A few months ago, a mother told me a story of her 6 year old daughter who came home after school, jumped on the treadmill and started running as fast as she could. Watching in disbelief the mother asked her daughter, “What are you doing?!”, to which the daughter replied “I am just trying to burn away these fat thighs!”. Gulp. The dreaded moment. How does a parent respond when their daughter says “I feel fat”?

Often parents are confused about how to answer, and are scared they are going to say the wrong thing. In the heat of the moment, they may say something like “No you are not!” or “Don’t be silly, you are beautiful just the way you are” or “It’s what is in the inside that counts.” Although well meaning, these answers miss the mark. When girls are telling us they feel fat, they are not actually telling us they feel fat.

The truth is that something else is going on in their lives that is causing them to feel angry, sad, lonely and scared. But because they have been socialized to hide their feelings – and at the same time have been taught that as a female it is normal to feel fat and ugly – they feel more comfortable expressing their feelings in the words “I am fat” or “I am ugly” rather than admitting “I am angry at a friend” or “I am scared I am going to fail a test tomorrow.”

When a girl comes to us and says she feels fat, this is an opportunity. It is a chance to help her understand that when she puts herself down, it is a warning signal for her to do a check-in with her feelings. We can help her find clarity by encouraging her to ask these questions:

  • “What is really going on?”
  • “If I wasn’t feeling fat, then what would I be feeling instead?”
  • “What feeling is trying to surface?”

With clarity, she no longer needs to put herself down in order to distract herself from the uncomfortable emotion. The uncomfortable emotion has been felt. And in the process she learns more about herself: “When my friend leaves me out, it makes me angry.”, “When I leave studying to the last minute, I feel scared I am going to fail.”

At first, this way of responding may seem long-winded and complicated. But if you commit to the main purpose of your response–to help her detach from negative self-talk and take it as a warning sign to look deeper–then over time the lesson will be stick. It will be a tool that she can use for the rest of her life.