When my daughter says she’s fat

Question of the Day: “What do I say when my daughter says she’s fat or talks negatively about her body?”

I’ve been asked this question many times over the years. Because I’ve been teaching sex education since the dawn of time, people assume I also know how to answer questions about body image, but it really isn’t my area of expertise.

To help me answer this question, I’ve called in my colleague Susan Hyatt.

Susan Hyatt is a master certified Life Coach who has helped thousands of women to transform their bodies and lives. She’s the creator of the Bare Process, the Bare Deck, the Bare Podcast, and an online community called Bare Daily. Susan has gained an international following of women who love her honesty, humor, and fearlessness.

Susan has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Woman’s World, Seventeen, and O: The Oprah Magazine, and was a Finalist for the Athena Award, honoring her work in the field of women’s empowerment.

What should a mom say when her daughter criticizes her body and says “I’m fat”?

Susan: “When a young woman says ‘I’m fat,’ it’s usually an invitation for conversation because they are feeling less than confident. Some kids use ‘fat’ as an insult but others are starting to reclaim the word fat saying, “So what if I’m fat? Why is fat an insult?” When your daughter talks negatively about her body, ask her to tell you more.”

“Don’t jump into fat being a terrible thing. So what if you are? Is that a big deal to you?”

“If you ask more questions they might elaborate, ‘my thighs are getting big’ or ‘I over-ate.’ You’ll want to ask questions so your daughter can think deeper about what it means to live in the skin she is in. If she says, ‘I weigh more than I did last month.’

Separate thoughts from facts

You can help her separate her thoughts from the facts. The fact is I gained 5 pounds. My thoughts about that are: “I should be skinnier then I am.” She gets to choose what she wants to think, about the facts. 

Torie: “I think the natural response for many moms when their kid makes a negative statement about themselves (“I’m fat, I hate my body, I’m ugly”) is to say “No you aren’t honey, you are beautiful just the way you are.” This creates a resistance and doesn’t seem to give us the result we want, which is our kids to think positively about themselves.”

Susan: “Yes, When we immediately jump in and say, ‘No you aren’t fat. You are beautiful,’ not only does it cause our kids to push back against us, but we reinforce that gaining weight is a horrible thing. Kids may think ‘She has to say that, she’s my mom,’ or they will argue and advocate for the thing they think is horrible: pinching their fat belly to PROVE that they are right and we are wrong.”

“If you agree with them, and start to talk about exercise or weight loss, that’s not a good plan either. Parents should be neutral, get more info, and talk [to their kids] about confidence and taking care of themselves from place of love. We’ve been trained to think [being] fat is the worst thing you can be. There are a lot worse things you can be in this world than having a few extra pounds on your body.

“The culture of ‘fat phobia’ has done a lot of damage to the mindset of women. Clearly pushing back against being fat and seeing fat as an insult isn’t working. The obesity epidemic in America has tripled since the 80’s.”

“Many people think they can beat themselves into submission, trying to motivate themselves with negative self talk. It’s the opposite of what a human body needs.”

Torie: “I can remember being a freshman in high school, and after lunch all the girls would gather in the vanity room before heading back to class. It was a room with mirrors on all four walls, and girls would fix their hair or put on makeup before heading to class.

I remember one day, one of the girls looked at her reflection and said, ‘I hate my nose’ the girl to her left said, ‘I hate my hair,’ on it went, around the room. I hadn’t learned how to hate on my body yet (thanks, Mom!) but I wasn’t going to be the ONLY one who says, ‘I love my body’ so I made something up about hating my eyebrows and on it went.”

“Do you remember the first time you picked up on the idea that you were supposed to hate your body? What would you have loved to hear at that age?”

Susan: “We want this sense of belonging, we’ll do and say things that are terrible for ourselves just to belong. It takes a lot of courage, even as grown women, to be the one in the room saying I love my body as it is.”

“I was 11, with my older sister, who is 6 years older than me, playing with a Polaroid camera. I had a box fan to blow my hair, while we took pictures and played.  She was holding the photo up to the light to develop when she gasped and said, ‘Oh my god your thighs are big.’ My first thought was, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been walking around and something’s wrong and I didn’t even know it. She’s my older sister so she must be right. I need to diet; I need to shrink myself.'”

“I would have loved to hear: You are more than your appearance.”

“We are trained to believe our external appearance is our commodity in the world. Our power comes from how attractive we are to the male gaze.”

“I would have loved to hear: you are fine as you are. You have a lot more to offer the world than thin thighs. It’s important to compliment your daughters on things other than their personal appearance. ‘I love how smart you are, how artistic; that was such a kind thing you did. I love your questions. You are so curious.”

“We need to communicate to our daughters that their value in society is beyond how thin they can get.” 

There is an entire industry built around keeping you believing something is wrong with you. Don’t believe it and don’t buy into it.

Torie: “Teenagers have this natural rebellious streak, so giving them something to push back against can be helpful. Saying the media messages are designed to keep you small, not using your voice, can evoke their inner rebel.”

Susan: Tell your teen, “We want you to be a big, bold, brave version of yourself and the best way the diet industry can keep you from that is to keep you focused on your thighs. A diet teaches obedience.  Do you want to be obedient or do you want to shake stuff up? All that time spent counting, obsessing, weighing, ruminating is time that could be spent making an impact on the world.

The fastest way to grow any economy is to empower girls and women. We are 83% of dollars spent in consumer industry. The patriarchy wants you to be quiet and distracted, Why? Because an empowered woman in the patriarchy is a dangerous woman. If we have any hope of closing the pay gap before 2026, it’s going to be from disrupting the pattern of dieting.

Take a look at social media news feeds and make sure it feeds you, not depletes you. How do you feel while scrolling? Curate news feeds and beware of your mental diet. Make sure it’s filled with all shapes and sizes.

Life Coaching Answer: What gets in your way from saying the right thing?

Susan: “Moms have been steeped in diet culture just as much as the kids. Most moms want something different for their daughter but they don’t believe it for themselves. Learn together.”

“My sister was no villain; she was steeped in her own issues and diet culture. Be honest and say, ‘When I was your age, (or last week), I was envious when I saw my friend on social media because I thought, That’s never going to happen for me or I wish I looked like that.’ I’m learning to tell myself different things, let’s work together. I don’t want to waste my time pinching my fat in the shower, getting dressed a million times, then not going out because I don’t look skinny enough.”

It can become a bonding thing. 

Torie: “When you can humble yourself and admit you don’t know everything, it will create an easier relationship with your teen.

Try saying, ‘You’ve listened to me criticize my body for the last 12 years, but now that I hear it coming out of your mouth, it doesn’t feel good to me.’ How about we figure this out together?

Kids are in a major growth journey, why not join together? Ask your daughter, ‘Am I still a good mom, even though I have extra weight on my body?'”

Susan: “When teens think you are trying to be the authority, they won’t listen. This isn’t about having the perfect conversation, just opening the channels of communication.

If you lecture them about feeling positive about their bodies, they won’t respond. Aim for a collaboration or invitation.”

Torie: How do you balance the idea “I’m perfect as I am AND I want to change?”

Susan: “We’re all messy works of art. I can love my country and recognize we have work to do. I can love my body and decide to get ripped abs but from a place of love and peace, not oppression and obedience.

How does it feel to have that goal? When you think about a weight loss or exercise goal, does it feel like a celebration? Is your motivation from a healthy place or a dangerous place. 

How you feel about your goal will determine the result you get.

Supermom KryptoniteBeing rooted and taking action from negative emotion.

Torie: “Taking action from negative emotion can drain your energy. You might do the same things as someone else like eat healthy and exercise, but if you do it from shame or self hatred, it’s never going to give you the result you want.”

Susan: “Exactly, if you go to the gym while rooted in fear and anxiety over what might happen if you don’t, it’s not going to work. If you are exhausted from self-care, then your self-care is rooted in fearful, graspy, needy energy. Others go to the gym because they love the feeling they get when they go. This gives them a positive self image, emotions and motivation to keep going. Be a woman who takes amazing care of herself from a place of love.”

Supermom Powerboost – Move your body.

Want a quick boost of energy? Put on your favorite playlist and dance, by yourself, for 5 minutes. That is an instant mood booster. Check out Susan’s “Summer of Yes” playlist. Or, copy Torie and sing and dance to your favorite broadway show tunes.

Quote of the day:

“It isn’t about the physical weight you have to lose, it’s about the mental weight that blocks you from loving yourself.” Susan Hyatt

Check out Susan’s BARE book and mother-daughter book club www.Letsgetbare.com BARE daily membership community. Listen to BARE podcast. Follow on Instagram: @SusanHyatt