When a 9-year-old thinks she's fat

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  July 6, 2009 06:00 AM

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Some girls start paying attention to messages about body image long before we realize.

Question: My daughter, age 9, has recently started talking about her weight. She refers to herself as fat, talks about how big her tummy is. Initially, I ignored this, hoping it was short-term. Well, it's not - this has persisted for 3-4 months. She is not fat: she is very muscular and athletic and just right. Part of the problem is that I adopted another child about 1 1/2 years ago who is very, very thin. In contrast to her sister, almost everyone seems "fat." While I'm happy to make suggestions about choosing fruit instead of chips, I am worried about her becoming fixated on what and how much she eats (in fact she eats a very healthy, varied diet). Her doctor has told her that she is at a healthy weight. She gets a good amount of physical activity. How can I counteract this slippery slope of being fixated on weight and eating?

From: 2busymom, Medford

Here’s the good news, 2busyMom: At 9, you still have lots of opportunity to influence her.

But I want to say, first of all, that I'm glad to know her doctor is aware of your concern; that's important. While you don't want to over-react, disordered eating is what leads to eating disorders, and disordered thinking is a big piece of that. So keep your pediatrician in the loop and familiarize yourself with the danger signs of eating disorders just as a point of education.

Now, since she eats a pretty healthy diet as it is, ramp down the conversation about what she eats. Stop making suggestions (unless she asks your opinion) and relegate the topic of food to a minor one in your home. Focus instead on:

(1) What media she consumes. I’m not just talking TV, although that’s a biggie (see below). What about magazines like Cosmo Girl, Elle Girl or Teen Vogue? We tend to think that because they are geared to girls, the messages inside them are OK for girls. If your daughter reads these (maybe she doesn't bring them home; maybe she reads them at a friend's?), get one and read it with her, have conversations about what you see. Counteract these messages with an age-appropriate magazine called, New Moon Girls.

As for TV, watch with her and help her to process what she sees by saying such things as, “Gee, I don’t know anyone in real life who looks like that, do you?”

(2) The role model you present. Do you rarely/often/always talk about your own body, weight, shape, exercise, dieting? What we communicate indirectly to our daughters is huge and it often happens without our realizing it.

(3) Switching the focus to healthy behavior, rather than healthy eating. In fact, stop talking about her eating and her appearance altogether. There are lots of ways to comment positively on your daughter without ever getting into her size & shape: her sense of humor, her ability to concentrate, her kindness & loyalty to friends, etc etc. All these attributes are downplayed in the popular culture that girls consume and take to heart.

(4) The beauty of size diversity – that is, that every woman is different; that our culture and commercials brainwash us to thinking that there is such a thing as a perfect body. Look for those proverbial teachable moments to have spontaneous conversations about the images women project through their clothing, posture, etc.

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3 comments so far...
  1. This is a really tough subject but it seems the advice in section 1 regarding watching TV, "Gee, I don’t know anyone in real life who looks like that, do you?” would be horrible to say. She obviously knows her teeny tiny skinny sibbling, right?

    Posted by Sarah July 6, 09 12:17 PM
  1. Dieting and healthy living should start a young age. Active parents more often means active children. Back in the day we rode bikes and played outside much more than kids these days by far. Nothing can replace drinking lots of water and exercising regularly. There are some supplements out there that work well and compliment these.

    gl

    Posted by Susan July 6, 09 04:38 PM
  1. my daughter use to be like that until her growth spurt she's 6ft2 now and 12

    Posted by sandra August 6, 09 11:51 PM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. This is a really tough subject but it seems the advice in section 1 regarding watching TV, "Gee, I don’t know anyone in real life who looks like that, do you?” would be horrible to say. She obviously knows her teeny tiny skinny sibbling, right?

    Posted by Sarah July 6, 09 12:17 PM
  1. Dieting and healthy living should start a young age. Active parents more often means active children. Back in the day we rode bikes and played outside much more than kids these days by far. Nothing can replace drinking lots of water and exercising regularly. There are some supplements out there that work well and compliment these.

    gl

    Posted by Susan July 6, 09 04:38 PM
  1. my daughter use to be like that until her growth spurt she's 6ft2 now and 12

    Posted by sandra August 6, 09 11:51 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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