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What If I Can't Say "Fat?"
If you feel like it's easier to talk to kids about racism than fatphobia, you are not alone.
Q: My wife and I never talk about dieting, never say negative things about our bodies, and never use the words “thin” or “fat” to describe bodies (our own or anyone else’s), because we both struggled with body image issues growing up and we want to protect our 5-year-old from the same. But I’m realizing we do talk much more openly about gender identity (since she has two moms) and racism (she and I are Korean American). Why is this so much harder?
A: It’s harder because you know that racists and homophobes are the ones with the problem. But when it comes to weight, we blame ourselves.
First, an important caveat that I know conversations about racism, gender identity, and so on are still NOT easy for any parent, and especially not for queer folks and people of color who are feeling deeply unsafe right now. For lots of marginalized folks, explaining why fatphobia is wrong will feel way easier than explaining what your Black child should do if a police officer approaches him.
But I do think many of us feel like this question-writer: We are able to lean into conversations about sexuality and race because we know who the “bad guys” are there. But we fall back on the “say nothing” approach to weight because we’re much more aware of our own perceived shortcomings on this issue. We’ve been conditioned to think of weight as a matter of personal responsibility, and diet culture especially emphasizes that your body is only worthy of love if you’re taking perfect care of it and keeping it thin. It can feel easier to just not talk about weight (or fatphobia or why dieting is bad) to avoid showing our kids how much we’re struggling.
“The research tells us that what you say matters more than what you do,” said Kendrin Sonneville, Sc.D., R.D., an assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, where she studies eating disorder prevention. In other words, even if you’re dieting or feeling bad about your body, you can insulate your children to a certain extent by making a concerted effort to have a different conversation with them. “Don’t talk about losing weight, don’t label foods as good or bad and do communicate to your children that their body weight is not their worth,” Dr. Sonneville advised. “The words you use really matter.”
But, as I wrote last week, there are also important reasons to have more proactive conversations with your kids about fatphobia and diet culture, just as you’re already doing around race and gender. Calling out anti-fat bias when we see it (and your kids will see it, if they watch Peppa Pig or read Harry Potter or...) is a safe place for a lot of us to start. You don’t have to talk about yourself at all to do this. You can just say, “I don't like how Peppa makes fun of Daddy Pig’s tummy. There’s nothing wrong with having a big tummy and it doesn’t mean he has to eat less food!” (I have a longstanding beef with Peppa about this.)
From there, one of the most powerful things we can do is reclaim fat as a neutral body descriptor. I know you’re not saying fat (or thin) in an effort to take your child’s focus off body size. But it also makes weight feel like a dangerous, forbidden topic. Even more complicated is when you try to reinforce a broader definition of beauty by rushing in to say “you’re not fat, you’re beautiful!” to a larger child, says Jennifer Gaudiani, MD, an internist who treats the medical complications of eating disorders in Denver. “This puts fatness in opposition to beauty.” Which is the opposite of what you intended.
Instead, we need to teach our kids that making “fat” a bad word only perpetuates anti-fat bias. This can feel really, really hard, especially if the word “fat” was weaponized against you. If it just doesn’t feel safe or doable for you right now, you don’t have to push yourself to claim fat as an identity. But maybe you can start using fat in smaller, positive ways—you could talk about the nice fat tummy on her favorite stuffed bear, or, if you’re describing someone, you might say, “you remember Lizzie, she’s fat and has curly brown hair...” If you couple those benign-to-positive references to fat with your (excellent!) no body shaming policy, that could go a long way towards helping both you and your child redefine the word on your own terms. (If you’re not convinced that reclaiming fat matters, Aubrey Gordon's Just Say Fat essay is an important read.)
The tricky thing about all of this is that as much as we want to expand our children’s definition of “healthy” and “beautiful” to include fat bodies, we also don’t want them to think that either health or beauty are the most important things about having a body. Because both of those states can and will change (probably many times over the course of our lives). Our goal is the equal treatment of all people, regardless of their body’s appearance or ability. We don’t need to tell our kids that all bodies are beautiful; we need to teach them that all bodies are valuable. This is especially crucial with little girls, who are praised so constantly for their appearance, but it matters for kids of all genders. As my friends Lindsay and Lexie Kite, founders of Beauty Redefined, always say: Your body is an instrument, not an ornament.
Beauty can be fun. If your kids can see you enjoying your physical appearance from time to time—after a new haircut, or because you got cool new kicks—that’s great! (Maybe especially if they look like you.) And when beauty feels really important to a kid because that’s all their friends seem to care about, we never want to discount or invalidate that feeling. But you’ll do more for their long-term body image if they see you taking pride and even joy in what your body can do. Maybe you love that it lets you play basketball or take a family walk every day. But think beyond fitness too, since that’s also changeable. One way I love to reinforce “pride in what bodies do” is to read children’s books about how bodies work. It’s truly amazing to learn how our skeleton holds us up or how our lungs breathe, and you always end up explaining how poop happens, which kids adore. I shared a few good ones here.
If you’re still struggling with these conversations, share your thoughts in the comments, or hit reply and send me your questions and I’ll tackle as many as I can. Just remember: It’s okay to be a work in progress here. Very few of us show up to parenting with our body stuff all magically fixed. We can learn with our kids.
Feeling trapped: In my latest article for the New York Times, I looked at how the pandemic has caused some people to develop disordered eating and caused others in recovery to relapse, straining already limited resources for helping eating disorder patients. The National Eating Disorders Association saw a 41 percent increase in messages on its telephone and online help lines in January 2021 compared to the year before. One factor is the uptick in quarantine-related diet and exercise talk, and shaming and fear around pandemic weight gain. Teens are particularly vulnerable. Read the whole thing here.
Watch your language: And Rebecca Onion interviewed me and others about how to thoughtfully talk about exercise and food on social media without being fatphobic or triggering anyone for this Slate piece. To start: Avoid body talk, and metrics (step or calorie counting, or run/exercise “streaks”). Read more here.
Book research call-out: 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 are especially welcome. Hit reply or email email@example.com. (Non-parents who were put on diets as kids—I can’t use your stories this time, sorry. But stay tuned!)
You’re reading Burnt Toast, a newsletter by Virginia Sole-Smith. Virginia is a feminist writer, and author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia. Comments? Questions? Email Virginia.
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