Q: How do I help my thin tween girl navigate comments on how much she eats (A LOT) from friends?
A: One of the most irritating manifestations of our culture’s obsession with thinness is how it results in people feeling very free to talk about children’s bodies and eating habits. This is wildly harmful to kids in larger bodies who feel scrutinized, criticized and stigmatized. But it’s damaging for thin kids too, though for slightly different reasons than you make think. Let’s dig in.
When people make comments like, “How can you eat so much and stay so thin!” you are likely worried that this will make your daughter feel anxious and self-conscious, like she’s some kind of metabolic freak. And it is an “othering” statement because it’s letting her know this is not the norm. Which, unfortunately, it’s not. That’s why “skinny girl eating pizza” is such a popular Hollywood rom-com trope. Think of Lorelai Gilmore of Gilmore Girls fame, Grace Adler of Will & Grace, and Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, who all charmed their fictional love interests by downing vast quantities of Chinese takeout, candy, deep-fried anything, and cheese puffs. Behind the scenes, all three of these actresses have talked about living with a much more restrictive relationship with food in order to play these roles—yet on camera, they had to act as if they always ate unapologetically and joyfully.
The risk of anyone telling your daughter that her ability to eat a lot of food and still be thin is “not normal” is that this might make her feel like she shouldn’t eat as much as she wants, at least not in front of the people who make such comments. That can also happen if the comments are more of the “keep eating like that and you’ll be 300 pounds!” dire warning variety. Or even with a more seemingly benign “wow you were hungry!” or “guess you didn’t hate that!” as the waiter whisks away a clean plate. Gosh, there are just so many fun ways for people to comment inappropriately on other people’s eating habits!
However this theme is manifesting, it’s important to emphasize to your daughter that there is nothing wrong or pathological about eating a lot of food, no matter what your body size. Our anxiety about this is 100% culturally produced. It’s also unhealthy: “Teenagers need a lot of food because they are growing at around the same rate as toddlers,” says Kenisha Campbell, MD, MPH, director of adolescent medicine outpatient clinical services at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where she specializes in eating disorder treatment. “Would you starve your toddler? No! Growing brains and bodies need fat, protein, carbs and calories.”
But what’s really concerning me here is how these messages also teach your daughter that she’s only allowed to eat this way because she’s thin. This is dangerous because she might not always be thin—bodies change! It may also inform how she thinks about people in bodies bigger than hers, to whom we don’t grant the same permission to eat freely. Thin kids often perpetuate fatphobia, consciously or not, because they don’t see enough positive celebrations of body diversity in their family, friend group, community, or the media they consume. And if she thinks of eating as her special thin privilege, it may reinforce any other “fat is bad” messaging that she’s getting from other sources.
What we need to do here is uncouple your daughter’s weight from her eating habits. If you’re around to overhear one of these comments—or it comes from one of your friends or a grandparent (yes, I promise to write more about grandparents soon, I know you are all struggling with them!)—you might interject directly with something like, “We don’t worry about body size in our family. We trust [Child’s Name] to listen to her body about hunger and fullness.” (Parents of kids in bigger bodies, this line also works for you!) If that sounds like something that will make your 13 year old curl up and die—consider saying it anyway so she sees you setting an important boundary for her, even though she may not thank you for it. Or you can handle the moment with a more benign, “Yes, this pizza is so delicious! Hey, how is [change the subject to literally anything else] going?”
If you can’t address it in the moment, or you’re not around when the comment is made, I’d first suss out where your daughter is with the whole thing. What is it about the comments that bugs her the most? You can help her work through whatever comes up by emphasizing that she is not defined by her body, and that you want her to enjoy food and eat according to her hunger and fullness —and not worry about whether that looks different than how her friends eat. It probably does, but that’s because appetite looks different on everyone. If you can also work in what is hopefully your millionth repetition of “all bodies are good bodies,” that will help you emphasize that even if her body gets bigger, that will still not be a sign that her eating is somehow “wrong.”
Now because I’m sure to get emails about this, I’ll end with the caveat that of course, there are times when eating a lot of food can be a self-destructive behavior. (And again, whether an eating behavior is self-destructive has nothing to do with body size.) I haven’t focused on that here because the question is about responding to other people’s comments, and binge eating most often happens in private. It also happens most often in response to restriction. Simply enjoying food or being very hungry because you are a growing 13-year-old is not binge eating. But if you are concerned about a previous pattern of dieting, or seeing a restrict/binge cycle emerge, talk to your pediatrician and ask for a referral to a Health At Every Size-aligned eating disorder professional. Eating Disorder LA also has a fabulous list of resources that may help.
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