Navigating body image, health and the word "fat" within your family.

Heather Caplan, R.D.
June 24, 2020
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Research tells us that kids as young as 5 years old are aware of dieting practices, especially if they've been exposed to a parent dieting. And a survey of 10-year-old girls revealed that a whopping 81% of the participants were afraid of "becoming fat". Whether or not you're a parent, these statistics are terrifying. But you can change the narrative around body image, health and the word "fat" within your family.

Elementary school teachers are federally mandated to provide "nutrition education" in the public school classroom. A friend told me about how her son came home from kindergarten class one day saying they can't eat french fries anymore, because, "They are bad for us!" Which, to him, translated to weight changes. He learned that in school, and because his young mind can't be expected to understand nuance or nutrition science, he might feel anxious about eating french fries, or curious about why his parents might eat something that's "bad" for them.

Our kids are exposed to fat-phobic messages more often than we may realize, both inside and outside the home. Maybe we can't ask, or expect, them to understand these big, complicated concepts, but we can try to create a home environment that helps them feel safe, in whatever body they happen to occupy. Here's how.

First: Don't say "fat" like it's a bad thing.

The word "fat" is still controversial. A movement of fat activists are working to normalize "fat" as nothing more than a body descriptor (which one may choose to use to describe themselves, or not). Yet societally, and even within health care culture, "fat" is heard as something bad, something to fear. Negative assumptions are made about someone if their body doesn't fit the thin ideal; that's referred to as weight stigma.

"I ask [my young clients] what "fat" means to them. If they tell me it means ugly or bad, I'll ask them if having brown eyes or blond hair is ugly or bad," says Brianna Campos, LPC, a New Jersey-based eating disorder therapist, and host of the Body Image with Bri podcast. "We need to normalize the word fat. I use the word in a reclaimed and descriptive way," she adds. "It has a long history of stigmatization attached to it." By which she means bullying, medical stigma and health stigma.

Normalize the word "fat" by using it neutrally, instead of with a hint of fear, stigma or as a joke. "It can be used to highlight our differences," says Campos, "but is no better or worse than someone being tall or short."

Then, reevaluate how you talk about—and treat—your own body.

"Kids learn by observation," notes Campos. "If you berate, distrust and openly dislike your own body, kids will learn that and repeat it." Anecdotally, many of my clients have childhood memories of their parents dieting, or at least talking about dieting and weight loss. It influenced the way they thought about their bodies. Campos adds: "If you use, or describe, movement as 'punishment' or a way to 'earn' food, all related to a fear of weight gain, these ideals are often translated to kids, as well."

Body image is a complicated topic. Campos acknowledges this, and doesn't fault parents for their own unique process of navigating it while also raising young ones. But, she notes, "You have to be willing to do your own work on body image if you are going to have a conversation with anyone on body image." She suggests starting by fostering a safe environment for kids to ask questions, explore these topics and normalize body discomfort.

Look around and see how pervasive body stereotypes are.

Even in some of our children's books, we notice fat-phobic language and fat-phobic characters. It's rare to see true body diversity in children's TV shows or movies. Kids internalize this, as well. Noticing this may be a good conversation starter with your little ones, opening up a space for dialogue and dispelling myths about body types.

And rethink your definition of health.

Weight-shaming is also pervasive, not only from bullying at school or in social environments, but also by well-meaning health care practitioners. Yet, we have no evidence that a higher body weight causes health issues. We only see correlation, and weight stigma (or shaming) is an independent predictor of poor health outcomes.

Feeling ashamed of weight or body type is related to health care avoidance, maladaptive eating behaviors and even avoiding movement and activity because spaces for fitness and sport don't feel safe for that person.

Additionally, according to research provided on the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website, the idealization of thinness is "the best known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders."

A helpful tip and conversation prompt from Campos: "Think about the age you were when you realized you didn't like your body, that you were no longer free to just 'be.' What would have helped you at that age?"

"For me," she adds, "It would have been helpful to know that bodies—just like fruit, pumpkins and seashells—come in different shapes, colors and sizes, and we can celebrate those differences!"

A good place to start: Encourage and foster activity and food exploration without a weight agenda.

Kids often want to be active and may want to explore different types of foods. Try to foster a home and family dynamic that celebrates food variety—including everything from fruits to grains to ice cream to cultural favorites—and creates space for fun activities, without those things being tied to weight. If your child comes home from school worried about french fries, open a dialogue about how all foods can fit. If they express worries about their body, be open to the discussion using Campos' tips and encouragement and normalize it.

As parents, we want our kids to be safe, loved and healthy. But we have to expand our view of, and definition of, health. It doesn't come down to their weight, and it may be up to us, their number-one fans and caregivers, to gently and lovingly remind them of that.