Every mother wants her daughter or son to grow up feeling loved and confident, but babies don’t come with owner’s manuals and we can only teach our kids what we know ourselves.
Children learn what they see
If you were raised in a family where you watched the people around you struggle with food and weight issues, you learned to be critical of your body and mistrustful of yourself around food. As moms, we can’t help but pass down our fears and weaknesses to our daughters. To help your daughter change her relationship to food and her body, you’ve got to first address your own challenges surrounding those issues. I’d like to share a bit of my story.
Why I Stopped My 10 Year Old Daughter from Dieting
Back in 2006, when my daughter, Cara was ten years old, (she’s 24 now), I made the radical decision to stop dieting. I did it for her as well as for me to protect her from making the same mistakes I did.
I was put on my first diet when I was 10 years old, and my takeaway from that experience was years of pain and shame, feeling like something was wrong with me and that my body would never measure up.
I didn’t want to watch my Cara go down the same road as me. I knew that I had to break the 3 generation cycle of shame in our family.
I took her to the doctor because I was worried about her. I had been noticing that she was gaining weight and I was starting to see evidence of her becoming an emotional eater. She had gained 25 pounds in less than a year.
The doctor wanted to put her on a diet to lose weight, but I had a lot of misgivings about restricting the foods she loved. After we left the doctor’s office and headed home, I was filled with so many conflicting emotions. I felt guilt, shame, hurt and anger.
Ignoring the tsunami of emotion welling up inside of me, I began to lecture her in the car, imploring that she begin dieting. She cried all the way home.
The next day we went to Target to shop for her camp bathing suit. With an armload of suits, we walked into the fitting room. I sat down on the bench as she undressed down to her underwear and began trying on the suits we had chosen.
I watched her sad eyes as she struggled to pull the swimsuit over her little tummy. Not wanting to interfere, I stayed silent, and waited for her to ask me for help. Suddenly she turned to me with tears running down her cheeks, sobbing, “I wish I could just cut off my stomach”
In that moment, it had become crystal clear to me that my legacy of self-hatred of my body had been passed down to my daughter. I stood, feeling helpless as I watched her cry, grabbing a chunk of the side of her stomach and screaming, “I’m fat.”
I was so sad and shocked I couldn’t speak. With tears in my eyes, I reached out to hug her and held her close. She got dressed and we drove home in silence.
When I got home, the realization hit me like a ton of bricks. After thirty-three years of living a life bound by my food fears, and being insanely obsessed about losing weight, I could finally see how my distorted body image, was now affecting her self-esteem.
I didn’t know what to do because I had a lifetime of my own food and body issues that I was struggling to handle. As a woman with my own disordered relationship with food and my body, I realized I was the worst role model for my daughter, but I didn’t know what else to do.
I was so desperate to get her eating under control, that I had been doing all the things that I swore I’d never do. I watched her like a hawk, made backhanded comments about her weight, criticized her food choices, obsessed over everything she ate, and in general began to lose sight of my precious girl. I knew that my obsession was killing our relationship and she was starting to hate me.
After seeing how the legacy of my tortured, twisted thinking and dysfunctional eating was affecting her, I knew that if I didn’t break the cycle and handle my own issues, Cara would end up like me; fat, perpetually unhappy with herself, and doomed to a life of body hatred. I couldn’t live with the idea of doing that to my precious girl.
I came to the realization that dieting was a big part of the problem. I was put on my first diet at 10 years old and was fed daily doses of the message that being fat made me ugly. Because I believed that my flab and fat made me inferior, I let people walk all over me and had gotten used to feeling sorry for myself and feeling like life’s victim.
I spent years dissing myself and treating my body like a piece of garbage. Sarcasm, criticism, and meanness were the only ways I knew how to talk to myself. I used these same desperate attempts at communication with my daughter which had become toxic to our relationship. Our closeness was being destroyed by my fat hate. I’m horrified to admit to you that I used to throw away my kid’s school photos when they looked overweight. I was obsessed with wanting both my kids to be thin. Deep down in my heart I knew that as much as I wanted to help Cara find her way to peace in her relationship with food, I couldn’t, because I was cluelessly lost myself. But little did I know that help was just around the corner.
A New Beginning
I met and befriended Doc Frost in an online networking group. Doc was in the process of retiring from a successful twenty-five year career as a therapist and co-founder of an eating disorder clinic in the Midwest. Hearing him speak of his patients and their struggles with such tenderness and care, I instinctively knew I could trust Doc. I confided in him and shared my story, asking for his help and guidance.
He explained to me that in order to change the way my daughter related to food and to her body, I had to challenge many of the limiting beliefs and assumptions I had about food and my body. Doc said that as a dieter, I had learned to fear food and think of my hunger and my body as “the enemies.”
This had set up an unnatural relationship with food and kept me in cycles of hating my body. As long as I lived with the dieters’ all or nothing mentality, I would always end up craving foods that I thought I shouldn’t eat. He explained to me that as a compulsive eater, who was trying to lose weight, depriving myself of food was the worst thing I could do because it intensified my body’s need to eat the food I tried to avoid. Then when I reached a point where I couldn’t stand denying myself a moment longer, I would give in and binge.
My associations with guilt, fear, and shame around food, combined with bad feelings about my body, kept me in an endless cycle of bingeing and dieting. Being so self-conscious about my weight, I was terrified of how fat I would get if I stopped dieting. As much as I hated restricting my food and depriving myself of what I wanted to eat, it was the only way I knew to control my voracious appetite.
I figured if I ever began eating without being restricted by a diet, I’d never stop. Doc assured me this wasn’t true. He taught me an alternative to dieting: a non-diet weight control method he taught his patients called intuitive eating. Here are some tips that have worked for me to help my daughter to make peace with her body and end her emotional eating:
Listen to your heart – Filter everything you say and do through your emotions and call upon your own vulnerability and sensitivity to guide you to know how to best help your son or daughter. Imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes.
As for me, I felt very strongly that although my pediatrician had my daughter’s best interests at heart, she was unaware of the big picture. I knew that I needed to deal with my body shame and all the issues that triggered my own emotional eating in order to help my daughter to deal with hers.
Explore the Sources of Stress– It’s difficult to face but you must realize that your child’s overeating may be getting triggered by stress from within your home, their school or social environment. It’s easy to get fooled into thinking that they have a poor body image because they are overweight, but that’s not true, because their eating is only a symptom of a problem. The problem is not what they are eating, but what’s eating them! Look deeper and explore to see what might be causing your child’s anxiety. Do what you can to eliminate that stress in their life.
Demonstrate your trust – Speaking as a mother who realized that my disordered relationship with food had already cost my son his self-esteem for many years and would also most certainly jeopardize my 10 year old daughter’s, I understood the critical importance of bucking tradition and putting the power of control back in her hands. Despite her doctor’s admonitions to put her on a diet, I chose the opposite. Recognizing that I had to learn from the mistakes that I made with my son pushing him to fear food in hopes of controlling his weight, I had a gut feeling that what my daughter really needed was to know that she could trust herself around the foods that at that time, she felt compelled to eat.
Ban the Scales – I urge you to put away your scales and measuring tape and every other gauge you would use to measure yours and your child’s progress. I know from personal experience that scales and measuring can create enormous amounts of undue stress for any kid and eventually that will only lead them to want to eat to soothe the hurt.
Back in the day when I was 10 years old and on my first diet, my father and step mother, Rosie used to weigh and measure me every week to determine how well I was following my diet.
From my kid perspective, it was frightening knowing that I had no sense of control and whatever the scale or measuring tape showed, it would affect my relationship with two of the people I loved most. If they were disappointed, I felt as though I let them down. And for me, sensing their disapproval was usually the fastest track to a binge. At the time I didn’t understand that they only wanted to help. But because they put so much pressure on me to lose weight, I loved them and was intimidated by them at the same time. Their scale pushing ways always felt so invasive and upsetting.
As an adult, I ended up using the scale on myself in the same abusive way. From my years of dieting, it was the only thing I knew that I could rely on to tell me if I was on the right track or headed off the rails. But because I was so obsessive and had no sense of balance or boundaries, the scale had all the power because depending upon the number shown, it would tell me if I had the right to be happy or not. Sadly I wasted years putting myself and my kids through unnecessary agony dieting and living by the scale, because I didn’t understand how our thoughts affect our bodies.
During the years that I was still weight and diet-obsessed, my son, PT (Paul Thomas) began gaining weight from the time he was about 9 years old. Without giving it a second thought, I handled it in the same manner as my dad and Rosie, with fear and intimidation.
To this day, it has caused a rift in our relationship, often making it difficult for us to be closer. I am loath to admit it, but I have to take responsibility and recognize that when PT was a child, my hypocritical role modeling and my own dysfunctional relationship with food and my body created so much confusion and chaos for him around weight and food. This is probably why he still struggles with excess weight and emotional eating, and refuses to ask me for help.
But since he’s now a 29 year old adult man, I have to recognize my limitations as far as being able to influence his choices. He has set a boundary that he does not want or need my help and I must respect his wishes, have faith in his ability to handle his own eating issues and just let go. It pains me to know that I can help him, but he won’t let me.
Sadly I realize that I made my mistakes with him and corrected them when my daughter faced her own challenges with weight. If I could do it all over, I would never criticize or deprive my son of the foods he loved. I wouldn’t make him feel shameful, bad or guilty for eating those foods, I would never drag him to Weight Watchers meetings, I would never pressure him to keep a food journal, I would never make fun of him and I would never try to make him change by creating fear in his mind of what would happen if he becomes fat. Rather I would teach him how to feel safe around food and to put the emphasis on coping with his stress, not focusing on what he was eating. I would show him through more hugs and kisses, handholding and high fives, that he’s lovable at any size and that he’ll always be safe to share what he’s thinking and feeling and will never be judged by me. But I didn’t teach him those things. I taught him the opposite. Now I know that it was my issues with weight and food obsession that contributed to his struggles with weight.
Be honest about your own struggles – My recommendation is to take your child aside and confide in them. Be willing to allow yourself to be vulnerable and tell them that you realize that your struggles with food have led them to question their own relationship with food and their body, fearing that they can’t trust themselves to stop eating.
Initiate an Open Door Policy with Food – No more dieting or deprivation. Stock the house with foods that everyone enjoys. I realize this seems horribly frightening to you to give your child carte blanche to eat what he/she wants, but you’ll see that after a period of time, your child won’t desire to eat those old forbidden foods anymore.
Eat When Hungry – Suggest to your son or daughter to have a goal in mind at the start of each day to only eat when they are hungry and to refuse food every other time. Make it a game. Tell them that they can eat anything they choose at any time as long as they are hungry. Your child will start to notice that by doing this, they will be getting very picky about what foods they want to eat. On the days when they eat more than they intended to, remind them that we all fall in pursuit of learning how to walk and to be gentle as they patiently learn this new process of eating like a naturally slim person.
Have More Heart to Hearts – Realize that your son or daughter needs your love and guidance. If they have begun to demonstrate habits connected with emotional eating, recognize that they need to have their emotions validated. Spend time and listen to your child and connect with them Find out what’s going on in their life that pushes them to want to eat when they are not hungry. Create a safe, loving, non-judgmental space for your kids to share their thoughts with you.
Let Your Child Test Their Own Limits – At first when I encouraged my daughter, Cara to stop dieting and eat what she wanted and listen to her body, I think she probably tested us both by eating chocolate and other sweet treats often throughout the day. It seemed that there were a good couple of weeks when she would tell me that she would ‘crave’ chocolate cake for breakfast or Reese’s peanut butter cups for dinner, all the while watching my face like a hawk looking for a reaction response. My thought is that this was her way of saying, “Are you sure you really trust me to make my own decisions about what I can eat? Then when I caught onto what she was doing, I stopped making faces, judging her and trying to control her decisions. I knew that I had to back off and deal with my own judgments about what she ‘should’ be eating. From that point, when I made those changes, I noticed that the quality of her choices completely changed their character, moving toward a varied combination of foods that only included moderate amounts of chocolate. Today despite being a Culinary trained chef and professional baker, she has very little interest in sweets.
Know That You Are Her Role Model – I can tell you that you are your son and/or daughter’s best role model. As you begin learning new techniques and strategies for thinking about eating, food, and your body, by watching and observing you, your child is going to pick up all these new discriminations vicariously. Children are just like little sponges soaking up the most subtle information about our thoughts and values without our ever having to utter a single word.
Treasure Their Fat Photos – Keeping your child’s pictures is so important because it sends a message to them that you love, accept and appreciate them. I am mortified and totally embarrassed and ashamed to admit to you that during the years when both of my kids were overweight, I threw away every year of those school photos. I urge you to not repeat my mistake. Put yourself in your child’s shoes and imagine how much rejection you would feel if your parent did that to you.
Be the Change You Wish to See – Instead of you saying, “Okay, this is what you need to do, where you might encounter mad amounts of resistance such as, “Mom, please you’re not going to tell me this.” let your child learn by watching you. As they start to see you act in a different way, becoming more at ease with and accepting of your own body, relaxing more around food, being less judgmental of your slip ups, feeling safer around the foods you used to consider temptation, they are going to want to get in on the goods. Feeling good is our body’s natural state. As your son and/or daughter begins noticing that you’re feeling better about yourself and being more compassionate toward your own body, they are going to be encouraged to re-evaluate their own thoughts and feelings surrounding food and their body. By showing your child that you can feel good about your imperfect self, you give them permission to love themselves despite their flaws. And who doesn’t want that?
Want more? To read the last part of this 2 part series, click the title, “Why I Stopped My 10 Year Old Daughter from Dieting: How to Raise Body Confident Girls & Boys.”
Andrea Amador is The Juicy Woman. Equal parts sweet and oh so sassy, Andrea’s a curvy and confident plus size body image coach/bestselling author who shows mid-life women how to transform their blues and body shame into self-compassion and kindness so they can build their confidence from the inside-out.
Are you stuck in a place of hating your body? Your body is not the problem. Hating yourself is. Put an end to your body wars by learning how to respect and appreciate yourself no matter what! Join author and empowerment coach, Andrea Amador, The Juicy Woman, as she leads you through the foundation principles of her book, “Lovin’ the Skin You’re In” to help you break free of the shame of hating your body, in a non-diet, action oriented environment guaranteed to make you feel more yummy! CLICK HERE to join Andrea’s Facebook Group, “30 Days to Lovin’ the Skin You’re In.”