Today, we have a greater diversity of bodies represented in the media than in decades past, but we’re still a long way from a culture of body acceptance. As parents, we don’t want our kids to grow up thinking that small bodies are the best bodies, and more and more of us are working to shift attitudes about body size.
When you’re careful about the language you use to talk about bodies with your children, it may catch you off-guard to hear them use the word “fat” with a negative tone.
Let’s say your kid is chasing after a sibling and calls them a “big, fat idiot.” You ask them not to use insults — but then you’re implying that “big” and “fat” are derogatory words and that people don’t want to be described that way.
Or maybe your child asks you if a certain outfit makes them “look fat.” You reassure them that they aren’t fat at all, that no article of clothing could make them look that way.
In both of the examples above, your kid’s language suggests that they view fatness in a negative light — and your responses may have unintentionally reinforced this for them.
So, how should you react when your kid uses the word “fat”? And, more importantly, how can you provide a counter-narrative to all of the messages they’re receiving to help them understand that the problem isn’t fat bodies, but fat stigma?
Respond with curiosity.
It’s possible that your child doesn’t grasp all the negative connotations of the word “fat” in our society, and you certainly don’t want to suggest any new ones.
“When parents hear their child using the word ‘fat’ to insult or critique themselves or others, it’s an opportunity to gain insight into what your child is thinking,” Crystal Williams, a psychologist in California, told HuffPost.
Instead of launching into a lecture about the dangers of diet culture, start by asking your child a question or two to try to get a better grasp of their thoughts.
Here are some possibilities:
- What does the word “fat” mean to you?
- What do you think the word “fat” means to other people?
- Who decides who’s fat and who isn’t?
- Is there something wrong with being fat?
If your child is simply being descriptive, you can remind them that “bodies come in all shapes, sizes and colors,” Alyssa Miller, a registered dietician who runs the Instagram account Nutrition for Littles, told HuffPost.
Miller also suggested telling them “using words like ‘fat’ or even ‘tiny’ as an insult is not OK.” Go-to phrases she recommends for these types of situations include, “We don’t comment on people’s bodies” and “all bodies are different.”
If your child can articulate that being fat isn’t the same thing as being a bad person, then you can ask follow-up questions about why they seem to be using the word as an insult or why they don’t want others to perceive them as fat.
“If a child is calling themselves fat, it’s an indication of self-esteem/self-worth issues,” said Williams. Do some further digging to try to figure out if these issues are body image-specific or more general in nature.
You might ask, “‘It sounds like you’re having a really hard time feeling good about your body. Can you tell me more about what you’re worried about?’ This invites kids into recognizing that the body is not to blame, it’s actually the emotion underneath that needs tending to,” Sarah Herstich, a Pennsylvania-based therapist, told HuffPost.
Don’t assume kids are too young to understand bias.
While we don’t want to make presumptions about their intent, we do know that kids absorb cultural messages from an early age. Even if you’re trying to be careful with your language and judicious with their exposure to media, they’ll inevitably take in some of our collective fatphobia.
“Helping kids decouple the word fat from the shame that has been weaponized against people living in fat bodies is so important.”
– Sarah Herstich, therapist
Miller said she has seen kids as young as 2 use the word “fat” (or “big”) to describe someone.
“I would say likely by age 4-5 they can start to get a feel for how people are treated differently based on their size,” she said.
Studies show that girls as young as 6 express concerns about their body size, with 40-60% of girls ages 6-12 worrying about their weight or becoming fat.
Be aware of the messages that you’re sending.
Most of us carry a lifetime of collected fat stigma and “tend to get emotional when we hear this word fat,” said Miller. We may fear that if our child is perceived as fat, they will be teased and bullied.
But if you shut down the conversation as soon as your child calls someone fat, that sends its own message. “[What] we’re communicating to our children is that being fat is so bad we can’t even talk about it,” said Miller.
Instead, she suggests starting a meaningful conversation by “staying calm and getting curious with your child and what they might already believe about being fat.”
Watch your own language as well. Herstich suggests parents use the word “fat” in a neutral manner, “just like they do when talking about people’s height, hair color or skin color. Helping kids decouple the word fat from the shame that has been weaponized against people living in fat bodies is so important.”
Reframing the conversation around “fat” is a long-term project that will require some commitment on your part. Herstich recommended that parents get “curious about their relationship with their own body and what they believe to be true about fat and fatness.”
It sends your kids mixed messages if, for example, you’re speaking about diverse bodies using positive terms, but restricting your own food intake. It impacts them, too. We know that the children of mothers with eating disorders are at a heightened risk of developing eating disorders themselves.
Emphasize qualities other than weight.
If you want your kids to respect all bodies, you’ll need to model this behavior for them. “Don’t comment on someone’s body, don’t gossip or discuss other people’s body size,” said Miller.
“Focus on who people are, what they bring to the table, and their unique gifts and strengths when talking about other people.”
There are so many things to say about a body other than commenting on its size. Make sure that when you talk about your child’s body, you mention their physical capabilities as well as the features that make their body unique, or perhaps ones that they share with other relatives.
Watch the way you comment on your own body. If you wouldn’t say something about your child’s body, you shouldn’t say it about your own, either. Your kids identify with you, and when you critique yourself, they feel it on a personal level.
Try to focus your body talk on attributes other than appearance. “Parents can talk about bodies from the perspective of gratitude (for working parts), functionality (what body can do), and self-care (hygiene and managing stress)” said Williams.
Note when you hear others praising bodies for being thin or criticizing them for not being thin enough. “Calling out inappropriate comments,” said Miller, “can be great starters for deeper conversations around this topic.”