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What to do when your tween daughter calls herself fat

how to help your tween daughter when she calls herself fat

Has your daughter called herself fat? What can you do when your tween daughter calls herself fat?

Are you shocked because you didn’t expect her to think that about herself at such a young age? It’s sadly common. One study found that nearly half of girls aged 3-6 years old are afraid of being fat. This is a startling indication of the level of weight stigma and fatphobia we have achieved in our society.

There are two types of girls who worry they are “too fat.” First, there are girls who are in larger bodies according to their body weight. In other words, they are larger than many of their peers. These girls are given lectures at doctors’ appointments and have trouble finding clothing that fits them well in stores. Second, there are girls who are technically in smaller bodies. These girls are automatically assumed to be “healthy” based on their weight and have no trouble finding clothing in stores.

There’s a difference

It’s important to recognize the difference in these girls. We must understand that our girls know that in our society, being fat is considered a terrible thing. Societal messages constantly reinforce the idea that being thin is the path to health, happiness, and success. Thus it shouldn’t be surprising that tweens use the word “fat” as a slur. But also, when a tween girl feels bad about herself she will call herself “fat” as a stand in for feeling sad, bad, or lonely.

But when a larger girl calls herself fat it is very likely she is experiencing discrimination, or fatphobia in the world. She must be supported in recognizing that fatphobia is wrong and harmful and accepting her body as it is. When a smaller girl calls herself fat she is perpetuating fatphobia. She has picked up on messages that fat is bad, and needs to be taught that it’s not OK to call herself or anyone else fat.

5 rules about the word “fat”

Maybe you’re surprised that I”m using the word fat. If so, here are some ground rules so you understand exactly how and why I use it.

  1. Fat should never be used as a slur or a way to criticize bodies.
  2. If you are not fat then in general you should not use the word fat unless you have been educated and truly understand appropriate uses.
  3. Fat can be used as a neutral descriptor. You have fat in different places on your body just like you have hair in different parts of your body. You can be fat just as you can be blonde or tall. But you should not use these words unless you sure it is both neutral and true.
  4. Fat is a feature, not a feeling. It should not be used as a stand-in for feelings like scared, sad, or lonely.
  5. If someone is large and uses the word fat as a way to describe their body, do not correct them. Fat people get to claim the word “fat” for themselves if they want to.

Now let’s explore how you can respond to your tween daughter when she calls herself fat.

Guidelines for parents who have larger kids:

A tween girl who is actually considered “fat” is going to face discrimination. She will be criticized for her weight and will have trouble finding clothes. This is terrible, and it’s also true. Parents need to recognize that if their child is physically larger, she’ll need extra support in accepting her body.

1. Don’t tell her that it’s just baby fat/she’s not fat, etc.

Don’t say that she will grow out of it. And don’t demand that she is not fat, she’s beautiful. All of these things can make her feel even more ashamed of her body. They all suggest that fat is bad, and something to get over and/or be ashamed of. Instead, talk to her about what it means to live in a larger body in our society. Help her understand that we are more than bodies.

2. Tell her it’s not OK

It’s never OK for your child to be criticized, teased, or marginalized for her body size. Bodies are a social justice issue. They are assaulted by racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. Parents who have larger kids need to become social justice warriors who are willing to fight back against our culture. We can build a kinder world for our children (and everyone), but it’s not going to happen without work. Read More: Weight stigma and your child

3. Work on your own food and body issues

Our kids are finely attuned to how we feel about them. If you have food and body issues, there is a good chance that you are struggling to accept your child’s body. Invest time and energy into understanding body politics and fatphobia so that you can help your child. Read More: Get off the diet cycle and raise healthier kids

4. Teach her to accept her body (and never diet)

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. Read More: The science to support a non-diet, weight-neutral approach

5. Find out her feelings about the word “fat”

Fat can be a neutral descriptor, but it can also be a way to be cruel to ourselves. It’s not OK for her to call herself derogatory names. Often when she calls herself “fat” in a negative way, it means that she’s struggling with other feelings. Ask her questions. Find out what “fat” means to her. Read More: A letter to a tween daughter who called herself fat

6. Peers may tease her because of her body

It sucks, but she will likely experience discrimination because of her body. It’s not fair, but don’t make it worse by ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t happen. Teach her to be confident and assertive in these situations. Give her some tools to respond to bullying. But also be prepared to speak with your school’s administration if she becomes a target for bullies. Read More: Help your child deal with body shaming

7. Healthcare providers, teachers, and well-meaning adults will tell her to “watch” her weight and “eat healthy”

She knows this is code for “your body is unacceptable.” Teach her that their beliefs are not true and their behavior is not OK. Learn about Health at Every Size® and teach her that just because our society is fatphobic does not mean there is something wrong with her. Empower her to politely but assertively respond to these people. Allow her to opt out of school weigh-ins and doctor’s weigh-ins when possible.

8. Work harder to find age-appropriate, cute clothing

Work a little harder to help her have fun with fashion. Do your research and make sure that stores carry her size before taking her shopping. Remind her that the problem is never her body, it’s the sizeist fashion industry. And help her blame the clothes, not herself, when things don’t fit. Read More: How to shop for clothes when your daughter wears plus size.

Guidelines for parents who have daughters in smaller bodies:

If your tween girl is not actually fat, you need to educate her about being a good citizen and not be fatphobic. This will help her be healthier as well as make her a better friend, family member, and community member.

1. Teach her about appropriate and inappropriate ways to use the word fat.

In other words, teach her that unless the word fat accurately describes her body, she may not use it. She should never use the word as a slur about anyone’s body. And teach her to use feeling words for feelings. Fat is not a feeling.

2. Teach her about body politics and fatphobia

Body fat is a social justice issue. Parents need to teach kids of all sizes to be social justice warriors who are willing to fight back against our culture. We can build a kinder world for our children (and everyone), but it’s not going to happen without work. Read More: Social Justice, Fatphobia, and Eating Disorders

3. Teach her that body size is not a joke or something to be taken lightly

In our current climate, it may help to align body size with race. Just like she should not make jokes about, criticize or tease someone for their skin color, she should not make jokes about, criticize or tease someone for their weight.

4. Help her understand that calling herself fat in front of friends who are larger will make them feel bad

Smaller people rarely notice the impact of their comments on friends and peers who are larger. Teach your daughter that when she calls herself fat, it makes everyone feel bad about themselves.

5. Let her know that weight is not equal to health

Your child can be an ally to kids who are in larger bodies by intentionally disconnecting the association between weight and health. The idea that weight = health is problematic on every level, not least of which because it’s just plain wrong. But it also increases the chances of your child thinking it’s OK to criticize people for their bodies. The weight = health bias is bigoted and unhelpful.

6. Teach her not to diet, ever

Dieting is completely unhelpful. 95% of people who intentionally lose weight regain the weight, often plus more. That’s because weight is not a matter of willpower; it’s a matter of biology and environment. Also, about 20% of teens who go on a diet will progress to an eating disorder. Those are not good odds.

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But what about health?

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 the many dangers of fat. But in fact, there is no proven link between obesity causing an earlier age of death, and in many cases, people who carry more weight actually live longer.

You need to know that many of the studies and information that we hear is funded and promoted by the diet industry, a $72 billion monster that can only survive when its market (us) is convinced that they need to lose weight to achieve success and happiness. This is the core goal of marketing: to create a market by creating a problem they can solve. The diet industry is genius because it has convinced most people that its product works even though it fails 95% of the time. How do they do this? By telling us that failure is a weak-willpower problem, not a problem with their product. Genius!

We have known the truth for decades: Diets don’t work, they lead to eating disorders, and they actually result in weight gain. I can say with confidence that it is healthier to raise your daughter to accept her weight and not be fatphobic than to judge her own or anyone’s health and worth based on the scale.

The biggest danger to her health is the belief that there is something wrong with gaining weight or living at a higher weight.

Teach body acceptance to all girls (of any size)

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 is the best way to help your tween daughter who calls herself fat.

Body acceptance simply the act of accepting the body as it is, with no assumption that it needs to change. Weight loss is about controlling food and exercise in order to reduce the body. Body acceptance is about enjoying food and exercise, and living 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:

1. 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.

2. Avoid fashion/lifestyle/celebrity magazines

Avoid magazines and 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 goal is weight loss, it is, in fact, promoting a diet.

3. Avoid purchasing any foods that are considered “diet” food

This includes diet soda and anything sugar-free, fat-free, carb-free, etc. Only use gluten-free products if someone in your family has Celiac disease or is otherwise instructed not to eat gluten free by a board-certified physician. Stay away from food fads that are being promoted on Instagram as “clean.”

4. Turn off or at least clap-back at television shows that promote dieting or weight loss

The same goes for TV shows that glorify thinness or feature unusually thin people. Avoid shows in which the characters make fun of people who are fat, discuss dieting, weight loss or a need to change their body size or shape.

5. Seek media materials 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. It’s hard to find entertainment that is truly inclusive, but try! And when you are consuming non-inclusive media, talk about the lack of diversity.

6. Eliminate all #fitspo, #bodygoals and similar “health” accounts from social media

Monitor your child’s Instagram, TikTok, and other social media accounts 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. But if our tween daughter calls herself fat, we can help. We can teach her to navigate our fatphobic culture without shame, control our home environment, and talk to her openly and often about accepting her body.


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 handle their kids’ food and body issues.

7 thoughts on “What to do when your tween daughter calls herself fat

  1. My daughter is 7 almost 8 and she is bigger than most girls her age taller also. Man I love her so much and she’s amazing but she says she’s fat and I say no your beautiful. What else should I do? Or say? We don’t watch dieting shows or diet in our home we don’t judge but I’m also overweight and have always had trouble. Help me help her

    1. It sounds like you’re doing a great job. Parenting a larger child in our society is challenging. My best advice is to keep practicing non-judgmental responses. Her body is not wrong, but our society is cruel and misguided. Make it a mantra in your house. This is not something that disappears, and it’s best to keep it in the open so that she feels safe sharing her pain with you. It’s not fair that she has to deal with this pain, but your love and acceptance will help her so much. Instead of telling her she’s not fat, help her understand that there’s nothing wrong with being fat. You don’t have to say “fat is great!” You just have to remind her that her body is worthy of respect at any size. Remind her of all her positive qualities, like her humor and her sensitivity. Please check out this article: A mom’s letter to her daughter who called herself fat (https://more-love.org/2019/01/17/a-moms-letter-to-her-daughter-who-called-herself-fat/), and also check out our free eBook: You’re Fine! Body image for girls (https://more-love.org/2019/08/24/body-image-for-girls-free-ebook/). Sending you so much love as you do this important work!

  2. This is great advice. This is the first article I have found that addresses this well. Almost every “advice” article I read assumes that the child isn’t actually fat and offer just platitudes of “we all come in different shapes and sizes”. And that is true, but that doesn’t really help your pained daughter. I try to say things like, “if you eat treat your body well by eating healthy and being active it will do what it’s supposed to do” but I fear even that has an underlying tone. Do you have advice for how to handle if a kid calls her fat if we are saying there is nothing wrong with being fat? Luckily she hasn’t dealt with this too much yet, but it has happened. She is 11 and has been at a small school since she was 4, she will go on to a bigger school for 7th grade next year, so I worry about what can happen there. Thanks!

    1. I’m so glad this was helpful! Something I would say to her is: “it’s hard to live in a larger body in our society, and I’m so sorry about that. Just like your foot size, we don’t have a lot of control over body size. I trust that your body (just like your feet), will grow in the way it’s meant to. I need you to know that you are worthy of respect and love in the body you have, and anyone who tells you otherwise is being unkind.”

      If you feel she is being bullied, then please talk to her teacher, guidance counselor, principal, or school administrator. Ask to see the school’s anti-bully policy, and make sure that it includes weight-based bullying.

      As for what she can say back to people who body-shame, I like these statements:
      Did you really just say that?
      Dude. Are you serious? That’s not cool.
      I don’t recall asking for your opinion about my body.
      Are you having a bad body image day? I’m so sorry 😉
      Don’t talk about my body.

      She may enjoy the book my daughter and I wrote about body acceptance, which covers these come-backs as well as the spirited ideas behind them: https://more-love.org/2019/08/24/body-image-for-girls-free-ebook/

      Sending you so much love as you navigate this tricky situation xoxo

  3. There are some great tips there. Thank you. My daughter is almost 9 and much taller and weightier than all her peers. She has a real tough time shopping for clothes, the uk has no high street options. Online is hard too, we really try and just look at things and judge it by sight, not really size. So im paying for adult sizes and having them adjusted to fit in length. She acts like she isnt bothered but her face tells a different story. Its heartbreaking. She always gets upset because she has no nice clothes to wear. We have had many conversations about hiw beimg a good person is far more important than anything. She struggles. Shes can be horrible to people sometimes. Im certain its just because of her size really. I think just so others dont tease her about her weight, she tries to come accross as a ‘dont mess with me’ type of girl. I think around that age, i was the same. Im sure she will grow out of it. I really hope so.

    1. I’m so sorry. It’s unacceptable that kids and parents can’t find kids’ clothes in larger sizes. I hope your daughter finds peace with her body. Thank you for caring so much!

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