Q&A for Teens: Weight Obsession
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Q&A for Teens: Weight Obsession

Q&A for Teens: Weight Obsession

My family’s obsession with my weight is ruining my life. But why do I let their words get to me?

Dear Lauren,

I'm almost 17. When I was 12, I gained a little weight – nothing much, but to my overweight mother, older sister, and aunt, it was an immediate and serious problem. They mentioned it to me every single day and they talked about it to me and to my other extended family members, who then kept mentioning my weight to me and telling me I had to lose weight. Food was locked in the freezer, no one helped me with breakfast or lunch any more, and I was essentially told to stop eating anything other than rice cakes, vegetables, and plain tuna or turkey.

I was hungry, of course, and I bought chocolate bars and potato chips in school, snuck junk food at home, felt physically lousy, and of course gained more weight. No one seemed to care if I were happy, if I were kind, if I were good. They only seemed to care about and talk about my weight.

After three years, my weight went back to normal on its own, mostly because I realized that no food is off limits and I should eat at least three meals a day and include healthy options and chill out and ignore every single voice other than my own. Like a baby who knows when she is hungry, I learned -- again -- when to eat. But the comments about my appearance have only gotten worse. In the last year and a half, every single visit by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins has brought comments about "how much weight" I lost, how I must be very disciplined, how I must be on some diet, and that it's so wonderful (and now I can be a success, get into a better college, have pretty babies some day, have a perfect, stress-free life...).

I cannot stand the focus – still – on my body. I also realize that the same way I think my family turned me into a weight, instead of a person, I turned them into people who talk about my weight, instead of whole people who have lives outside of whatever I eat and weigh. I know they have thoughts and feelings and experiences aside from my weight and food intake, but I haven't been able to experience that. What can I do to make them stop talking about my "weight loss" and "diet?" Or more to the point, because I don't know if I can do anything about that, what can I do to stop being so concerned with what they say? I know it's their obsession, not mine, but it's really hurting me and I have to stop letting their comments run my life.

A Heavy Weight

Lauren Roth's Answer

It’s obvious from your question that you know the healthy things to do. (1) Eat healthful foods, and only when you’re actually hungry. (2) Ignore damaging comments from and unhelpful obsessions of the people around you. The million-dollar-question is: why, when we know what’s right, can we not get ourselves to do it?

Believe me, I have experience with this. Do you know why I have experience with knowing what the right thing is, but not always doing it? Because I’m human. And so are you. And so is everyone on this entire planet. We are all fallible human beings who will, inevitably, not be perfect.

Do you know what I do to myself when I mess up? I forgive myself. I coddle myself. I tell myself, “Lauren, you knew what was right. Kudos to you for that! Don’t worry that you messed up. You’ll do better next time. Now, let’s figure out together what triggered you to do the wrong thing when you knew what the right thing was.” And then I sit with myself and think over, rationally, why I flipped out and acted badly when I knew I should have chilled out and acted properly.

If I have to be perfect, then I can’t be real with myself.

But I never would be able to sit comfortably with myself and calm myself down and go over the reasons for my failures with myself if I had not first forgiven myself for making a mistake. If I have to be perfect, then I can’t be real with myself. If I can’t forgive myself for being a fallible human being, then I have no chance at having a healthy, gentle relationship with myself. In other words, if I always have to be running from my own truth, then I’ll never learn a better way.

Your first step is to forgive yourself for not handling your family’s obsession well. Tell yourself it’s okay to not deal well with challenges and struggles. Believe it or not, that will help you cope better with – challenges and struggles!

Your next step is figuring out why their comments bother you even though you don’t want to be bothered by them. Perhaps you still think their views are somewhat correct, even though you don’t want to think that? Perhaps part of you really does believe what they’re saying. If we really and truly know, with certainty, that what someone says to us is ridiculous, we usually don’t get upset – we just realize that they’re saying insipid, insignificant nothingness. Perhaps there is a part of you that still believes “Thin people get the good stuff in life.” If you were my client sitting in front of me, I would explore that belief with you and see if there were vestiges of it still hanging out in your heart and mind.

Even if you do believe, to a certain extent, that “Thin people get the good stuff,” you can make peace with that belief and not be bothered tremendously when your family alludes to it. How? By being aware. Just your awareness of having that belief will release you from fighting against their utterance of it. In other words, again, your truth will set you free. If you realize that you, also, think “Thin people have it better,” then you don’t have to fight their words. You can just calmly hear your family and realize: “I agree with them, to a certain extent. I know they take it more to an extreme than I do, but that’s okay. We can agree partially, and that doesn’t make me a bad person.” When you feel frustrated, it means you’re internally conflicted. But when you gain awareness of the internal conflict, the frustration abates almost magically.

Trying to be perfect will lead you to all kinds of misery in your life. And running away from your truth will make you unhappy and stressed and reactive. So allow yourself your humanness, and stay aware of your real thoughts and feelings.

Of course, you might not be able to access your real feelings, with all their multitudinous twists and turns and trapdoors and dead-ends, on your own. You might need the help of an expert psychotherapist. As a therapist, my job is to help each person clarify for himself or herself the answer to the question: If I know it, why don’t I do it? Part of your healing perhaps should involve working with a good psychotherapist to figure out your own individual reasons for getting stuck. You can call Relief, a Jewish mental health referral service, to find a qualified therapist in your area.

Published: November 24, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 25

(21) Chana Yosefa, November 28, 2012 3:01 AM

You don't need help...they do!

It is awesome that you learned to listen to your body and know what is right for you. That is unusual for one so young. I agree with the writer who said you should show your family this article, and then ask,"Now, can we change the subject, please?" Make copies to hand out at all family gatherings.

linda, November 29, 2012 1:13 PM

That is so clever!

I like your ideas of the photo copies of the article. Or if that's too intense for her, how about using the same idea and having a pre-made sign or little index cards for all family members that goes something like "I once weighed more than I do now. Yup. Anything else we can talk about?"

(20) Michy, November 27, 2012 9:22 PM

Tell the family members to stop commenting

You can do it nicely but you may eventually have to be firm. Tell them that you are maintaining a healthy weight in a healthy way and their repeated comments are destructive. If they continue to comment, tell them the conversation is over and change the subject. It is rude and abusive to badger someone repeatedly (never mind the actual abuse of locking up food). You do not have to put up with this.

(19) Anonymous, November 27, 2012 6:21 PM

Did anyone mention this yet....

The poster's nagging problems with her family's continuing comments is not because she thinks they may be true, but because they pass judgement on her and as a child (even at 17) she still needs her family's approval! They come from the people that at this point matter the most to her and therefore are so hurtful!

(18) Anonymous, November 27, 2012 5:26 PM

You are amazing!!

As a mum of a teenage daughter, I would like to congratulate you on being so very mature, to listen to your own instincts is very difficult especially when faced with many people telling you a something else. My own daughter has been overweight since a young age. My instinct was to stop her eating and restrict her. She didn't like being told and I soon gave up discussing the issue. When she turned 12, she decided to go to weightwatchers. It ws her own decision therefore was happy . She list some weight. Now, at 16, she does some exercise and is a little careful what she eats but is happy and sociable. Yes, she could be thinner, but I have tried my best not to make an issue, not to have magazines with unnaturally thin role models lying around the house, and to encourage her to be happy with herself . She is very clever, kind and pretty . It sounds like you are a wonderful girl too. I'm sure your parents think you are wonderful too and would be so upset to see this is how they came accross. If you have the strength, show them this article you wrote. Allow them to be sorry . This will definitely strengthen your relationship!!

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