Posted on Leave a comment

How to fight weight stigma for your “big kid”

How to parent a “big kid” and counteract weight stigma

If your child is considered a “big kid,” they will very likely be subject to harmful weight stigma.

A big kid may spend their life feeling objectified and criticized for merely existing in their body. Your child may be called names like “fat” and told they need to “watch” their weight. This is psychologically painful, but it also has serious physical consequences that have nothing to do with the weight itself, but rather our society’s vast and deeply embedded weight stigma

How you parent your big kid can make a huge difference in their lifelong health. All parents should learn about weight stigma, but it is especially important for parents who have kids who are at the higher end of the weight spectrum. 

What is weight stigma?

Put simply, weight stigma is the belief that people in larger bodies are bad, and people in small bodies are good. The most common emotion associated with weight stigma is disgust. The greatest challenge with weight stigma is that it is largely unconscious. This means that many people who would never openly criticize someone for being larger still feel disgust when looking at a larger body.

“People can’t change the color of their skin, but there’s this perception that people can diet their way out of obesity—that if somebody has a larger body, it’s 100% their fault.”

Janet Tomiyama

Like other forms of discrimination, weight stigma is based on false beliefs that are both conscious and unconscious. Despite being incorrect, these beliefs are overtly and subtly perpetuated at every level of our society. Like racism, ableism, and homophobia, weight stigma is wrong on every level. However, it is barely recognized as a form of discrimination and is legal in almost all states.  

  • More than 40% of U.S. adults report experiencing weight stigma at some point in their life (International Journal of Obesity; PLOS ONE
  • Forty-two percent of U.S. adults say they have faced some form of weight stigma, such as being teased about their weight or treated unfairly because of it, with physicians as one of the most common sources (International Journal of Obesity; International Journal of Obesity)
  • Among children, weight-based bullying is more common than bullying based on race, sexual orientation, or disability status, and family members and romantic partners are high on the list of perpetrators. (Journal of Adolescence)

Why do parents need to learn about weight stigma?

Weight stigma is woven into the fabric of our culture. Parents, coaches, teachers, and doctors are the most common adults to perpetuate weight stigma with children. And this is deeply problematic because it means that these adults who are meant to be guiding and supporting a child are feeling disgust about the child’s body.

And children are finely attuned to how adults feel about them. Adults can say all the right things and outwardly approve of a child, but if weight stigma is below the surface (and it almost always is), the child will sense how the adult feels about their body. 

Children lack advanced cognitive reasoning skills. So while they can sense the adult’s disgust, they don’t have the cognitive ability to know that it’s wrong. Instead, they internalize the sense that there is something wrong about who they are. They automatically internalize that an adult’s negative feelings about their body means they (as a person) are bad. When adults feel disgust about a child’s body, children internalize low self-worth and shame.

The dangers of weight stigma for heavier kids

Low self-worth and shame are deeply corrosive and impact every aspect of human development. They are associated with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, suicidality, and many other challenging mental disorders. They are also correlated with poor health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, and autoimmune diseases. 

“There’s a perception that weight stigma might feel bad but [that] it’s tough love and it’s going to motivate people. But research shows that this isn’t true.”

Sarah Novak

That’s right. Adults worry about fat cells. But the real danger to kids’ lifelong health is weight stigma. And ironically, kids who are exposed to weight stigma are more likely to gain weight than those who are not. That’s right. When adults worry about kids’ weight, they create conditions that make it more likely a child will gain more weight than they would without that worry.

  • Weight stigma undermines health behaviors and preventive care, causing disordered eating, decreased physical activity, health care avoidance, and weight gain (Appetite
  • Children who are victims of weight stigma tend to gain more weight than those who are not (Obesity, JAMA Pediatrics)
  • Over the long term, weight stigma increases the risk of mortality (Psychological Science)
  • Weight stigma increases a person’s risk for mental health problems such as substance use and suicidality (Obesity; International Journal of Obesity)
  • Weight stigma leads to a decrease in health-seeking behaviors and an increase in weight. Regardless of their body mass index (BMI), people who face weight stigma are more likely to engage in disordered eating. They are also more likely to avoid exercising and to report feeling uncomfortable exercising in public (Appetite; Obesity)
  • It also increases risk for psychological problems including depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidality (Obesity Reviews)

What parents can do if they have a larger kid

1. Learn about weight stigma

The first essential step in protecting your child who is a big kid from the dangers of weight stigma is to educate yourself. Remember that the greatest danger of weight stigma is that it is often unconscious and therefore invisible. You must dig deep to uncover your unconscious biases and disgust about fat bodies to raise a healthy child. The basics are: bodies are naturally diverse; fat bodies are not bad; body weight is largely out of an individual’s control; weight stigma is wrong; and intentional weight loss is dangerous.

2. Invest in unlearning weight stigma

Because weight stigma is invisible to most of us, you will need help learning a new way of thinking about bodies. Just like the idea of being “color blind” was an abject failure in the anti-racism movement, mainstream body positivity will be inadequate if you want to protect your child from weight stigma and counteract its harmful effects. Find a coach or therapist who can work with you on your conscious and unconscious beliefs about fat. This is an investment in your child’s lifelong health. Think back on your life: how much have you spent on diet programs, weight loss books, and diet foods? Apply at least that much time, money, and effort to unlearning weight stigma.

3. Discuss weight with your child safely

All parents should talk about weight stigma with their children. But if your child is at or above the 50th percentile on their weight chart, then it is even more important. It’s best to avoid having conversations about your child’s weight until you have invested the time and resources in unlearning weight stigma. Talking about your child’s weight is a delicate, sensitive issue. Not because there is anything wrong with their body (there isn’t!) but because we live in a body-toxic culture that is full of weight stigma. Talking about weight without stigma is an essential skill that parents need to learn.

4. Protect your child from weight stigma

You should be actively watching for weight stigma in your child’s life. Start with your own home. How do people talk about bodies in your home? Make sure that weight stigma isn’t normalized or accepted in your home. That includes when relatives are visiting. Don’t keep diet books in the house, and don’t have magazine covers that glorify thin bodies and vilify fat ones. Watch out for TV shows, social media, movies, and video games that perpetuate weight stigma. Next, keep an eye on your child’s doctors, coaches, and teachers. Intervene in situations in which you believe your child is a victim of weight stigma from these important adults.

5. Teach your child to respond to weight stigma

Once you have done your own work around weight stigma, it’s time to teach your child to respond to weight stigma assertively. Your child should be able to recognize weight stigma when it comes from friends, peers, family members, doctors, coaches, teachers, and other adults. They should have a variety of responses they can use to shut weight stigma down when it happens. No child should be expected to endure weight stigma from anyone. Rejecting weight stigma is an essential health activity!


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.

Leave a Reply