Talking About Size Acceptance with Kids

I’ve had several questions about how to talk to kids about the fatphobic world that they live in. I wrote this post a few years ago and updated it for today. I got a comment from reader Kest about the struggle to help kids deal with living in a fat phobic environment.  It provides a great framework for talking to kids about Size Acceptance and weight stigma.

My kidlet just finished kindergarten… recently the Kidlet has started making comments about how he doesn’t want to be fat…the Kidlet claimed that he was getting these ideas from commercials…I can certainly attribute this to a combination of commercials and the messages the school is sending, but I don’t know how to counter it…How do we address size acceptance with a generation coming up with all these messages bombarding them?

I think it’s an utter shame that the government has decided to focus on the weight of children, putting a “middle man” between kids and their health that doesn’t need to be there and encouraging appearance-based bullying.  It’s particularly disturbing because there is no evidence that it will work, and lots of evidence that it is dangerous.  Kids are also barraged with the exact same 386,170 negative messages about fat bodies that adults are assaulted with every year.  They are also encouraged by the media, schools, even the government to stereotype people based on how they look. That can cause a lot of difficulty for kids who are fat, and for kids who have people close to them who are fat.  It can also be heartbreaking for fat parents.

There is an added difficulty with kids because no parent wants their kid to suffer, so I do want to point out that when people say that they don’t want a fat kid, what they may really be saying is that they don’t want their fat kid to grow up in a fatphobic society.  I suggest that focusing on the weight of the kid is working the wrong end of the problem.

I have neither kids nor qualifications to tell people how to raise kids (though my dogs seem pretty body positive) so, with that caveat, I’m just going to tell you what I think I would do, and also request that you use the comments to add your advice.  If I had a kid, I think I would be having two ongoing conversations.

The first would be about why we don’t stereotype people or treat them differently based on their size, health or anything else. The second would be an age appropriate conversation about how weight and health are two different things and that, as has happened before in science, medicine and society, some well intentioned people are making a big mistake and that we are among the first group of people to realize it, and how that poses its own difficulties.

You’ll need to decide if you want to encourage your kid(s) to challenge authority on this or perhaps have a mantra that they say in their heads when they hear things that they now know are problematic.  There’s also the issue of talking to them about sticking up for the fat kids who are being harmed by all of this (and other people who are being oppressed.)

I would continue to have these conversations, and work to find teachable moments.  I hope that it would be a continuation of my work to instill critical thinking in my kid, and that I could encourage them to look at the evidence about this, ask if they thought it sounded like what happened to Galileo etc.  If the kid has already been, or is being, fat-shamed, here are some things that you can try.

I think that some of the most important things that kids can be taught are critical thinking, questioning authority, the difference between opinion and fact, and the underpants rule. Again I want to encourage you to add your thoughts to the comments!

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15 thoughts on “Talking About Size Acceptance with Kids

  1. Thank you for addressing this Ragen! I have been having a similar difficulty. My child’s school has been ‘teaching’ that being fat means you’ll have a heart attack. Obviously, this ‘health’ discussion bothers me. I had a conversation with my son, explaining that heart attacks can happen for a number of reasons and that thin people have them just as much.
    My question for you (and your awesome readers) is how do I address the school about this? Is there a way for me to combat this teaching so that other kids, whose parents may not be aware this is misinformation, aren’t receiving the “OMG fat=death!” message?

    1. OH, I hate it when parents have to counter-act the teachings that the officials at school foist on the kids! Be it fat-hatred or abstinence only sex ed., or what-have-you.

      There’s another reason I’m a strong proponent to homeschooling, but I know that homeschooling doesn’t work for all kids (some really do truly need the more regimented environment), or for all families (some parents just don’t have the time, energy, or resources available).

      As an aunt, I would recommend what my parents did, which was to schedule weekly one-on-one “dates” with each of us kids. During that one-on-one time, we were able to really get into good conversations about any subject we wanted, and had lots of teachable moments, in a fun time, without stress. Another thing is to have a time after school/work, with each kid, to discuss their day, and what they learned, and to point out that experts aren’t always right, and that even the best of them may make mistakes, and that’s alright, as long as those mistakes are discovered and corrected. Then, you can segue into teaching what you know about it.

      Also, I just want to say that heart attacks are not only limited to fat people, but they are also not limited as to age, or even athleticism. There are plenty of examples of young, fit (as in actually athletic, toned, and active, not merely thin) people dying of heart conditions. Mostly, no one ever bothered to check them for heart conditions, because they were fit, so “obviously not at risk.”

      A couple of years ago, a family of my acquaintance had to deal with the massive tragedy of having one of their children simply drop dead. He was just sitting there, and suddenly, his eyes rolled back, he flailed around a bit, and then died. They were baffled. He was thin, and fit, and seemingly healthy. They’re still baffled. They just say, “But, he was fit!”

      Being fat is no more a death sentence than being thin is a guarantee of a long life. Lots of thin people die young, of medical reasons (as opposed to violence or accident), and lots of fat people live to a ripe old age. Lots of people with medical issues survive a really long time. Lots of seemingly healthy people die suddenly. Either way, everyone’s going to die sometime, anyway. When I go, I want to die of something that is actually diagnosed, thank you very much. Few things are as infuriating for survivors as losing a loved one to nothing, in particular.

      1. Thank you Michelle for your reply! I agree that the focus on thin bodies and idea that thin = healthy is a dangerous assumption because of the health risk it to those in that category.
        My son’s school has a monthly meeting with the Principle where parents are welcome to come and express concerns, so I am going to go to the next one and talk to him about what is being taught and the dangers of it. Hopefully I’ll find a listening ear and he’ll be willing to examine their health curriculum.

        1. I’m curious, was he receptive to what you had to say? Did anything positive come from talking to the principal about the fat=bad health fallacy? No special reason, just curiosity and the hope for an uplifting story about how the principal saw the error of his ways.

  2. The Fat = death message is huge, my son is 14, and has developed a bit of a bigger tummy than he used to have, a kid in p.e. at school started giving him a hard time, calling him Jubba and telling him he will die early etc, he came home and refused to eat tea, or breakfast the next morning, and has been full of self hate, telling me that he doesn’t want to die early, and when I explained, as I have many times, how those so called “facts” aren’t facts at all, he told me about the things they are actually taught in school in this area, and it seems to be standard to tell the kids, the fat=death message. It must be very hard for a kid to differentiate when the fat is ugly and unhealthy message is coming at them from all angles, its a big job as a parent to counteract this.

    1. Jedi hugs to you, and Jedi slaps to those awful teachers and school administrators that would include FALSE information and HATRED into the curriculum!

      As for suggestions in how to counter-act it, it all depends on the personality and nature of your child, of course. However, my suggestion would be to have him research it for himself.

      At 14 years old, he should be advanced enough to start reading some of the links on this or other such sites. ThisIsThinPrivilege.tumblr and DancesWithFat are my go-to sites. I check them frequently.

      I recommend finding a site or two that would work for him, something to which he can relate, or whose author style he enjoys. Maybe he would prefer a site with more pictures, such as some of the “fatshionista” sites out there. Maybe he would prefer a site dedicated to fatthletes. It all depends on his personality and interests.

      Maybe a fat appreciation site might work better, provided it is about appreciation, in general, and not fetishism. It is an alternate perspective about the fat-stigma, at any rate, and some of them are really informative, in a positive way. It would also offer an opportunity to discuss the difference between sexual preferences and objectification. He’s of an age where that’s going to become an issue soon, if not already.

      Whatever you choose, I think a bit of online homework would be in order. Get him hooked in to one really good site, and have him check it once a week, or so, and see where it goes from there.

      IN ALL CASES, PREVIEW THE SITES!!! Some of them talk a good game on the home page, but the actual posts may be horrible.

      Yes, parents of school children are allowed to assign their own children homework. You could even ask him to write an essay or two about what he’s learned. Essays really help the person manage their own thoughts and beliefs, and help them discover and specify thoughts and feelings that may have been too nebulous to understand before. Teaching someone else is one of the best ways to cement the knowledge into your own head.

      That’s just my suggestion. But goodness knows, I learned everything I know about fat acceptance from the internet, so you know, it worked for me. MAYBE it will work for him. YMMV

      That’s for the positive, inquisitive soul. If he has the sort of rebellious nature to make it work, an alternate suggestion would be to ask him to “prove it.”

      “OK, son. I think your teachers are wrong. Here’s a list of sites that back me up. Your job is to find the *scientific studies* that debunk my view, and prove your teachers right. Provide proper footnotes and bibliography. Wikipedia does not count.” Of course, he won’t be able to, and will get stuck on, “But everybody knows!” and be very frustrated.

      Reverse psychology doesn’t work on everyone, but when it does work, it works well.

      In either case, by having him search out the information FOR HIMSELF, he’ll be much better able to accept it as truth, and be able to stand up against the false doctrine they are teaching as gospel in his school. Whether he fights it directly, through activism, or quietly, through the “OK, I’ll parrot what you want on the test, to get the grade, but maintain my OWN beliefs, thank you,” route, the important thing is that he get a good knowledge, for himself, of the truth of the matter.

      Younger children can, and should be told the truth. Older kids can, and should, find that truth for themselves. It makes it more real to them, and more meaningful, as well as plain being good practice for their own future learning and research in any field of study.

      My opinion.

      Good luck with whatever you choose to do, and I really hope that those school officials come to their senses, soon! Arrrgh!

      1. Really great advise, thanks, my son is on the autistic spectrum, so to him it’s all black and white, everything needs proof, so the research idea is brilliant, a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel. 😀

  3. So basically, you would have many of the same conversations/talking points with kids as you do here on your blog, with adults. Because kids are human beings. As a mom, this sounds like a fantastic approach to me!

  4. I am so grateful for the fact that not only are my brother and sister-in-law home-schooling my young nephew, but that they invited my household to help them in the effort.

    My nephew decided he wanted to be homeschooled, after kindergarten and first grade, because he was so mercilessly bullied because of his health. Yes, he has asthma, and a chronic cough, so the kids thought it was an excuse to bully him, and they got away with it.

    Weirdly, now that he’s homeschooled, his cough is barely noticeable, probably because his asthma is under control, but also because of the lower stress-levels.

    So, I just got a globe, because my Mom wants to teach him about geography, and this is a great opportunity to teach him about how the world is round, and science has proven it, but time was when people were convinced it was flat. Maybe I’ll take him to a planetarium for the whole “Sun does NOT revolve around the earth” thing. From there, I can, during the course of my time with him, educate him on the fact that things that “everybody knows,” including the whole fat-hatred crock, is not always true. Then, I can show him that there are studies (we don’t have to go into details, just show him links, so he knows they are there), that are proving that what “everybody knows” about fat bodies is not all correct. This is important for him, personally, because he comes from a family of fat people, and if he hasn’t had to deal with people hating on him for his size, yet, he probably will, soon enough, based on his family history.

    So, there’s my class-plan for his second-grade fat acceptance education. As for healthism, I can point to how it was wrong to bully him for his coughing, and how he loves and respects his aunts, even though they are disabled. We have racial diversity at our church, and I hope he’ll make a variety of friends there. Any other suggestions for a home-schooler?

    Note: He adores MineCraft, and I know nothing about the game, except that every time he or his siblings tried to show it to me, it made me physically ill for some reason. Don’t know why. In short, I don’t know or understand the game, but if you have any suggestions that involve that game, they would be a shoe-in to get his attention.

    I’m in charge of reading and language arts, so any book suggestions would be particularly helpful. He’s good at reading, but it’s not his favorite, and he hates poetry. Something about the rhyming ticks him off. Beats me why.

    He doesn’t like coloring books, but he does like drawing. Especially he likes to draw zombies. Maybe some directed drawing assignments? Suggestions, please?

    He likes Warner Brothers cartoons, and I would like to point out that Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig are fat, but they are still stars. I don’t know if there is a lot of fat-shaming against them in the actual cartoons, but if they are portrayed in a favorable, or at least non-fat-shaming light, perhaps I could use that, as well. Elmer Fudd is the antagonist, usually, because he’s hunting Bugs Bunny, but the jokes seem to be more about the hunting, and the fact that Bugs is so much cleverer than Elmer, than anything about his size. I’ve never really studied it, though, so I may have missed something. What do you think?

    I’ve actually been using cartoons as part of his studies. He watches a cartoon, and then writes a summary, as his writing practice. It’s short, but it does have something of a plot to summarize, and he enjoys it. They’re short, though, and I want to include some larger things, too, eventually. I’ve already told his mother (and she agrees) that English classes should not focus only on scholarly books and old plays, but on all the available forms of media, including movies, cartoons, even YouTube videos. Literature comes in many forms, and the ability to understand and analyze it is important. By the time he graduates high school, I want him to be able to write a scholarly dissertation on the latest blockbuster or viral video, as well as Shakespeare play or classic novel.

    So, any YouTube videos to suggest? Movies? Plays? Novels? Articles? He’s second grade now, but he’s growing, and I can make a list of things to do in the future. I want to include as much body-positive media as possible into his studies.

    1. Looking for a book rec for a kid who likes Minecraft? If he hasn’t read them already, he might like Mark Cheverton’s Gameknight 999 Minecraft tie-in novels. They’re basically “Honey, I Digitized the Kid” – a boy who likes playing Minecraft gets hit with his wacky inventor dad’s digitizer and winds up inside the game. Unfortunately the digitizer works both ways, so when the monsters find out about it, they chase him down trying to get hold of it so they can zap themselves into the real world (and if he asks, yes, Herobrine is one of them). Actually, all the tie-ins are worth a read if you’re a fan; I have yet to find one I didn’t like *something* about. But Gameknight’s my favorite by far. I seriously drove from store to store looking for a copy of Last Stand on the Ocean Shore – it kept selling out before I got there. XD

    2. Part of that “everyone knows” is that “medieval people believed the earth was flat”. Pretty much nobody believed it was flat, and those that did were considered quacks and heretics. The scholars from the past 200 yrs who claim that medievals believed this can only point to one theologian, and even he was denounced as a quack in his time, and forever after.

      The book “Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians” by Jeffrey Russell examines this and the impetus behind its creation in the 19th century. Basically it comes out of Catholic vs. Protestant, and Protestants believed that Catholics believed in stupid things, and the flat earth is a stupid thing, ergo Catholics believe in it.

      1. LOL! This is like the great egg debate. Are eggs good for you? NO! Cholesterol! But… protein! But… fat! But… and back and forth and back and forth, until most people don’t know whether to eat eggs or not.

        Me, I just always ate them, and always will (barring some specific-to-me medical restriction) because eggs are YUMMY.

  5. There are two main standards of beauty in american culture, “the beautiful people standard” and “the thin is in standard”. The oldest is the beautiful people standard. It goes back at least to ancient Greece where some marble statues clearly glorify this standard.
    In the US this standard began to be important with the disemination of movies. Some place in there the star system was born. It was used to choose actors (male and female) for lead parts . The standard, which is a sexual standard was the natural turn on for most actors.The best actors have a unique charisma which enables them to project what they want, often effecting viewers subliminally and to project that beautiful people are better and more desirable sexually then ordinary people. Ordinary people were made to feel there was something visually wrong with them when nothing really is wrong. Fat people were also made to feel “ugly” and cellulite, which tends to exist in many women, was projected by actors as being “disgusting”. With the movement of TV into almost every home, a very strong pressure on the part of those in the general population who did not fit the standard for the means to change A number of industries were created to satisfy this acquired need. the cosmetic industry, the fashion industry, cosmetic surgery,
    hair pieces, and the diet industry.
    The “thin is in standard” is separate from the “beautiful people standard” and possibly began in the upper class where one very wealthy socialite said a debutant can not be to beautiful or to thin.
    The two standards are often combined as one, though they are technically separate.
    Originally diets were assumed to work for most people. They lost weight and that was it. However as most people over time regained the weight actors began to encourage bullying of fat people and putting them down to discourage fat acceptance and the diet industry started advertising extensively and added new diets to encourage more sales of the diet systems. Much of the bullying, negative comments by strangers trolls etc. come from these two sources, bigoted actors and subliminal diet adveritsin
    What can be done to help a child who is fat and facing persecution?
    Loving and understanding behavior so the child will feel comfortable about speaking are very important. Also encouraging the child to realize they are beautiful as they are now.
    The most important thing is to attack and keep fight the discrimination at its original sources.
    There other things to comment on, including showing how the discriminatory behavior is still expanding now quietly and silently right under fat peoples noses virtually unkown.
    Enough for now.

    1. I love going to my community theater, and I see what you mean about the charisma of the actors, marking them as “beautiful people,” even if they do not fit the “thin is in” or other societal beauty molds.

      Some people may have very obvious “flaws,” yet are so charismatic that the audience is practically melting in their seats, especially when singing is involved.

      This can include fat actors, though. I think a lot of it depends, locally, on the casting director.

      In Hollywood, there are an awful lot of actors competing for the roles, and so the casting director is free to choose based on physical type, and frankly, in Hollywood movies and TV shows, I have trouble telling the women apart, and sometimes the men, as well. Even Sandra Bullock has lightened her hair, to fit into the blonde stereotype.

      Local theater, on the other hand, and especially the non-equity theater, where the actors are volunteer, unpaid, and non-guild members, have a smaller pool of actors, and tend to cast based on the needs of the part, rather than a desire to portray a particular physical ideal. We’ve even had fat actors in leading roles! Romantic roles! The women tend to be small-fat, but by Hollywood standards, they are HUGE! And they are beautiful, no doubt.

      Charisma is a real thing, and if you have it, you have all kinds of advantages. I’m not sure if it can be learned, but I do know that it applies to people of all walks of life, and not just in acting. It’s just more obvious in acting, because if you don’t have any charisma, you’re not likely to be cast in any role, at all.

  6. Just look at nature with them. We marvel at the unusually shaped trees or the biggest flower but we hate when people look different, its ridiculous. People are another part of the diversity in nature.

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