Is It Ever OK to Make Comments about a Child's Body?
By Kathryn Johnson
My child has an eating disorder. How do I talk about it?
When patients and families come out of eating disorder treatment, they often discover that many ordinary, day-to-day interactions aren’t particularly helpful for children and teens with eating disorders. They may even ask themselves, what is normal? as others start to ask questions or make comments.
Many people who comment about other people’s bodies or weights are not necessarily coming from a malicious place. But what we do know is this: it’s not helpful and it’s potentially dangerous to discuss body sizes, shapes and weights. Your child's recovery comes first, and that may require you to set some boundaries. It’s vitally important to protect the hard work that you have done so far.
Note: 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 comments and diet talk. There’s so much more to talk about!
How do I prepare for conversations?
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. Then, come up with some sample language you can both use during uncomfortable moments. Some examples are:
- “Even if you feel like it’s a compliment, please don’t comment on my body.”
- "It's hard for me to hear what you say when you make comments about my body, weight, size or appearance. It's really hard for my recovery and I would appreciate it if you wouldn't make those comments."
How do I deal with friends and family?
One of the most challenging parts after eating disorder treatment is that you are exposed to more triggers. And the people that you are with are not always educated about eating disorders. Even if your child doesn’t feel comfortable talking to family and friends, you can help them feel more comfortable ahead of time. You may even know who might say something off-putting (a certain cousin or friend). Try injecting a little humor:
- “We’re not going to talk about my weight today. You have all heard me sing the new Taylor Swift 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 you set this boundary, 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….”
What if a stranger makes a comment about my child’s body?
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 nor is it helpful.”
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 them?
I want to point out that there are many reasons why a person may say that they are doing okay (even when you have evidence that they are struggling). There are reasons why they ask you not to do some of the things that the treatment team has told you would be supportive, such as redirecting comments about body weight, shape, and size. Here are a few of those reasons:
- They don’t think that others can help them.
- They might have difficulties accepting support. (Many may believe that they should be able to handle it all 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.
Your child may not want you to talk to people who make comments about their body — but that doesn’t mean that doing so won’t be helpful. When you consistently show up for their recovery and set boundaries 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.”
- “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 people before, it’s also normal to have those boundaries tested at times (which means you may feel lasting or ongoing discomfort). Either way, there is discomfort. You may align more closely with one of these feelings:
- 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?
- This person respected my boundary and doesn’t say anything about my child’s body. But now 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 process 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 transitions from treatment, or when they are navigating more challenging life situations, they may need more rigid boundaries. This means that as your child continues on the path of recovery, or if they are struggling, you 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 vigilance to these situations will probably decrease over time. Plus, you’ll have practice making these remarks and setting these boundaries, so it may feel easier over time.
It's time to stop talking about weight
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.
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