I wrote this letter tonight to a cow-orker who was complaining about how her stepdaughter has gained weight and how she has been nagging her not to eat so much and to lose weight “because I care.” The girl has gained maybe 10 lbs at the most – this is NOT a health issue. Argh…after I wrote the letter, I thought: I am going to post this because I bet there are other people out there who aren’t sure what to do about an overweight child/spouse/etc. What to do? Maybe nothing. Read some books first, possibly the one I recommend. If they ASK you for help, maybe you can recommend it to them. What not to do? Below.
I’ve been thinking about what we were talking about today and since I have so much experience with weight loss/emotional issues surrounding food/dieting/health/fitness, and have talked with many others who do, I’ll just offer some thoughts:
If you want an adolescent girl to:
attach emotional significance to food and want her to think of food as something other than fuel (comfort, companionship, substitute for love, substitute for “feeling her feelings”);
internalize the notion that her worthiness of your love and praise, and her worthiness as a person in general, depends on how fat or skinny she is;
make it more likely that she has a lifelong battle with food, has an eating disorder and/or is overweight; then:
continually nag her about, and comment on, her weight and what she eats.
For instance, if you comment on what she’s eating, and that she shouldn’t eat it, the message to her, and the reality, will be that if she eats it out of your presence, she won’t have to hear about how it is bad, and you will think she’s not eating it, so:
there will be a disconnect in her mind about how food affects her body – she will subconsciously think there is some real difference between food eaten in front of you and food not eaten in front of you, when in fact, it all does the same thing. All of it has calories. But one twisted way of thinking about food will begin.
she may think she’s “getting something over on you” by eating food out of your presence – so she may eat something, or eat more than, she would ordinarily have done, because she can “get back at you” for commenting on her weight this way. (Another twisted way of thinking about food.) Also, this is a classic self-fulfilling prophecy – if this happens, the person who comments can say, “See? I said you were going to gain weight if you didn’t start watching it.”
she will get praise (or at least the absence of criticism/comment) from you when she doesn’t (or when you think she doesn’t) eat a certain food, so she will internalize the message that how fat — or skinny – she is has something to do with how worthy she is as a person. (Another twisted way of thinking about food.)
If you want her to have a healthy outlook on food, then engage in healthy habits yourself, including indulging yourself sometimes and having that be OK, and shower her with unconditional love and praise that is TOTALLY UNCONNECTED to what she eats. Never say, “Good girl, you only ordered a salad.” or “Wow, I was good today, I didn’t eat that.” It is valuable (but doesn’t make us a good or bad person) to avoid EMOTIONAL eating, but what we eat, fattening or not, a lot or a little, doesn’t make us good or bad at all. Emotional eating is eating for most reasons other than that we are hungry – but there’s nothing wrong with eating, in itself…
Some of my theories about food were shaped by the author and lecturer Geneen Roth, a brilliant person who was one of the first people to talk about the extent that emotional issues are related to our fat/dieting/eating habits. Now, everyone seems to be writing books about it, but hers are so insightful. A great, easy read is a book she wrote called When Food Is Love, and it talks about emotional eating, intimacy, food and the ways they are linked, among other things. It is an excellent book for anyone, even people who have never had any issues with food. I strongly recommend it.