How To Explain Diet Culture to Kids

When and how to begin your counter-programming.

A lot of you are new to Burnt Toast this week, so welcome!

This is a weekly newsletter about how we navigate diet culture and fatphobia, especially through parenting. (But non-parents like it too!) I alternate answering your questions with short essays and rants. I’m also deep into research for my next book, so sometimes you get outtakes, behind-the-scenes peeks, and the little research snippets that I can’t stop thinking about. If you want more of my work, this is a good starting point, and here’s another personal favorite.

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Q: How do I respond when really young kids talk about dieting? 

A: I always know it’s time to newsletter a question when I get asked it a bunch of different times. One mom DM-ed me because her 8-year-old was on a playdate and came home chattering about diets. Another said her 6-year-old shared at dinner that a friend at school was on a diet and “it’s really working!” Another DM says “I heard two little girls (maybe 7-8 years old?) at the park today, talking about what size their clothes are.”  

I know. This is both deeply depressing and not remotely surprising. 

In case you are surprised: Research shows that kids begin equating “fat” with “bad” between the ages of 3 and 5. The first studies documenting negative attitudes towards weight were conducted in the 1960s; researchers showed children pictures of kids with various body types and found that they consistently rated the fat kid as the one they liked the least. If kids are worrying about fatness that young, it’s not a shock that they're learning about dieting, too. Adults around them are doing it and talking about it. Older kids they know likely are too. This is the world we give to our kids. 

But before we collectively panic: It’s important to remember that just because your child is talking about dieting, doesn’t mean they are dieting, or even that they really know what dieting is. I’d start by asking some friendly, curious questions: “What do you know about dieting?” or “Dieting, huh? What do you think about that?” They may think dieting is just eating vegetables or if they know a friend has been put on a diet by their doctor, they may think it’s something akin to taking antibiotics for an ear infection. Find out where they are before you tell them where you are.  

In my house, dieting came up for the first time a few weeks ago because my 7-year-old and I are reading Lisa Fipps’ beautiful novel in verse, STARFISH. It’s about an 11-year-old fat kid named Ellie, whose mom has been putting her on diets her whole life. When I got to the first mention of “diet,” I asked V if she knew what that meant. She shook her head, so I (took a deep breath and) said: “A diet is when people try to make their bodies smaller by eating less food. It doesn’t work and it can make you sick, especially for kids who are growing and need to eat as much food as they want.” She nodded and we kept reading. (If the book wasn’t already making this clear, I would have added something like “nobody needs to make themselves small” or “all bodies are good bodies,” which now elicits an eye roll because she hears it so often.)

I’ll be honest: It felt a little weird to read a book about dieting (even a book that is 100% anti-diet and fat positive) to my child who has not yet voiced any anxiety about her own body size or shape. I wondered if I would be inadvertently giving her a tool to use later when that all sinks in. And we don’t have good research yet on the best way to counter-program weight stigma in kids, so I can’t point you to a study that confirms that if we tell our kids not to diet, they won’t.

But we do know that kids are picking up on these issues even if they don’t verbalize that to us. We also know that when white parents don’t actively call out racism, they are more likely to raise kids who are racist. And that when parents don’t talk about sex, kids learn it from porn. So I’m extrapolating here, but it makes sense that we also need to talk about weight, call out fatphobia, and explain that dieting doesn’t work just like porn isn’t real. 

If we normalize these conversations early, it increases the odds that your child will have some tools to navigate fatphobia and diet culture whenever it does show up for them. They may internalize it all a little less, or at least, they’ll be aware that there is a counter-narrative available.  

But don’t worry if you think you’ve missed out on getting out ahead of this stuff. If asking your child what they know about dieting reveals they already know a fair bit, you can do damage control. Start by acknowledging the reality of fatphobia: “A lot of people think and say mean things about fat people. This is called fatphobia and it’s a big problem in our world that grownups like me are trying to fix.” Jeff Hunger, PhD, who is probably my personal favorite weight stigma researcher (what, you don’t have favorite researchers?) and also/more importantly an assistant professor of social psychology at Miami University in Ohio, suggests you further identify fatphobia in concrete terms a child will recognize by saying something like, “If all the toys you play with are thinner, and all the characters in your favorite shows are too, you might think you're supposed to look just like them. But everyone's body is different, and that is great!”

Then—and this part is crucial!—validate their feelings, especially if someone has made them feel bad about their own body or eating habits. “It really hurt when your friend said you shouldn’t have that cupcake, huh?” And give them space to explore and process those feelings. You might have to own something you’ve said or done in the past that contributed. It’s good to admit you were wrong. (If your child is being bullied for their weight at school or by other family members, a therapist can help.)

Last, reframe what they experienced: “Your body is not the problem. You don’t ever need to make yourself smaller by dieting.” Or in the case of your child noticing a friend’s diet: “Her body is not a problem. I’m sad her doctor told her that she needs to diet because I don’t think anyone needs to make their body smaller.” Yes, this could be awkward if your kid then runs back to tell the other kid you said that. If this is a family you have a relationship with, it may be worth opening up that conversation? If not, you can let your child know that it’s not polite to talk about other kids’ bodies or eating habits, but she should come back to you if she has any questions about what’s happening there.

And seriously, y’all, read STARFISH (with or without a kid). It’s so wonderful and I’m so encouraged to see more positive representations of fat kids in children’s literature. (I talked about a few more here.)

Got a question you’d like me to tackle about how to combat diet culture, feed your kids, and/or navigate fatphobia? Hit reply and send it over.


ALSO

While we’re on the subject: This month I’m working on the chapter in my new book about kids on diets. So if you are currently raising a child under 18 and have put them on a diet, sent them to fat camp, or otherwise pursued intentional weight loss, I would love to chat—with zero judgment, I promise. I’d also love to talk to kids (meaning you are currently college-age or younger) who have experienced this. As always, I’m aiming to make this book as inclusive as possible, so non-dominant voices especially welcome. Hit reply or email virginiasolesmith@gmail.com. (Non-parents who were put on diets as kids — I can’t use your stories this time, sorry. But stay tuned!)

The dirt on my garden: As Instagram followers all know by now, I’m a big fan of house plants and flower gardening. Growing kale and cabbage? Not so much. For Real Simple, I wrote about taking the bits of gardening that give me joy, and discarding the rest. Pick up a copy at newsstands today.

Proud to be a nerdette: I had a delightful conversation about BMI with Greta Johnsen of WBEZ Chicago’s Nerdette Podcast last week. Listen here.


You’re reading Burnt Toast, Virginia Sole-Smith’s weekly newsletter. Virginia is a feminist writer and author of The Eating InstinctComments? Questions? Email Virginia. If a friend forwarded this to you and you want to subscribe, sign up here.