If you have a daughter, then you can and should protect her from fatphobia and diet culture. While this isn’t one of the things most of us think about when we have a child, it has become critically important as body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders are on the rise.
Women in our society are constantly told to control their hunger and weigh less. Diet culture indoctrination begins early in a girl’s life. As a result, most kindergarten girls will tell you they don’t want to be fat because being fat is bad. They already believe that the path to not being fat and bad is to eat less and exercise more.
All of this pressure and noise about women’s bodies begins early in our daughters’ lives. Over time it flourishes and often blossoms into body hate, disordered eating, and, sometimes, eating disorders.
But you can protect your daughter from diet culture and fatphobia. You can help her respect her body and live a healthy life. Here are five steps to doing it:
1. Educate yourself
Begin by learning about weight stigma and weight cycling. These are the major problems associated with diet culture and fatphobia and are therefore a key way to protect your daughter from them.
Weight stigma is discrimination against fat people and being fat. It’s closely aligned with racism, classism, and sexism. When internalized, it turns into body hate – the belief that your body (and by extension you yourself) is bad if you have fat.
Weight cycling is the only predictable outcome of intentional weight loss. While the $70 billion diet industry sells the promise of lasting weight loss, the truth is that while many people can lose weight initially when dieting, 95% gain it back (often more) 2-5 years later. This cycle of losing and gaining weight is predictive of two things: poor health and weight gain.
That right: each time a person intentionally loses weight, we can reasonably predict they will end up weighing more 5 years later. And the act of intentionally losing weight puts additional stress hormones into the body and may permanently impact metabolism. This is just the beginning of the long-term health implications of weight cycling.
The most surprising fact about dieting is that intentional weight loss is predictive of weight gain. And while I’m not anti-fat, if that knowledge helps you give up dieting for good, we can start there.
Take some time to learn about the truth about intentional weight loss, and once you’re ready, start educating your kids. This is a great way to protect our daughters from diet culture. Teach them:
- Diet culture is rooted in discrimination, racism, classism, and sexism
- Dieting is not actually healthy for our bodies, and in fact predicts weight gain
- The $70 billion diet industry creates and profits off body dissatisfaction and weight stigma
Our children deserve to know the truth about diet culture and weight stigma, and it’s unlikely they’ll learn it out in the wild. This is something that needs to come from you.
2. A body-positive household
Most households are living with some form of weight stigma and/or diet culture. Maybe you actively diet every January. Or maybe you are naturally thin but constantly talk about your aunt, who is naturally fat, as someone who needs to “take care of herself,” by which you mean “lose weight.”
There are so many ways that we accidentally promote weight stigma and diet culture in our homes, and I’m not here to criticize you for doing any of these very normal things in the past. Truly. I get it. I lived it!
But I am asking you to give it up now that you know better. Here are the beliefs that a body-positive household adheres to:
1. Nobody should be criticized or shamed for their body at any weight.
2. You can take good care of your health without focusing on weight as an outcome or result.
3. Health includes physical, mental, social, and emotional factors. It cannot be determined or measured by weight.
4. There is no body size that deserves more or less respect. All bodies deserve respect at any weight.
A body-positive household will protect your daughter against diet culture because she will live in a pro-body environment rather than an environment that shames and criticizes bodies. At the heart of body positivity is dignity. All human beings deserve the dignity of living in their bodies without criticism or judgment.
3. An anti-diet approach
Once you know all of this, the next step is to institute an anti-diet policy at home. This means that barring any medical restrictions for medically-diagnosed allergies or diseases, nobody should be restricting food. This includes all forms of food restriction and banning foods for any reason other than that you don’t like them.
This is a revolutionary way to live and can be scary for anyone who has been following diet rules for most of their lives (e.g. most of us!). My greatest assurance for you is that following an anti-diet lifestyle will give you and your children greater freedom and better health – both physical and mental.
An anti-diet lifestyle is also protective against eating disorders and disordered eating. One study found that girls are up to 18x more likely to develop an eating disorder if they diet. And girls are more likely to diet if they live in a home in which dieting is modeled and permitted. That fact alone should be enough to encourage you to implement a no-diet rule in your home.
Hundreds of studies have found that Intuitive Eating, which is a way of eating that is responsive to hunger and appetite, is healthier than any type of diet. It may surprise you to know that weight-loss diets do not improve cardiovascular fitness long-term, but Intuitive Eating does.
The important thing is that nobody in the home should be actively trying to control, manage, or lose weight. It is important to get rid of household scales and any other tools that are used for the purpose of weight management. This can be a huge adjustment, so it may help to work with a Registered Dietitian to help you get started.
4. Dealing with society:
The previous three recommendations are things that you can control in your household. And they are a great place to start. But your daughter will go out in the world and encounter diet culture everywhere. Here are some common places she’ll see it and ways you can respond to protect her from negative consequences:
Social media is filled with diet culture. While it’s often not possible to shield our daughters from diet culture on social media, we can minimize its harmful impacts by living a body-positive, anti-diet lifestyle at home. But to take it even further, make sure you talk openly about the issues with social media.
In my experience, it’s best to try and take a balanced approach rather than criticize such an important aspect of her life. For example, you can say things like “I love that on TikTok you can learn so many dances, and I only wish we could see more body diversity in the dancers.” Then let her respond. She may point out that she follows several dancers who are in larger bodies. Or she may just huff and stomp away. But you can trust that just mentioning body diversity will remind her to actively seek body diversity on social media.
Criticizing social media rarely works well. It is a power move that can have negative consequences. Instead, try to open up conversations and put safety measures in place such as time limits on apps. But the best thing you can do is engage in ongoing discussions about the pros and cons of social media.
Movies, TV shows, and even random comments on the radio are often fatphobic. Once you start looking for fatphobia and diet culture, you’ll start to see it everywhere. My suggestion is to point out fatphobic comments as they happen.
For example, if a TV show has a character that suggests someone “needs to eat fewer brownies” (because they’re fat), then I suggest you immediately say “Oh no, so fatphobic. Knock it off!” to the character on the screen. Your kids may look at you strangely, but that’s better than allowing fatphobia in your home without objection.
If a radio host mentions it’s time to get back to the gym and work off some extra pounds, you can say “that’s not how it works, buddy.” These light but direct comments help your daughter start to see the fatphobia that surrounds us and make sure that you are exposing it when it happens. The best response is when she asks for an explanation from you.
While few teens get magazines delivered anymore, they will still see fatphobic magazine covers, particularly in the grocery store checkout line. There may also be billboard advertisements and bus stop ads for weight loss, fat-removal surgery, and more. These forms of constant exposure to fatphobia and diet culture are subtle but have a big impact.
I suggest you point them out as fatphobic and wrong. You rarely need to get into long discussions, but be ready to do so if you think your daughter wants to talk some more about a disturbing message or image she’s been exposed to. It’s best to keep the door open on these conversations so she feels safe coming to you with questions.
Remember that the thing you can control here is what you say and how you respond. Your daughter does not have to agree with you or discuss this deeply with you for your words to have an impact. Focus on your presentation more than her response to it.
Dealing with school:
Whether it’s from a teacher, peer, or coach, fatphobia runs rampant in most schools. Your daughter will most likely encounter diet culture at school, and you want to protect her from that. Here are some common places she’ll experience it and ways you can respond to avoid negative consequences.
I frequently hear from parents who believe that a health class was a trigger for their daughter’s eating disorder. This is deeply distressing but not surprising given that we live in a society that has mistakenly aligned low weight, food restriction, and over-exercise with health.
It’s best to assume that any health classes provided at your daughter’s school will include some version of diet culture. The most common things I hear about are education about “good” and “bad” foods, introducing calorie counters, step counters, and other tools, and misinformation about fat being the “cause” of disease.
I suggest you prepare your daughter for this misinformation in advance and talk about it at home often. Don’t allow health class to go unchallenged, no matter how well-meaning the teacher is.
Additionally, if you feel up for it, talk to your school administration about the dangers of teaching children to diet, a known cause of weight cycling and a major factor in the development of eating disorders.
Because our culture is full of dieting and fatphobia, it’s likely that your daughter’s peers will be dieting and fatphobic. This is not about them being individually wrong or bad. Fatphobia and dieting make sense in our culture. Because of this, we never want to blame the individual, and instead recognize the societal forces at play.
I recommend talking to your daughter often about diet culture and fatphobia and helping her problem-solve and brainstorm ways to respond when they show up among peers. Your daughter does not have to be a social justice warrior who confronts diet culture and fatphobia at school. But it will help if she has some responses in her mind at least to keep herself safe and centered when it happens around her.
Conversations with peers about fatphobia and diet culture are nuanced and challenging. Support your daughter in finding her own path rather than telling her what she “should” do. It’s much more effective to guide her in finding her own response.
We know that coaches and teachers are part of our society and therefore often suffer from fatphobia and diet culture. This is understandable and makes sense. However, when fatphobia and diet culture is actively taught to our daughters, it may be necessary to speak up.
As always, your first line of defense is a good offense. Arm your daughter with the knowledge and strength to recognize diet culture and fatphobia and counteract it, at least in her own mind. Maintaining a body-positive, anti-diet household will go a long way to protecting her from the worst offenders.
Approach conversations about teachers and coaches with an open mind and heart. You don’t want to condone fatphobic behavior, but be careful not to overreact when your daughter tells you about it. Because overreacting can lead your daughter to get defensive on behalf of a coach or teacher who she may respect and like. Let your daughter lead the conversation and do more listening than talking.
However, if you feel a coach or teacher is teaching dangerous concepts to students, you may want to speak with them directly or talk to the administration. For example, if a coach is doing weigh-ins and openly shaming girls who have gained weight, that’s something that should be addressed. Likewise, if a teacher begins a calorie-restriction project in class, you should speak up.
Living in a society that is cruel and dominating towards female bodies is hard. And it’s difficult to raise a body-confident girl in this culture. But it is possible. You can raise a daughter who is free from body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders if you protect her from the worst impacts of diet culture and fatphobia. Good luck out there!
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.