What To Do When A Kid Is Fat Shaming Themselves

NO Negative Body TalkI’ve talked in other posts about how to to help a kid who is being fat shamed.  But perhaps even more heartbreaking is when you hear a kid fat shaming themselves. Reader Lindsey sent me the following:

Last night at Target my daughter wanted a new swimsuit. She wanted a 2-piece but had a certain look in mind. I told her we should try them on to make sure they fit how she wanted and if it was comfortable. We headed out to the dressing room and on the way, she says in passing, my middle is my thickest part and all of the girls I see on tv and magazines are thin. Right away my heart was crushed. I told her she didn’t have to wear something she didn’t want to and everyone has different bodies. She came out of the dressing room in a bikini and was holding her tummy in. I said, don’t hold your tummy in, you look great! How does the suit feel? She decided she liked it but still tried on another suit which was a tankini. She liked that one too. I asked which she was more comfortable in and she said she liked both the same. I asked her if someone teased her or said something stupid to her would she feel bad and not want the bikini anymore. She said she doesn’t listen or care what others say. THIS, warmed my heart. We ended up purchasing both in case one day she wanted more or less coverage. I HATE that my 9 yr old little girl thinks about this. I HATE my 9 yr old little girl has to be reminded of this in the media and everywhere else on a daily basis. Do you have any tips to handle situations like this or books that are about positive body image etc? Thank you so much for reading and for your time.

I’m so sorry that this little girl has to live in a thin-obsessed world without  diverse representation in the media, but I’m also glad that she is in a place where she doesn’t have to care what people thinks, and that she has a mother who is on top of this.  For far too many kids this isn’t the case (with the average girl going on her first, but certainly not last, diet at age 8.) So how can we support kids who have internalized our cultures thin obsession and turned it in on themselves?

We can start by modeling.  One of the difficult things about our culture is that today’s parents (and especially mothers) were raised to hate ourselves. So we have parents who have issues with body image and self-esteem trying to raise kids who don’t have those same issues, in the same culture that created those issues in the first place.  That’s really difficult.  So consider working on your own body image and self-esteem, and in the meantime be mindful of what you say in front of kids. Kids believe what you do more than what you say, so if you spend a bunch of time engaged in negative talk about your own body, and then tell your kid that their body is beautiful just as it is, they’re more likely to believe the messages they are getting from the former than the latter.

We can also have conversations about this early and often.  We can start to inoculate kids against a culture that profits from their body hatred by pointing it out early and often. Talk to them about the ways that companies create marketing specifically to make them feel badly about themselves so that they buy their products, ask them if they think it’s ok.  Ask them what they think they can do about it.  Encourage them to start a “Body Positivity Club” at their school (or maybe a book club with body positive books) Throw an “I Love My Body” party for your kid and their friends.

Be honest – explain the concepts of oppression, and privilege and activism in an age-appropriate way. Yes, in our society people who look a certain way may be treated better, and if you think that’s wrong you can fight to end it.  You can also talk about weight and health – explain that there are some people who may want the best for them, but they are unfortunately ill-informed about the truth about the diversity of body sizes that exist and how health works (maybe start with the story of Galileo.) You can also bridge this lesson to talk about other types of oppression – racism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism et al,  areas where they have privilege and how they can use that privilege to help (age-appropriate intersectionality FTW!)

Teach kids to be grateful for what their body does, not just how it looks.  Challenging the standards of beauty is a good thing to do, but you can help kids by helping them have gratitude for what their bodies do.  You can teach them to think of their bodies as friends, and then if they talk badly about their body (or if others do) you can ask them if they would talk about (or allow someone to talk about) their friends like that.

Consider creating spaces that are specifically body positive – with no negative body talk allowed.  Maybe it’s the dinner table, or when you’re talking before bedtime.  Consider creating a mantra that you use when you are watching tv or movies (or driving by billboards, or flipping through magazines) to help kids deal with the ceaseless messages of body hate that they get.  Maybe it’s something like “My body is awesome just as it is” or maybe it’s “Nobody talks bad about my body.”

Remember that you’re going to have to reinforce this lesson a lot because the diet and beauty industries aim for quantity – trying to get to our kids as early and often as possible to make them loyal body haters/customers for life.

If you have other ideas I would love for you to leave them in the comments!

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19 thoughts on “What To Do When A Kid Is Fat Shaming Themselves

  1. This is great information. I will talk to her about maybe starting a body positivity club and focus on WHAT the body does and not how it looks. Thank you for the different perspective. As a person that grew up hating her body and being told by my parents to lose weight, be faster etc.I am trying so hard to change this cycle. It is difficult but when I look at my daughter, I know it is a good fight and it makes me stronger.

  2. Thanks for the great post! My 8 year old daughter has a very round tummy and has told me that she doesn’t like it and wishes she was thinner. Stab me right in the heart! They internalize it all at such a young age, SMH. I do practice what I preach about body positivity and just have to remind myself that we are slowly trying to change the culture. I started my body-positive journey at age 35 (I’m now 38), so she’ll get started with body positive messages at a younger age than I did.

  3. This is an on-going lifelong fight, I’m afraid.

    The fear of getting fat is a very real and present danger to our children. Yes, teach your fat children to love themselves as they are, and teach your thin children to love themselves, no matter how they may be in the future. Fear is the enemy, not fat!

    When you’re teaching your children that their bodies are awesome just as they are, right now, don’t forget the message that if/when their bodies change (in ANY direction), that their bodies will STILL be awesome!

    Another consideration is to teach them to love other people’s bodies, just as they are. Encourage them to make friends in a variety of sizes. Not just to disregard sizes, but to actively seek out friends in a variety of sizes, and to talk about it with others, and get their perspectives, just as you would with friends of different classes and cultures. In this way, they will be more open and loving to other people, AND they will have re-enforcement of loving themselves, if and when their bodies change.

    “Oh! I’ve gained a bit of weight around my belly. Hey, I look just like my friend Patricia, and she’s great! I like her so much. This is not a problem for her, so it shouldn’t be one for me.”

  4. Another thing that just struck me, and please disregard it, if it doesn’t apply to you:

    To all you Mormons out there, this is actually a religious issue.

    We are taught that we came to Earth for two reasons: To test us, and to get a body.

    Well, the testing happens in all forms. As for the body, we are here to get A body. Not a pretty body, or a handsome body or a thin body or a healthy body or an able body. Just a body. No matter the state of our body, simply having one is enough for our eternal progression.

    When a baby dies shortly after birth, what do we say? “Well, she got her body. I guess she was just so good, she didn’t need to be tested. She just needed to come here and get her body.” Then we cry, because we wanted to share time with her, and then we remind ourselves that we’ll see her in Heaven.

    We ought to take good care of our bodies through healthful eating and exercise, and by following the Word of Wisdom, but if God chooses to test us with physical body-type trials, we ought not to judge harshly, but to just love and accept the bodies that the Lord gave us. And others.

    Also, many “diets” do not adhere to the Word of Wisdom. Health At Every Size does, though.

    We can, and should incorporate body positivity into our Family Home Evening lessons, because loving the bodies the Lord made for us actually IS part of the gospel. And if you teach Primary or Sunday School, you have the opportunity to incorporate body positivity there, as well, when you’re teaching lessons about the Plan of Salvation, and how we came to earth to get a body.

    I know that normally, we don’t bring religion into it on this blog, and Ragen, please feel free to delete this post, if you feel you should. It just struck me so hard that for Mormons, this really is something to teach our children, as an actual tenet of our faith. And in the fight against body-hatred, any boost to loving our bodies is valuable, so getting our faith in God involved in our love of our bodies could be just what we and our children need to fight the messages of hate and fear.

      1. Fat hatred is all over the place, and body positivity has a long hard fight. But yes, part of the gospel is that we came to Earth specifically to get a body. I never really thought much about it, with regards to body positivity until last night, it just struck me.

        How can we teach that, and NOT be body positive? Well, we’re humans, and cognitive dissonance is remarkably common.

        Anyway, it’s another tool for me to use when I need a body-positive pep-talk.

    1. Something else to ponder. In the Jewish Midrash (extended stories about Biblical tales) and Talmud (giant legal book), there is a story about how before we are born, an angel teaches us everything about the universe and the future, but at the moment of birth he smacks us, causing us to forget. Our whole lives are spent trying to regain that knowledge.

      It may be a story to explain why babies cry, because the smack hurt, but it shows that our lives have a purpose.

  5. Another ridiculous thing about this situation for kids is that they are getting messages about adult bodies that can’t even apply to kids bodies, because they’re totally different. It seems to me that although a little girl can be thin or fat, they’re very seldom going to have the kind of defined waist an adult woman can have, but they’re already looking at images of those women and trying to be like them and it’s just not going to work (even if dieting did work in general).

    1. Very true! And kids do tend to have a round belly–it’s just their proportion, whatever their fat ratio. Being told any belly is bad is ridiculous, especially for a child.

    2. It goes both ways.

      I used to be a fan of a certain comic strip, until it was ruined for me when the ten-year-old girl ran out of clean underwear and had to borrow her mother’s panties. She said they were too loose, and asked her mother for a safety pin, and her mother burst into tears, because she had bigger hips than a ten-year-old. And her husband comforted her by promising to get her an exercise machine.

      Children are NOT the same as adults, mentally OR physically! I really want to shout at the world, “STOP!”

      1. her mother burst into tears, because she had bigger hips than a ten-year-old.

        Holy crap, I think my brain just blew a fuse from sheer WTF.

  6. Fat young boys are often subject to bullying and ridicule by their peers. This can lead to many psychological problems.
    I seem to remember reading of a study of very young children, three year olds I believe. They were encouraged to choose from pictures, one of a fat person and the second of a thin one. They almost always chose the thin pictures. Even at a very young age the bigotry has set in.
    Parents are encouraged all over the place to put their kids on diets if they are overweight to “help them”.The facts that most diets fail over time and especially that failure leads to loss of self esteem and feelings of negative self worth are never mentioned. Indeed most adults only learn this thru the school of hard knocks, with age.
    The real truth is that everyone on this planet is beautiful or handsome as they are NOW to some one.EVERYONE should believe this because it is so.
    Parents are our first teachers. They can teach this or some variation by whatever method(s) work. Unfortunately most kids are influenced by many other factors, especially in adolescence, which is especially harsh because of the unreal “beauty” standards held up as “ideals”. You can only do your best and hope that nature and experience will do the rest.

  7. One thing I might also add when it comes to the issue of clothing specifically, is that it’s ok if she feels more comfortable in a tankini or other fuller-coverage clothes. There can sometimes be this pressure to be a strong! confident! girl and not admit that social pressure affects you. But it also should be ok if being able to go to the pool without feeling self-conscious takes priority right now over longer-term body image happiness.

  8. I’m a moderator on a support forum for parents of children with EDs called Around the Dinner Table. Here are some resources I’ve recommended in the past. Not every resource is a good fit for every situation, of course, and YMMV.

    20 Diverse, Body Positive Books, The Militant Baker:

    Linda Bacon, PhD’s resources for parents:

    Radiance Magazine’s Kid’s Project page

    New Moon is an online magazine for girls that I really like.
    Full disclosure – there is a LOT of misinformation about parenting and EDs out there, and I just LOVE that they posted this very very good blog post for ED awareness week, which quotes some friends and colleagues.

    The Southern Poverty Law Center has awesome resources for professionals (that can often be adapted for home or home schooling) at Teaching Tolerance:

  9. I don’t know if it is like this at all the camps, but my daughter’s Girls Rock! Camp was a very body positive and fat positive space. After her first day she excitedly told me she’d met a fat counselor wearing a pin that said “diets” and had a line through it. I think it might have been the first place she’d encountered fat activism other than from me. I’d recommend it as a great place for girls to have positive body attitudes modeled by women they admire.

  10. I don’t have kids but my niece is going through this and her parents are awful. I sat down and had a talk with her this weekend (before I found this post) about how she is beautiful, how people come in all sizes, we talked about the fact that there are thinner and fatter kids in her class than her, she is close to average, that her rounder belly is what we call baby fat and that will probably go away when she gets older, but even if it doesn’t that’s okay too. I talked to her about the low success of diets for long term weight loss and how the industries are trying to make all of us unhappy with ourselves to make money. I don’t know how much got through to her, and I felt like I was floundering the whole way through it but I wanted so bad to help her. She’s like 9, and wants to go on a diet so she can get skinny before her birthday. 😦

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