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For as long as I can remember, kids have always gawked at my fat body. They stare, point, laugh, snicker, comment. They even make dramatic gestures. A whisper to their parents with a confused look on their face is nothing new for me to see. Oftentimes in public, I feel like a member of a circus “freak show” on display for young people to mock. It’s certainly discouraging! Especially as someone managing social anxiety as it is.
I don’t blame the children themselves for their negative reactions to my body. Not anymore anyway. As a young person myself, I can admit it was hard not to. I think a lot of us can relate to that.
But now as an adult, I see the larger issue. The issue is more about our cultural narratives around fat bodies. We have built a society rampant with fatphobia, thriving on toxic diet culture, and over-valuing thinness. And with a world full of so many outlets for children to gather information about moral value, what is “good” and what is “bad,” (tv, film, social media, school, friends etc.) it’s impossible to filter those narratives to perfection.
So what can we do? Or rather, what must we do? I don’t blame parents necessarily, but I do think we have an obligation to work a little harder to change these narratives. We have to start talking to our kids about fat bodies! Early on, even. We need to make our values clear and concise in ways that make sense to them.
How to talk to your kids about fat bodies
Be critical of your own biases
Look at your surroundings. Check out your environment. Do you have any fat friends? Are your children exposed to different kinds of people? Do you value diversity? If you’re finding that you only have thin friends, that might be worth looking into. The truth is, the majority of us like spending our time with like-minded people. And sometimes, stereotypes govern which people we think we’ll have something in common with. This hinders us from giving new people a chance. What might be getting in the way of you making connections with people of different sizes?
Representation matters. It truly does. If our kids only have representation of fat people in media that are being made fun of, it will continue to be incredibly difficult to reshape their beliefs around what it means to be fat. Having fat people in their lives changes their view. They can make connections with, ask questions to, and love the fat people in their lives. They can see a fat person living their life, enjoying themselves, having fun, and being human.
Check your language
Be sure to use words that are easy for the kiddos to understand. Kids know the term fat. It’s easy to understand. Using words like “obese” (or referring to BMI) are terms that come from the medical world. They’re often used in a way that is highly fatphobic and tied to the moral devaluation of fat bodies. Taking these words out of your vocabulary and using words like fat, heavy, big, etc. helps change our language from speaking about fat bodies as if they are taboo, to something more simple and matter of fact. Fat is not a bad word. It doesn’t have to have negative connotations if we don’t let it! Call it like it is. And do so without fear, pity, moral value, shame, or assumption.
Take moral value out of conversations around body size
Look out for the hidden messages you perpetuate when talking about body size. Sometimes, even when our intentions are good, we can continue to do harm in ways we didn’t plan on.
Let’s say your child received a mean message online, (also called cyberbullying, hate, trolls etc). When you make a joke about that mean message coming from some fat, ugly, guy living in his parents’ basement, it’s said to make your child feel better. You want to uplift them by shaping the image of these messages coming from an unsuccessful failure who’s opinions don’t matter. Obviously. But when we do this, we perpetuate this idea that body size is an indicator of moral value, success, and desirability.
Think about it. Oftentimes in movies we see fat people portrayed as bullies, losers, clumsy inconveniences, sweaty jokes, and the just plain undesirable. We paint them as either the antagonist or the mockery. And either way, the messages we pass on to our viewers are that fat people have horrible values or are bothersome.
Kids take this in. They learn from these messages. This shapes their opinion of fat people without them even knowing it! Combat those messages by finding new ways to make your child feel better in these situations. Try not to make it about the offenders body/size/shape at all!
Explain simply and with intention
One of my good friends has two children who have asked questions multiple times about my partner’s body, as well as my own. They have questions because they enjoy our company; they love us. And their world is telling them that fat people are a problem, unhealthy, and even that we’re going to die sooner than the rest. These kids are as young as six, picking up harmful lessons about what it means to be fat and what will happen to the fat people they care about. Six year olds shouldn’t be worrying about their fat family members health.
Try something like this:
“Why are they so big/fat?” Some bodies are big, some are small. The world is full of lots of different kinds of people! Isn’t that cool?
Teach them about how great it is that our world is so diverse and full of many kinds of people. This is also an opportunity to make connections between other realms of diversity to your kids. Talk about the beauty in having a world full of people with different shapes, colors, abilities, amounts of money, religion etc.
“Are they gonna die early because they’re fat?” There are many reasons someone could be unhealthy. Sometimes it’s related to their weight, sometimes it’s not. We know this, because skinny people can have health problems too, right? No matter what, we want to be nice to everyone whether they have health problems or not.
These simple responses can have a huge impact. Especially when repeated as often as necessary. It teaches your children to be critical of those negative stereotypes they’ve been hearing about. So, answer their questions using neutral language. Let your kids know what your values are and what you expect of them.
Conversations about respecting different bodies are important for your children to hear. It’s vital to combatting those negative narratives that they will inevitably internalize about their own bodies, as well as how they treat others about theirs. We must start talking to our young people about fat bodies in ways that destigmatize them. That way, we can work on moving culture away from toxic diet culture and an obsession to thinness, to a more balanced, holistic, and compassionate relationship with bodies.