If You Tell a Girl She’s Fat

grade on curveA recent study by researchers at UCLA found that if girls had been called “too fat” by someone by age 10, they were more likely to be “obese” at age 19, and that the more people who told her she was “too fat” the more her chances of being “obese” increased.  The study included controlled for income, race, childhood weight and puberty age.

Full disclosure:  I reference A. Janet Tomiyama’s work often – including her work with Traci Mann –   I have tremendous respect for both of them as researchers doing great solid work in an area that is really controversial, and I’ve even briefly corresponded with Janet about a piece I wrote about her work for iVillage.

The study isn’t really what I want to talk about though, what I want to talk about are the reactions to this study and the hypotheses that people are drawing from it.  As I read articles about this around the internet the most common idea I’ve heard is that when girls are called “too fat” they probably resort to “emotional overeating” or “stress eating” and that leads to weight gain.

I’d like to suggest another hypothesis.  I think when girls are called “too fat” they resort to dieting (often at the recommendation of authority figures including their parents, teachers, doctors etc.) and that leads to them to gain weight.

Research from the University of Minnesota found that none of the behaviors being used by adolescents for weight-control purposes predicted weight loss, but they did predict significant weight gain.

Earlier research by Tomiyama and Mann found that most adults regain the weight they lost and many (from one to two thirds) gain back more than they lost.

We know that the most likely outcome of intentional weight loss interventions (whether they are called a diet, a lifestyle change etc.) in adults is weight regain – often more than what the person lost – and we have no reason to believe that dieting works better for kids.

So maybe the issue isn’t so much about trying to keep girls from “emotional overeating” (a questionable concept which is a subject for a whole other blog) but trying to keep them from dieting – which is to say trying to keep them from feeding their bodies less food than they need to survive (while those bodies are still developing, let’s not forget) in an effort to manipulate their body size.

I’ve also seen a lot of people using this as support for the idea of banning the use of the world “fat”. I vehemently disagree with this strategy.  The issue I see here is that, however well meaning, saying that we shouldn’t call kids fat suggests that being fat is such a terrible thing that we shouldn’t utter the word out loud. But fat kids actually exist, so making fat kids into Voldemort by making fat the “physical descriptor that must not be named” actually further shames and stigmatizes them, whether we call them fat or not.

Girls (and kids of all gender identities) deserve to live in a world that encourages them to love and appreciate their bodies and gives them the information and access to make choices about caring for those bodies, and I think a great first step would be to end body shaming and negative body talk and celebrate body diversity.

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25 thoughts on “If You Tell a Girl She’s Fat

  1. I really appreciate this post and article after an incident with my 6 year old. We were lying in bed playing and talking like we do (I work night shift and am often in bed during the day). We were on the subject of describing someone as skinny .. like Squidward on Spongebob and her friend (I will leave out name). She said she and I are the same size but she is taller. I said “She is taller and thinner and you are on the chubbier side” I used this strictly as a descriptor and meant absolutely nothing by it. She began sobbing uncontrollably telling me I insulted her. I tried to explain that she is gorgeous just the way she is and that I was only trying to describe her. I mentioned that people come in all shapes and sizes and that’s okay. I held her and told her that she is beautiful, but also smart, funny, sassy, a fast runner, etc. She finally got over it, but obviously I have not. I felt terrible and I was very disturbed that she was so stricken by such a benign comment. People have suggested to me that perhaps someone had been saying things at school or something she is watching on Youtube is making her sensitive. I cannot imagine being six years old and thinking anything of a comment of that nature. This article is very timely for me.

    1. This is so sad, Kerryme 😦 There’s no reason “chubby” should evoke panic or shame in anyone, least of all a six year old! That seems too young to be worried about that stuff but looking back I know I was incredibly sensitive about my body size at that age. It’s incredible how much kids pick up from the world around them. Maybe she’s being bullied at school or maybe she just picked up body shaming from TV commercials or older girls/women in her life. Poor girl, but it sounds like she has a really great mom who’ll be able to counter some of that negativity 🙂

      My husband gets mad at me whenever I describe myself as chubby or fat. I try to explain to him that I’m not putting myself down but he just does not get it. Those words cannot possibly make sense to him as anything but negative and it can create some friction in our house sometimes but I do get it- I’ve had problems with eating disorders and poor self image my whole life and I’m just now starting to be body-happy so he’s understandably still sensitive.

    2. Sorry to hear about this. But it is very common I’m sure.

      Sadly, outside of the few who have become aware, and trust in FA philosophy, virtually all kids know by a very young age that it’s not only OK to make fun of fat people, but it’s practically your moral duty to do so.

      The anti fat-person propaganda “out there” is so overwhelming, so ubiquitous, that nobody can escape exposure to it. And, also sadly, it works.

      I’m so mad about this I cannot even put it into words. But I also don’t think there is a damn thing that can be done to stop it in the short term. To make matters worse, the pseudo-aonymnity of the internet and other digital comminications, has emboldened and empowered bullies everywhere.

      Ragen, and others like her are doing the best possible thing to turn this around, but it will probably still be many years, if not many decades, before she and others in the FA movement will be seen as anything other than just “bad fatties”.

      I’m sorry to be so negative about this, but I’ve lived a lifetime with it, and it has take a heavy toll on me.

    3. I don’t think I realized until last week how young this phobia of being fat is foisted on little girls. I was horrified last week to find out that a 10yo girl I know is at a point of making deals with her parents like, “if I lose 12 pounds by July, will you buy me a….?”

      Not only have they apparently made her feel awful about her weight, they’re training her to use weight loss as a bargaining tool and an accomplishment to be rewarded. On top of which, it also seems to have made her paranoid that other kids who are thinner are laughing at her weight.

      And the worst part? She’s not even fat. It’s apparently the mere threat that she’s going to let her weight “get out of control” that’s freaking her or her parents (or both) out so badly. As if “fat” was literally the most terrible thing you could be called, or could become.

      I shudder to think of all the ways that could go even more wrong for her in the future.

  2. Five bucks says there’s some dick-brained asshat out there arguing, “but if you don’t TELL ’em their fat, and they grow up beautiful and healthy, then… then they just GET AWAY with it.”

    Thank you for posting this great article, Regan!

  3. I’ve been saying for years that I can’t help but wonder how much of the so-called “obesity epidemic” can be blamed on the increased pressure and emphasis on dieting that began some 30 years or so ago. Because it HAS gotten worse, and the worse it’s gotten (and the more money the diet industry makes) the fatter we seem to get. Doesn’t it seem that it would be the other way if dieting actually, ya know, worked?

    Also… Voldemort. No wonder I love your blog so much.

    1. I love your comment. It’s just such a shame that “common sense” has nothing to do with society’s understanding!

  4. I completely agree. The deprivation diet cycle only leads to a higher body weight over time because it triggers and amplifies metabolic dysfunction. I also believe as you do that it’s likely the primary driver and many published research studies support this hypothesis. Dieting behavior in childhood and adolescence is strongly linked to higher body weight as an adult. Ending body shaming and discouraging dieting at all ages is a huge and important goal to work towards.

  5. Though it is not yet mainstream knowledge, most medical and science professionals are aware that dieting has a long term negative impact on weight (i.e. most people gain it back plus more). I wouldn’t entirely discredit “emotional eating” though, although that term is misleading. Some of what appears to be emotional eating is the body’s natural response to starvation (or dieting). But some is an emotional, or let’s say bio/psychological, reaction. We do live in a culture where emotional eating is not only prevalent, but even encouraged. I sense that there is some hesitancy in the SA community to accept that emotional eating is extremely common, I believe that is because it seems to imply gluttony or weakness. On the contrary, it is rational coping behavior which stems from not only cultural norms, but a very powerful biological drive to consume calorie dense foods, particularly sugars and fats. This is not weakness or dysfunction, it is instinct. It can become problematic for some, but it is not inherently anything other than a natural human response. My point is, although I totally agree dieting is a primary cause of weight gain, and not every fat person eats “emotionally,” I don’t think we should be afraid or ashamed to admit to “emotional eating.” That behavior does not itself reflect a mental illness (and even if it is a mental illness, that too is not shameful). It is just one more thing in the bag of tricks that causes otherwise healthy people to engage in unhealthy behaviors in the name of thinness.

    1. I would add that eating for whatever reason is more fundamental to individual survival (and species survival?) than trying to modify appearance in order to gain “approval.”

  6. Great post!

    I agree with you, I think the connection with fatshaming and weight gain is the inevitable restrict/binge cycle that people get caught up in when they diet.

  7. This is interesting (and also a bit frustrating). I hit puberty at about 11 and soon after my mom started telling me how much thinner she was at that age than I was. (A therapist that I saw in my thirties pointed out my mom dealt with poverty and possibly a lack of food when she was going up, so her thinness might have been partly a result of that).

    Also, in college, I discovered I had high cholesterol and was constantly told to eat low-fat foods. Now, of course, we know low-fat usually means more sugars and carbohydrates.

    I know most of my other siblings are fat (and a couple have diabetes) and I know looking at my ancestors’ pictures a lot of my family was stout if not actually fat.

    But still, now I wonder where i would be if I hadn’t dealt with those two significant issues around weight and food.

  8. My Dad had been a fat kid, but he lost a lot of weight to become a Naval Aviator in WWII. He maintained the loss throughout his life by eating only one meal a day. I was the *one* kid in the family who got whacked by the fat gene (from both sides, since there was a dose of it from my Mother’s side, too). My Dad never criticized my weight and always opposed weight-related comments. But my Mother was somewhat disgusted and, when drunk, would sometimes remark on my big boobs. My last real diet, a severe one with a rebound, was when I was 21. And then I vowed never to do that again. If I had kept cycling I would quite likely have achieved a higher setpoint weight. And that’s an aspect of fatness which is poorly understood. Fat oppression makes fat people fatter.

  9. Few things burn me up like the “emotional eating” crap. It’s just another reason to consider fat people mentally ill and therefore in need of “curing”. I just took the term for granted until I started on a course of fen-phen (back when that was a thing). I couldn’t get the Rx without talking to a “weight-loss” doc, who told me he was concerned that I shouldn’t start a diet while preparing for the bar exam, because I probably wouldn’t do well with the stress-eating part. I tried to inform him that, as it happens, I tend to stress-not-eat, but clearly I didn’t know what I was talking about, because, well… fat.

    Fortunately, it was less than two weeks later when my internist hauled me in for an emergency appointment to do an EKG and yank me off the fen-phen. With all the heart disease in my family, I probably dodged a bullet.

      1. That is infuriating. Obesity is a body size, not an eating disorder, they don’t just get to make things up, there’s nothing in the DSM diagnosing obesity as an eating disorder. Ugh.


      2. I wish I had duct-taped my head before I read that, because it definitely exploded after.

        As Ragen said, obesity is not a medically-recognized disorder. It’s not even indicative of disordered eating. Heck, it’s not even a real thing so much as it’s a social construct based on the incredibly flawed “BMI” system.

        That’s like telling history students they can study the biography of Churchill, Roosevelt, or the Tooth Fairy. It’s no wonder so many medical personnel come out of school biased. The stupid really does burn.

      3. I’m studying for my Master’s in Clinical Mental Health. In my lifespan development course, we had to do a project on how certain issues affect the different areas of a person’s life. The list of issues? Divorce, child abuse, elder abuse, and obesity. Because people being fat is right up there with people sexually assaulting children, amirite?!?

  10. This is absolutely true. It happened to me! I was constantly told I was fat growing up, by family, by people at church, by everyone. I was always an active kid – strong as an ox – and in my teens my love of walking miles every day meant I was carrying hardly any ‘extra’ weight at all. If only I’d had just one positive role model to tell me my body was strong and great as it was, I wouldn’t have fallen into some pretty disordered eating patterns which would have me diet, lose and gain, lose and gain more. I stopped dieting a few years ago, but my body is damaged by it all. I know now my body was perfectly fine in whichever weight it fell out, it was people’s attitudes that were screwed. Now if I see or hear someone fat shaming their kids, I make sure to tell them how damaging it is. I’m living proof.

  11. I was told how fat I was constantly during my childhood. My biggest and cruelest bully was someone I could never escape since I lived with him–my brother. Our paternal grandmother criticized me at every turn about my weight, but practically bragged about what a “good eater” I was for cleaning my plate and demanded I finish the last of the potatoes so they wouldn’t go to waste even though I turned them down because I was full. I’m certain my brother took his cue from our grandmother to harass and fat-shame me every chance he got. Years of dieting, dietitians, counselors, doctors, and well-meaning family and teachers all telling me how unacceptable and unloveable I was for being overweight took their toll.

    I didn’t want that happening to my daughter, so I vowed to be better about emphasizing healthy choices and habits, self-acceptance, and everything I didn’t experience during my childhood. Still my now teenager was bombarded with negativity from everywhere else. On her good days, she has great self-esteem and is very positive. On bad days she puts herself down and stops eating. I watch her struggle knowing that all I can do is keep telling her she is beautiful, smart, caring, loving, and all the wonderful things she is knowing she’ll brush my words aside with “you only say that because you’re my mom”. I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle, but I tell her anyway. I do my best to live by example and hope that she gets it someday.

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