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 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 likely 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 within the “healthy” weight range according to medical professionals and have no trouble finding clothing in stores.
It’s important to recognize the difference in these girls. We must understand that our girls recognize 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.
Fat is not the worst thing a person can be.
Just because we live in a society that marginalizes people who are larger doesn’t mean we have to believe it. Even the claim that people who weigh less are “healthier” is deeply suspect. In fact, there is evidence that people who weigh more are equally healthy and may even live longer. Fatphobic cultural messages are pervasive, discriminatory, inaccurate, and racist.
But our kids do and will continue to believe that being fat is bad unless we as parents educate them otherwise.
Rules about the word “fat:”
Let’s start with some rules about the word “fat.” These rules are important, because they lay the foundation for everything else we’re going to say about responding to a girl who calls herself fat:
- Fat is a neutral descriptor. You can be fat just as you can be blonde or tall.
- The only time “fat” should be used is when it is appropriately and neutrally defining your own body. As in “I have fat around my waist” or “I am fat” (said without criticism). Not “I feel fat.”
- Fat is a body feature, not the way you feel. Find emotional terms to define how you feel. As in “I feel scared, anxious, or lonely.”
- You should never call someone else fat.
- If someone else calls themselves fat, check to see if they are using it as a neutral body descriptor or in place of a feeling.
- If someone uses the word fat as a neutral descriptor, do not correct them. Fat people get to claim the word “fat” for themselves.
- If someone uses the word fat in place of a feeling, ask them what they mean. Remind them that fat is not a feeling, and tell them you’re curious to know what’s “feeling fat” means to them.
Now we will explore how you can respond to your tween daughter when she calls herself fat.
If your tween daughter is actually fat
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, they need to be taught to live in their bodies.
Just like parents of non-white children raise their kids to understand racism, parents of fat children need to raise their kids to understand fatphobia. This is not because there is something inherently wrong with Black children or fat children, but because our society is messed up.
Guidelines for parents who have larger kids:
Parents need to understand these rules in order to help all kids navigate society in their bodies without causing damage to themselves or others.
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. Teach her about weight stigma and fatphobia
Bodies are a social justice issue. They are dripping with racism and sexism. 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. 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:
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. 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. They are tightly wound with racism and sexism. 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 criticize or tease someone for their skin color, she should not criticize or tease someone for their body size.
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 fat comments on friends and peers who are actually larger. Teach your daughter that when she calls herself fat, it makes everyone in the group 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. As you already know, 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.
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 facts are plentiful regarding the many dangers of fat. 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 change in order to be better. This is the core goal of marketing: to create a market. And the diet industry is expert at building their market.
Despite all of the claims made by the diet industry, there is absolutely no proven way to reduce body weight over a sustained period of time. More than 95% of people who lose weight on a diet have regained it, plus more, two years after losing it.
Diets don’t work, they lead to eating disorders, and they actually result in weight gain. Do some research about the Health at Every Size® movement to gain confidence that the biggest danger in your child’s life is not her weight.
The biggest danger to her health is actually her belief that there is something wrong with her because of her 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 end result is weight loss, it is, in fact, promoting a diet.
3. Avoid purchasing any foods that are considered “diet” food
This includes diet soda. We have discovered that diet soda does not support weight loss in any way, including sugar-free, fat-free, carb-free, etc. Only use gluten-free products if someone in your family has Celiac disease or is otherwise instructed to eat gluten free by a board-certified physician.
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 unnaturally 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 the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.