We must acknowledge that fat shaming is pervasive throughout our society. 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.
This is bad enough in public forums like Twitter, on magazine covers and movie screens, but when parents do it 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. Living in a society that tells us bodies must be thin to be “good” is a dangerous environment in which eating disorders thrive. That is why we implore parents to never body shame. That means:
- Never talk about to your child about their body size, shape and weight in a tone that is not completely neutral
- Never talk about your child’s body size, shape and weight to someone else
- Never talk about the body size, shape and weight of yourself, your friends, family members, celebrities, or any other person
Examples of parental body 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:
Body 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
Body 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
Body 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
Body 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 seems to be 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 deficient, bad, a source of trouble, dumb, stupid, etc.
- Say that a child is intentionally bad, a source of trouble, unhealthy, doesn’t care, etc.
- Say that a child’s body is fat, skinny, chubby, wrong, deficient, unattractive, clumsy, unathletic, dangerous, unhealthy, etc.
Parents who use shame believe they are motivating the 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, and especially children, cannot distinguish between their impulses, their actions, their bodies and their selves. Shaming condemns the child, making him feel bad about himself 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
- @euger23 replying to @kelly_clarkson: You’re fat
- @lcancoreaapple regarding the Superbowl: Lady Gaga needs to do some crunches if she wants to show her flabby belly
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, said 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 child
If you have fat shamed your child in the past, 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 look at what you did and understand that it was hurtful for your child 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 and, if necessary, consult with a non-diet dietician so that you can learn about how to prevent eating disorders by learning about weight and diets.
Here is a starting script for apologizing to your child if you fat shamed him or her:
“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 address fat shaming in order to treat and prevent eating disorders. Our children who have eating disorders have a multi-layered problem, but the problem on the very top of it all is living in a culture that is obsessed with body weight and dieting. We can do better!