Ask the Experts! My 16year old needlessly worries about her weight

September 01, 2019

Audience Question:

I am writing to ask for the best advice re how to help my 16 year old daughter with her worries about her weight.

She is not a skinny slim build and has increased in size etc during the past 8 months or so.

I tell her she is beautiful etc and all the positive reinforcements things etc

She has never been a fussy eater and loves all food, is a Masterchef tragic since the age of 4, and also follows and reads all the healthy eating trends etc so is full of knowledge about sugar and fats and carbs and calories etc

She does compare herself to her friends and I'm sure those on Youtube etc

She wants to 'lose weight' for a year 10 formal in October. She says she has to go cold turkey and eat healthy (despite many discussions around this etc)

The main thing I struggle with is when she gets upset if she 'eats something unhealthy' like some choc chip cookies while out with friends or some corn chips etc. She then feels bad and gets quite upset with herself for not being stronger and resisting etc

She is often talking and thinking about food. She has a great job in a cafe on weekends, and a great group of friends. She is tries everything - exercise routines, meal prepping and planning, working out with friends etc

Is there a set of guidelines to help us?

Image by Daria Nepriakhina from Pixabay 


Experts response:

Thank you for your question and your desire to help your daughter. What your daughter is experiencing is very normal for her age in terms of developing her own relationship with her body and understanding how she can be healthy and take responsibility for this. The goals I would be encouraging are for her to (1) reach a point where she is eating intuitively - what she feels like, when and as dictated by an attunement to her body and (2) learn to feel happy with herself regardless of where her weight actually sits. If she can achieve this, she will ultimately end up at the healthiest weight for her.

Unfortunately though, we live in a society that promotes thinness and diet culture so achieving this at 16 would be a huge accomplishment. However, with this as the end goal, encouraging dieting of any kind will undermine that outcome. I have suggested three areas below that you can try to focus on.

First however, Caityn Siehl’s words, in the book “What we buried” sum up the bigger issue perfectly:


"When your little girls asks you if she’s pretty, your heart will drop like a wine glass on a hardwood floor. Part of you will say “of course you are, don’t ever question it”. And the other part, the part of you that is clawing at you, will want to grab her by the shoulders, look straight into the wells of her eyes until they echo back to you and say “you don’t have to be pretty if you don’t want to. It is not your job.” Both will feel right. One will feel better. She will only understand the first."


Three things I recommend are as follows:


Firstly it is important to discourage any dieting behaviour. Dieting increases the risk of disordered eating. It also guarantees weight cycling. We know people can lose weight when they diet - however research shows that two to five years following the diet a person will usually sit at a higher weight than they did before the diet. Yo yo dieters literally diet themselves fat. I say these things not to promote fat stigma but rather because this is a language your daughter will understand at the moment. And after all, what is the point of dieting for weight loss if it ultimately results in weight gain? This will be hard for her to appreciate with her current short-term focus on her Year 10 Formal, but dieting should still be discouraged for a better longer term result.


The second thing is to separate health and weight in discussions. They are not the same thing! There are many people who may be described as “thin”, for example, who engage in dangerous practices to maintain a low body weight- such as purging, smoking or consuming diet pills. Similarly, there are people who may be described as “fat” who enjoy great health, measured by positive health indicators, good fitness and a healthy state of mind.

The aim is to see health as an ongoing journey that encompassess all aspects of our personhood - rather than have it defined narrowly by the number on the scale. This framework is called “health at every size” and I would encourage you to become familiar with it:


What this means in terms of eating is that she listens to what her body is asking her to eat, not according to set rules of "good and bad" foods. This means there is flexibility in her eating that allows for the occasional snack (or "sometimes food") if this is what she feels like.


Finally I would encourage not focusing on messages like “you are beautiful”- hard I know, particularly because as parents we can see how beautiful they actually are and it can be heartbreaking when our own children do not see that. However ultimately these messages feed into the problem as they continue to uphold “being beautiful” as important. We love the work of Beauty Redefined who have being doing some great work in challenging how we define beauty: .


Ultimately the aim is to have your daughter define what is important to her and support her in achieving these goals, irrespective of how she looks.


Author bio: Sarah McMahon is a psychologist who has worked in the field of eating disorders for approximately 15 years, supporting hundreds of people to achieve recovery. Sarah embraces best practice therapy and works collaboratively with clients and their support systems, including families and other health professionals. Sarah appreciates the complexity of eating and body image issues and also treats the many “comorbid” challenges that typically present simultaneously, including depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, relationship breakdown and complex trauma. Sarah is a full member of the Australian Psychological Society and the Australian New Zealand Academy of Eating Disorders. You can find Sarah at BodyMatters as well as in the Exploring Teens Directory.

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