I’m 40 and my parents are still body-shaming me | Ask Annalisa Barbieri


I am a 40-year-old single professional woman with an exciting life. A few years ago I started to gain weight despite exercising regularly and eating the same. This upset my parents a lot and they did an angry ‘“intervention” where they told me if I didn’t lose weight I’d get diabetes and be at risk of serious health issues.

I have checked the medical literature (I’m a scientist, like my father) and I fall within the “OK” zone for waist-to-height and waist-to-hips ratios, which are considered the best predictors of health risks. My doctor isn’t concerned. But my father doesn’t accept this. I exercise regularly and I feel fit, but even when I was quite thin when younger, my mother always strongly implied I should be uncomfortable about my body, because I was curvy. I have inherited her tendency for body shame and weight obsession but the funny thing is that since I put on weight, I lost a lot of this shame. After a lot of psychological work I feel attractive and accepting of myself.

But I dread visiting my parents. I used to go on a two-week extreme diet before each trip home, which I’ve now stopped. My father says he doesn’t want to shame me, and I think that for him medicalising things removes the emotion. They recently did something very generous which convinced me that they do see me as worthy, but the feeling that they are ashamed of me is a hard one to shake. Perhaps they are just projecting their own issues on to me, but it makes me want to hide from them so that they can’t see my body. Should I treat this as a health problem, a relationship problem, or both?

I’m sure your parents do see you as worthy but like many parents (especially of that generation) they maybe forgot to tell you. It sounds as if there were issues between you and your parents before your weight gain, but that has allowed them to focus on something tangible.

Criticism is often a way of trying to control someone. I think it’s interesting that your mother also has a weight/body obsession, which she has projected on to you. But also, since your weight gain and loss of shame, I wonder if she sees you as growing away from her and is trying to rein you back in?

Psychoanalyst Prof Alessandra Lemma and I agreed that your letter showed incredible insight at “grasping the complexities of what was going on”. Lemma said: “From the word go we internalise other people’s projections on to our body, and that’s how we can start to experience ourselves as undesirable.” These projections can be from those close to us, and from society in general. She added: “People [like your mother] who have disordered eating tend to over-focus on other people’s eating.”

As Lemma explained it to me, when we physically define ourselves based on the opinion of others – such as “I’m too big” – we may get temporary relief if we change those things, but we still “embody it” – our body remembers that shame. “We can’t,” said Lemma, “delete developmental history”. You’ve lost shame since putting on weight, which is interesting. Was this because you felt you were (maybe finally?) doing what you wanted? Did it feel liberating not conforming to other people’s ideals? Was it, in a way, an F-you to your mum?

It doesn’t sound like you feel this is a health issue but even though you are a scientist and have checked the facts and figures, and with a doctor, you still doubt yourself, because your parents’ opinion of you is very influential.

Try really focusing in on what you want for yourself and your body; this sounds easy but it really takes time to zone out learned expectations, criticism, and the history Lemma mentioned.

Like you I grew up with body shame and weight obsession projected on to me. But now when I focus in on what I want, I no longer think “thin, pre-pubescent”. Those were things others wanted for me, so it’s no wonder I rebelled. Now I think “strong, fit, healthy”.

Lemma wanted you to try to “imagine a world where your parents’ gaze wasn’t there. What would that feel like?”

Who do you see then?

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa, please send your problem to [email protected]. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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