Almost everyone has probably fat-shamed and/or been fat-shamed at some point in their lives. People seem to feel compelled to warn other people about the dangers of being fat.
But are you fat shaming your kids? If so, it’s got to stop. Today.
This is bad enough in public forums like Twitter, on magazine covers, and on movie screens, but when parents fat shame their kids at home, it is deeply troubling because it can lead to serious health complications.
Many of us who have eating disorders can remember being fat-shamed by our parents. Living in a society that tells us bodies must be thin to be “good” is a dangerous environment in which body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders thrive.
A word about the word “fat”
The term “fat” can be used as a slur or a neutral descriptor. In its neutral form, saying “fat” is the same as saying “tall” or “brown-eyed.” Other words for fat bodies, such as “overweight” and “obese,” are currently considered to be stigmatizing. Many fat justice leaders have reclaimed the word “fat” as the preferred neutral descriptor for their bodies.
However, we should not call someone “fat” unless we 1) are doing so kindly 2) have zero thoughts that they should lose weight; and 3) clearly have their permission to do so. And nobody should ever use “fat” as an insult. It’s always best to let people who live in marginalized bodies to define themselves rather than assuming a label on their behalf. And never tell a person in a larger body that they are “not fat” or should be proud to be fat. It’s their body and their choice to define themselves on their own terms.
That is why we implore parents to never fat shame their kids. That means:
- Never talk to your child about their body size, shape, and weight in a tone that is not completely neutral
- Don’t talk negatively about your child’s body size, shape, and weight to someone else
- Never talk negatively about another person’s body size, shape, and weight (i.e. yourself, your friends, family members, celebrities, or any other person)
Examples of parental fat shaming
Sadly, there are plenty of examples of parental body shaming. Just a single hashtag (#theysaid) that trended on Twitter in May 2017 exposes hundreds of damaging comments:
Fat Shaming Moms
“Honey you need to take these, don’t you want to be pretty?” my mom giving me diet pills when I was 11 @char_cut
“You need to be careful. You’re getting a spare tire. You’ll end up fat” – my Mum. I was 11 years old. @thesophbot
“You have such a pretty face. It’s a pity you’re so fat. No man will ever marry you.” My mother to me circa age 12 @geekspertise
“You should stop eating,” Being slim is the best body type,” “No one likes fat girls” – my mom and my grandma @iqueenwinters
“Boys don’t date fat girls.” My mom to 10 year old me @lysslynne
“Are you sure you’re not pregnant? You look 6 months pregnant.” My mom @thebaronessM
Fat Shaming Dads
“Keep eating like that and you’re going to be a butterball.” My Dad when I was 12. @oiselle_sally
Father looks at pre-teen daughter as she eats an Oreo and says, “Are you sure you want that?” @amyblaszyk
You have a such a pretty face just think if you lost weight. My dad’s favorite shaming thing to say @mellissadufesne
You don’t want to be a fat teenager. – my dad when I was 12 @jesserin87
“Why can’t you be skinny like your friend? You don’t want to end up like your mother.” Thanks, dad. @stephmillbetty
“You don’t need that, you’re going to be as big as a house!” My dad when I was 6 @whit_brianne
My dad told me that a 16 inch waist was healthy and that I should try to slim down towards it. AKA the circumference of a cd. @dearjuless
My struggles with food started when I was 8 or 10 (and thin) and my dad said my nickname would be lardass @terrybeigie
Fat Shaming Grandparents
“You’re getting really chunky” – my grandmother, when I hit puberty. @thingjen
“Well well Chubby Checker, someone’s put on some weight” – my grandpa after seeing me in a sleeveless top @mmrach82
My grandmother told my mom, in front of me, if Jen wasn’t so fat, I could buy the same size for her and her cousin. I was 4! @jennydbaker
Fat Shaming Coaches and Teachers
“You’ve worked harder than anyone here but you’re just too fat to dance in this production.” My dance studio’s creative director @audaciouslyalex
“If you keep eating pretzels like that you’re going to be as big as a house one day” – 7th grade history teacher @mariamichta
“This is a great exercise for when your thighs start to rub together, emily.” 5th grade gym teacher in front of my class @emmickhue
Pervasive beliefs about fat
We understand there is a pervasive belief in our society that weight and obesity are inherently bad and that all people must pursue diets and weight loss to be healthy. This is not true, but it is a strongly-held belief nonetheless.
Because people believe that weight is inherently disgusting and dangerous, they believe that they must save fat people from being fat, and shame is a common “motivational” approach.
When it comes to parents who fat-shame their children, perhaps the parents are trying to help their children be healthier. But even if you believe your intentions are good, your shaming behavior is hurtful and leads to poor health. It must stop.
Shame is bad parenting
Using shame as a parenting technique is consistently shown to result in very negative outcomes for children. Children whose parents use shame often suffer from low self-esteem and exhibit mental disorders including anxiety, depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and eating disorders.
Parental shaming includes public or private comments, behaviors, and reprimands that negatively refer to a child’s behavior, body, or self. Parents who use shame often:
- Say that a child is inherently bad
- Tell a child they are intentionally bad
- Say that a child’s body is bad (e.g. fat, chubby, unattractive, clumsy, unathletic, unhealthy, etc.)
Parents who use shame believe they are motivating their child to be better. It is a form of behavior modification, but it has been proven to be ineffective and destructive. This is because most people, especially children, cannot distinguish between their impulses, their actions, their bodies, and their selves. Shaming condemns the child, making them feel bad about themself as a human being.
Fat shaming is public and pervasive
While many forms of discrimination have been outlawed in the United States, weight discrimination is still legal. Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, age, gender, religion, disability, or natural origin. But 49 states permit discrimination based on body weight.
Beyond federal laws, it is common practice for the following prominent and explicit fat-shaming activities.
- People make jokes and rude comments about and to people who are living in larger bodies
- People talk about their own weight disparagingly
- Magazines run cover stories featuring celebrities who have gained weight
- The media characterizes people of size as lazy, slovenly, and dumb
- Internet trolls openly criticize celebrities for their weight
Fat shaming doesn’t make fat people healthy
The American Psychological Association presented evidence in 2017 showing that fat shaming is not an effective health treatment. “Fat shaming is not an effective approach to reducing obesity or improving health,” said Joan Chrisler, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Connecticut College, during a symposium titled “Weapons of Mass Distraction — Confronting Sizeism.”
“Stigmatization of obese individuals poses serious risks to their psychological health,” she continued. “Research demonstrates that weight stigma leads to psychological stress, which can lead to poor physical and psychological health outcomes for obese people.”
Treatments should focus on mental and physical health as the desired outcomes for therapy, and not on weight, McHugh concluded.
What to do if you have fat shamed your kids
If you have been fat shaming your kids, then send yourself some self-compassion. Yes, what you did was unhelpful, but you didn’t know that at the time. The only way you can move forward gracefully and truly help your child is to have compassion for yourself as you own up to your mistake.
Once you are able to realize you have been fat shaming your kids and you understand that it was hurtful without getting defensive or critical of your child, have a conversation in which you openly admit that what you did was wrong and that you are working to change.
Before you begin, here are a few ground rules:
- Acknowledge that fat shaming was a mistake on your part
- Say that you are going to work on your behavior
- Ask your child to tell you in the future if they believe you are fat shaming
- Do not get defensive when your child responds. You made a mistake, and you must own that mistake. Don’t defend yourself. Just say you will try to do better.
- Don’t get into a debate about body size, weight, diet, etc. You are probably not ready to talk about this with your child without potentially doing damage to their body image.
- Conduct more research about weight and diets.
An apology script
Here is a starting script for apologizing if you have been fat shaming your kids:
“Honey, I’m so sorry. I realize that I’ve made some negative comments about your body, and bodies in general. I understand now that what I was doing is called fat shaming, and I’m going to work really hard not to do it anymore. Please call me out if you hear me fat-shaming you or anyone else ever again. I will do my best to listen non-defensively.”
Why this matters for eating disorder treatment and prevention
As a society and as individual parents, we must recognize that fat shaming your kids can be harmful. Our children who have eating disorders have a multi-layered problem, but the problem at the very top of it all is living in a culture that is obsessed with body weight and dieting. We can do better!
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.