LIKE Aunt Annie on Facebook

LIKE Aunt Annie on Facebook

LIKE Aunt Annie on Facebook

Monday, January 16, 2012

When your daughter thinks she's fat

I'm guessing a lot of you have read this post, which has been circulating on facebook: 

I read it too, and I've been mulling over the issue of little girls thinking they're 'fat' (!) ever since. That mum ended up dancing proudly naked in front of the mirror with her daughter (and good on her!!). But maybe that's not what's going to help everyone. (Personally, I'm just not the dancing-naked type.)

So what else can we do when our daughter gets attacked by the fat police before she's even in her teens? What do we do when a little girl in our care declares sadly "I'm fat!"?

The instinctive reaction of any parent is outrage and denial, of course. That's natural. Regardless of that little girl's actual body size, it's natural to try to protect her from body image issues at such a ridiculously young age.

Well, guess what? It might be natural to say "no you're not!". But it's not helpful.

This is one of those moments where, as parents, we have to sit on our 'natural' reactions. Bite that tongue. You have to. When your daughter shares such a delicate piece of her feelings, a rebuttal like that will shove those feelings right back inside her.

Don't kid yourself that "I'm fat" is a statement of fact. Every woman who's ever looked in a mirror knows that "I'm fat" is, first and foremost, a statement of feelings- feelings of insecurity, of not being good enough, of being ugly and undesirable, of not fitting in with the accepted norm. Whether it's true or not.

Now think about what happens when you share your feelings with someone close to you. I mean, how would you feel if you said to your partner "I miss my mum", and he said "No you don't!"? Would it help you? Would it make that feeling go away? Would you feel like he understood you? (Would you file for divorce?)

"No you're not" is a response that's about you, not about your daughter. Body size is such a touchy issue for women (and for some men too). No mother worth her salt wants her daughter to have to deal with what she herself has been through in front of the mirror, let alone from pre-puberty. (Especially if it's not even accurate.) Of course you want to shove that right back in the box! 

It's so tempting to try to use logic next, or to reframe your daughter's statement in a more positive way. 

"You're still growing." 

"You have strong legs, not fat legs." 

"It's natural at your age to have a bit of puppy fat." 

"Girls are meant to be curvy."

Imagine your husband just replied to "I miss my mum" with "She's in Italy and you'll see her when she comes back next year." (logical.) Ouch. 

Or, "You're used to having your mum here to help with the kids." (reframed.) Eek. 

That's what factual, logical, reframed responses to feeling statements do- for the person who just revealed their inner truth, it feels like running into a brick wall.

It's also tempting to try to replace her statements with your own. 

"I think you're just right." 

"I think you're beautiful."

Hang on right there- now you're talking about you again. I know you mean well, but you just passed right over your daughter's feelings like they weren't there. She's already feeling bad, and now you're telling her she's wrong as well? 

Or are you just saying, in essence, "I refuse to understand"? 

I know you didn't mean to say that. I get it. You were trying to reassure her. But that won't work. It's about as useful as your partner saying, after you say "I miss my mum", 

"I don't."


These are all well-meaning attempts to be helpful, reassuring, positive. But there's a step missing, and that step is respecting what your daughter just told you.

When your daughter shares something that makes her feel bad, it's the feelings you need to deal with- not the facts. The moment you contradict her, you're refusing to acknowledge her feelings about this- and that's not respectful. Put yourself in her shoes- go back to that statement about missing your mother. What would you like your partner to say when you express that feeling?

"You sound sad. Would you like to tell me more about that?"

What do you think? Can we use that with a little girl who thinks she's fat? You bet we can. That's acknowledging and respecting her feelings, and inviting her to give us more information while we listen.

Here are some other things you can say that are likely to help your daughter, because they'll encourage her to tell you more.

"Do you feel like that, or did someone else tell you that?" 
 (don't get angry if so- that doesn't help.)

"Is there some part of your body you're worried about in particular?" 
 (this is not your cue to tell her which parts of your body you hate. This is about her.)

"Is there something i can do to help?"

 When you've got to the root of the problem, it might be time for some positives.

"What parts of your body do you think are beautiful? Would you like me to help you find them?"

"What makes you feel good about your body?"

"Do you have an outfit that you feel really beautiful in?" 

If you don't get any leads on how to help your daughter from her answers here, you might need to start suggesting and informing, but gently- not like a bull at a gate! Nobody ever changed their minds on a emotional issue through being presented with the facts. Hold that thought, please!

Here are some random, feel-good, constructive ideas to help you support a little girl who thinks she's fat.

It's really hard to feel ugly with squeaky-clean hair.

It's really hard to feel ordinary in a bubble bath.

It's really hard to feel fat when you're growing your own little vegie garden, or learning to cook.

It's really hard to feel unattractive when someone's giving you a manicure.

It's really hard to feel left out when you're dancing to pop songs with mum instead of flopped in front of the TV.

It's really hard to get too serious about body size when you're having fun and doing something you love- the more active the better.

These might just sound like distraction techniques, but I bet you already know they are actually ways to make yourself feel special, strong and capable. Help your daughter to feel special, strong and capable!

If your daughter's problem has any basis at all in reality- if she's really above her most healthy weight- there are things you can do to help. The three great causes of childhood obesity are:

1. too much screen time, 
2. heavily processed and take-away food, and 
3. cotton-wool parenting, ie too little strenuous activity. 

I actually researched that recently, for a uni assignment. And you know, I have a sneaking suspicion that those three factors also contribute to kids feeling bad about themselves (though I haven't done the research), so maybe a little attention to these won't hurt the little girl who's overly worried without factual cause, too. These are three areas where you do have the power to make your daughter feel better about herself, by tweaking your daily routine. 

Here are some more things you can do:

Stop bringing Cosmo, Cleo, New Idea (and all those other idiotic magazines featuring unnaturally skinny women) into the house. That goes for diet magazines too.

Ban "America's Top Model", 'Biggest Loser" and other TV programmes that celebrate idiotic behaviour around body size. (And anything featuring Kyle Sandilands, while we're at it.)

Stop making negative, judgmental comments about your own (and others') body size, especially in front of your daughter, and stop dieting. (You don't want your daughter to accept being bullied? Then stop bullying yourself! Beating yourself up about your appearance is modelling the behaviour you want to eliminate!)

Help your daughter with her self-confidence in other areas, especially if she is being bullied about her weight. (That's where teaching her to say assertively "I'm not fat, I'm girl-shaped"- with a smile- can start being helpful.)

Parenthood is so hard, isn't it? -especially when we have to choke down our natural responses. Just remember that fat is about feelings, not facts, and you'll be halfway there.


  1. Wow! Thanks Aunt Annie! Great advice, with some really practical solutions as to what to say in said situation. I remember being told that I had 'thunder thighs' as a joke by my mum (I was a short distance sprinter in my day), and it affected me forever. When I was less than 45kg, in an unhappy marriage and totally unhappy with myself, I realised that I just had 'healthy thighs'. But you are so right, and your analogies are so helpful- it doesn't help to negate the feeling- it only helps to respect it and explore it.

  2. 'Jokes' have a lot to answer for. One of my relatives ended up with anorexia thanks to exactly the same comment. I'm so glad you came out the other side of that.

  3. Great ideas for a touchy topic, you speak about it very well!

  4. Great ideas. I love the constructive ideas.

  5. As a child psychotherapist for over 20 I have been reading 10-20 post a day for years..most of the time I am screaming in my head at the inappropriate or insufficient advice given by so called experts. Or upset by those giving advice not trained in the field of psychology.
    However I can truly say that your advice and suggestions in your blog are way above even many therapist posts.I want to say thank you for your excellent excellent understanding of kids.We are really on the same page and I would love to talk about collaborating if you like;)

    This article is the first one in 10 years even close to understanding the issue!
    here is my piece on Mommy I am fat
    best Ava

    1. Thank you, Ava. I really appreciate the positive reinforcement! Sometimes it does feel like I'm talking into a vacuum, especially about eating and body image issues, so it's good to hear that I'm at least sending the right message out there.

      I love the idea of a collaboration. If you access and 'like' my Facebook page-
      - you can send me a personal message so we can communicate further about this.


PLEASE leave your comments here so all readers can see them- thank you!