Dr. Barbara Greenberg, PhD, clinical psychologist

I’m a teenage girl who is overweight and tired of my mom’s cringe-y talks about “inner beauty.” On Instagram all the girls are skinny and perfect and I feel like everyone is judging me.

Dear Barbara,

I am 15 and in high school. I used to be skinny when I was little, but in grade school my parents, especially my dad, began giving me too much to eat and telling me to clean my plate. They also gave me all this buttered popcorn to eat after dinner. Now I am overweight and I feel really big and depressed about it. Some boys like it that I am way curvy but I just want to be like everyone else.

I am going to the gym just about every day but not losing much weight. My mom says not to worry about it but she has always been thin. She doesn’t know how it feels like to have people make fun of you. She says I am beautiful along with dumb stuff like “real beauty is on the inside.” That is so cringe-y and doesn’t help at all. Also she doesn’t like me ordering soda when we go out to eat, which is just like saying I’m fat. She says she is just worried I might get diabetes, but I don’t think so. Also she gets on the scale sometimes and does this big sigh, like she’s got anything  to worry about. I do have some good friends who are pretty big, too, and I hang with them a lot. They don’t seem worried about the way they look. But I am very frustrated and don’t know what to do.

Dear frustrated teen girl,

First, I must say that I am so happy that you reached out to me. You are describing a very common problem that women of all ages experience — feeling that their bodies are too large even if they are strong, beautiful, and healthy. The female body does undergo a transformation during puberty and many females are both unprepared for and uncomfortable with this. I have worked with many women of all ages who are self-conscious about their bodies. I’ve written about this before, and I have a number of ways for you to think about this issue which may be both helpful and healthy.

  1. Bear in mind that the way that you think affects the way you feel. Challenge your thoughts that associate being thin with being good and being curvy with being bad and somehow less than desirable. All types of bodies are beautiful and unique. Think not only about the size of each part of your body but also about the strength of your body and the wonderful things it can do. This will not be easy and will take lots of practice.
  2. Try to figure out what else in your life you may be upset about. Perhaps you are struggling with other issues that you haven’t yet identified and are scapegoating your body when it is not your body that is the real problem. I strongly believe that when women get distressed, they often blame their body size. This is unfair. Interpersonal issues are often the cause of anxiety and avoidant behavior like not going out with your friends.
  3. Keep in mind that it is highly unlikely that your peers are judging your body. I am aware that you are self-conscious about your body but your friends are too busy thinking about their own issues to be focusing on your body. All teenagers are highly self-conscious. I am sure about this. I see and hear about it all the time.
  4. Teenage girls often learn to dislike their bodies from mothers who devalue their own bodies. This makes me very sad. It is often the case that mothers inadvertently teach their daughters to dislike their developing and mature bodies. How can a daughter like her body if her own mother is calling herself too large? Think about this. Your mother may need to work on her own self-image. Mothers don’t realize what powerful role models they are. If you have a mother who likes her own body then you are both extremely lucky. Please think about this. Your mother’s issue does not have to become your issue.
  5. Think about what else you might really be afraid of. Maybe it is not your body, after all. Perhaps you are afraid of getting older, becoming more independent, or even becoming like the adults around you? After identifying these concerns, you may be able to separate your body from these fears. That would be a wonderful knot to untie.