Navigating weight talk in front of your daughter

I hate the words “have you lost weight.”

They are just loaded.  With good intentions, the speaker would insist, but with so much else underneath those good intentions.

You see, in our society, the ultimate compliment is “you look like you have lost weight.”

But that compliment assumes that everything is black and white– that what appears as “extra” weight to a person’s eye is bad, that small is better, and that however you lose weight– through a lifestyle change or an illness or incredible stress- is great because the end justifies the means. So there’s that.  And I could go on about that for a while but that’s not the focus of today’s post.

Today’s post is not even just about what happens when we say, “You’ve lost weight” to someone and he or she hasn’t lost weight.  But as an aside, when we do that, we leave a message hanging in the air:  All this time, I’ve been thinking that you needed to lose weight and, by golly, I thought you finally had.   

Today’s post is about what happens when those words are uttered as you are walking through, let’s say, the grocery store with your young daughter (who is, for example’s sake, somewhere between 5 and 20) in tow.  What then?

Because here’s the thing.  Your developing daughter doesn’t have the cognitive ability (and cognition develops into our twenties!) to navigate all the nuances of what is going on and what is being said, to understand lifestyle change or stress or sickness or whatever, all she knows is that suddenly her mom is getting fawned over and praised in the gourmet cheese section because her body is different.  Because, more specifically, her body is smaller.  And what that reinforces to her is that smaller bodies are better, irregardless of how getting smaller goes down.

Recently, a woman approached me to ask how to handle that very situation.   She had discovered a new love of working out and her body was, indeed, a different size than it was six months before and everybody- men and women who knew her from every facet of life- was talking about it.  A lot.  And in front of her daughter.

At first, it had felt good.  She was working hard.  She felt so much better.  And, yet, more and more, she was coming to realize that her daughter was hearing all of this- the “you look great; how much weight have you lost remarks”, “the thank you so much, I’ve been working hard” remarks- and was probably hearing it with a different lens as she was coming into her own body development.

What do I do?  She asked.

Short of sending a missive to everyone you know (and maybe posting said missive on Facebook, too), to say “Hey, let’s make a deal and, ideally, not talk about my body at all but if we must, then let’s not talk about it in front of my daughter who doesn’t quite get all of this”, the truth is that the comments are likely to continue because we, for whatever reason, sometimes believe other people’s bodies are our business (my mind flashes now to my friends who have been pregnant and had their bellies man(or woman)handled in the grocery store by some stranger).

So, what’s a mom whose body is being discussed publicly in front of her daughter to do?

Redirect the conversation.

Let’s say that Sally, the down-the-street neighbor who you usually only see when you drive by, spots you in the dairy section and exclaims,

“Well, Tracy, I would never have even known it was you if you didn’t have Ashley with you.  You look like a whole new woman.  How much weight have you lost?”

You are cringing now because you believe that there is no way that Sally can exist.  But she does.  And she has friends who shop at that grocery store, too.  And they are even less subtle and less sensitive to the fact that you are shopping with your daughter.

What you most want to communicate to your daughter (because, yes, while you are talking to Sally, it really isn’t Sally that matters.  It is your daughter.) is that taking care of ourselves matters but that our weight isn’t what determines our worth.

“Good to see you, Sally.  I think you must be reacting to the fact that I am really trying to work some self-care into my days.  I got so busy for awhile there that I wasn’t able to take the time I needed for myself, but, as time passes, I just wanted to feel as strong and sharp as I could so I’ve been adding those thing to my list, too.  The important thing is just that I have more energy now (or whatever else you are feeling right now that happens to be true).  Hope you are well!”

If your daughter is a little older and more mature, you can even have a direct conversation with her about the comments you are hearing.  You can say something like, “It must be really confusing to hear so many people talk about my body, and I wanted to let you know that I am doing these things- working out, cooking at home or whatever- not so that my body will be different but so that I just feel better because I was feeling really ____________.  What questions do you have for me?”  And then answer her questions thoughtfully and let her know that she can come back to you at any time with more questions.

Many moms fail to realize that our children already think we’re beautiful.  And so if our body changes and WE act as if the new body is better, then they worry about their own perceptions of reality and also learn to redefine beauty– leading themselves away from the understanding they have developed for themselves and more towards the one society has handed to them.

Have you faced weight remarks in general?  How about remarks made in front of your children?  How did you handle them?  Is there anything you would have done differently in hindsight?  Oh, and do you know Sally?

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16 responses to “Navigating weight talk in front of your daughter”

  1. Tami (Teacher Goes Back to School)

    I am looking forward to hanging out with you some day. This is some seriously good stuff.

  2. Tami (Teacher Goes Back to School)

    I am looking forward to hanging out with you some day. This is some seriously good stuff.

  3. Lisa Eaton Wright

    Love this post – it’s spot on! What’s so interesting to me is we only hear what’s said, “Have you lost weight?” It’s all the other things left unsaid that speak so much louder – if we take the time to listen. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Anna

    This is SO great and important, Rosie. Thank you for sharing this! I love the tips and examples you give.

  5. Homa

    My husband and I have been calorie counting for over a year (380 days I believe at last notification on My Fitness Pal) – he has lost 70 points and I’ve lost 30. We did it for the children, to be healthier and make better choices but we’ve both learned that we really need the counting/tracking to keep us honest. The effect on the kids though is not unnoticed by us. They ask to weigh their food since we do and we tell them that they know how to stop eating when their bellies are happy but Mommy and Daddy need help knowing when to stop. We also exercise regularly and the kids see that and know that is part of being healthy as well. So I really appreciate your focus in the imagined dialogue on health. Most people that ask us about our weight loss ask what we’ve been doing so I haven’t had to explain any “you look great” type remarks so far. Really appreciate your post and thoughts!

  6. Michelle Icard

    “Many moms fail to realize that our children already think we’re beautiful.” That line jumped right off the screen at me. Great post. No one ever asks “Have you gained weight?’ I don’t see why people can’t just reverse that to get the logic that – as you’ve taught me – bodies are off limits for conversation.

  7. Angela Jacklin

    What a powerful & timely message, Rosie! Sadly, I just had my first experience as a Preschool Psychologist with a kid this week (5 years old) that was referred to me for trying to make herself sick after she eats. This beautiful little girl said, “I don’t want to be fat.” Heartbreaking that a child’s self image is so low after only 5 short years…If we as positive female role models explicitly teach the standard for what beauty is really about, maybe this little girl and others just like her will learn to love themselves for the size of their heart and character, instead of their waistline.

  8. Cecile

    When a discussion comes to “weight loss”, I definitely re-adress it “No idea how much I weight! I just eat as I am hungry, and I feel fit, that’s all what matters to me” and I just change to any other topic….

    At the moment my daughter and her cousin (both 4,5 years old) are really struggling with such “beauty” issues.

    Delight feels mad when somebody says her sister is pretty fat. I try to explain her that fat and beauty are two different kind of things, and yes her sister is fater than she was, which is absolutely sane, even important.

    Also the issue of beeing different from her sister. “Owww, how cute and beautiful Enjoy is! Did Delight as a baby look like her?”. And Delight feels suddently, well, not that beautiful….
    My answer: “No she doesn’t. Each of our daughters is unique, and both are totally beautiful.”

    Delight’s cousin doesn’t feel good – other girls at her Kindergarten told her that she is not beautiful “because I don’t have a round face”. I was horrified…. I tried to explain her that it is wrong, she’s beautiful. It is good that we are all different, the world would be pretty annoying if we would be all the same. That’s exactly like a rainbow, where each colour is important and beautiful. Her mother already spoke to the educators, in order for the issue to be adressed.

    As children in this age are looking for “good examples” to follow, it makes them very vulnerable in front of all the “beauty” talk or “beauty” show. A media diet is not only good for the big girls and moms, but definitely also for young girls!

    Apropos, does anybody knows if there is a “beautiful” princess that is NOT stereotype? This would be a great help!

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