By Suzanne Koven, M.D., Psychology Today
Mother and daughter communicate in the language of fat.
My patient–I’ll call her Amy–was heavy. Her mother, Sybil, also my patient, was thin. At Amy’s visits to my office we always discussed her weight. At Sybil’s visits Amy’s weight also came up frequently.
“Doctor, can’t you make her lose?” Sybil would plead. “I don’t care how she looks. I only worry about her health.”
Amy’s version differed. “It’s not about my health,” Amy insisted. “She’s obsessed with appearance. Mom can’t stand for people to see that she has a fat daughter. She listens to you,” Amy added. “Tell her to stop nagging me about it.”
And so it went, for years; mother and daughter each tried to recruit me to join her camp in their private war over Amy’s excess weight. Bound by my Hippocratic Oath (and ever stricter medical privacy laws) to maintain patient confidentiality I did a lot of nodding and muttering of noncommittal banalities including the all-purpose “Yes, I can certainly understand why you feel that way.”
But I found myself thinking, whenever I saw Amy or Sybil, about the weight of weight in mother-daughter relationships. There has been lots of research on the genetics of obesity, the likelihood of having a weight problem if one or both of your parents did. Much less has been written about the role of weight in the emotional life of families. Particularly between mothers and daughters, weight is a kind of secret code, an inscrutable shorthand for concern, control, and rebellion. Most women I know-even many who are not heavy-tell me that when they see their mothers they are greeted with a quick but unmistakable up and down look. I believe Has she gained weight? is the mother’s reflexive check of Is my baby doing okay? And, in turn, the daughter searches her mother’s weight-scanning eyes to learn, Does she love me? Does she approve of me no matter what? Mothers and daughters, even when they don’t speak, communicate fluently in the language of fat.
Amy and Sybil finally arrived at a truce of sorts…