It’s not uncommon for a tween to say they’re “fat” or otherwise struggle with their body image.
This is an understandable but devastating side effect of living in our culture. One study found that nearly half of girls aged 3-6 years old are afraid of being fat. It only gets worse as they get older unless parents actively intervene.
Our society is deeply fatphobic. Our kids are not immune.
Parents need to help kids, particularly those who are larger, live in their bodies safely and without shame. Here are my eight tips for parents facing tricky body image situations.
This advice helps when treating eating disorders, preventing eating disorders, and preventing a broad array of mental health issues.
1. Don’t tell them it’s just baby fat/they’re not fat, etc.
When your tween says they’re “fat,” your first response may be to try and convince them they are not. But that’s not the best approach.
Don’t say that they will grow out of it. And don’t insist that they are not fat, they are beautiful.
These statements can make a child feel even more ashamed of their body. And it also opens the door for your child to perpetuate anti-fat bias in the world.
Teach them to be a good friend to themselves and a good citizen at the same time by acknowledging anti-fat bias and teaching them how to talk about bodies with dignity and respect.
Don’t say anything that suggests that fat is bad and something to get over and/or be ashamed of.
Instead, talk about what it means to live in a larger body in our society. Help them understand that we are more than bodies. Give them the tools to live in the body they have.
2. Find out the feelings behind the word “fat”
Fat can be a neutral descriptor, but it can also be a way to be cruel to ourselves.
Teach kids that it’s not OK for them to be rude to themselves or use the word “fat” as a stand-in for negative feelings.
Often when kids call themselves “fat” in a negative way, it means they are struggling with negative feelings. Ask questions.
Find out what “fat” means to them. Help them find the feeling words that fit.
In our society a tween who calls themself “fat” often means they feel sad, lonely, or rejected.
Seek to understand and validate the feelings without trying to convince your child that they are already thin enough. The more we deny their experience, the deeper it will dig into their psyche.
3. Teach them about weight stigma and fatphobia
Bodies are a social justice issue. Body politics are filled with racism, sexism, and sizeism. Parents need to recognize that weight discrimination is harmful just like other forms of discrimination. Parents need to become social justice warriors who are willing to fight back against our culture of body hate.
We can build a kinder world for our children (and everyone), but it’s not going to happen without effort.
Teaching kids about weight stigma and fatphobia is protective and will help you raise a kinder human. Bodies are beautiful, unique, and healthiest when treated with dignity.
We need our kids to recognize that trying to control bodies or judging people for their bodies is harmful and unacceptable.
All bodies deserve dignity. Help your child know this deep in their bones.
Read more: Weight stigma and your child
4. Work on your own food and body issues
Your own body and food issues will trickle down to your child. Our kids are finely attuned to how we feel, so we have to work on ourselves to help them grow up strong and healthy.
I’m not blaming you here. We have all grown up in a toxic culture that treats bodies as objects to be controlled and criticized. But when you have a child, it’s time to dig deeper and uncover your own food and body issues.
If you are dieting or otherwise controlling your weight, it’s time to stop. I know this is revolutionary, but we need to heal ourselves so we can help our kids thrive.
Please get support if you don’t know how to live without your bathroom scale and food plans. A therapist, dietitian, or coach can help you learn to practice Intuitive Eating and find peace with your body.
5. Teach them to accept their bodies (and never diet)
Trying to change our body size and shape doesn’t work, and dieting increases the risk of an eating disorder by up to 15x.
To prevent eating disorders and other serious mental health issues, I encourage parents to commit to the goal of helping kids never, ever, diet.
This means we need to help them accept their weight, whatever it is. This is counter-culture, so we need to constantly remind our kids that body acceptance is the best path to health.
You may feel proud of a child who says they want to “eat healthier,” but this is the modern-day code for dieting. Instead, teach your child to listen to and trust their body instead of following external rules and goals.
Of course, you can stock and serve fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins. But serve them alongside carbs, fats, cookies, chips, and other great foods.
All foods fit in a healthy lifestyle. And the more you support a nuanced, gentle approach to bodies, the healthier your child will be.
6. Help them manage peer teasing (and bullying)
It sucks, but kids are cruel to other kids’ bodies. If you have a child who is larger, they will likely experience discrimination and teasing. But even smaller kids may experience cruel body-based taunting and jeers.
It’s not fair, but don’t make it worse by ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t happen.
Teach your child to be confident and assertive about their body. Give your child some possible responses to fatphobic jokes, and support them in standing up for themselves and others.
This is not unlike anti-racism work, where it’s very important to prepare kids to not be passive bystanders when they witness body-based teasing and bullying. All kids should be given the tools to be “upstanders” when it comes to body-based teasing and bullying.
Make it easy for your child to report body-based teasing and bullying to you. And be prepared to speak with your school’s administration when it inevitably happens. This is an under-reported aspect of bullying, so don’t hesitate to say something!
Read more: Help your child deal with body shaming
7. Teach them to respond to adults who say “watch your weight” and “eat healthy”
Kids know that “watch your weight” and “eat healthy” is code for “your body and appetite are unacceptable.” Teach them that these comments are common, but they may hurt your child’s feelings, and you understand why.
Empower your child to politely but assertively respond to these adults. A simple “I’m good, thanks,” can work well. They can also say “please don’t talk about my body/weight/food.”
Some adults may become offended, but that’s just because they haven’t thought about how harmful their comments about weight and food can be. There’s nothing inappropriate about your child setting boundaries about what adults say to them about their body and food.
Read more: Don’t talk about my child’s weight
Read more: Opt-out of school weight programs
8. Work harder to find age-appropriate, comfortable clothing
If you have a child in a larger body, you’ll need to work a little harder to help them have fun with fashion. Larger kids need a little extra effort and attention because the clothing industry does not recognize size diversity.
Do your research and make sure that stores carry their size before you take them shopping.
Remind them that the problem is never their body, it’s the sizeist fashion industry. And when things don’t fit, teach them to blame the clothes, not their body.
It’s sadly normal
It’s sadly normal for kids to feel bad about their bodies in our culture. It’s not uncommon for a tween to say they’re “fat” or otherwise struggle with their body image.
The best thing parents can do is be prepared and proactive rather than reactive when it comes to body image issues.
And if your tween does say they’re “fat” or are otherwise distressed about their body, respond with compassion and understanding rather than trying to dismiss their feelings.
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.