QUESTION: My daughter is at the age where puberty is upon us – she’s gained some weight and her body is changing. Her pediatrician mentioned it the last time we were there for an appointment and although she didn’t react at the time, she’s asked some questions since then that make me wonder if she’s concerned about her weight. I really don’t want her to grow up to experience the same struggles with body image that I did. How should I address this? Should I say something to my daughter about her weight?
ANSWER: If your child is expressing body-image distress, the worst thing you could do would be to ignore it.
Body image concerns are rampant among young girls, and many in adulthood cite the doctor’s office as the place where much of their childhood body preoccupation began. Puberty is also an extremely difficult time for most young girls in terms of body image, as it often comes along with weight gain and occurs during a time in a child’s life that is filled with comparison and bullying.
Interrogate Your Own Body Image
In order to address these body-image concerns, it’s important to show your daughter that you respect body diversity, and for you to challenge the messages she will undoubtedly bring home that regard fat bodies as a bad thing.
Part of this is actually going to be about you and your own body image. Children are like sponges, and if they see you hating your body, it won’t matter what you tell them about bodies in general. They will mimic what they see, and if they see body hatred that is what they will inherit. If you’re struggling with your own body image, I would suggest addressing that first. Setting a good example is one of the most important things that you can do for your daughter.
When I prompt my clients to think back to their younger years, I sometimes ask them what they remember about their parents and their relationship with food or their body. And while this won’t be the case for everyone, many cite that their recall experiences with their parents more so than what they physically looked like. Their memories center around traditions, vacations, and spending time together – which is to say, your child is not as likely to be fixated on your body as you might think!
Provide Resources that Celebrate All Bodies
If you have already worked on your relationship with food and your body, or are currently doing that work with a professional, the next step would be to fill your home and your life with body-positive resources that celebrate all kinds of body shapes and sizes.
One great resource, especially for young girls going through puberty, is the book Celebrate Your Body (and Its Changes, Too!): The Ultimate Puberty Book for Girls by Sonya Renee Taylor. This book will help provide your daughter with information about what is going on with her body in a way that also doesn’t engage in language that will shame her changing body.
Celebrate Your Body offers essential insight such as:
- An overview of puberty that explains what happens, when it happens, and how she’ll know
- Explanations of changes in body, mood, and relationships―and how to confidently approach these changes that occur in puberty
- Practical advice for navigating new situations during puberty―from understanding growth spurts to managing overwhelming emotions to staying safe on social media
Complete with current, accessible medical information, Celebrate Your Body offers a fresh take on this whole “puberty” thing that will leave girls feeling informed, empowered, and ready for the changes that lie ahead.
And if you’ve followed with me for a while, you know I’m a big advocate for intuitive eating (both the original book and the companion workbook). There’s an updated version of the workbook specifically for teens.
You might also consider where your daughter is hearing other messages. Things like social media, news outlets, and digital publications can all be great resources….buuuttt they can also be something that breeds comparisons and intensifies feelings of inadequacy. If you notice your daughter spending increasing amounts of time in front of screens, consider offering alternatives for entertainment or examples of body positive, weight neutral, or non-diet accounts to engage with.
Be a Voice for Your Child at the Doctor
Lastly, I would suggest that you make it a point to discuss this doctor’s visit with your daughter and explore any concerns that she may have developed due to this visit. Make it clear to your daughter that this is an open discussion, one where she can express her annoyance, pain or confusion.
The next time you head to the doctor for your daughter’s annual check-up, make sure that both she and you are prepared for the kind of rhetoric that she might be subjected to. This might mean reviewing how to request not being weighed at the doctor’s office, how to respond when the doctor engages with your daughter about her weight or dietary habits, and more.
For a few tips on how to navigate this situation, read this piece on What To Do About Wellness Screenings When You’re Not Interested In Weight Loss.
Doctors are often regarded as authority figures who are always 100% correct about the health of their patients. Unfortunately, even doctors are fallible. Trust your gut if you feel your child’s doctor is doing more harm than good. Remember that you have every right to get a new doctor for your daughter who will honor her body.
Ragen Chastain, fat activist and athlete, has put together a great resource for surviving a fatphobic doctor’s visit. Included in that resource is printable cards that can be used for your doctor’s visit, as well as some helpful phrases for advocating for weight-inclusive care.
Actively Challenge Our Fatphobic World
As a mother, I know you want to prevent your daughter from experiencing the harm that you did growing up. We often can’t prevent our children from being exposed to fatphobia and weight stigma, but we can do our best to reinforce the values that will support them in developing a positive relationship with their body.
Encourage your daughter to think critically about the messages she is receiving, and to always question when someone tells her she must be a certain way, or conform to a certain ideal. Not only will this help her to build up her own sense of self that will protect her from diet culture, but it will prepare her for the moments in her life when you aren’t there to guide her.