Parental Comments on Appearance
Q: Why does my daughter get angry whenever I comment on her food, body, weight, or clothes?
A: Although your daughter might appear angry, it is more likely that these comments make her feel threatened and afraid. Let me explain.
There are some universal things we all need and want in life, including a sense of power, control, and ownership of our lives and bodies. When someone has an eating disorder she hasn’t been able to figure out how to establish these things for herself (or she’s tried a variety of ways and they haven’t worked well enough), so she learns to use food, exercise, weight, and her body as a way to assert control and power and feel as though she’s the one in charge of her life.
So, when you comment to your daughter about anything body-related, she doesn’t hear the good intentions of a concerned parent, she hears a threat to her crucial ways of being: you are trying to take away her power, control, and self-determination. This makes her feel scared, and as a result, she will lash out at you in anger, particularly if she herself does not understand why your comment has upset her. Although this will change when she gets further into recovery and understands that there are issues underlying her dysfunctional behaviors, until then she will be convinced that her eating disorder is simply about food and weight, and nothing else.
It’s ok for you to acknowledge her fears about this, as well as your understanding of the dynamic. In fact, it can be very helpful for both of you. Instead of getting caught in a painful and futile struggle about “How much did you exercise today?” you can talk about what is really going on. Unless she requests it, however, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on this, at least at the beginning of her recovery process. It can be an intense topic to talk and even think about.
Instead, I recommend spending as much time as possible talking to her about less controversial subjects, such as things you both have in common; her personal interests, beliefs and philosophies; plans for something fun to do together; or most any topic she happens to bring up. Conversing about these kinds of things doesn’t mean you don’t think about or notice her eating disorder, or that you are in denial about the illness. But sharing non-controversial subjects can help reduce tensions between the two of you, foster good will, and promote increased communication.
When Saying Something is Necessary
Having said all this, despite the fact that she’ll find the topic unpleasant and aggravating, there are a few situations in which you may feel it is necessary to say something. For example, if you notice that she appears to have lost a dangerous amount of weight and are concerned she might be in imminent medical danger. Or she appears to be increasingly depressed, withdrawn, or irritable. Or you’ve noticed she seems unstable on her feet. Or her judgment or strength has become seriously impaired, to the point where she is not safe or strong enough to drive a car, for instance. These are only a few examples, but the point is, you should say something if and when you believe she is in significant trouble.
Deciding if and when to approach a subject like her body, food, or weight needs to be a thoughtful process. Do not bring up these topics in the heat of an argument, while she is trying to eat, or in any way impulsively. Look for better opportunities such as while shopping at the mall or renting a movie with an actress with a known eating disorder as a way of broaching the subject. Also, it’s best if you can approach the topic from your experience (“I’m afraid for your health”) as opposed to “lecturing” her. Plan what you want to say ahead of time so your comments are brief and concise. Do not make her feel trapped by approaching her “out of the blue” or in a context where she’ll feel especially exposed or vulnerable, such as at a family gathering, or while she’s with friends. Finally, expect her to be upset by what you say. Tell her you realize your comments might be disturbing, but that you in no way mean to hurt her feelings or make her feel bad about herself. Let her know that your only concern is for her wellbeing, and that you can tolerate her annoyance about your comments because you love her.
About the Author
Johanna Marie McShane, PhD, has a private practice in Lafayetter, CA and is the co-author of Why She Feels Fat, a book for parents.
Visit her blog at: eatingdisordersblogs.com.
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Summer 2009 Volume 7, Number 3
©2009 Gürze Books