I always tell my school aged clients that I wouldn’t go back to elementary, junior high, or high school even if someone paid me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved learning but the social part of school is challenging.
My adolescent clients often find this super validating. I think as adults we forget how hard that time of life is.
When I was ten years old, my sister turned twelve and the story goes that she asked my parents to let me shave for her birthday. She was being teased because of how hairy my legs were.
I have always had near- jet-black hair and my leg hair was no exception. It’s weird, I feel shame bubbling up as I type this. My mind is whispering ‘you can’t say this on the internet- then they will all know!”
Did you ever watch the movie Harry and the Hendersons growing up? It’s about a family that adopts a Sasquatch. It was very popular in the late 80’s when I was in elementary school. People used to taunt me “Hey, Harry! Where are the Hendersons?” Chewbacca. Harry. Monkey Girl. I had heard it all. To the point that I would wear long pants even in the sweltering humid Tennessee summers.
Yeah, you couldn’t pay me to go back to that time.
In my practice as an eating disorder therapist in Tyler, Tx I get a lot of phone calls from worried parents about their child being bullied about their weight. Just like my sister, these parents are searching for any and every solution to this painful problem. But unlike me, these children can’t just shave their legs to gain acceptance. These parent’s minds quickly land on attempting weight loss. It makes sense, just like shaving seemed like the only solution to my teasing, weight loss is the culturally acceptable solution to weight-based bullying.
This is usually when I have to have a difficult conversation; I don’t offer or promote weight loss because research is telling us that sustained weight loss isn’t possible, isn’t healthy (especially for growing bodies and minds), and it doesn’t solve the problems that teasing and bullying often create. In fact, intentional weight loss efforts often cause more problems than they solve- eating disorders, increased body image disturbance, and disruption in normal growth patterns.
I usually tell the frantic parent, “I get it, the world constantly promises us if we fix our bodies all of our problems will be solved- However, I want you to imagine if your child had a physical characteristic there would be no way to “fix” what would you turn to then?” The sad reality is that being teased for those things is quite common and usually the parent quickly understands that society needs to change- not their child. I think the same is true for weight-based bullying- or any type of bullying!
Having your child attempt to package themselves in a more acceptable image is not the solution! This actually feeds into the problem.
Sadly, the solution is not a quick fix. The solution is to build shame resilience, to expose your child to the reality that bodies come in all shapes, sizes, colors, abilities, and to help them grieve the loss of having the “ideal body” as the world defines it.
It’s okay to grieve. Grief is an emotion that shows up when there is a gap between what you have and what you want. Your child may have a non-conforming body in a world that is constantly screaming to conform. Grief can tell us about what is important to us. What might be important to your child in this situation is feeling accepted. That makes sense, we all want that! The solution first begins with self-acceptance, which is much deeper work to do than joining weight watchers, but it is more sustainable in the long term and will serve your child throughout their life.
I think a great first step is always to validate. “I am so sorry that you are hurting in this way it must be hard for you because everyone wants to have friends, belonging, and acceptance.”
A huge second step is to begin to have a larger and more difficult conversation with your child about society’s expectations about bodies. This conversation would be different depending on the age of your child.
If you are reading this and your child hasn’t had this experience, I think it’s still a great time to start the conversation. If your child notices or comments on different body sizes I always recommend a response like “I know! It’s neat that bodies come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. Wouldn’t it be boring if all bodies were exactly the same?”
I also recommend a few resources. There are some great children’s books that address diversity and can be used to increase or begin the conversation around body diversity.
I also love this video for older adolescents and everyone really!
I am so sorry your child is being teased for their weight. That is a tough thing to go through. I know that it has to be hard for you as the parent as well. We all want love and acceptance for our kids. Real love and acceptance come from being accepted as is, having to change your body to gain that acceptance is false acceptance and a damaging life dynamic to set up.
Whenever I make a major call as a parent I always try to think “how do I want to see this play out in 20-30 years, what is the lifelong lesson I would be teaching my child?”
If we know that weight gain is normal and expected in the years surrounding puberty, promoting weight loss to gain acceptance from others would be teaching a child that changing your normal self to accommodate others is necessary. Take this same lesson and apply the 20-30 year rule and how would it play out? Would you want your middle-aged child to be constantly changing themselves to gain acceptance?
The answer is, probably not. Keep this in mind and realize the deeper work might be harder but it is, like most hard things, worth doing.