Is it Ever OK to Make Comments about a Child's Body?
My child has an eating disorder. How do I talk about it?
Often when patients and families come out of treatment they discover that many ordinary, day-to-day interactions aren’t particularly helpful when one is actively working on recovery. We may begin to ask ourselves, what is normal? But even if you or a loved one isn’t struggling with an eating disorder, it can be helpful to shift the conversation away from body weight, shape, size, and food. There’s so much more to talk about!
Many people who comment about other people’s bodies or their weight are not coming from a malicious place. But we know it’s not helpful; in fact, it’s potentially dangerous! Your child and their recovery come first, and that requires setting some boundaries. It’s vitally important to protect the hard work that you have done so far. This situation can present itself in several ways.
Is there any way to prepare?
Before disclosing information about your child’s eating disorder to family and friends, talk to your child about how much and to whom they are comfortable disclosing that information. Do they feel comfortable saying:
“Even if you feel like it’s a compliment, please don’t comment on my body.”
And if they are able to talk about their eating disorder and treatment, can they say:
“I just don’t hear what you say when you make comments about my body, weight, size, or appearance. It’s really hard for my eating disorder and I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t make those comments.”
What if it’s someone I know?
One of the most challenging parts of discharging from treatment is that you are exposed to more triggers and the people that you are with are not always in a recovery mindset. Even if your child doesn’t feel comfortable talking to family and friends prior, your family can create a comfortable place ahead of time. We all tend to know who might say something (a certain cousin or friend). Does it make it easier if you inject a little humor?
“We’re not going to talk about my weight today. You have all heard me sing the new Harry Styles album. How come no one wants to talk about my obvious musical career? He should be calling any day.”
“I feel like we talk about food and weight a lot; it’s really boring. How come my dazzling personality is never highlighted?”
If someone continues to make comments about your child’s body, you can say, “If this topic comes up again, we will have to leave.” Your setting a boundary, and continuing to uphold that boundary, reinforces to others what you will and will not accept in their interactions with you and your child − because you may have to tell your friends and family that it isn’t okay to talk about your child’s body, or anybody’s body, repeatedly. (Note that your child is seeing this too.)
Additionally, walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk with your family and friends. Take food and weight off the table when you are with them and focus on other topics. This doesn’t mean that you can’t give compliments freely. Here are some suggestions.
“I love your energy!”
“You are so funny, you can always make me laugh.”
“You look great in this shade of blue.”
And remember that it’s never too late to set a boundary. Doing so can often be most difficult with people that we see and interact with frequently. But it’s okay to say, “I know it’s different from what I said before, but as I’ve given it more thought, I’ve realized that I actually need….”
A stranger made a comment about my child’s body. What should I do?
If you are in a public setting, it’s okay to keep it short.
“Please do not make comments about my child’s body, weight, size, or appearance.”
They may say something along the lines of “I was just trying to be nice.” And you can say “I understand that you may have had good intentions but comments about their body, weight, size, or appearance do not make them feel good.” And leave it at that.
You don’t owe anyone an explanation for the boundary that you are setting, and you have the right to say no without feeling guilty. So there is no need to overexplain. It’s okay to leave the store or to ask for your check.
My child says they don’t want me to say anything. Should I keep quiet?
What if your child says that they don’t want you to say anything when people make comments about their body because it’s uncomfortable or they would rather not talk about it, but you can see that these comments are affecting their recovery?
There are many reasons why a person may say that they are doing okay (when you have evidence that they are struggling) and ask you not to do some of the things that their treatment team has told you would be supportive, such as redirecting comments about body weight, shape, and size.
- They don’t think that others can help them.
- They might have difficulties accepting support. (Many patients believe they should be able to do this by themselves!)
- They believe that other people’s problems are more important than theirs.
- They believe that they will be a burden.
- They might be struggling and have a difficult time explaining how they are feeling and how they could best be supported.
Just because they don’t want you to talk to the people who are making comments about their body doesn’t mean that doing so won’t be helpful. When you consistently show up for their recovery and set a boundary around what is or is not acceptable, you are showing them that they have a strong support system, that they don’t have to do this alone, and that you take this seriously.
Your child might feel uncomfortable with this interaction, and that’s okay. Just like a lot of the processes of treatment, we are going to ask parents to keep doing the hard work at times when our children think that they can’t. You can say to your child:
- “If we know these people, I will speak to them privately and ask them not to speak about anyone’s body shape, weight, or size.” Or,
- “If we do not know these people, then I will tell them that it is not appropriate to make these kinds of comments. If you prefer, I can pull them aside and speak to them privately.”
- “However, I’m unable to take no action when I see how you are affected by these comments.”
I set a boundary and it made me feel uncomfortable. Will I always feel this way?
Feeling uncomfortable while setting boundaries is normal. If you haven’t set boundaries with these people before, it’s also normal to have those boundaries tested at times (which means ongoing discomfort). But there is discomfort and lots of feelings either way.
- This person continues to say harmful things to my child. Don’t they know how much we have been through to get to this place? Or,
- This person respected my boundary and doesn’t say anything about my child’s body. But I feel guilty. Did I blow this out of proportion?
When the people around you see that you are going to keep setting boundaries and uphold them, this will probably become easier. But I tell patients and families all the time that this is the perfect time to be a little selfish. Focus on your child’s recovery in these moments.
Will I need to do this forever?
A boundary that is set isn’t set for life. As your child is transitioning down from a higher level of care, or when they are navigating more challenging life situations, they may have more rigid boundaries in the interim. This means that as your child is continuing in their path of recovery, or if they are struggling, we will need to keep the conversation going about how much support they need, what is triggering, and how to navigate ongoing change. This is likely a boundary that is not going to go away completely. But your family’s vigilance will probably decrease over time.
Whether it’s a stranger or someone you know, it’s important to let people know that remarking on other people’s body size, weight, shape, or appearance can be damaging. And while this might be uncomfortable the first time, or the hundredth time, you are protecting the hard work that you all have done in treatment and are continuing to do. You don’t have to go into details, and you don’t have to explain your family’s boundaries. Your child’s needs will change over time, and they may develop the ability to set their own boundaries, identify people in their life who are not supportive, or be unbothered by comments made by strangers. But don’t forget to take weight and food talk out of your conversations with family and friends. It will make these conversations a little easier.