What to do when your kid calls someone fat

Last week, we tackled what to do when your kid gets called fat. This week, I thought we’d tackle what to do when they call someone else fat. Oftentimes, when this happens, we reply with what might feel like the right response, but it tends to actually be a response that further stigmatizes the fat community.

Typical responses I often hear are “don’t say that,” “that’s not nice” and “don’t be rude.” The problem with these responses is that they tend to create the belief that being fat is a bad thing.

Some responses that are better include “let’s not comment on other people’s bodies/appearances,” which helps take the focus off of appearance being an important part of a person’s worth/personality. You can also essentially agree with their comment without having further discussion on the topic.

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I remember one day being in a craft store with my daughter when she was in early elementary school. She saw her art teacher at the time and said, “that’s the art teacher. She’s really fat.” My initial internal response was that of horror because I was worried she meant it as a negative comment and had somehow been exposed to fat phobia from someone other than me. I responded with, “What’s your favorite thing she’s taught you?” and she told me all about her favorite projects they had done. We didn’t make a big deal out of her neutral descriptor, because it was just that–neutral.

Kids who haven’t been exposed to fat phobic messaging (through media, inside the home, outside the home, from peers, etc.) don’t view being fat as bad. It is a learned belief and bias. Kids are often simply describing what they are seeing, and adults make it more than it has to be. In the same way a kid may describe someone as having “orange hair,” they’re observing the world and noting what they see when they describe someone as fat. In the same way that kids may be racist due to growing up in a racist household, they may become fat phobic due to growing up in a household that vilifies being fat. This happens in households with members of all sizes, not just households with thin parents.

Potentially, we can explain why someone might get their feelings hurt by being called fat. Some ways to navigate that conversation include “some people think it’s bad to be fat, so they might get their feelings hurt when called fat, isn’t that silly?” along with “society has created a system where people with fat bodies are treated as if it is their choice and fully within their control to change their bodies,” which is a conversation likely more appropriate for an older kid.

As parents and caregivers, it’s our job to not introduce fat phobia, not make negative comments about fat people, address our own internal bias and create a world where kids don’t view being different as a bad thing.

I also want to take a moment to again 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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