Part of my mission is to help kids feel good about food AND their bodies. This post is about helping children develop positive body image, and avoid fat bias. (Caillou is one of the few shows I’ve found that shows positive body diversity.)
This question recently made it’s way to my inbox…
“I don’t know how to talk to my preschooler about fat people. When reading a story where a character is described as ‘the fat man’ I change it to ‘the big man’ simply because I don’t want her using the word fat to describe people because she’s 3 and 3 y.o.’s aren’t the best at using words in appropriate ways. A few months ago at a birthday party she asked an acquaintance of mine “Why are your arms SO FAT?” I pretended I didn’t hear and then continued to tie her shoes. The acquaintance responded back with a joke of “Why are you sooo skinny?” Then more recently my daughter put a small pillow on her belly and said “Look I’m a fat girl!” Then when she got tired of being ignored she started singing the words over and over. Until we told her to stop singing that and pick a different song. I just don’t know how to respond. I don’t want the word ‘fat’ to be bad or taboo…what would you say?”
With a seven year-old of my own, we continue to navigate this issue in a culture that is increasingly fat-biased (think The War On….). The word “fat” is associated with horrible things; like being lazy, stupid, mean, more likely to steal etc. (And these impressions are from polling preschoolers.) When I read essays by fat activists, who themselves are fat, they talk about how strange it is when friends say, “But you’re not fat!” “I am fat,” they reply, but not all those things people associate with being fat… (Here is Kate Harding’s example...)
Fat is a descriptor, but it has been taken over as an insult, a shameful word. I love how your friend answered your daughter’s innocent remark. If you were right there you could even add, “Yes, my arms are fatter than yours, and Daddy has skinny arms too!” Your friend didn’t seem to feel it was inappropriate, now the rest of society gets to catch up.
When we treat ‘fat’ as a taboo word and topic, then if our children happen to be fat, gaining weight before the pubertal height growth, or fatter than peers (many “normal” children feel “fat” when compared to smaller peers), they will feel shame. Our lean children will also internalize that fear and shame of becoming fat. Either way it’s not good, and bound to make our children less happy, less active, more likely to diet and gain weight… What if a parent or loved one is fat? I imagine that brings up more embarrassment and conflicted feelings.
Reclaim the F-word. Be patient with yourself.
It took me a long time to get comfortable using the word ‘fat,’ so know that this will feel hard. We’ve been taught that to use the word ‘fat’ is not polite, it is mean and can hurt someone’s feelings, because most often anymore, that is how it is intended. Polite folks might say, “curvy,” “stout,”"chubby,” or “big.” I remember as I began reading about fat acceptance, and challenging myself to use the f-word, finding it very awkward and scary. Even now, when I give workshops, I talk about how I use the word “fat,” and why, because I know some folks in the audience may think I’m just being rude…
You will have plenty of practice learning to get comfortable with this word. I think I’m there, but it’s taken years. Here’s how I’ve handled it.
Tall, lean, skinny, fat, round, short, thick…
These are all physical descriptors— just like having straight or curly hair, brown or pink skin. From a very young age, I peppered the word “fat” into conversations as appropriate. I did not flinch from the word when used as a neutral descriptor. I did not correct her words when she pointed out someone who was “fat” at the store. We did talk about not pointing at anyone, or talking about people in general, since it’s rude, but if we were out for a walk and she saw a fat person and commented, I might say something like:
“Yes, she is fat, and tall. I like her curly red hair—reminds me of Brave!” On another occasion, “Yes, I’m fatter than Auntie I, Daddy is fatter than me…”
Other examples of how I re-frame “fat” and undo the brainwashing
- On a bike outing last fall, I noted that we were being passed by all kinds of people; thin, fat, old, young, black, white, and I casually pointed this out. “Look at how crowded the bike path is! I like that we are biking with old and young people, thin and fat people.” If someone large passed us, I might comment about how fast they were going. It feels artificial sometimes and forced, but children are literally inundated with images and reminders of how fat people (or cartoon characters) are all lazy, unfit, greedy… I sometimes feel like I am undoing brainwashing and need to be proactive.
- In her Montessori preschool, an older boy made up a song about a fat lady in a tree. At almost four, she sang it one morning and giggled. This was also when she started giggling whenever the word “fat” was read to her or mentioned. She was getting that the word “fat” was funny, a joke. I told her that the song was mean, and wrong. I talked to her, without shaming her, since she was learning fat bias at her lovely liberal little school, that “fat” is just a word, and I used it often as such. I talked to the teacher about the song. The teacher said, “We try not to use the word ‘fat.’” But, it is precisely our discomfort and treating it differently that makes it so powerful and shameful, and the kids pick up on this. I tried to educate the teacher as well, that I wasn’t objecting to the word ‘fat,’ but to the boy’s mocking song, and that the song needed to be stopped, not the f-word. I tried (fell on deaf ears) to make a case for actually reclaiming the word ‘fat.’
- While watching Garfield, or reading Harry Potter, or consuming any entertainment full of fat bias, I often do change the words when I can, or change descriptors. When I can’t, I call it out. At 7, I use the word stereotype. “This is a stereotype. See how they talk about the fat boy in class being greedy and selfish, and mean?” I do the same thing for other instances of stereotypes, from gender at the toy-store aisle where the girls are sold princesses and make-up, to Disney movies around ethnicity. (I’m not always the most fun person to watch TV with, and I’ve banned the new Garfield TV show outright for outrageous fat bullying…)
- Alas, I imagine I will have to acknowledge someday with my child that some people don’t like the word, and might feel hurt if we talk about fat. I will try to teach her not to comment on people’s bodies at all. (Actually I don’t really know what I’ll do about this right now, but maybe that’s another post!) I try to model not commenting on people’s bodies. I don’t greet friends with, “You look great!” I greet them with, “I’m so happy to see you!” I certainly don’t point fat people out as cautionary tales for eating veggies or exercising as I know some parents do…
Mostly, it boils down to this. Use the f-word, use it often, and point out fat-bias as is age appropriate. What do you think? Does this sound doable? Do you feel like I’m off base?
I’d love to hear from other parents. How do you handle this?
Update from FB, one mom summed it up better than I!
“The only thing I would say is that I want to define the word in my family so that I can help my child develop strategies for when people comment on him or his parents as fat – I don’t want the word to be hidden in the family and then only have the meaning that cruel children / tv ads / government health advisories give to it.”