Dear Captain Obvious,
My mom has always been on about how I look, but since I’ve turned 16 it seems to have gotten worse. She got me a fitbit that she makes me use (which I hate because it tells me I eat too many calories a day, even though it’s the recommended amount), made me diet with her, and constantly makes comments on how “I should go to the gym more,” even though I’m a perfectly healthy weight for my height. If i’m about to leave the house with no makeup on, she says “Oh why don’t you put a little foundation and mascara on before you go?” and is visibly embarrassed if she sees m in public wit none on. She also hates me wearing my glasses, as they “cover up my beautiful face” and will make more comments on them if I wear them outside the house instead of my contacts. My boobs aren’t very big, but my thighs are, so she’s always pushing me to wear push up bras and slimming clothes. It’s gotten to the point where I’m embarrassed to not be made up, am starting to obsess over my weight, and am just downright lacking in self-esteem. I’ve tried bringing it up before, but she either plays the victim or pretends like she never did any of that. Any advice on what I can do?
I’m only 16. I’m not a model.
Dear Only 16,
Your mom is well on track to eff up your body image for life (not to mention your relationship with nutrition and exercise). By insisting that you comply with her rules for your body, she is also grooming you to believe that you don’t have the final say about your body and what happens to it, which can lead to all kinds of badness. I am glad you wrote and I am glad you are taking this very seriously. Since I’m detecting a lot of narcissism in your mom’s behavior (treating you like you are an avatar and extension of her in a way that overrides your own autonomy and well-being), the right answer to your question might partly involve you keeping your head down and surviving until you are able to get out of the house and be out from under her authority and her nitpicking in a few years. So I’m going to suggest some scripts for talking with her and also some strategies for that survival.
In addition to a lot of “You’re not allowed to wear makeup”/”Why can’t you put some makeup on for a change?”/”Don’t you want to look nice so boys will like you?”/”Don’t let boys near anywhere near you!” mixed messages, my mom put me on a 1,000 calorie/day diet (The Gloria Stevens Diet, if anyone’s wondering – it’s a total shitshow) when I was an active teenager who played multiple sports and I’ve never really forgiven her for it. Because 1,000 calories/day was NOT FUCKING ENOUGH and it led to all kinds of disordered eating behavior, increased propensity for sports injuries, feeling dizzy, and worsening concentration and attention problems I was having. Instead of teaching me “how to eat healthy,” which is what she thought she was doing, the diet disconnected me completely from my own appetite and intuition about food and nutrition. So now, when my mom tries to bring up weight & health, it’s like, hey, you are literally the last person I will ever talk to about this, ever, stop it forever! And now, as an adult, I have the power to hang up phones and leave rooms and buildings when it comes up, and believe me, I do these things in order to maintain a relationship.. But I didn’t always have that power and I feel for you very keenly. I’m going to try to be the person that I needed someone to be when I was your age.
I have so many questions for your mom. Who is all this push-up bra wearing and makeup reminding and dieting and monitoring for? It’s clearly not for you, since you don’t want to do it, and she’s making it impossible for it to be any kind of fun intergenerational bonding experience between you since she’s predicating everything on you not being “attractive enough” and is acting ashamed of you when you don’t conform to her standards.
I don’t know that this script will work to convince her to change her behavior, but it might be important for you to say it or write it in a letter as a basis for further boundary setting, to be able to remind yourself that you’ve tried to go about this in a mature, sincere way. I’m starting with the fashion comments vs. the food/weight comments because it’s a little easier to address. See what you think of this as a draft for a discussion:
I’m 16, and I want to start experimenting with finding my own personal style. That could mean makeup sometimes, and no makeup other times. That could mean wearing my glasses sometimes and wearing contacts sometimes. That could mean wearing clothes that you like and think are “flattering” and sometimes wearing clothes you don’t like at all. It could mean messing around with my hair with different styles and cuts. The most important thing, to me, is that I want to be able to decide what to wear and how I want to look on any given day. I have my whole adult life to think about “what looks pretty” or “what looks professional.” Right now, while I’m a kid, I want to have fun with how I look and figure all of that out for myself over the next few years.
When you look me over before I leave the house and tell me to change something about my appearance, it makes me feel awful. It doesn’t want to make me change my clothes, it makes me want to avoid you for the rest of the day because it hurts my feelings. It makes me feel like you don’t love or like me unless I look a certain way. I hate feeling like you’re ashamed of me and how I look! But I also don’t think that not wearing full make-up or a push-up bra makes me look awful, or that I have to look dressed to the nines all the time!
I promise to shower regularly and make sure whatever I’m wearing is clean. I also promise to think carefully about the occasion and what’s appropriate – for instance, I’m not going to wear ripped jeans and old sneakers to family weddings! In return, I need you to promise stop criticizing my appearance. I’ll remind you if you forget. Thanks for listening.”
Think of this as you giving her a chance to behave well, even if she doesn’t understand or agree. She might say “I just want you to look your best!” or “You could be so pretty if you just …” or “I’m your mom and I know what’s best for you!” or “I don’t criticize you, you’re imagining it!” or “I wish my mom had cared about me as much as I care about you!” or “How are you going to learn how to be attractive to boys if you don’t figure out how to be as pretty as you can be?” or “Do you know how embarrassing it is to be seen with you in public when you are dressed like an urchin?” or “I pay for everything and while you’re under my roof you will obey my rules!”
There are many flavors of nasty and oblivious things she could say in that moment. I suggest that you not try to argue with the details of these responses and try to end the conversation as soon as possible, like, “Well, now you know how I feel, and I am going to keep asking you to stop commenting on my appearance, so, thanks” and get out of there for now. The next time she reminds you about the power of mascara or whatever, I want you to try saying “Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll think about it” and then not adding mascara if you don’t want to.
Mom: “Don’t you want to put on a push-up bra?” You: “Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll think about it.”
Mom: “Shouldn’t you put on a little foundation?” You: “Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll think about it.”
Mom: “Are you sure you want to wear that? Wouldn’t you look better in something else?” You: “Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll think about it.”
Be a broken record. Don’t use sarcasm. I know it’s counter-intuitive to say “Thanks, I’ll think about it” when someone makes a suggestion that offends you or hurts your feelings and you’re feeling zero percent thankful, but I want you to think of it this way:
- It’s good to say something back and not just take it silently.
- The words themselves are polite and there isn’t anything to really fight with.
- It’s a mature, reasonable contrast to the teenage response she expects you to have.
- It has the advantage of being true – you will think about it (and then you’ll do what you want about it).
If she pushes further or follows up, like, “I thought you were going to change your top,” you can say, “I thought about it and I don’t want to.”
- “I thought about it and I prefer this one.”
- “I thought about it and I prefer not to.”
- “I thought about it and this works for me today.”
- “I thought about it and I’d rather just get going.”
If she orders you to change, or you worry that it will result in punishment or escalating abuse if you push her, then use your judgment and not mine. Keeping yourself safe while you work this out is more important than proving a point! You may not change how she feels, and you may not stop her behavior, but you may be able to keep reminding yourself that what she’s doing is not okay and carve out a little safe space for yourself to own your own choices here.
Now. Let’s talk about food and your body. What your mom is doing is not okay. She is actually hindering you from developing a healthy lifelong relationship with food and exercise. In fact, there is a model for raising kids with a healthy relationship with food that might interest you to know about. I don’t think your mom is going to listen to arguments backed up with science, because it’s not about that for her, but it might shore up your confidence to know about healthy practices. She’s making a thing that’s hard for a lot of people even harder by being so overbearing about it -you not only have to figure out how you want to eat, what exercise is enjoyable and right for you, but you have to survive her controlling behavior, too. At your age, you should be able to say, “I’m still hungry, I’d like more” and “I’m not hungry just now, thanks” without getting a ton of resistance from your mom. I recommend that you try those scripts out and see what happens, as well as, “When you monitor my food and exercise this way, it makes me want to do the opposite of whatever you want me to do – can you give me some room to figure this out myself?” But you might need other tactics as well.
If you trust your doctor, maybe ask if you can have an appointment without your mom to talk about the weight and nutrition thing. Doctors are NOT always cool about this stuff because of the prejudice against fat and fat people in our society they can even override the science that would help you, so proceed cautiously and feel your doctor out to make sure they aren’t gonna undermine you and make things even worse. But maybe you could show your doctor the data from your Fitbit, talk to them about the “diet” you are on, explain how it’s making you feel. Your doctor could screen you for eating disorders, give you a referral to a nutritionist who specializes in “intuitive eating,” and might be able to make some specific recommendations to your mom in a way that she can swallow better than if it comes from you, because someone with authority and age said it. If you have a school counselor or other adult you trust at school or in your extended family, you might want to raise the issue with them, too. Possible script: “My mom is really obsessed with my nutrition and exercise – she makes me wear a Fitbit, which makes me uncomfortable. She also monitors my food intake in a way that feels really controlling and scary. It’s making me feel really bad about myself and confused about what to eat.” The more informed you are, the more you can take care of yourself around her strictures on you and make sure you’re getting enough food.
Thank heaven we didn’t have exercise trackers when I was your age or I would have been right there with you with a monitor strapped to my wrist and daily checkups on my activity and intake. Your mom is turning what is supposed to be a data-driven way to give you information about your choices into a vector of control, and it is really not okay.
I know I’m going to get some pushback for telling a teenager that it’s okay lie to her parents sometimes, but when you are in an abusive situation sometimes being able to fake compliance while preserving your own autonomy is a survival skill. If asking sincerely doesn’t work, and trying to enforce boundaries doesn’t work, and getting science and other adults to stand up for you doesn’t work, you might have to find other methods to protect yourself. By which I mean, is there any way you could repeatedly lose the Fitbit or “forget” to wear it – like, leave it in your locker at school a lot, like “oops, I took it off when I showered at the gym, don’t know where it went!” Could you break it? Develop a very serious, very fake rash/allergic reaction at the site? Are there ways to hack it and mess with the data so that it stops being useful (like, have your friends take turns wearing it in gym class so it looks like you ran a freaking marathon that day?) Get the teacher or principal to “confiscate” it? Can you wash off makeup/change back into your glasses/keep alternate clothes at school so that you can spend the day feeling more like yourself? You would not be the first nor the last kid to do stuff like this, and it doesn’t make you a bad person. It sucks to be pushed into having to deceive someone because they can’t see you as a separate person from themselves.
In addition to talking to your doctor and trusted adults and possibly having a Fitbit rebellion, I want to suggest some other ways of cultivating a healthy body image and surviving the next few years with your sense of self intact. There’s a pretty good list here, from the National Eating Disorders Association:
Appreciate all that your body can do. Everyday your body carries you closer to your dreams. Celebrate all of the amazing things your body does for you – running, dancing, breathing, laughing, dreaming, etc.
Keep a top-10 list of things you like about yourself – things that are not related to how much you weigh or what you look like. Read your list often. Add to it as you become aware of more things to like about you.
Remind yourself that “true beauty” is not skin-deep. When you feel good about yourself and who you are, you carry yourself with a sense of confidence that makes you beautiful regardless of whether you physically look like a supermodel. Beauty is a state of mind, not a state of your body.
Look at yourself as a whole person. When you see yourself in a mirror or in your mind, choose not to focus on specific body parts. See yourself as you want others to see you – as a whole person.
Surround yourself with positive people. It is easier to feel good about yourself and your body when you are around others who are supportive and who recognize the importance of liking yourself just as you naturally are.
Shut down those voices in your head that tell you your body is not “right” or that you are a “bad” person. You can overpower those negative thoughts with positive ones. The next time you start to tear yourself down, build yourself back up with a few quick affirmations that work for you.
Wear clothes that are comfortable and that make you feel good about your body. Work with your body, not against it.
Become a critical viewer of social and media messages. Pay attention to images, slogans, or attitudes that make you feel bad about yourself or your body. Protest these messages: write a letter to the advertiser or talk back to the image or message.
Do something nice for yourself – something that lets your body know you appreciate it. Take a bubble bath, make time for a nap, find a peaceful place outside to relax.
Use the time and energy that you might have spent worrying about food, calories, or weight to do something to help others. Sometimes reaching out to other people can help you feel better about yourself and can make a positive change in our world.
To expand on #8, the images we see affect our sense of ourselves profoundly. Especially when you are feeling down, or when your mom has been at you, steer clear of media that values only one kind of body. Glossy girly magazines can have lots of cool articles and ideas for makeup in them, but seeing one type of body (white, thin, able-bodied, cis) over and over and over and reading articles about “body flaws” and “problem areas” again can really grind you down. Instead, look at images of all kinds of bodies, if you can. Here’s the Body Positive Art Tag on Tumblr, for example. Gabifresh is basically the coolest person, and there are some great people writing at Rookie. Try looking at strangers and people you know with kind eyes, where you practice looking for things to compliment about them instead of picking apart their bodies or clothes. You can retrain your eye and your mind with some time to see that all bodies are “good enough!” bodies.
To expand on #5, don’t do that thing that girls and women are socialized to do where they bond by tearing down each other’s bodies and food choices. Even if people do it to you and near you, you can make the decision not to do it yourself, and you can speak up for other people, like, “Hey, let’s only talk about our own food today, thanks!” and “I think you look great, and I really hate that thing where women tear themselves down. Can we try not to do that?” That can be really, really hard to do in the high school fishbowl, but I guarantee that there are other kids in your school who are dying for someone like you to stand up and change the culture in your own tiny corner of the world. Be the person that you wish your mom would be for you, the one who sees beauty in others without immediately trying to reshape it.
I’m sending you all my love and support. You are not alone and you will get through this! Be really nice to yourself and realize that your mom might have a lot of her own issues with her body and with cultural beauty standards and patriarchy that are influencing how she behaves towards you. That’s not an excuse for what she’s doing, but I hope it helps you recognize that you are already 100 steps ahead of her by recognizing now that this is not how you want to live.
Moderator Note: Please refrain from offering weight loss advice, diet tips, and from mentioning specific weights, sizes, and measurements in the comments. Even if it’s normal and routine for you to talk about, it might be very upsetting for someone to read, so this rule has to be pretty iron-clad.
It’s still Winter Pledge Drive week, so if you’d like to make a small gift to the site, Paypal, Dwolla, and Cash.me links are open for business. I really appreciate all of your kind words and contributions this week; I love doing this work and your donations help me keep making space for it.