How To Raise Fat-Positive Kids
Why and how to talk to kids about weight stigma, fatphobia, and thin privilege.
Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science journalist and author Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.
Dear Is My Kid the Asshole?,
I'm fat, and my kids are not. I love my body and my life, and I work hard to overcome the biases I was taught growing up. I strive to teach my kids about fatphobia and to instill fat acceptance in them. I envision the world that fat activists strive for, in which our world is open and accessible to all, regardless of size and without qualification. BUT I live in this fatphobic, biased world, and so do my kids. What do I say when they tell me about fatphobic stuff they hear from a gym teacher or friend? How can I help my kids be true allies to me and their peers? In short, how do I help my kids not be assholes when it comes to fatness?
Dear Body Positive,
This is a great question, and one that I suspect many parents have struggled to answer. For insight, I called my friend Virginia Sole-Smith, a journalist and author who writes the excellent newsletter Burnt Toast (which is about navigating diet culture and fatphobia in parenting), as well as fat activist and researcher Ragen Chastain, who writes the fantastic new newsletter Weight and Healthcare (which examines weight science and weight stigma).
Before I address this question, I also want to acknowledge that I have, and have always had, thin privilege. I have never experienced weight stigma or fatphobia, and I imagine that navigating these issues as a parent is a very different, and much more difficult, experience for those who have. My children, too, have never — to my knowledge — been targets of fatphobic comments or bullying, so I do not have experience handling those issues as a parent, either.
But no matter your or your child’s body size, or what they have or haven’t experienced, it’s crucial to talk to them about weight stigma and fatphobia. It’s “something we should be actively doing as parents in the same way we need to actively be talking about racism and sexism,” Sole-Smith said. “It's part of how you talk to your kid about being a good person.”
The fact is, fatphobic messages are everywhere, including in children’s books, TV shows and movies. In one 2018 study (TW for fatphobic language), researchers analyzed the 31 top-grossing children’s movies from 2012 to 2015 and found weight-shaming comments in 84 percent of them. A 2020 study (also TW for language) found that in kids’ TV shows, fat characters were more likely to be portrayed as bad guys than good guys. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that one out of three 5-year-old girls who were surveyed as part of a 2015 study said that they were actively trying restrict their eating in order to be thin.
A quick aside for those of you who might think that fatphobia is somehow productive — that perhaps it encourages people to “be healthy” — this is absolutely not true. Anti-fat bias is actively harmful to health, and kids who feel pressure to be thin are more likely to become depressed and develop eating disorders. Moreover, trying to make your body smaller simply does not work for the vast majority of people in the long run. I encourage you to read more of Sole-Smith’s and Chastain’s work if you’re skeptical.
So considering that kids are being bombarded with fatphobic messages every day, we need to push back hard. As Chastain put it to me, “you're trying to raise, essentially, a fat positive kid in a fat negative world.” This means that we shouldn’t wait for our kids to say something fatphobic before we talk to them about these issues. We need to do what we can to counter this prevailing, pernicious narrative before it takes hold. But how do we do this? Here are some strategies.
Use everyday examples of fatphobia to start conversations with your kids.
The next time you’re watching a movie or reading a book with your kid and something fatphobic comes up — maybe a character disparages a person’s body size, or you notice that a villain or otherwise unlikable character is in a larger body — press pause and start a conversation.
Chastain suggested even making it a game: Who can spot the fatphobia? Once you start looking, you’ll notice it everywhere: In books, shows, movies, social media, magazines, stores, bulletin boards, radio ads.
As for how you should talk about fatphobia and weight stigma when you or your kid sees or overhears it, Chastain had some excellent suggestions. You could say something like There's a lot of negative body talk, prejudice and bullying that happens around size. But the truth is that people come in lots of different sizes for lots of different reasons. And all bodies are good bodies. If you see someone fat being portrayed in a negative way, Sole-Smith suggested saying something like, I don't like how they're talking about this person. I don't like how they're linking their weight to their personality. We shouldn’t assume that fat people are all going to act a certain way.
As kids get older, Chastain said that it can also be powerful to explain the many and various industries that profit off of people hating their bodies, and to point out that “when we engage in negative body talk, or fat shaming, we're just becoming unpaid marketers for these industries,” she said. By resisting these messages and products, our kids are actually empowering themselves.
Model positive acceptance yourself, and expose your kids to body positive books and media.
If you don’t want your kids to be fatphobic, you’ll need to lay off the self-deprecating comments about your body. If you’re lamenting that you’ve gained weight or your thighs are too big, your child is going to infer that they need to worry about their weight and thigh circumference, too.
What if your kid comes home talking about a friend who’s on a diet? This happened to us last year, and I was at a loss for what to say. Sole-Smith suggested that you say something like I'm so sad our culture makes them think that they need to do that. And because your child might also be wondering whether they should go on a diet, too, you could add, I will never ask you to make your body smaller. Diets are dangerous for kids and are something kids should absolutely not be doing.
Be sure you’re countering the world’s fatphobia by bringing body positive books and media into your kids’ lives, too. Two of Sole-Smith’s favorites right now are the picture books Bodies are Cool by Tyler Feder and The Big Bath House by Kyo MacLear. Chastain, in her blog Dances with Fat, recommends a bunch of other body positive children’s books, too.
If your child makes a fatphobic comment, stay calm and ask questions.
If your kid says something anti-fat, first take a deep breath and remember that everything in our society has been sending them this message, so it’s not surprising they might parrot it at some point. Consider the moment to be an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation and share your values.
Instead of jumping in with a comment that might invoke shame, like that’s a terrible thing to say (if kids feel defensive or ashamed, they’re less likely to listen to what you say), Sole-Smith and Chastain both recommended starting with questions. Why did you choose that word? Or I’m curious as to why you think that’s a bad thing. Or Why do you think it’s bad to be in a bigger body? After you’ve heard your child out, you can start to steer them towards the idea that “fat is just a characteristic,” Sole-Smith said. “It's like having brown hair. It's like being taller, shorter. It's not an insult. It's just a body trait. And it is really unkind to reduce people to their body size, which is what you do when you use that word as a slur.”
One thing to pay attention to is whether your child’s comment is truly fatphobic or whether you’re just interpreting it to be. A comment like “that person is fat,” said in a neutral way, isn’t actually anti-fat — it’s just an observation. Recently, while my daughter was brushing her teeth, she pointed to her belly and said, matter-of-factly, that her tummy was fat. Once I realized she wasn’t saying it in a negative way, I replied with something like, “Yes, your tummy is big and full and happy because of the pizza we had for dinner!” The last thing you want to do in moments like these is to communicate your own fatphobia by saying something like No, you’re not fat, you’re nice and thin.
If your child is the target of fatphobia, be careful how you respond.
If your child is teased for being in a larger body, and they are, in fact, in a larger body, Sole-Smith emphasized that you don’t want to rush in with a comment like You're not fat, you're beautiful. When you do that, “you're discounting the pain that they're experiencing,” she said. You’re also implying that being fat is not beautiful.
Instead, Sole-Smith suggested that you start with an affirmation of their body, without denying the fact that they’re in a bigger body. That might sound something like, I love your fat body. I think it's amazing. There's no reason for you to feel bad about your body. You’ll also want to acknowledge the pain of what they experienced, perhaps by saying, But it can be really hard to be in a bigger body. Our world has all these messed up ideas about fat bodies. You experienced fatphobia, and it's horrible. I'm so sorry that happened to you. Make it clear that your child’s body is not the problem — it’s our fatphobic culture that’s the problem.
If your child is being repeatedly bullied for their size, you should think about what you can do to keep them safe. You’ll want to collect as many details about the incidents as possible and, if it’s happening at school, work with the school to come up with a detailed safety plan.
If your child is teased for being fat and they’re not fat, then you might tweak your reaction slightly and say something like, It feels horrible to be teased. But being fat is not a bad thing. They are weaponizing a word that shouldn't be an insult. If your kid is in a smaller body, you’ll also want to discuss thin privilege — that people who are thin are treated better and are more accommodated — and encourage them to use their privilege to fight for people in bigger bodies. As Chastain suggested, you could say, Our society says that people who look a certain way should be treated better. I think that's wrong. If you agree with me, then this is something we can fight together.
If you missed Friday’s newsletter on the various problems with transactional affection — why you shouldn’t ask your kids for a kiss or hug before you do something for them — be sure to check it out. It sparked a lively discussion on Instagram.
Please consider buying a paid subscription to my newsletter, or a gift subscription. Your paid subscriptions — just $5/month or $50/year — allow me to provide much of my content for free to parents who need it. You’ll be supporting my work, and you’ll be helping other families.