My client Ellen always feels depressed after she visits her mother. As she put it:
She always makes some comment about my weight. This time I walked in with a present for her and she greeted me at the door with: “You are looking a little chunky, sweetheart. Did you go off your diet?” I don’t know what kind of a response she expects from me. There isn’t any answer that I can give her that won’t make me feel bad. She has just announced that I am too fat. What am I supposed to say to that?
If Ellen were the only client who told me something like that, I probably would not be writing this article. Unfortunately, I have many female clients with mothers who qualify for a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and most have told me similar stories. Some of these women are in psychotherapy because they developed an eating disorder in an attempt to maintain an unrealistic weight for their body type. Others have body dysmorphic disorder and see themselves as far less attractive than they actually are. Their mothers’ constant assessments of their weight and remarks about every fluctuation up or down have made them very self-conscious and insecure.
These are normal, fit, attractive women who have every reason to feel good about themselves. They should be enjoying themselves and their bodies. Instead, they are obsessing about every pound that they gain or lose, whether their cellulite shows through their leggings, and whether they should be wearing shapewear to smooth their silhouette.
It is bad enough that we are bombarded with “you need to change to be attractive” messages from our culture and from advertising—but when your own mother echoes the “you need to change” message, everything is made much worse.
So…why are these mothers so obsessed with their daughters’ weight and shape?
· Narcissists Rely on External Validation
People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder need external validation to keep their self-esteem high. Their self-esteem is like a balloon that will slowly drop to the ground unless someone is around to give it a tap back up on a regular basis. This need for external validation makes narcissists acutely conscious of whatever their social group regards as high in status.
NOTE: In this article I will sometimes use the terms “Narcissist” and “Narcissistic” as shorthand ways to describe people who qualify for a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
- High Status Females Must Be Slender
This need for external validation creates a situation in which many female narcissists feel compelled to try to fit the current ideal image of what a high status beautiful woman “should” look like. In some groups, being thin has become synonymous with feminine beauty and being fat synonymous with being unappealing and unattractive.
Thinness = Beauty
This equation of thinness with beauty is so ingrained in certain groups, that one woman may greet another by saying: You look so thin! And the other woman will preen and say, Thank you! You too! It is as if the first woman has told the second that she looks beautiful.
- Narcissists Create Status Hierarchies
If feminine thinness is seen as the height of desirability, being fat is seen as disgusting and the least desirable physical attribute a woman can have. narcissistic men and women who subscribe to this particular status hierarchy are likely to become hyper aware of the relative fatness or thinness of every female they see.
- Narcissists May Loudly Comment on a Stranger’s Weight
My client Marnie described walking down the street with her mother and her mother’s friends and becoming mortified when they loudly made cruel comments about some stranger’s weight: “I can’t believe how fat that woman is. Isn’t she ashamed to be seen like that?” Or, “Do you see that outfit on her? Those horizontal stripes make her look like a hippo. Does she really believe that outfit looks good on her?”
As Marnie said:
I was so embarrassed and I felt awful for the person that they are talking about. I didn’t want that woman to think that I agreed with their assessment of her or their right to hurt her with their comments. I wanted to disappear or just shout “Stop! Don’t you see what you are doing?” But there is nothing I can to do that will stop them. I have tried to explain andm instead of realizing that they what they are doing is wrong, they just get annoyed with me.Why do they get so shocked when I don’t go along with them? Can they possibly believe that what they are doing is right?
How do they justify their cruel behavior?
The answer to Marnie’s question involves understanding three truths about people who have Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
- They suffer from “One-Mindedness.”
- They lack emotional empathy.
- They feel entitled to criticize people that they view as “low status.”
One Mindedness: Narcissists assume that everyone thinks as they do and will agree with their ideas of right and wrong. Therapists call this “One Mindedness.” Like very young children, narcissists cannot see the situation from any position other than their own. As far as they are concerned, there is only one correct way to think. They cannot relate to the idea that there can be equally valid, but different ways of viewing any particular situation. If you put forth a different point of view, narcissists will react as if you are criticizing them and are likely to get angry with you—not reconsider their own behavior.
No Emotional Empathy: Narcissists have little or no emotional empathy. That means that they do not feel bad when they hurt someone else, especially if they believe that what they are doing is justified.
Status Hierarchies and Entitlement: Narcissists also assume that those who have higher status have the right to do and say whatever they feel like to those who they see as below them in status.
In this case, Marnie’s mother and her friends assumed that they had the right to comment on other people’s appearance (One-Mindedness), no ability to understand how hurtful they were being or even care that Marnie was being made so uncomfortable by their behavior (No Emotional Empathy), and they were not worried about hurting the feelings of anyone they consider below them in status (Status and Entitlement). In their eyes, fat women (unless very famous or very rich) are automatically below them in status. Therefore, they are fair game for any hideous comment a thinner person cares to make about them.
- Narcissistic Mothers and their Daughters
All of the above lead narcissistic mothers to be hyper-aware of their daughter’s weight and how closely her body fits their social group’s ideal. These mothers are convinced that if their daughters are pudgier than the current ideal, they will not be attractive to the men in their group and will be looked down on.
As my client Carol’s mother told her: “Stop eating those french fries. You know your Daddy does not like fat women.”
- Status Is Catching
People with NPD believe that being close to high status people increases their own status and that being associated with low status people decreases their status. This means that narcissistic mothers believe that their daughter’s body affects their status. When their daughter looks slim, this makes the mother’s self-esteem rise. When the daughter becomes chunkier or more voluptuous than the group’s ideal, her Narcissistic mother will feel embarrassed by her. She will envy other women in her group whose daughters more closely fit the current standards for beauty.
- How This Affects the Daughters
All daughters want their mother’s approval and love. Being constantly evaluated by their weight, passes the mother’s insecurities onto the daughters. They tend to internalize these values and develop an internal critical voice that constantly gives them either positive or negative feedback about their body weight and whether they appear slender enough.
Some daughters accept this standard and become preoccupied with what they eat and how they appear. If they cannot match the standard, they may develop an eating disorder like binging and purging that artificially keeps them slim.
Others rebel and get defiantly fat. They reason:
These standards are impossible for me to attain. I hate my mother for continually criticizing my body and making me feel inferior and self-conscious. I am going to eat whatever I want and be a living reproach to her.“
Punchline: If your Narcissistic mother is obsessed with your body, it is likely that she sees your weight and shape as either enhancing or decreasing her own status. In addition, she may truly believe that the only way that you can be happy in life is to be as slender as possible.
After all, King Edward of Great Britain gave up his throne in 1936 to marry the very slender American heiress Wallis Simpson, who is reported to have said: “You can never be too rich or too thin.”
Adapted from my post on Quora.com, “Why is my narcissistic mother so obsessed fit “fat” people and my weight?” (April 17, 2018)