March 6, 2011 in Features

Carolyn Hax: Her doubt may be more than weight

Washington Post

Hello, Ms. Hax: My 20-something daughter is overweight. Doesn’t eat right or exercise. Will not discuss. But – if we go shopping together, her physical self-loathing is so evident, a person could drown in it.

What, if anything, can a parent do or say? There have never been boyfriends of any ilk, ever. Believe me when I say intelligence, personality, charm – all there. It’s only weight between her and dating.

I would keep my lip zipped, if it weren’t for these “windows into the soul” that shopping with her gives me, and for my parental gut instinct that she would love to receive that offer of a first date.

I’ve tried a few approaches to the subject and failed miserably. I’d happily give my life to see her happy, and I curse my own gender for the stereotypical shallowness of that age. – Someone’s dad

It isn’t just young people who can get blinded by weight.

You seem awfully sure about cause and effect here, that her poor choices = extra weight = datelessness.

But I don’t share your certainty. While it’s entirely possible that your daughter’s unhappiness is all about poor habits, it’s not the only possibility. It could also be that your daughter’s weight is a symptom of her self-loathing, where you’ve assumed it’s the reverse.

It could be, too, that an underlying medical condition (e.g., hormone imbalance) = extra weight = failed efforts to lose weight = giving up = self-loathing.

It’s also, sadly, not unusual for a history of sexual abuse or assault to lead to eating problems and tattered self-worth.

And these are just a few cause-effect examples.

Being overweight might scare off suitors, but self-loathing deters them, too – good ones, with no “stereotypical shallowness” to blame. There’s the obvious reason, that negativity and self-doubt aren’t attractive qualities; often only people who already know us well will push past them to get to the charming person within. A more subtle reason: Negativity can be a sign that someone needs to get well, not wooed.

I realize that’s what you want, for your daughter to get well. But the only fix you envision is weight loss, and that reduces your unspoken message to “Fat people are broken and need to be fixed” – which turns your well-meaning concern into something offensive. It would explain why your daughter shuts down whenever and however you address her weight.

Without knowing for sure why she’s overweight, where her self-loathing originates or whether she even wants to date, you don’t have grounds to judge what she needs – and within each of these variables, there’s room for your daughter to have a serious problem unrelated to treadmill use. To see what it is, you have to be able to see past the weight issue, and see her for who she is.

So please abandon all of your assumptions and conclusions about what she wants, how she feels and how she got there. Instead, stick to what you witnessed: the intense physical self-loathing.

Start by apologizing for dwelling on her food choices or whatever points you’ve specifically raised in your past few “approaches to the subject.”

There’s no guarantee she will open up to you. Your best (and most ironic) chance that she will, though, is to accept her, and love her, exactly as she is.

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