how to help your tween daughter when she calls herself fat

What to do when your tween daughter 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? Don’t be surprised: studies show that at least 80% of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat. This is a startling indication of the level of fatphobia we have achieved in our society.

Being considered overweight feels like a terrible life sentence for most girls today. Children are exquisitely tuned into how they are the same and different for each other. Every child who is above average size knows from a very early age that she falls in the “fat” category … even if she is not technically overweight.

Being different

Being considered different from the norm and feeling as if you don’t fit in is a risk factor for eating disorders. Many of us who suffer from disordered eating began with a diet. We want to take off a few pounds because everyone says we should. Well-meaning physicians, coaches, teachers, and parents tell us to “watch” our weight.

This is a sad state of affairs. In our rapidly-changing bodies, we can become obsessed with our fat. We feel ashamed that we can’t share our friends’ clothes because they won’t fit. As we get closer to puberty, it becomes increasingly difficult to find clothing to fit our bodies. Most children’s clothing goes up in height, but changes little in terms of width. Many larger tweens cry in the dressing room. They are unable to find a pretty dress to wear to an event.

Here is what you need to know about tweens who call themselves fat.

It’s real

The first thing you should know is that if your tween daughter calls herself fat, it’s real. If you try to convince her that her body is not larger than others, you are merely showing her that you are untrustworthy. Her body size is something that she sees quite clearly. It is a major part of her life right now.

It’s best to face the fact that your daughter likely has good reason to call herself fat. Even though you don’t want her to call herself fat, don’t shame her for doing so or try to convince her that she’s not. Her lived experience matters more than your feelings about fat.

Healthcare providers, teachers, and well-meaning adults will tell her to “watch” her weight and “eat healthy.” She knows this is code for “you’re fat and unacceptable in our society.”

She is also subject to dirty looks from fatphobic people of all ages and taunts on the playground.

Don’t let her suffer in silence because it’s hard for you to hear that she has feelings about her body. Help her not drive her fears and shame underground.

Don’t tell her that it’s just baby fat. Don’t say that she will grow out of it. And don’t demand that she feel beautiful. This actually breaks her trust in you, because, from her perspective, you are lying.

Don’t tell her she’s got skinny arms or legs because that just tells her that her skinny bits are the good parts of her, and that skinny is the goal.

Don’t tell her that she is built like Aunt Margaret because, well, none of us wants to hear that when we are 10!

If your tween daughter calls herself fat, ask her questions. Find out what “fat” means to her. Read this letter to a tween daughter who called herself fat.

Address the health concerns first

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, scientists are finding that 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 $70 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

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.

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:

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.

Avoid bringing any 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.

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.

Turn off 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 discuss dieting, weight loss or a need to change their body size or shape.

Seek media materials, and openly praise them, 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.

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

Monitor your child’s Instagram account especially 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.

Comments 4

  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. Post
      Author

      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. Post
      Author

      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

Leave a Reply