As she was sitting on the toilet and I was reading to her, my daughter paused, looked down at her legs and then looked up at me.
“My thighs are fat,” she announced, as matter-of-factly as if she were saying, “the sky looks cloudy today.”
“WHAAAAAT???!!!!,” was my internal response, panicking that she was heading down an all-too-familiar path…
“Hmmm…what makes you say that?” I responded, aloud.
“They just are…look. They squish. And they touch.”
Luckily, I had the where-with-all to NOT freak out in that moment, so I responded, in an as matter-of-fact tone as I could,“hmm. Yeah, they do touch. Some thighs do that when they’re sitting. Mine do too.”
Later, as I was reflecting on this incident (and another similar one that had happened weeks before), I remembered a story my young cousin, Kate, told me several years ago after she returned from college one summer, having gained some weight. When she told her mom (my cousin, Jane and a person I admire tremendously) that she had gained weight and her clothes were too tight, her mom responded, matter-of-factly, “Ok, then, let’s go shopping and get you some new jeans that fit better.”
She didn’t immediately say: “Don’t say that! You are beautiful! You look great!”
nor did she do the opposite: talk with her daughter about how she could lose weight or admonish her for eating desert that night.
THERE WAS NO SHAME.
THERE WAS SIMPLY AN ACCEPTANCE OF “WHAT IS.”
Kate may have wanted to lose her added weight, but she didn’t go down the “I hate my body, i hate myself” path that so many girls and women do.
What if we all had moms (and dads and aunts and uncles) who responded that way? Who treated your weight gain or bodily differences as a simple fact (or opinion) of current reality, rather than a terrible thing to either be admonished or denied?
What if you could do this for yourself and/or for your daughter?
Because here’s the thing:
FAT IS NOT A 4-LETTER WORD. “Fat” does not mean “bad.” “Fat” does not mean there is something wrong with you.
“Fat,” just like a blue sky, simply “is.” Just like we might prefer a blue sky over a cloudy one, we may prefer a flat belly over a flabby one. Having extra “fat” may not feel as good; it may not be as healthy for you; it may not fit into your favorite jeans. And, well, maybe you feel it doesn’t look as good on you either.
But in and of itself, it just “is” what it is. It’s a “fact,” (or an opinion) NOT a feeling (despite what the media, or your mother, or the food marketing industry may tell you).
My daughter’s comment about her thighs was an “it just is” comment; it wasn’t a judgment or a negative label. It was a reflection of what she had heard and an exploration of what that meant (and, of course, what I thought it meant).
Later, when I asked her where she had heard about thighs being fat (truly, I don’t recall her ever using the word “thighs” before!), she responded, “from my friends – remember, at my birthday party?”
I do remember, all to well, when one of her little friends said, “I hate my thighs. I wish I was as thin as her (pointing to another girl). My thighs are so fat. I hate them.”
(HATE?! Seriously? At 7 years old?)
It’s the HATE and SHAME about her body that will destroy her spirit — not the size of her thighs. And this is true, too, for you and your thighs, by the way.
So although you may not be able to protect your daughter – or yourself – from the ONSLAUGHT of negative messages about how female bodies “should” look, you CAN help neutralize their impact by providing tools that help her deflect (rather than absorb) that negativity.
You can help your daughter recognize that the size of her belly or the squishiness of her thighs does not determine her worth. And you can choose to view your own (human) rolls and squishes with the kind of acceptance and kindness you’d like to instill in her.
Here are a few tips that may help:
1) Do not be too quick to reassure: If your daughter says, “I look fat” (or some version of that), hold off on reassuring her immediately. Before telling her that you think she is beautiful, first step back, ask questions, and listen. What makes her think this? What does it mean to her? This allows for meaningful communication and connection between you, and gives you an opportunity to understand more about her thoughts and feelings. When you reassure too quickly, you cut off the conversation and the exploration; and more than anything, she needs you to “get” her.
2) The other reason you don’t want to over-emphatically reassure her is that this can convey that you believe “fat is bad.” If I had said, “Oh, honey, don’t say THAT! You’re not fat!!”, I would have essentially been saying, “you better not be (or get) fat, because I can’t tolerate it.” OR, “you better not tell me if you think you are.” Instead, stay neutral and reassure her that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and that if she continues to eat mostly healthy foods that are right for her body, and listen to her hunger and fullness, her body will do just what it’s supposed to do. (And that’s the truth, by the way, for all of us!) After you explore, of course, it’s fine to reassure her that you think she’s beautiful as she is.
3) Don’t necessarily agree with her either (unless you are being matter-of-fact about it): Alternatively, if I had said, “Well, yes, you’re right, you are showing a little of the family thigh problem.” I am essentially saying: “Your body can’t be trusted. You better really control it or you’re going to be ‘stuck’ with this ‘bad’ thing, poor you.” Instead, explore and at this point, offer her reassurance (“I think your body is just right for you”) or support, if she truly does need to lose weight (“You know I think you’re beautiful, no matter what; how can I support you around eating healthier/moving your body more?”)
4) Acceptance and kindness does not mean “giving up” or continuing on an unhealthy path. Many people are concerned that if they “accept” their bodies as is, they will never be driven toward change, so they continue to beat themselves up emotionally (and physically), believing that that will motivate them. (Never works long term!) If you or your daughter IS truly overweight, acceptance must come first (for any real, long-term change to occur). It is then that you can begin to care for your body (and teach her to care for hers) with true kindness and love – healthy foods, movement, and other methods of self-care.
5) Begin to look at your own self with kinder eyes. Notice when you grab your rolls with disgust, or make a face at yourself in the mirror, or talk about your weight in a negative way. If you truly want to change something about yourself, get on your own side by treating all the parts of yourself as you would treat a friend. Give “her” the support she needs to make the changes she desires.
I’d LOVE to hear your response to this article. Love it? Hate it? Resonate with it? Please share your thoughts here on the blog!
Want to use this article in your next newsletter or on your website? You have my permission as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Karen Schachter is a psychology of eating expert who is commited to helping women and girls develop positive relationships to food and their bodies. Ready to feel inspired and nourished? Get your FREE tips now at www.dishingwithyourdaughter.com