded in our minds. This may feel factually true, but in fact, it is a socially-conditioned belief. It’s also hurtful and wrong.
What we think about fat bodies is almost certainly wrong unless we have actively educated ourselves in counter-culture ideas like Health at Every Size and weight-neutral healthcare.
This is not our fault, but it is our responsibility to actively counteract fat shaming and weight stigma. And it starts with how we talk about bodies. When your daughter hates her body it seems like it’s her problem, but in fact, the solution lies in us.
How to respond
Once you have started doing this background work, it’s time to respond to your child’s body bashing when it happens.
When your child starts saying bad things about their body, of course your impulse is to try and comfort them by telling them they are beautiful and perfect.
But this is putting the cart before the horse.
Here is a step-by-step process to respond to body bashing:
- Practice body respect in your home. Talk about bodies respectfully and don’t perpetuate harmful weight stigma and fat shaming.
- Center yourself. Take a deep breath and calm your nervous system before you start talking. Our kids are finely attuned to how we feel, so how you feel matters more than what you say.
- Listen. Use active listening techniques and ask open-ended questions to help your child feel heard and understood by you. If your child doesn’t feel as if you have listened, they will not be able to hear you.
- Validate. We live in a body-toxic culture. Your child’s negative body image makes sense. This doesn’t mean you agree that their body is horrible, but you can agree that their feelings are hard, and you understand. When our kids feel validated they can finally relax enough to be comforted by us.
- Comfort. Now you finally get to do what you want to do! Comfort your child’s feelings. You are not agreeing with how they feel about their body, but the fact that they are having hard feelings. It’s dismissive to say your child is beautiful when they feel ugly. Instead, say something like “I’m sorry you’re feeling so bad right now.”
- Boundaries. You need to set boundaries around body bashing and fat talk. You can say something like “I know you are so upset right now, but we don’t talk about bodies that way in this house. Can you please use some different language?”
These six steps are challenging but essential to helping our kids develop a better body image. And the good news is that while it feels awkward at first, if you put in the effort, it works! You can completely change your child’s body image with patient and consistent practice.
Kathy, I know how hard it is to hear your child saying nasty things about their body. I’m so sorry this is happening, but I also know you can help her feel so much better!
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