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 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)
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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 disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate their kid’s eating disorder recovery. Ginny has been researching, writing about, and supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.
14 thoughts on “Are you fat shaming your kids? It’s time to stop!”
I had my period at 11 yrs old and puberty started. I was a normal sized kid but a bit hippy. Grade 7 arriving home from school and bending over to take my shoes off at the side door. My mother loudly saying ” Oh here comes lard ass”. EVERY SINGLE DAY. And laughing hysterically.
I am 55 years old now and her comments have never stopped. No matter how many times I have politely tried to talk to her about it over the years. Body shaming your child is cruel and will cause long lasting physiological problems. I am riddled with such low self esteem because of this. It had effected every aspect of my life. I push everyone away and have a very lonely assistance, I feel ugly, misshapen and unworthy.
I’m so sorry to hear about your pain. I hope that parents stop doing this so that we can raise healthy children who don’t have to heal from the parenting they received. Sending you so much love and healing!
I have a pretty good relationship with my parents, especially with my dad. Despite being best friends, there’s something that has always driven a huge wedge between us and that is body image/food. Ever since I was a child it became a running joke in our family and among family friends that my dad would heavily control and comment on my food intake, to the point that friends and family members would give me free reign of their kitchen/pantries when I came over without my dad there. I was never fat or even overweight. My dad is very thin and eats very very little, hardly consuming any food until dinner and, even then, he hardly eats. He has impossible standards for food/eating and these standards caused me to begin a cycle of disordered eating that then progressed into a pretty severe binge eating disorder by age 10 which was finally diagnosed by a team of doctors at age 20. Because of these things, I have very skewed standards for what is considered eating normally, on either side of the spectrum. I feel like a failure if I eat more than him. At 21 I am a bit overweight but no doctors have EVER mentioned my weight even in passing as being concerning. Despite several heart to hearts, my dad still shames me a lot for eating just about anything or for not exercising a certain way. It really really hurts and I am exhausted of feeling like he’ll never truly be proud of me until I become skinny.
I’m so sorry to hear this. I wonder if it would feel safe to have a direct conversation with your dad and set a boundary about this. Something like “Dad, I love you so much and want to enjoy our time together. I’d like you to stop talking about what I eat, how I exercise, and my weight. If you bring up these topics, then I will remind you that I don’t want to talk about them with you. I assure you that I’m healthy and taking good care of myself, but these topics are becoming hurtful and I want it to stop.” Learning to set boundaries like this with our parents is so important, and so difficult! I wish you all the best!
Hi I’m maddie and im 12 , I know im young to be here but currently im in 8th grade and i study online, i was diagnosed with having Polycystic ovaries and the doctor said i need to lose weight , ever since that day my family used to fat shame me saying something like ” your too fat ” or ” lose some weight sweetie.” my mom even said ” boys don’t want fat and chubby girls.” i became insecure about my body and i now stopped eating things like chocolate and stopped drinking soda and stuff i get body shamed at school as well its been months and i lost a little weight and they still fat shame so all i can say is parents need to stop fat shaming I have been starving myself and i still do and i don’t want someone younger to do that same , but till now they still fat shame so yeah.
Hi Maddie, I’m so sorry to hear that this is happening to you. I want you to know that weight loss is a common recommendation for people who have PCOS, but it is a deeply harmful recommendation. It is a known fact that intentional weight loss efforts result in weight regain in 95% of people, and the act of intentionally losing weight creates numerous stress responses in the body. These stress responses have significant side effects, including additional weight gain in 65% of cases. And dieting increases the risk of developing an eating disorder by 4x.
Recommending weight loss for PCOS treatment is an example of doctors trying to treat the symptom (weight), not the cause (insulin resistance). Weight gain in PCOS is an indication of insulin resistance. When insulin resistance is addressed, PCOS symptoms will likely reduce and weight loss may or may not naturally occur. But the recommendation to focus on weight loss is incredibly harmful and might be part of the reason why PCOS is highly correlated with eating disorders.
I hope your parents will consider doing some more research into PCOS. This is a good article: https://mirror-mirror.org/eating-disorders-2-2/5200-2, and this website has some good information: https://juliedillonrd.com/pcos/.
Meanwhile, please know that your body is going to be the weight it’s going to be. You don’t need to go on a diet or restrict your food for weight loss. You don’t deserve to be weight-shamed by anyone, ever! xoxo
Hi, I am Aamina and I am 16, I an fat shamed since I was like 8 or 9 and yesterday stood up for my self. I told my mother that this(shaming) is hurting my feelings. instead of supporting me, she and my younger sister(who is pretty thin)started laughing about how sensitive I am. Even if I show her this article, I don’t think she will change anything. I am also diagnosed with PCOS. I am always left out at school, the only thing I have is a book to read. but my teachers are very sweet in general. I also get fat shamed by my extended family (grandmother, aunts, cousins ,etc…)too… I don’t know what to do.. many times I ignored but to be honest I think the scar will never heal. i constantly get comments like ‘you wont look good in that dress’ ‘ that dress makes your body look fat’….
I need your advice, what should I do to avoid stress due to fat shaming?
(i am not saying that i get fat shamed 24/7, but when it happens its unbearable)
I’m so sorry to hear that Aamina. Please know that your body is not a problem to be fixed, and you don’t deserve to be fat-shamed. It’s OK to tell people to stop talking about your body: “Please don’t talk about my body anymore.” They may not stop, but you can keep saying it: “I’ve asked you before not to talk about my body. Please stop.” Sometimes just knowing that you can say this, and saying it with confidence, can make things better. It can be hard to assert yourself in these situations, but it’s also empowering. Sending you much love as you navigate this difficult situation. xoxo
Dear Aamina, your family should be ashamed of what they do to you and no doubt to others. All of our bodies are unique and be proud of who you are. Never let the hard-hearted people get to your heart.
Hopefully you can forgive them, but they may never see themselves the way they truly are. So forgive them and be proud of you! We are all out here rooting for you, just know that many children and adults come from this horrible behavior….The way we stop them, is to love everything there is about our bodies! Love yourself for all that you really are, stop listening to the ones who have no love for you or themselves either!
This grandmother just had enough of her son n law fat shaming the grandboys! He does it out in public and does it in private and the boys are made to feel shame constantly! We went out to eat at a restaurant today, he was horrible and fat shamed both young boys ages 10 and 12. Their Mom excused it with just “You know your Dad” just let it go and buck up. I never want to eat out again with such a man, he needs to apologize, constantly!!! The dad has problems vomiting and dieting constantly, he is very anorexic! What does a Grandmother do? Hurts my heart to see them bow their heads in shame!
My parents kept body shaming me every year about my weight and it never stopped. I get so tired of the negative comments they make about it. My weight is really none of their business. What should I do to stop them from criticizing me about it?
Hi Jarrod, I’m so sorry to hear this. Your body is your business, and you never deserve to be shamed. You can set boundaries with your parents and say things like “please don’t talk about my body that way,” and leave the room when they body-shame you. I know this is an imperfect solution, and unfortunately you’ll likely need to repeat it. Just remind yourself that your body is absolutely fine. There is nothing wrong with you. xoxo
My 5 year old – yes, 5 year old !!- daughter cried “Daddy I am not fat” when I said to her a few times “you need to start running a bit more as you are getting fat”. I cried myself to sleep that night. Sometimes fat shaming is inbuilt into parents – its just a reflex statement. I did try and apologise to her and tell her that it was ok and she just needs to practice moderation. A few months since – she just puts her hand on her belly and says “I am fat, so I ran a lot in the school”. I have no idea how I will undo my mistakes.
You’re so right – we all grew up in a fat-shaming culture, and thus fat-shaming is almost always unconscious. There is a lot you can do to help your child, and it all starts with examining your unconscious beliefs and changing how you see and talk about bodies. Thanks for thinking about this for your daughter’s sake! xoxo