This is a topic that is close to my heart, because it stabs right through! I was watching a rerun on My 600 Life: it was a follow-up episode and the patient was doing fairly well, having lost about 200 lbs. The problem now was her 23 yr old daughter’s weight, which was around 300 lbs. The patient (Charity) was desperate to keep her daughter (Charlie) “from going through what I went through” and was essentially hounding her to lose weight. I have been that daughter. For more years than I care to think about, I have listened endlessly to all kinds of threats, inducements, plain old bribes, suggestions subtle and not at all subtle about my weight. I know the mother’s behavior stems from her love and desire to protect her daughter, but the girl is now an adult and the best way to show that love is to respect her daughter’s decisions, even if she thinks they are the wrong decisions. It’s okay to disagree with her and be respectful about it, but constant criticism is only going to drive a wedge between them. Think about it: let’s substitute ‘boyfriend/ girlfriend’ for ‘weight.’ How many of you have listened to a parent complain about the person you are dating/ involved with? How much fun was it seeing your parent when you had to listen to them talk badly about someone you love? How long was it before you limited your exposure to your parent and/ or tuned them out as soon as they started complaining about your boyfriend/ girlfriend?: “You wouldn’t have to do XYZ if Bobby had more ambition.” “If Jolene dressed a little better she’d probably get a better job.”
I am sure Charity thinks she is doing what moms are supposed to do and look out for their children. She no doubt thinks she’s ‘guiding’ Charlie, but Charlie has already told her that when she criticizes her weight or her eating habits, it hurts her feelings (frankly, that’s more than I could ever tell my mom!) So, Charity does the ‘next best thing’: when they show up at Dr. Nowzaradan’s office, Charity tells him to tell Charlie she needs to lose weight! (One of those not-at-all-subtle suggestions!) What Charity does not realize is that she is not helping her daughter any more than the constant criticism and humiliation at the hands of others helped Charity to lose weight herself! As someone who has been in Charlie’s shoes, I can tell you that all Charity is doing is making Charlie feel more inadequate and more like a failure or disappointment. There is the ‘constant qualifier’ to her self-esteem and worth as a person: ‘you’d be such a pretty girl if only you weighed less“; “you could do XYZ if you didn’t weigh so much“; etc. In other words: “you’re just not good enough because you’re too fat.” I am sure that this is not what Charity believes just as I am sure this is not the message she wants to send to her daughter, but this is the message she is sending her daughter when she criticizes her weight and her eating habits: you are screwing up!
People eat for a variety of reasons and two of the biggest are emotional solace and simple control. We hear a lot about people ‘eating their emotions’ because they are either feeling something they don’t know how to deal with or they don’t want to deal with, so they distract themselves by eating something that makes them feel good, or they want to celebrate by making the good feelings last longer, so they eat something to reinforce those positive feelings. The end result is usually obesity: ‘I can’t handle my emotions.’
Control is another reason: pretty much the ultimate control over your own body is what you eat. Remember how little kids will refuse to eat? They are exercising control over their situation in the only way they can. This can end up as an eating disorder, usually anorexia. Sadly, this is how my grandmother died: as her health deteriorated and there were fewer things she could on her own, she chose to eat less and less. Despite being hospitalized and having the doctor (and others) flat out tell her that she would die if she didn’t eat, she refused to eat. The flip side of self-starvation is obviously obesity: ‘I am in control of what I eat and I am choosing to eat!‘ The irony is that the more you choose to eat or not eat, the less control you have over your situation. As my grandmother grew weaker, there were fewer and fewer things she could do, until she finally ended up in a hospital where she died. The same is true for the super morbidly obese: the more they eat, the bigger they become, the less mobile they are, the less they can do until finally they are bedridden and dependent on someone else bringing them the food they still demand because their ability to eat as much as they want is still under their control as they learn to manipulate their enablers.
In a situation like Charlie’s, the more disapproval she senses from her mother, the more likely she is to eat her emotions: she feels bad that her mom is unhappy with her, and her mom makes her feel bad about herself, so she eats to feel better, and then feels guilty that she ate or that she ate the ‘wrong thing,’ so she eats something else to feel better. I think for Charity growing up, she ate for control (I know I did): her childhood was chaotic and scary and eating was something she had control over, so she ate as much as she could to make herself feel safe and secure (it was kind of the same for me). When everything is chaos and disorder, you control what you can, even if it’s just a bag of potato chips. The point is that having used food for solace and control in her own life, Charity should realize that her nagging behavior is not supporting Charlie. Unfortunately, like most of us, Charity is too close to the issue to be objective.
It’s hard to say what I would do in a similar situation: I’ve been morbidly obese like Charity (technically I still am) and I grew up being hounded over my weight like Charlie. Obviously since my weight remained a problem, one thing I am absolutely sure of is that hounding someone is guaranteed not to succeed. Constant nagging only alienates those involved and in most cases adds to the stress which triggers the ‘offending behavior,’ whether it’s smoking or eating (my mom hounded one of her boyfriends about smoking with the same results!) There’s that old expression: “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” You also can’t push him down the road you think he should be on. All you can do is try to lead him, and leading by example works a whole lot better than bullying or humiliation.
When it comes to other family members, whatever they choose to eat is their own choice. There are few things more personal than what you choose to put in your body. My sister was vegetarian for many years and while it’s not my choice, it was hers and I respected that when we went out to eat. My dad eats the Standard American Diet, and when he was recovering from an illness recently, I bought groceries for him. It would have been easy for me to buy him what I think he should be eating (my mom would have) but I bought things he likes, although I did buy the healthiest versions of them that I could. I could have filled his bags with organic produce and meats and left out the breads and processed foods he likes, but that’s what I choose to eat for myself. Having been the recipient of “healthy” groceries chosen by my mom, based on whatever “doc of the day” said was healthy, instead of being grateful, I was more hurt and annoyed than anything else. I confess, when I shopped for him, I leaned a little more heavily on the fruits and vegetables he likes rather than the stuff in cans or boxes, but they were all things he enjoys. His grocery bags looked way different than mine do and that’s the point: we all choose different things for ourselves. You may not like what someone else chooses to eat: you might think it’s bad for them; that they are eating all wrong; that they need to ‘fix’ whatever in their diet, but the fact remains that it’s their life, their body, their food and their choice. We need to respect one another’s choices as we expect them to respect ours.
Do you know what has helped me the most in my weight loss? Other people respecting my food choices. My mom disagreed with my choice to eat Paleo (at least until the “doc of the day” gave it his thumbs up) and just like before, I tuned it out. The rest of my family was kind of interested in it, or at least they faked it for my sake, and they encouraged me to make better choices by respecting my different way of eating. Now if I eat something that ‘isn’t Paleo,’ they tease me about it but won’t tell me that not to eat it. Being supportive doesn’t mean being critical; it means respecting someone else’s decision. If Charity really wants to be supportive with Charlie, she can do it by inviting her to share her healthy meals, setting a good example and letting Charlie decide for herself. After all, what is more encouraging that being around someone who is happy, healthy and is holding the door open for you to join her?