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teach kids to use the “f-word”

Posted by on Mar 14, 2013 in Blog Posts | 13 comments

Caillou-Cartoon-PicturesPart 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.”

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Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Sara F.

    My son in 4 1/2. We don’t talk much about people’s bodies, except in a matter-of-fact way, like “some people use wheelchairs.” But I do try to use the word “fat” in positive contexts, like admiring a baby or offering my comfy belly to lie on. I want to give it a neutral-to-positive connotation before he learns otherwise.

  2. Tracy Brown RD,LD/N

    Thank you so much Katja for writing this post and I will be sure to refer clients and parents to it for how to “language” these conversations with kids. Good to see Deb B add her wisdom as well.

  3. Heather

    Thank you for this post. I have a hard time articulating why I use the word fat as a descriptive word now. When I had kids I started reading more about haes/fat acceptance and I have come a long way internally to be ok with myself and want my children to see and feel that. It’s just a word like blonde or tall but it carries so much hidden meaning.

  4. Deb Burgard

    This sounds great to me, and the only thing I would add is to also talk about how “fat” is used as a weapon sometimes, and how that is a problem, not the word itself, and neither is it a problem if a person’s body is fat. If kids are aware and old enough, I might give other examples, like using “gay” as an insult, or “queer,” or “lame.” None of these words, used in context as a descriptor (or for a horse!) are a problem, but when they are used to insult they are a problem, and their history of use as an insult may make people uncomfortable. Given that, I would also say that it is important to listen to other people’s preferences about what they prefer to be called, so if someone seems hurt if you say, “fat,” it is polite to notice and ask what words feel better to them.

    • katja

      thank you so much for your words of wisdom! We will soon get to that stage. I love how you frame it, and I am starring this comment so I can come back to it as needed! Great advice on asking what words feel better if it comes up in a personal context. I know ASDAH has some amazing resources I’ve linked to on my website, do they have any resources on this topic or related that you might point me to? So grateful and thankful you joined this discussion. there have been some lovely FB comments about how this is helping parents frame this for their young children, because that is when it most naturally comes up, in a wonderful blank slate of open curiosity.

  5. Twistie

    I was the skinny kid with the fat mother.

    I loved her precisely as she was. I knew she was strong and energetic and engaged in the world. I loved how I fit nicely on her lap longer than most of my friends did with their mothers. I loved going out walking with her and talking about questions I had and important issues of the day.

    What I hated was going to school and having other kids taunt me about how fat my mother was. They didn’t know her like I did. They just knew they could hurt me by insulting her… and even then the worst insult a lot of kids could come up with was ‘fat.’

    It’s taken me a damn long time to reclaim the word fat. Now I use it comfortably and regularly to describe myself, as well as most of my family. I will not allow anyone to shame me with a simple descriptive word again.

    Words have power. Words that are taboo have unwarranted power. Making ‘fat’ a taboo word turns it into something fearsome. The more we say it, the more it’s just a word like ‘tall’ or ‘sturdy’ or ‘loud’ or ‘green.’ It’s simply a fact. We need to let it be simply a fact.

    • katja

      I wonder how it might have helped had your teachers used the words as a descriptor, or talked about different bodies in a non judgmental way? I’m so sorry that happened to you. Agreed, just a fact.

  6. Erika

    I didn’t realize that I’d been waiting for a post like this. Like the woman who wrote the original question, I wasn’t sure what to do when my kids called themselves fat or used the word “fat” in a mocking way (e.g., saying it and then giggling). This is an amazing and incredibly useful way to reframe the word. Making it a more neutral descriptor, while helping kids be more aware that false sterotypes exist and that they need to recognize them, will really help me with this. Thank you!

    • katja

      I’m so glad! There is more on FB ( if you are curious. I write a lot about fat bias, since it comes up all the time. It’s exhausting but necessary I think!

  7. Jacquie | @After_Words

    I’m overweight and though I’m not thrilled to have the word fat applied to me, I absolutely can’t stand to have the word applied to my similarly overweight 5 year old daughter. What I try to teach is that it’s not nice to comment on people’s bodies–no one likes to be told that they’re different whether because they’re tall or short or fat or thin. A handful of times my daughter has been called fat by classmates, and I’m struggling a bit with teaching her how to respond to that. Any ideas?

    • katja

      Personally, I think the “you’re not fat” approach is not helpful. This happened to M too. I just say, yes, you are fatter than X, and your legs are thicker and strong so you can do so many great things. We all have fat, some people more than others. I’m fatter than my brother, and your Daddy is fatter than me.” Then I move on… Would love to hear from others. There is a good discussion on facebook, feel free to pop over. I’ll add this question to my FB feed…

  8. AcceptanceWoman

    I am fat, my daughter is not.
    I don’t shy away from the word fat, but I also don’t engage in any negative body talk in front of her. I think that my daughter, because I am so clearly fat, doesn’t exhibit to me her own attitudes about fatness. But I do notice that she has friends of a variety of sizes, which reassures me.
    I could probably do a better job — I’m in that “size blindness” mode with her, which is ineffective and false.
    When she was younger, once I vaguely remember her using the word fat as synonymous with bad or undesirable (not ugly, though, if I’m remembering correctly). I also don’t remember how I dealt with it, but I think I asked her some questions about the word, and pointed out that she wasn’t using it accurately, in a way that didn’t make her feel bad for using the word “fat.”
    When she’s furious at me she calls me a “big meanie” but not a “big fat meanie” — it would be interesting to know if she calls anyone else a “big fat” something.
    I dread the moment when a peer of hers says something to her about how fat her mom is — I think it’s inevitable that it will happen, if it hasn’t already — but my daughter thinks I’m a great mom, and her friends seem to, too — so I think she will have backup from her friends, and will probably be more shocked than hurt.