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When Girls Feel Fat: Helping Girls Through Adolescence

When Girls Feel Fat: Helping Girls Through Adolescence

by Sandra Friedman

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For most girls, it's impossible to grow up without ever "feeling fat." Even for very young girls, it is common to express the ups and downs of life in terms of body image - translating real events into the language of fat, repressing feelings and losing one's sense of self.

Therapist Sandra Susan Friedman explains how to hear what girls really mean when


For most girls, it's impossible to grow up without ever "feeling fat." Even for very young girls, it is common to express the ups and downs of life in terms of body image - translating real events into the language of fat, repressing feelings and losing one's sense of self.

Therapist Sandra Susan Friedman explains how to hear what girls really mean when they say they "feel fat" and provides parents, teachers and caregivers with practical ways to help girls navigate the turbulent waters of adolescence. This friendly guide covers:

  • Puberty and sexuality
  • Food and weight
  • Body image
  • Parents and friends.

When Girls Feel Fat provides clear and proven strategies to deal with conflict, to recognize when "worries about weight" may lead to more serious problems, to maintain a connection when girls "tune out" and to deal with "the grungies" — Friedman's term for the voice of self-deprecating, negative feelings. When Girls Feel Fat will help parents and mentors guide girls into becoming healthy, confident women.

Editorial Reviews

The only problem with this book is that the title is too limited—it actually covers much more than eating disorder issues. The author has extensive experience with preteen and teenage girls and their mothers through her teaching and counseling. As she worked with these clients, she noticed patterns of behavior, thoughts, and feelings. Many issues that start out as peer problems or low self-esteem get translated into "fat" issues. Throughout the book, the author uses examples and quotes from her groups. Besides eating issues, she covers other related concerns such as friendships, sexuality, classroom politics, and bullying. In fact, this is one of the best books I have seen that deals with girls' social relationships. The scope of this book is very broad and would apply to most girls going through puberty. The advice to parents is very concrete and practical, and the resource section is thorough. I would highly recommend this book to any parents of a young girl because it will help them understand what puberty is like for their daughters. 2000, Firefly Books Ltd., $14.95. Ages Adult. Reviewer: S. Latson SOURCE: Parent Council Volume 8

Product Details

Firefly Books, Limited
Publication date:
Issues in Parenting Series
Edition description:
Second Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt


One recent evening, I attended a pot luck dinner for mothers and daughters hosted by a friend and her twelve-year-old daughter. As we worked our way through each other's culinary contributions, we talked about ourselves and our concerns.

We shared our personal experiences as the evening progressed, as women and girls often tend to do. We ate good food and laughed a lot, and learned things about each other that we really didn't know before. The girls were eager to contribute to the discussion, to share their opinions and have their voices heard.

While there were variety and diversity in our experiences, there was also a common thread. Regardless of our different ages and interests, we all had times when we felt fat. Whenever we were unable to express our feelings directly or talk about the things that were really important to us, we turned them against ourselves and encoded them in a language of fat. We felt fat when we were angry, fat when we were lonely, and we felt fat when we had no other way of expressing our feelings and concerns.

The mothers talked mostly about the changes that their daughters were going through during puberty. They expressed their hopes and fears for them during adolescence and as they entered the adult world. They were worried about their daughters' safety. They worried that their daughters would begin to tune them out and that their relationships with them would become strained. They worried that their daughters would lose their sense of themselves and begin to be overly concerned with how they looked and with pleasing other people. They worried about eating disorders, which are rampant, as well as the other health and social risks that girls face. Most of all, they worried that despite their best intentions, they would end up doing something wrong. They bombarded me with questions about the work I was doing, and asked me for strategies to keep their lines of communication open.

This book is about the lives and experiences of girls and women. It's about what happens to us when we go through puberty and begin to worry about our weight and to lose connection with ourselves. Examining how girls begin worrying about their weight provides a key to opening discussion about what happens to girls in the process of growing up female in a male world. This book looks at girls' development and at the risks they face as they grow up. It provides us with skills to communicate better with girls and to decode the messages that lie underneath the times when girls feel fat. In helping girls delve beneath the surface and in learning more about their world, we sometimes stir up old feelings in ourselves and bring up issues of our own. And because we as women bring our personal selves into whatever we do, this book is not just about girls. It is also about us.

When Girls Feel Fat is primarily addressed to mothers and other female mentors who work with and care about girls. It is written from a woman's perspective and is about our issues and our lives. I have written this book from a female perspective because that is what I know. I realize this is somewhat unfair to fathers because parenting should be a partnered exercise, as more men are coming to accept.

It is my hope that fathers and other male mentors will also read this book. Men influence girls' development through the ways they act toward girls, in their attitudes concerning adult women, in their feelings about fathering, in their experiences with their own parents, and in the kinds of male/female relationships they maintain in the world. Fathers play a significant role in determining how girls feel about themselves and their abilities, and in the kinds of relationships that girls will ultimately have with other men.

As a father or male mentor, learning what it is like to be female will enhance your relationships with your wife and daughters and with other women and girls. You might find that you can relate to some of the experiences in the book and can apply the information to yourself. Where your experience differs because of your gender, looking at what it was like to grow up male might help you learn about yourself and provide you with insights into your behavior and your attitudes.

How This Book Came About

This book is the culmination of my thirty years of working with girls and women that began when I was an elementary school teacher who had an uneasy relationship with food and weight. I taught my way up into high school before I left teaching in 1976. Later, as an student in psychology, I was able to explore the issues that I had been deflecting onto my body, and I learned skills for dealing with concerns about my weight. In 1980, I went into private practice as a therapist and also worked in partnership with Doris Maranda to develop and facilitate groups for women.

Over time, we progressed from being "fat therapists" into "eating disorder specialists" as the numbers of young women with anorexia and bulimia began to grow. While our clients and group participants kept changing, the dynamics and concerns remained the same. Underneath the bingeing and purging and dieting and fasting are the stories of women's everyday lives. Feeling fat has little to do with body size. It is an encoded way of talking about what it is like to be a woman in a world that is defined by and for men.

In the 1990s, my professional life came full circle. Shifting the focus of my work to prevention, I was given an opportunity to develop an eating disorder prevention program for girls. I knew that worrying about weight is a universal part of growing up female. I decided that if we were going to keep this preoccupation from developing into eating disorders, we had to address the issue just at the point when young girls began to feel fat.

My program Just for Girls is an open discussion group that looks at what happens to girls as they reach puberty in a society that encourages them to define themselves by the numbers on the scale. The program teaches girls to recognize when they feel fat (and ugly and stupid) and encourages them to tell the stories that are encoded underneath. The group facilitators validate the girls' experiences and provide them with a context for why they felt the way they did. Just for Girls soon became a prototype for programs that deal with girls. I began to get phone calls from mothers who wanted something more specific and comprehensive for their own use. Like the mothers at my friends' dinner, they wanted skills they could learn and strategies they could try with their own girls at home.

I have talked to many mothers in the course of writing this book. I've drawn stories from my private practice and from women that I know. 've worked with girls in groups and interacted with them in their classrooms. Throughout this book you will hear about their experiences. Most of the voices are individual people. Some are composites that were put together to illustrate how many women and girls feel. While I have changed their names to respect their privacy, the honesty and integrity of their feelings remain.

How to Use This Book

Think of When Girls Feel Fat as a kind of partnership. I provide you with stories and information, skills to use and suggestions to try — which I hope will be helpful. You bring your own life experiences and your relationships with girls. No matter how much information I give you, you are the best authority on your daughter and on the other girls in your life. You don't have to become perfect or make major changes in your life to benefit from this book. You just have to be open and willing to try different things.

When Girls Feel Fat is made up of four sections. "Setting the Stage" provides the framework for the book It introduces you to the subject of gender and describes female development through early adolescence. It looks at why girls lose their sense of self as they grow up and learn to encode their experiences in a language of fat. You might be tempted to skip this section and go straight to the "how to" section of the book. If you do so, please come back and read it at another time. You will find that you learn a lot about yourself.

"Building Our Skills" explains how girls can become preoccupied with food and weight and can develop an eating-disorder if we do not intervene. It looks at the true feelings of girls who feel fat, and at the grungies — a term coined to describe the negative things we tell ourselves. This section provides you with the skills to help girls decode their grungies so that they don't get so caught up in the language of fat. You will see how you as a mother, father, or other mentor can maintain your ties with girls through adolescence. It helps you become aware of your own emotional baggage that sometimes gets in the way. The chapter on communication teaches you new skills and/or enhances those that you already have.

"Putting Our Skills to Work" takes you more intimately into the world of girls. It gives you background information on their concerns and encourages you to practice your new skills. The "Time Out" in each chapter is designed to teach you more about yourself, while "Time with Each Other" suggests exercises that you and the girls in your fife can try together. Finally, "Resources" lists books and videos if you want to know more about a certain topic and programs that might interest you.

As you read this book, I hope you find parts where you agree with me and relate to what I've written. Some of this information may be new to you or you may wonder where I am coming from. You may find that in some areas your experience and knowledge are greater than mine or find that you disagree with my point of view. That is all right. You are the best judge of what is valuable to you. Use the parts you agree with or think will be helpfull. Leave out the ones that make you uncomfortable and just go on from there. The strategies and suggestions in this book are just that: suggestions. Not all of them will be of use to every reader. Pick and choose the ones that you relate to best and adapt them to your own style. If something doesn't work the first time, repeat it again or try a different approach. Remember that there is no perfect way of being a mother or mentor, and that there is no right or wrong way to do this work.

Meet the Author

Sandra Susan Friedman is an educator, therapist and consultant who specializes in girls' developmental and health issues especially eating disorder prevention. Her group program "Just for Girls" promotes healthy development and prevents eating disorders by helping girls maintain their sense of self during adolescence.

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