“I Don’t Think of You As Fat!” Raising Size-Accepting Children

People get very uncomfortable when I refer to myself as “fat.”  I’ve been doing this for years.  I was much thinner when I started and I said it in a way of dissing myself before someone else could.  It wasn’t a very healthy thing.  Now that I’m older, I say it for a much bigger reason which is what I want to address here.

Whenever I describe myself as fat my friends will normally say “I don’t think of you as fat.”  I used to feel pleased when they said this (and I was probably fishing for just that) but now I’m just confused.  I mean, I am in fact fat.  No one ever says “I don’t think of you with blue eyes” or “I don’t think of you as short.”  Really?  Do you think of me as brown eyed?  That sounds ludicrous, right?

Well, what are you saying when you tell a friend “I don’t think of you as fat”?  Do you think of me as thin?  Perhaps you need an optometrist?  Fat, i.e. having more adipose (fat) tissue than most people, is a completely objective measure just as my eye color and height.  I might be bluer-eyed, taller, or thinner compared to another person but it doesn’t change the basic description.  So why would someone go out of their way to assure me I’m not “fat”.

What does fat mean?

In our society fat, unlike blue and short, have a mile of connotation behind their surface meaning.  Being FAT means being lazy, slovenly, disgusting, ugly, stupid, and unlovable. Think I’m being dramatic? Tons of studies have looked at size-discrimination and how prevalent it is in our society.  One study noted that “[fat job candidates] were less desirable employees who, compared with others, are less competent, less productive, not industrious, disorganized, indecisive, inactive, and less successful.. “[1. Larkin, J.C., Pines, H.A. (1979). No Fat Persons Need Apply: Experimental Studies of the Overweight Stereotype and Hiring Preference. Sociology of Work and Occupations, 6(3), 312- 327.]  In another study ““Children as young as 6 describe silhouettes of the obese child as ‘lazy’, ‘dirty’, ‘stupid’, ‘ugly’, ‘cheats’, and ‘lies’”[2. Stunkard, A.J. & Wadden, T.A. (1985). Social and Psychological Consequences of Obesity. Annals of Internal Medicine, 103 (6 pt. 2), 1062-1067. Academic Periodical Search. 1 November 2003.]

So, when my friend says “I don’t think of you as fat” she’s really saying I don’t think of you as a lazy, ugly, disgusting slob.  Thank you.  I am none of those things.  However, when you say this you contribute to the power given to the word fat and, even if you don’t choose the meaning, you reinforce the stereotypes you are so adamant I don’t display.

As I said in my post about size comments of pregnant women, allowing fat to equal bad and thin to equal good harms both groups (and particularly women).  Case in point; thin people not being tested for illnesses because it is assumed they are healthy because of their size.  In fact a fat person who eats healthy and exercises is way healthier than a thin person who eats cookie dough by the tub while watching RHOBH marathons.  Meanwhile, a fat girl gets a therapist that can’t stop assuming her clinical depression is all about her weight![3. When I was first diagnosed with depression the counselor I saw focused solely on my weight.  She even printed out the calorie counts on McDonald’s food.  Seriously?  I’m not a fucking moron!  And could we talk about this infertility thing I keep trying to tell you about???  Douche.]

But, perhaps the biggest problem is that the resulting preoccupation with SIZE over health leads to the alarming rates of Eating Disorders and disordered eating habits in children and young adults.  Just look at some of these stats;

  • Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives[4. Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2005). I’m, Like, SO Fat!. New York: The Guilford Press. pp. 5.]
  • 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner[5. Collins, M.E. (1991). Body figure perceptions and preferences among pre-adolescent children. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 199-208.]
  • 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat[6. Mellin, L., McNutt, S., Hu, Y., Schreiber, G.B., Crawford, P., & Obarzanek, E. (1991). A longitudinal study of the dietary practices of black and white girls 9 and 10 years old at enrollment: The NHLBI growth and health study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 27-37.
  • 46% of 9-11 year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets, and 82% of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets[7. Gustafson-Larson, A.M., & Terry, R.D. (1992). Weight-related behaviors and concerns of fourth-grade children. Journal of American Dietetic Association, 818-822.]

We are raising people who hate themselves and/or spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about food, diets, and appearance.  It astounds me to think of the change the world could see if that energy was free for something important.  As Eve Ensler says, “It seems to me that we spend an inordinate amount of time and attention on fixing ourselves when we could really be directing that out to serving others.”

I hope my daughter is in her 20s before she knows the word “diet” can be a verb.  Let her answer “what is your diet?” with “omnivore[8. or, herbivore, should she so choose].”  Save her from knowing that she is an anomaly if she isn’t constantly in a state of flux with her body trying to become the next thing instead of feeling whole in her skin.

Parenting for size acceptance

We as parents we have a powerful platform on which to make change.  We can raise the next generation to love their bodies and to not judge others by their outward appearance.  Here are 15 tips to raise size-accepting children:

  1. Never use the word fat in a derogatory way.  Avoid media that does.
  2. Never imply that I can’t do something or wear something because of my size (“oh, not with these thighs!”)
  3. Never compliment others based on size (how many times is “you look so thin!” the ultimate compliment?)
  4. Point out the beauty of diversity in people and nature – nurture the idea that beauty is diversity.
  5. Avoid making physical activity about size or based on what you ate (“I have to jog off that cake”).  Physical activity should be joyful.
  6. Do not label foods as “good” and “bad”
  7. Offer a variety of foods and model moderate indulgence and a wide consumption of foods. Eating should be joyful.
  8. Don’t make your kids eat if they say they aren’t hungry[9. Unless, of course, you suspect an eating disorder, in which case contact your doctor.]
  9. Don’t deny your kids food if they say they are hungry.
  10. Never comment on the amount (too little or too much) that your kids eat.
  11. NEVER use food as a reward, incentive, or punishment!  (this is SO abused among parents!!)
  12. Guard your children against negative body-image media – stop your subscriptions to women’s mags, don’t watch Biggest Loser, Toddler and Tiaras (focusing on appearance), and any variety of shows promoting appearance as a route to happiness.
  13. Avoid talking about a nutrionalist approach to food – disassembling “food” into fat, carbs, calories, and other things that need to be obsessed about and counted (difficult since it is explicitly taught in many schools).
  14. Encourage alternative means of self-esteem besides appearance – spirituality, values, empathy, effort, etc.
  15. Volunteer!  It is much harder to think of something so superficial as size in the face of true plight.

We can change these things.  Right now.  Today.  We can stop saying negative things about our bodies or associating negative qualities with ourselves and others based on size.  We can change the definition of fat to mean… well, just fat.  Like blue and short.  So that it won’t be necessary to remind someone that they are worthy.

Then you can go ahead and think of me as fat without being uncomfortable about it.


12 thoughts on ““I Don’t Think of You As Fat!” Raising Size-Accepting Children

  1. Wow, this is great! I have spent much time researching and thinking about ways of raising accepting, non-judgmental children in a diverse world but body size is an aspect of that I have never thought of before. Thank you!


  2. What an awesome post – thank you!

    Part of me is obsessed with making sure my daughter is raised to be healthy in her habits (not necessarily 'thin' – just eating well and active) – I am fat, and my upbringing was full of those no no's you listed!

    On the other hand, I just don't even want her to think in those terms, and I'm sometimes afraid I'll push her to far one way based on my own fears (I have never, or rarely, accepted myself – in large part due to my own parents' judgment of my weight).

    But I'm trying very hard to be conscious of my own feelings now (she is only 8 months) so I don't project anything onto her but the desire to be healthy. I am definitely saving this post as a reminder…


  3. I finally purchased the "Don't Feed the Dragon" book. It would fit very well with your "gentle parenting" approach. No hitting in her house including spanking. Her two basic rules are "we are kind" to others and "you don't hit." Well, she has a lot of other good info in it too. I'm so impressed with her approach. She also gives a number of good tips for modeling kind behavior.

    We don't have kids, of course, and we won't, but we are beginning to use it with the kids we mentor. The "we are kind" and "no hitting" rules will fit us well, too.
    http://www.parentingsos.com/ http://www.sandymcdaniel.com/products/dragon.htm


  4. I think it's very important to remember that kids hear everything we say and see everything we do. So no matter how we feel about our bodies, it's SO important to squash the temptation or habit or whatever you want to call it when it comes to making food or size related comments.

    I've struggled with body issues for 20 years, and I'm doing everything I can to make sure my daughter doesn't end up on that same path. I don't want her starving herself at age 12 like I did, or suffering from overuse injuries from trying to pound her body into submission like I have.


  5. This is great and interesting article. I didn't have issues with being fat. Maybe because I learn to accept my curves and weight. I have to agree that parents had the powerful platform on which to make change for size acceptance.


  6. I have always been on the slender side (ranging from skinny little girl to thinner than the average adult), but I didn't have to be fat for it to bother me when "fat" was used in a derogatory sense. I've always hated it. When I was in high school, my best friend starved herself and sought daily self-esteem booster sessions from me because she felt she was "too fat." For me to tell her she looked normal seemed like it was the greatest compliment she had ever received about her appearance. But often she would tell me I was too skinny, and I was so sick of it that one day I snapped back at her "What if I said you were 'too fat'?" She looked so pained I never said anything like that again. She was gorgeous, and got boyfriends, and I was the unattractive skinny one. But maybe if I was thinner, I would be more attractive?? *Sigh*

    I do hate the preoccupation with weight. I hate how gorgeous girls put down their appearance because they aren't stick-thin. I hate how it is affecting children now. And yes, doctors! I was recently very irked by my doctor assuming that doing exercise and eating healthier couldn't possibly help lower my blood pressure, because I am thin so I MUST be active and eat perfect. I think I am one of those "fat" thin people.

    Anyway, I think we are already following all those tips with our son. The only thing I really say about food is sometimes when he wants junk, I'll say, "I think we should have some 'real' food right now." I feel like I have to say SOMETHING because otherwise he's going to pick up ideas about how to eat from advertisers and other people. I don't believe there is a such thing as 'bad' REAL food, but I do believe junk food is bad for us, so I want him to know it's not nutritious–won't help him be healthy for feel good–but not that it's 'morally bad' to eat it. But trying to keep it simple.


  7. I thought your list was great! Number 11 seems so key to me: if we use food as a reward, it gets tangled up in all sorts of guilt and approval issues.

    The nutritionalist paradigm is so ingrained in our society. It's a very superficial way to look at foods, though. There are fats that are good for us, like those found in avocados, but you wouldn't know this from listening to the nutritionalists…ugh.

    I plan on teaching my daughter that food that is close to nature, and that makes her feel good, is good for her.


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  9. Pingback: 15 Tips for Raising Kids With a Positive Body Image | Baby Dust Diaries

  10. This is really wonderful, I’m very glad I came across it. Being fat my entire life and having no self esteem, has been very difficult. My husband is on the large side too and now we have 2 beautiful children. They are the joys if my life but I just can’t help but think they are going to be fat too. Their mom and dad are fat, they have no hope… We try to eat healthy now and I want to get them to know what good foods are for them but those thoughts are still in my head. I don’t want them to be hurt like I was because of how mean kids are. But your article helped me realize some new things. Thank you


  11. Pingback: Big Fat Myths About Fat Part I - Baby Dust Diaries | Baby Dust Diaries

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