I think when our kid comes to us and tells us “I got called fat,” our first instinct is to tell them they aren’t fat, whether they are or aren’t. The problem with this approach is that it reinforces the idea that being fat is bad.
One of the best things we can do in this instance is to approach with curiosity. Some questions you might want to ask include “what do you think it means to be fat?” and “how did it make you feel to hear that?”
This is a great opportunity to discuss that it is not a moral failing to be fat. Body size is largely determined by genetics. While nutrition intake and movement can have an impact, we have a set point where our body wants to exist. The human body tries to maintain its weight within a preferred range. Our “well weight,” so to speak, is the place where we are eating a variety of foods and moving our bodies in a meaningful way (if we’re able to do so), and we’re not fixated on our weight or size.
Fat is a neutral descriptor, except when it’s used to insult or put someone down. It’s never ok to use it in a derogatory way. However, fat should be considered a neutral term. Fat can be a descriptor in the same way tan, blonde or tall can be neutral descriptors. The problem is we exist in a society that does not make it safe to be fat.
What if we said to our kid, “You are fat. And there’s nothing wrong with being fat,” or just “There’s nothing wrong with being fat.” I cannot think of a single client of mine who was ever told that when they were called fat. Often, I hear stories of parents saying, “You aren’t fat. You’re beautiful.” The problem with this is that it reinforces that fat and beautiful can’t coexist. We can be fat and beautiful. This will require a shift in our society from a blame-based narrative around fat to an empathetic, understanding and evidence based approach to weight. Another frequent response I hear is that parents tried to “fix” their child’s fatness by putting them on diets or through rigorous exercise–sometimes called what it was and other times given names like “focusing on our health.”
This conversation looks different with different ages. For a smaller kid, you may have a more surface level conversation that explains to them that being fat isn’t bad. For older kids, you may go more in depth on the science of weight, how they feel, what they might want to do to better cope with their feelings and societal weight bias. We can also help kids identify that it is used as an insult because the other person has been taught that being fat is bad or a failure.
Some things to consider if this response is making you uncomfortable: You may have your own internalized fat phobia or weight bias. The Harvard Implicit Bias weight bias test is a great way to help you identify that (click take a test, I wish to proceed and then select “weight.”) Weight bias has been linked to worsened care from healthcare providers, preventing people from seeking care. Weight bias has been linked to worsened body image and lowered self esteem, due to the way fat people are treated. It also often leads to disordered eating, as many healthcare providers prescribe disordered eating to “treat” fatness. There is a belief that fat people have characteristics such as laziness, lack of will power, a lack of moral character, bad hygiene, low level of intelligence and unattractiveness. Weight bias is prevalent in education systems, workplaces, personal relationships, healthcare settings and the media.
The weight stigma mind map below shows all the places where weight bias can and does show up, including cause, effects, affects, perpetrators and examples.
I also want to take a moment to address my privilege as a thin, straight, white woman. I am honored to have worked with hundreds of clients, who have willingly shared their stories with me. They have helped me have a better understanding of what it is like to exist as a fat person in our society. I know that I don’t have those lived experiences, so I can never fully understand.
About Chelsea Edwards, MS, RDN, CEDS, CD/LD
Chelsea is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist.
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