Weighing In: What Mothers Should Say to their Daughters

Last week, one of my friends posted on Facebook a conversation she’d overheard while in a Target dressing room.

Girl: “I need to lose weight.”
Mom: “No, you don’t.”

When I first saw the post, I liked it (emotionally and with the Facebook thumbs-up), celebrating the way this mother supported her daughter. In the days since, I have not been able to stop thinking about it, replaying this conversation over and over again in my mind. Beyond liking the post, I’ve now come to re-imagine how my life could have been had my mother said that to me even once.

Before I move forward: Full disclaimer and clarification. To be honest, I have been overweight most of my life. Honestly, to be my healthiest, I do need to lose a little weight. That’s something that I have been working on, and I can really say that I am leading a healthier lifestyle these days. That being said, I think there is a difference between the conversations/comments regarding needing to lose weight for health reasons and those regarding someone feeling badly about the way he/she looks. The former is a health issue while the latter is a self-esteem issue. The girl trying on clothing in that Target dressing room was having a crisis of self-esteem, and I believe that her mother responded exactly as she should have.

Growing up, most of my weight-related crises were connected to my self-esteem. How did I look? Did I look stupid? Could I wear shorts? Why can’t I fit into the same brand of clothing as my friends? How am I going to avoid swimming this summer? None of my worries centered around whether I was healthy or not, but on whether I looked okay. Whenever I would raise these issues to my mother, one of three things would happen.

1. She would agree and try to empathize with me. No offense to my mom (or to other naturally thin people), but she has always been extremely (sometimes-annoyingly-easily) skinny. She would try to tell me that she knew how it felt to be “chunky” (this label alone was enough to further my self-esteem issues) and that I would be okay. Ultimately, this just angered me. Because, while she might understand having body image issues (as most women do), she did not know what it feels like to be overweight and to hate your body in that way. Regardless, this response only reinforced what I believed about myself: That I was ugly and needed to lose weight.

2. She would agree and make diet suggestions to me. If I mentioned wanting to lose weight or feeling that I was too fat, she would just tell me some crazy diet I could try. The most popular regime was one her best friend apparently used that allowed her to lose about 50 pounds in a few short months. This meal plan was simple: eat sugar-free Jell-O all day and a salad with no dressing for dinner. This approach was hurtful in two ways: it affirmed my low self-esteem by confirming that my mom thought I needed to lose weight too, and it encouraged me to boost my self-esteem by doing something completely unhealthy for my body.

3. She would ignore it. This was probably the most common response to any of my concerns about my weight. It became a taboo subject after a while. She wouldn’t even respond to it beyond maybe a nasty glance or a short comment in a dressing room about how I needed a bigger size. This ignorance of my concerns left me feeling so isolated and alone that it eventually led me to near-anorexia, and over the course of my sophomore year in high school, I lost about 60 pounds. My mother knew that I wasn’t eating enough, but I was finally at a normal weight. So throughout the process, the warning signs were ignored, and I finally started to get compliments from her.

Even at a normal weight, can you guess where my self-esteem level was? Lower than ever. It took a few years and a looooot of support from friends to feel better about myself and to fix my eating habits. Now, I am once more a little overweight, but eating the healthiest that I have in my entire life and feeling okay about my body most days. But it’s taken me almost 26 years and many emotional, physical, and mental battles to get to this point.

I’m sure the journey with my self-esteem still would have been rocky even with my mother’s support, but I can’t help but imagine how my life could have been different had my mother been more like the mom in that Target dressing room. Had she said to me even once in my life that I didn’t need to lose weight to feel good about myself, I think it would have changed how I viewed my self-worth. I’m not saying that someone else’s comments can completely erase or create your problems. But I think that what mothers say to their daughters about their bodies is something that sticks.

So mothers (or women in general), when your daughter (or another girl you know) is in that dressing room, having a crisis of self-esteem, please help her realize that she is so much more than what she weighs. It’s as simple as this:

Her: “I need to lose weight.”
You: “No, you don’t.”