Dear Therapist: I’m starting to notice that my 14 year old niece is making comments about her weight. At family dinners she just nibbles on things and says “I don’t have a big appetite anymore”. Really recently she’s started to say things like “look at my stomach in these jeans”. I am so aware of the power of words and really don’t know the right way to respond in these moments. I don’t want to spotlight her in front of everyone or tell her to stop, and dismiss her. Any advice on how to respond in those moments, or in private?
Frame Community Therapist Jane Teixeira weighs in…
Based on what you’ve shared, it sounds like your niece is in a place where she is finding it hard to love her body. This can happen for any number of reasons, including sudden body changes as a result of puberty, peer pressure, and social media use. Body criticism is widely accepted and highly contagious. If the adults in her life are modeling body criticism or food restriction this can further reinforce that it isn’t okay to be content with our bodies.
Dissatisfaction with our bodies can lead into disordered eating and in some cases can contribute to symptoms of body dysmorphia. It is estimated that about 30 million people in the US will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. It is estimated that about 2% of the general population in the US suffers from body dysmorphic disorder.
Sonya Renee Taylor, author of The Body is Not an Apology describes the idea of radical self-love and celebration of our bodies as being not just important, but essential in a world that is constantly set on making us feel less worthy. Many of us relate to our bodies as things to be fixed, controlled, and challenged. Few of us relate to our bodies as sources of joy and occasions for celebration. In my work I often hear people express the depth of their dissatisfaction with their bodies; healing that relationship takes consistent time and effort.
I wouldn’t recommend calling your niece out in front of everyone, but I do think it would be a good idea to check in with her in private. Gently acknowledge the pattern you’ve been observing with your niece. Something along the lines of “Hey, I’ve noticed you’ve been kind of critical about your appearance and seem to have lost your appetite recently. I’m wondering if there’s something you’re worried about regarding your body?” It’s important not to invalidate how she is feeling about her body, but rather to explore her feelings and the factors that might be reinforcing them. If she’s open to talking to you, it may be helpful to discuss social media use, peer relationships, and beliefs about her body and health. Normalize her body changing and also the discomfort about her body changing without reinforcing the need to control her body. It can also be helpful to talk to her parents about your observations to help them increase awareness of the behaviors and how they can help.
If possible, I recommend sharing resources with your niece and her family to help her start to challenge toxic messaging about her body and nutrition. Here are a few of my favorites for you to check out:
- Books: The Body is not and Apology by Sonia Renee Taylor, Making Peace with your Plate, by Robin Croze and Espra Andrus, and Eating by the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnston.
- Podcasts: Let us Eat Cake, Food Psych, and The Rebel Eater’s Club.
- YouTube: Abby’s Kitchen
You can read, listen, and watch along with your niece to help facilitate conversations about bodies, food, social acceptance, and our relationships to those things.
About the author:: Jane Teixeira, LMFT is a licensed therapist practicing in Sacramento, CA. She has been working with people struggling with disordered eating, anxiety, self-esteem, depression, and trauma for 10 years. She is certified in Brainspotting and enjoys incorporating mindfulness techniques into therapy to help people develop a deeper, more fulfilling relationship with their bodies. Explore more of her work and read her blog by visiting her Frame profile here.