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Family comments regarding weight leave deep scars

By Julie Deardorff

McClatchy Newspapers

If a family member has ever told you you're fat, chances are you've never forgotten it. I sure didn't. It's a fairly common phenomenon among people who might be vulnerable to eating disorders.

When researchers interviewed 455 college-age women participating in an Internet-based eating-disorder prevention program, they found that just one or two negative statements about a person's weight from a family member can cause low self-esteem, long-term body dissatisfaction or eating disorders.

The study, published in the August edition of the journal Pediatrics, found that mothers seem to have the most powerful influence on the eating habits of their daughters. More than half of women surveyed reported negative comments by Mom, 40 percent by Dad and about 40 percent by siblings.

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Most of the women said they received only "a few" negative comments, and researchers concluded that, essentially, it takes only one to leave a lifelong scar. Others say it doesn't necessarily have to be family members; peers or health professionals can inflict damage.

For Chicago's Leslie Goldman, author of "Locker Room Diaries," the stinging moment came in 5th grade during a visit to a pediatrician she admired. She remembers, clear as day -- down to the matching denim shirt and skirt she wore -- asking the doctor if she could start dieting.

"He lifted up my shirt a little and pinched the roll of fat/skin around my middle and said, 'You could lose about 10 pounds,"' recalled Goldman, who at the time felt chubby and was suffering from an undiagnosed hypothyroid condition. "I was devastated, and those words have never left me.

"Parents have an even more influential position (than doctors)," added Goldman, who suspects that the doctor's comments contributed to the eating disorder she developed in college. "And their words can cut deep."

Yet childhood obesity is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, and tiptoeing around the issue -- or saying nothing -- for fear of triggering anorexia or bulimia isn't the answer either. Some schools have even gone in the opposite direction, putting a child's body-mass index on his report card.

And the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which calls overly fleshy children "at risk of overweight" to spare their feelings, is studying whether to label kids "obese" like adults, in response to doctors who think that overweight children and their parents are living in a dangerous state of denial.

Somewhere, there must be a middle ground. For obese adults, the answer is easy. Keep your mouth shut. They already know.

But for children, the issue is far more complicated, especially when the parent has body-image problems. The golden rule, experts say, is to avoid criticizing or teasing a child about weight or shape.

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And while that so-called "triggering comment" can be harmful, it's probably not the only catalyst. Think about the bigger picture: how you're communicating the message about weight over time, said psychotherapist Thom Rutledge, co-author of "Life Without Ed," which details Jenni Schaefer's decision to divorce her eating disorder, or "Ed."

"The point should not be to not say anything, but to be sure that what is said is communicated with compassion and respect," Rutledge said. "And there needs to be plenty of followup with the child to understand how he or she is responding to the conversation."

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