Body shaming is so common in middle school that many people don’t even notice it. But it’s hurtful and harmful to our kids. Here’s an example that’s very common:
“Are you pregnant?” asks the 11-year old boy, pointing at her stomach and immediately breaking into laughter, encouraging everyone around him to look and laugh as well.
And the girl, stunned, looks down at her belly and wonders, perhaps for the first time, that her body is bad. Shame rises and fills her whole body.
People say terrible things, but it is perhaps never more common than in middle school. The body-shaming and fat-shaming that runs rampant in middle school is ruthless and without boundaries. People of all sizes and shapes are harassed at this most vulnerable and awkward time of body development. But of course, it is far worse for kids who have larger bodies.
Middle school teasing
Kids are creative, and they can find countless reasons to tease their peers. This teasing can be traumatic, particularly at the difficult stage of development during middle school. Most teasing focuses on various common body traits, including:
- Skin (color and appearance)
- Features (nose, ears, feet, etc.)
- Visible differences and disabilities
The list of body-based taunts is seemingly endless, and middle schoolers seem inherently gifted when it comes to creating them. And while all body-shaming teasing and bullying should be dealt with quickly by adults, fat-shaming, in particular, is very dangerous since it’s linked to eating disorders, the second-most deadly mental disorder and the cause of much suffering and heartache.
Talking to kids about middle school body shaming
If you have a child who is in middle school, remember that body shaming can happen to kids of all genders and of all body types, though it is far worse for kids with larger bodies. Both boys and girls are the recipients and the perpetrators of body shaming. Here’s what I recommend:
1. Talk about body shaming
Talk about body shaming and fat-shaming early and often with your child. Become educated about Health at Every Size® and make sure that you are not your child’s primary body bully.
2. Explore your own feelings about your kid’s body
As your child’s body changes in middle school, make sure you are not criticizing or objectifying it. This is hard. In our culture, we are trained to objectify and criticize bodies, particularly girls’ bodies. Work on your own feelings and thoughts about your kid’s body. Children are extremely sensitive to parental judgment, so if you have negative feelings about your child’s body, they will almost certainly sense your disapproval.
3. Don’t body-shame yourself or anyone else
It’s absolutely essential that you don’t ever body-shame or fat-shame your child. But it’s also important that you don’t bully your own body or that of anyone else. This includes criticizing people in the airport, on buses, and on television for their body sizes. Take a weight-neutral approach to everyone with the belief that other people’s bodies are none of your business.
4. Teach them to respond to body shaming
The fact is that we live in a body-shaming society. Teach your child some good responses for when other people make comments about their bodies.
Help them develop a few scripts ready to go for the most common body taunts. Work on these with your child so they have the confidence to use them. Ideally, the responses should be crisp and maintain a sense of personal power. For example:
- I don’t recall asking you for your opinion on my body.
- Dude, what are you, a body-shamer? Dumb.
- Haven’t you heard? It’s 2022 and people aren’t body shaming any more.
- No, I’m not pregnant. Are you?
- The last thing I care about is what you think about my body.
- Stop talking about my body.
- I like my body. Thankfully my opinion of myself is not dependent on your opinion of me.
The old advice to just ignore it or walk away may work sometimes, but if your child is physically safe and emotionally supported, you can encourage them to speak up for themselves. The key is for them to feel confident and as if they deserve to talk back to a body bully (which they do!).
5. Teach them to be an upstander
You want your child to be prepared if body-shaming comes their way. But also make sure they are not the perpetrators of body shaming and that they stand up for people who are being body-shamed in front of them. Your child may never be body-shamed, but they are still a victim of our society’s body hate if they stand by while it’s happening to someone else. And they are perpetuating great harm if they body-shame someone else.
6. Shake it off
It would be great if nobody was ever body-shamed again. But it’s unlikely that we’ll see a massive cultural shift as long as your child is living with you. So for now, it helps to teach your child some tricks for shaking off body-shaming comments. Here is some advice for shaking off the negative feelings we get after encountering body-shaming:
- Talk it out with someone you can trust. Shame thrives in secrecy, so talking about body shaming incidents can help reduce the sting.
- Remember that other people’s words do not define who you are as a person.
- Think about whether you can/should take any corrective action.
- Stay away from the person/people who body shamed you.
- Block and report online body shamers on social media platforms.
- Block body shamers from texting or phoning you.
7. Report bullying
It’s true that we can’t protect our children from all forms of body shaming and fat-shaming. In fact, most of us experience body shaming in our own homes! However, if you suspect that your child is being bullied in a way that is dangerous to their mental and physical health, please reach out for support.
It can help to keep a record of incidents to document the body bullying. This should log the date, time, person(s) involved, verbal and physical actions.
Speak with your child’s school principal and school psychologist and get a copy of the school’s bullying policy. Hopefully, they will respond to the situation adequately. If you feel your child’s school is not doing enough to protect your child, seek the support of someone who can help you navigate the tricky task of parenting a child who is being bullied. They should be able to support you in both reporting the problem and helping your child through this situation.
Body shaming and eating disorders
Eating disorders frequently begin during middle school. Eating disorders are linked with body-based bullying and our society’s obsession with appearance, particularly the avoidance of fat (fatphobia).
Bodies, particularly girls’ bodies, change drastically during middle school. It’s not uncommon for girls to gain about 40 lbs during puberty, and it can take years for that additional weight, which is a critical part of their development, to shift and settle into the adult body taking shape. A girls’ body becomes open to admiration, objectification, criticism, and ridicule during puberty, and all are harmful predictors of eating disorders.
Parents can help kids avoid eating disorders with the following steps:
Never Do These 3 Things:
1. Body-Shaming: do not body-shame your child, yourself, or anyone else. Body shaming is the act of judging a person for their body size, shape, color, weight, ability, and appearance. Parents frequently are unintentional body shamers who are trying to help their children “be healthy” which in our society means to lose weight and be thin.
2. Food Policing: do not police your child’s food or suggest they will be better if they eat a certain way. It’s common to judge kids for choosing “unhealthy” or “bad” food. Parents frequently are unintentional food shamers who are trying to help their children “make good choices” which in our society means avoiding foods that supposedly lead to weight gain (e.g. carbs, fat, etc.).
3. Dieting: do not diet or allow dieting in your family. Eating disorders almost always begin with a diet. Dieting is defined as any eating and/or exercise conducted with the purpose (sometimes unconscious) of weight loss. Most “wellness lifestyles” are diets in disguise. Parents frequently introduce dieting to their children, despite the fact that diets do not improve health and lead to weight gain and eating disorders.
Body-shaming online and offline
About 30% of girls and 24% of boys report daily bullying, teasing and/or rejection based on their body size. These numbers are doubled (63% of girls and 58% of boys) for high school students who are living in larger bodies. [source]
It’s dangerous online, too. Way back in 2011, 16% of high school students were victims of electronic bullying in the previous year. [source] This number has undoubtedly skyrocketed since then.
This is why it’s important for parents to talk with their kids early and often about body shaming and eating disorders. Parents should also avoid food policing and prevent dieting. Our kids are going to be exposed to all of these dangerous practices, and the best protection we can offer is education and support as they navigate the culture in which we live.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.