Has your daughter called herself fat? Are you shocked because you didn’t expect her to think that about herself at such a young age? Don’t be surprised: studies show that at least 80% of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat. This is a startling indication of the level of fatphobia we have achieved in our society.
Being considered overweight feels like a terrible life sentence for most girls today. Children are exquisitely tuned into how they are the same and different for each other, and every child who is above average size knows from a very early age that she falls in the “fat” category … even if she is not technically overweight.
Unfortunately, being considered different from the norm, and feeling as if you don’t fit in, is a powerful precursor to eating disorders. Many of us who suffer from disordered eating began with a diet – a simple attempt to take off a few pounds so that we could get closer to what society considers to be the ideal body weight. Or, for those of us who were born with larger bodies (natural body diversity is a fact of nature and genetics), our well-meaning physicians, coaches, teachers, and parents made comments, both overt and covert suggesting that we control our weight.
This is a sad state of affairs. Instead of being free in our prepubescent bodies, we find ourselves noticing fat rolls and being very aware of the fact that we can’t share our friends’ clothing because it won’t fit. As we get closer to puberty, it becomes increasingly difficult to find clothing to fit our bodies. Most children’s clothing goes up in height, but changes little in terms of width, leaving 10 year-olds crying in the dressing room, unable to find a pretty dress to wear to an event.
Here is what you need to know about tweens who call themselves fat.
The first thing you should know is that if your daughter is, in fact, overweight, she knows it. You can’t lie to her about it, or try to avoid the subject if she brings it up. This is a major part of her life right now, and it’s best to face the fact that your daughter likely has good reason to call herself fat. Well-meaning comments from adults who are concerned about her health are not all she faces. She is also subject to dirty looks from fatphobic people of all ages and taunts on the playground.
Her silent shame in the dressing room or when she looks at herself in the mirror can become intensely painful as her body continues to grow while approaching puberty. Don’t tell her that it’s just baby fat, that she will grow out of it, or that she’s beautiful. This actually breaks her trust in you, because, from her perspective, you are lying. Don’t tell her she’s got skinny arms or legs because that just tells her that her skinny bits are the good parts of her, and that skinny is the goal. Don’t tell her that she is built like Aunt Margaret because, well, none of us wants to hear that when we are 10!
Address the health concerns first
Fatphobia has been neatly shrouded in the belief that people can criticize other people’s weight if they are concerned about that person’s health. Headlines abound regarding the “obesity epidemic,” and facts are plentiful regarding the many dangers of fat. In fact, there is no proven link between obesity causing an earlier age of death, and in many cases, scientists are finding that people who carry more weight actually live longer.
We need to know that many of the studies and information that we hear is funded and promoted by the diet industry, a $70 billion monster that can only survive when its market (us) is convinced that they need to change in order to be better. This is the core goal of marketing: to create a market. And the diet industry is expert at building their market.
Despite all of the claims made by the diet industry, there is absolutely no proven way to reduce body weight over a sustained period of time. More than 95% of people who lose weight on a diet have regained it, plus more, two years after losing it. Diets don’t work, they lead to eating disorders, and they actually result in weight gain. Do some research about the Health at Every Size movement to gain confidence that the biggest danger in your child’s life is not her weight, but her belief that there is something wrong with her because of her weight.
Teach body acceptance
Trying to change our body size and shape doesn’t work, and it leads to eating disorders, so our main goal as parents of children living in larger bodies is to help them never, ever diet, which means we need to help them accept their weight, whatever it is.
Learning body acceptance is not easy, but it is the single greatest step we can take as parents to help our children be truly healthy in body and mind. Body acceptance simply the act of accepting the body as it is, with no assumption that it needs to change. Dieting is about controlling food and exercise in order to reduce body size. Body acceptance is about enjoying food and exercise, and a healthy, active lifestyle, with no expectation of reducing body size.
Body acceptance comes with time – it is not something that happens overnight. It will require consistent conversation with your child to convince her that her body truly is OK. Here are some tips:
- Don’t diet or control your weight. Children learn from parents, and parents who diet are more likely to raise kids who diet. Accept your own body, and your children are more likely to accept theirs.
- Avoid bringing any magazines or reading materials into the house if they promote any form of dieting or focus on weight loss. Remember that most magazines are not talking about diets openly – they are hiding them under the guise of “health,” but if the end result is weight loss, it is, in fact, promoting a diet.
- Avoid purchasing any foods that are considered “diet” food. This includes diet soda. We have discovered that diet soda does not support weight loss in any way, including sugar-free, fat-free, carb-free, etc. Only use gluten-free products if someone in your family has Celiac disease or is otherwise instructed to eat gluten free by a physician.
- Turn off television shows that promote dieting or weight loss. The same goes for TV shows that glorify thinness or feature unnaturally thin people. Avoid shows in which the characters discuss dieting, weight loss or a need to change their body size or shape.
- Seek media materials, and openly praise them, that are inclusive. This means they feature a variety of characters of different sizes, shapes and skin color. Normalizing normal bodies is a very important part of body acceptance.
- Eliminate all #fitspo, #bodygoals and similar “health” accounts from social media. Monitor your child’s Instagram account especially to protect her from dangerous messages about reducing and controlling body size. Instagram, in particular, has been shown to be deeply damaging to girls’ self-esteem and body acceptance, in part because it has become a marketing platform for coaches and trainers who are selling their programs, diet shakes, diet teas, etc. The diet industry teaches their salespeople to use Instagram as a sales platform.
There is nothing we can do as parents to completely protect our children from the fatphobic culture in which we live. We can, however, teach them to navigate our fatphobic culture without shame, control our home environment, and talk to our children openly and often about accepting their bodies as they are.