Care and Feeding

How Can I Make My 18-Year-Old Feel Better About Her Body?

A woman is deep in thought.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by cglade/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 18-year-old daughter “Emma” gained about 20 pounds over three months of quarantine. She’s probably gained another 10 since. She was active and a fit high school athlete at the time, so I think she developed some bad habits around sugary foods and portion size while stuck at home that she’s been unwilling or unable to shake. I could write a whole email about this by itself, but the issue I need help with right now is how to talk with her about her clothes.

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She doesn’t have many things that fit her from before the weight gain, but whatever she can get into she’ll wear on repeat regardless of how short or tight it has become, or how inappropriate it is for the occasion. None of it is flattering, and all of it is revealing and ratty looking by now. We’re talking a couple pairs of soccer shorts and a tennis skort, none of which cover her bum, paired with giant t-shirts. Emma is painfully aware that her clothes look different on her. For example, she put on a nicer outfit she hadn’t worn in awhile for her graduation party. Last year it was super cute on her, and she loved it. This year, she said “I look like a wh***e,” and changed into the one outfit that she still feels comfortable in. She’d already worn it to every Senior activity where she had to look nice that week and took it out of the hamper to wear.

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Clearly, she needs—and wants!—some new clothes before she heads off to college. But I absolutely dread shopping with her. She wants me to be honest about how she looks but lashes out when I am, no matter how gentle I try to be. On the other hand, if I say she looks great, she accuses me of lying. When she does decide to buy something that her Dad and I both say looks good on her when we shop together, she initially loves it but then never wears it. I feel like I can’t win, and that I can’t trust her to buy practical, well-fitting clothes that she’ll actually use. How do I navigate this situation? What do I say to her about how her clothes are fitting her? What do I say when she says such negative things about the way she looks? Do we just give her a budget and let her spend it on clothes that don’t fit or that she won’t wear? Do we set some parameters for her purchases around fit? Any other suggestions?

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—Fashion Faux Pas?

Dear FFP,

Your daughter’s body has grown larger, and now she needs your help to get some new clothes that fit her.  Your job as her parent is to completely separate this practical need from any of your judgments about her quarantine “bad habits.” If you saw her weight gain and her eating as morally neutral, and not “bad,” the need for new clothes would feel the same as any growing kid’s need for new clothes—which is to say, a minor annoyance but not a charged emotional challenge.

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This, of course, is easier said than done. The billion-dollar weight loss industry thrives on fatphobia, and many people are now dieting in order to get back to what we’re pervasively told is the only acceptable shape and size: thin and small. The problem is that restrictive eating, for the majority of people, simply doesn’t work: studies have conclusively shown that a majority of people regain the weight they lost when dieting within three to five years, and the health effects of that repeating cycle, in addition to the mental health toll that constantly monitoring weight and food takes on us, can be devastating. Your daughter might become more physically active again and lose weight, or she might stay the same weight, or she might gain more weight. None of these outcomes are necessarily better than any other, and they depend on many other factors, some of which are outside her or your control. If you’re curious about the science and research behind these ideas, it would be great to read more about them. It’s possible your daughter might be interested, too (if it’s possible to gauge her interest or offer the resource without it seeming—in any way—that you are judging her). I like Body Talk by Kate Sturino or The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor as interesting, fun, and illuminating ways to talk through some of these issues together.

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All that being said (I know it’s a lot!), the clothes thing is a real problem. You might think about granting your daughter more latitude, in terms of shopping for herself.  Don’t set parameters around fit for her. If you give her a budget and let her shop for herself, without you there, she will doubtless get some clothes that don’t fit or that you wouldn’t have chosen, but that’s a normal part of her developing her own fashion sense. When she asks whether you think a too-small item fits, you can tell her that you think it would look better in a larger size, but don’t encourage her to wear flowy, oversized clothes that hide her body unless that’s what she likes.  When she puts herself down in front of you, tell her that she is beautiful at any size. Privately, strive to do the work necessary in order to mean it when you say that. In the long term, it’s the healthiest thing you can do for her and for you, too.

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• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m pregnant and about ready to pop. In a few weeks we will be welcoming our second little girl into the world. My husband, parents, and in-laws are all vaccinated against both the flu and COVID, so I will be comfortable with them coming to pay the little one a visit. I’m struggling with the fact that my brother and sister-in-law are pretty much anti-vaxxers. My brother has been such a huge part of our firstborn’s life, and as expected they are very excited about our next little one. I have mentioned casually here and there that I believe they should get vaccinated if they want to pay their niece a visit. Typically these suggestions are brushed off or the subject is changed so we rarely get anywhere. Now that we’re a few weeks away from the baby’s debut, it’s crunch time. Given my newborn’s undeveloped immune system, I don’t feel comfortable having unvaccinated people come visit her. If they decide they truly cannot make the sacrifice to get the vaccine, how can I gently let them know (again) that I stand by the fact that they will not be allowed around the new baby and that this is non-negotiable? The only thing I might consider is an outdoor visit, socially distanced, with masks. It is especially saddening to think that they will choose not to get either vaccines (flu or COVID) and miss out on their niece’s infancy. The past year has already been lonely, rough, and overwhelming, and I feel selfish that I’m giving them an ultimatum when it comes to visits. They were such a godsend with my first and I feel like I’m going to struggle without having them around this time. In the end, this is my child so I make the call, but how do I not ruin my relationship with brother in the mean time?

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—Pregnant and Perplexed

Dear PP,

If you think there’s any chance you could change your brother’s mind, check out this interactive chatbot that shows some ways to deal with a loved one who’s resisting getting the vaccine. I’ll be honest, though: I would not have the patience to deal with someone who’s already shown himself willing to tune me out completely. You might be more patient than I am, though.

As you navigate this, remind yourself that you shouldn’t feel guilty about your rules. Your brother and his wife are choosing to strain their relationship with you, and they are choosing to eliminate the possibility of spending time with your daughter as a newborn. It’s sad, but you can at least take comfort in knowing that you are doing the right thing by keeping your daughter safe. People who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine are deciding to forgo being around medically vulnerable people. If you have already tried to explain your reasoning and made it clear that you aren’t going to expose your baby to unvaccinated adults, there isn’t really a “gentle” way to tell them (again) they can’t see their niece unless they get vaccinated.  It sounds like you have already been gentle. Now it’s time to make your boundaries clear.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are at the beginning stages of discussing starting a family. We live in America and now that we are talking about bringing kids into the world, I’m not sure I want to do so here. My husband is British and Canadian. As such, we have the ability to move to either Canada or the UK without much hassle. As I start to look into things such as maternal death rates, birthing costs, daycare costs, maternity leave, educational opportunities for future kids, and politics…the U.S. would not make my top five—or top 15 places to raise a family. I have started to gently bring this up to my husband now and then. His biggest hesitancy is leaving friends and family for a country he hasn’t lived in since he was 9. I love our friends and family, but I don’t want to stay here just for them. They can still come visit, and vice versa, and honestly those vacations would probably provide us more quality time with them than we currently spend living within an hour of each other. Other friends have moved across the country, and we’ve happily visited. For what it’s worth, I have also lived in the country that I’d like to relocate to, so I know exactly what it’s like etc. How do I keep pressing the importance of this? I’m almost 34, so our window for this is going to be vanishing in the next 3-4 years. We need to start looking into this now if we’re going to do it.

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—#1 For All The Wrong Reasons

Dear #1,

I’m not here to defend the good old U.S. of A.—everything you say about its relative merits as a place to raise kids, compared to the U.K. and Canada, is true, though there are some big-picture cultural things you might be overlooking (like, can you really imagine calling them washrooms for the rest of your life?). But it worries me that you seem so cavalier about moving away from everyone who loves and supports you at exactly the moment you’ll need them in a whole new way. Visits with friends and family are great, but “quality time” pales in comparison to having someone who knows you well sit with you when your baby has only slept for two hour stretches for the past eight weeks.

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If you are committed to living in a new country because you really want to build a new life there, complete with personal and professional relationships that are deep and developed enough to weather the enormous changes that a new baby introduces to even the most regimented, optimized life, then I agree, now is the time to relocate. That way, you can spend several years evaluating whether the situation on the ground lives up to your expectations, as well as building the support system you’ll need. The fact remains, though, that whatever you build will be flimsy compared to what you have now, which I think is what your husband is worrying about. We aren’t meant to parent in a vacuum—ask anyone you know with young kids who weathered last year in an area that went into complete lockdown. The research you’re doing might be failing to take some human factors into account. As you research your options, make sure to also talk to people who’ve made the move you’re contemplating. And if you end up staying here, you can join a rapidly growing movement of people who are fighting to make this country’s public policy more supportive of parents and children.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am the father to an 8-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. My daughter has always been a bit extra and feels everything very intensely. She’s never just happy—she’s absolutely giddy. She’s never just upset, she’s DEVASTATED. Our approach to her big emotions when she was a toddler was to help coach her through them, in the hope that we would give her the tools she needs to work through them herself as she grows. However, she is eight now, and we are still spending most of our time together helping her through all of life’s big and little moments. For instance, if we planned to go to the park, and can’t go because of rain, she breaks down. I would like to say, “Katie, it’s too bad we can’t go to the park, but we’ll do something fun inside.” My wife, however, still wants to have a 20-minute conversation about how she’s feeling and help her work through it. I feel like this approach has led to her having no resilience or ability to deal with life on her own and have talked to my wife about how we should stop.

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She didn’t want to, but said I was free to so I started being more nonchalant about the little things and brushing them off. This has only made it worse. Now my daughter waits until my wife gets home from work and cries to her about how I was so mean to her that day and didn’t care when she was sad and then my wife gets in the middle. It’s gotten so bad that my son is starting to feel totally neglected (he even put himself to bed recently while we were dealing with her), because of the energy we spend on our daughter. We don’t know the way forward.

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We took our daughter to therapy before, and the therapist said she was emotional but fine. We’ve put her in drama camps and theater. Really, I feel like stopping cold turkey and hoping that she eventually starts using the tools she’s been taught for the past 8 years. My wife has her doubts. Do you have any ideas on how we can stop this cycle?

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—Dad to an Empath

Dear Dad,

I don’t think stopping your current coping techniques cold turkey is going to result in your daughter snapping magically into a more emotionally resilient shape. (Sorry!) But I do think that the current approach to her over the top emotionality needs a major refresh, because right now it’s not working for any of you. You and your wife have split the difference and adopted completely different approaches, which is just making your daughter confused and resentful. Whatever you do next, it’s important that you both commit to it and try to be consistent with it.

The therapist you consulted wasn’t a good fit. You need to try again with someone new, and I would see a psychologist this time. From my (admittedly very) layperson’s perspective, I think some of what you’re describing sounds like your daughter struggles with executive functioning. Getting her a diagnosis from someone who is more expert than an internet advice columnist is a good first step.

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I can tell you’re burned out right now, so maybe you need a refresh before the time and effort that therapy could require. If you and your wife can take time away from your kids and do a reset before diving back into the fray, that would probably help a lot. When you dive back in, please draw strength from the knowledge that finding a sustainable approach to dealing with your daughter’s behavior will eventually make all of your lives simpler and easier. She might never be the kind of well-regulated individual who puts himself to bed at age 3, but then, few of us are, and at least you have one kid who’s been gifted with natural chill.

—Emily

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