How to help your daughter have an eating disorder and/or be overweight for the rest o

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.
Hey you,

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:

  1. 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”);

  2. 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;

  3. 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.”

  3. 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.

Hmm, I guess that title was a little wordy, not unlike the rest of the post: it was supposed to end with “rest of her life.”

This is good advice, and needs to be more widely disseminated.

May I add a few that helped me to my path of emotional eating?

One of my childhood nicknames (given to me by my father) was buffalo butt.

Everything I ate was scrutinized and criticized for one reason or another. If I said I was full, my father would ask me if I was trying to be anorexic. If I ate too much (in his opinion) I was trying to be like my mother (she is very overweight)

If you did not have dinner with him he would be very offended and if you did not eat as much as he at dinner he would also get angry so I would sit and force down an adult male portion just to not incur his wrath.

One thing parents need to realize is the natural bulk/spurt phenomena children cycle through in their growing years. Kids gain some weight and then grow taller and repeat. Some kids gain more than others due to a number of factors but unless a child has a very unhealthy lifestyle then you should just trust them to let you know when they are hungry or not. And if your kid does have an unhealthy lifestyle badgering and belittling will not work and as parents you need to look carefully at your own lifestyle as kids mirror what they see.

in that this is good advice.

I do wish though, they would teach this exact idea in schools. yes, I know most kids would see it as a joke, but I honestly wish more was done to promote kindness in reference to weight and fellow humans in general in school. Speaking from personal experience, I had wonderful parents, yet it was my “friends” who helped me get started on the road to hell, where eating and body are concerned (along with some underlying emotional issues). Yes, people will be people, and will never get the point, but if one person could take this lesson and run with it, I think that would help.

Can I ask how old the stepdaughter is?

Is the 10 pounds a part of puberty and maturing, or honest weight gain?

You’ll also be teaching her that it’s okay to comment on other people’s eating habits, and make her feel that she is superior for eating “better” than them. This is guarenteed to make everyone else hate her.

If there is really a concern about her weight, then she should take her to a doctor.

There are “sneaky” things she can do, like invite her on a bike ride (but no big deal if she doesn’t come) or preparing healthy food FOR EVERYONE to eat. It’s not fair if step-daughter is served a salad while everyone else is chowing down on fried chicken.

And tanookie, can I just say, from reading your other posts, that your father was a real son of a bitch and I’m glad you’re done with him.

Thanks Ivylass :slight_smile: I’m pretty happy to be done with him too.

Oh and one other eating thing… girls are not the only ones who can end up with eating disorders.

I wish that someone had written my mother a letter like this when I was an adolescent. Perhaps I might not have ended up with quite so many self-esteem issues (some, yes, but not so many).

Has anyone come up with a polite way to shut people up when they do this?

I am thinking in particular of a few people I have known: a father who liked to tease his pre-pubescent daughter about being fat, and a man my age who teased his young nephew. When called on it they say “Oh, s/he knows I’m only joking.” (And if asked the kid, of course, would smile and say “Yah, I know he’s joking” - which is what any kid would say, no matter how much they were torn up inside.) Which makes me look like a big PC-police meanie for telling them it’s not appropriate.

My parents were/are tall skinny things. Dad ate one meal a day, Mom never ate, EVER. Mom didn’t care that I and the Duck Sisters ate everything in sight, and she NEVER said a word about our chubbiness, she loved us to pieces. But Dad…here are a few of his faves that screwed me up for a long time…

If I was bending over:
“What time does the balloon take off??” As in, hot air balloon. As in, ass as big as.

Or, he’d hold his hands real far apart and mouth
“THIS big”

He’s matured/dried up finally and is no longer such an asshole. :wink: But yeah, my ass is still THAT big.

I like the “Let’s go out and do some physical activity together” approach. And of course, there’s no reason that the whole family can’t eat a little better. Cook meals that are more sensible.

Count me in with those who wish that one of her parents could’ve gotten a heads-up about this 15+ years ago.

It is this, though, more than the other statements, that I wish someone had clued my family in to.

I started gaining weight when I was four. No change in eating habits, no change in exercize–in fact, I was in Gymkats and dance at the time–just a gaining of weight. I didn’t eat more than my peers.

My dad, however, started harping on my about my weight. And, worst of all, he expected me, a child, to understand what I could and couldn’t have. Moreover, I have a sister who could eat whatever she wanted and not gain an ounce. Try explaining to a seven or eight year old that her little sister can have ice cream and she can’t because she’s fat. And try, at that age, accepting punishments for being fat. My dad once told me that, if I didn’t lose weight, I couldn’t go to Disney World with the rest of the family (I think I was 8ish at the time). One tearful conversation with my grandparents later, the issue was moot, but the memories remain.

My family had atrocious eating habits. They still do, as a matter of fact. But I, alone, at ages that were still in the single digits, was supposed to magically figure out how to lose weight while eating convenience foods like Mac N Cheeze, instant noodles Alfredo, and cheez-ee Hamburger Helper. Needless to say, it didn’t work too well.

gobbles, the stepdaughter is 16, I believe. So I don’t know if it’s really part of puberty, and maturing, or what – perhaps she has already been eating for emotional reasons. (I know that her biological mother is very unstable and makes an unsettling appearance about once every few years, and that she just made one recently.) It may be “honest weight gain” – but it’s really not that much. Her body looks fine, in my opinion. She does wear tight pants and short shirts (part of why my friend doesn’t like it – stepdaughter shows too much skin, but I think my friend/the stepmother really doesn’t like that the skin she shows isn’t more firm)

tanookie, can I just echo what Ivylass said. Good riddance to him!

I like the “let’s do something active together” approach too. In fact, that approach takes the focus totally off eating, which is great. But it also makes it so that food can function more as fuel – to fuel the activities – rather than all the other things it can be used for.

I am really sorry this happened to you all, too. :mad: :frowning: I too wish I could have read this letter then. I started on my own twisted road helped by 1) brothers who didn’t really mean to be mean but made lots of comments about my butt (I learned later on that there are whole cities of people who appreciate my butt – wish I had lived then where I live now :)) 2) the fact that I had an overweight mother —she, bless her heart, didn’t make comments about my weight, but I was both determined not to look like her and convinced that all my efforts would fail, and someday I would and 3) parents who misguidedly did not let me play (organized) sports - thought I should focus on academics or something – although I was completely self-motivated in that area…

My kids are still at that marvelous stage of being really in tune with their appetites. It warms my heart to see them put down a cookie with one bite out of it because…they just aren’t hungry any more. What a concept!

I don’t claim much credit for it, but we do try really hard not to attach value judgments to their eating habits, not to make anything forbidden, and, definitely, not to make anything contingent on eating or not eating a particular thing. It’s hard, though. My parents weren’t too bad about food and certainly never said anything to me about my weight, one way or the other, but the “clean plate” philosophy was still there.

I am trying to lose weight myself, but I studiously avoid discussing it in front of the kids. They are really little sponges when it comes to picking up on parental anxieties.

I figure my daughter is going to have enough challenges on that score. She has the body of a mini-ballerina right now, and may for quite a while if my husband’s genes have anything to do with it. But girls in her kindergarten class were already talking about ‘fat’ and I know a lot of their Moms have real issues with food and appearance in general.

As an update, I just got this response from my friend/cow-orker/the stepmother, which made me happy:

Wow!.. You do have strong feelings about this subject. I appreciate your help, and I am very grateful that you have taken the time to talk to me about it. It is true that most messed up adults come from well intentioned parents. I thank you, and so would Stepdaughter if she could.

Love you too.

cher3, it warms my heart to see parents who encourage healthy ways of thinking about food. As you say, it’s hard, because the intuitive thing to say is often not the right thing to say…

[slight hijack]
I have a friend who teaches his daughter to “check in with her body” in connection with food, as well as with other stuff. She might say, “My tummy says that I’m still hungry.” The other day she fell and ran over to him, crying. “What should we do?” he asked her. “We have to check in with my body!” she said, through her tears. They checked in and nothing was hurt…so she went on her way, happy, again…[/slight hijack]

Reading comments like these really makes me relieved that my parents weren’t extremists on either counts (i.e., eating too much or too little). They may not have hit best parenting marks EVERYWHERE, but they never scrutinized what I was eating or made remarks on my body. Negative ones, anyway.

So basically, I don’t eat when I’m not hungry, and when I am hungry I do. As cher3’s kids do so, except I’m a full-fledged adult now. I mean, usually when I’m in a restaurant, I don’t try to “clean my plate” just because I should.

I think that being laidback about food is the way to go. Treat it just as what it is: nourishment. And potentially good nourishment. I don’t know what I’d do if someone congratulated me on “just getting a salad.” Food should be enjoyed, not excessively, no, but there shouldn’t be guilt attached to it.

Can anyone give me a reason to be polite to such impolite people? Often being “polite” doesn’t even get the idea across. “Could you please not make so much of my eating habits?” does not convey the same idea as “Look, it’s none of your damn business.”