Who can marry you when you look like that?
1. Bashing your body.
By speaking kindly about your body, your child will learn that positive feelings are not dependent on a particular weight. Instead of “These jeans make me look fat,” or “ I have to lose weight before I can wear a bathing suit,” and your child will quickly getting message about what which bodies are worthy – and which ones are not, imagine looking in the mirror and uttering the words, “I like the way this dress looks on me,” or “I feel beautiful.” As you and your child stand in front of the mirror, celebrate what makes each of you special.
2. Promoting diet behavior
“I can’t eat that – I’m on a diet.” These words send out a message that depriving yourself of the foods you enjoy is a positive way to go about eating, and that weight loss trumps just about everything. Children absorb the message that weight loss is a worthy goal, despite the fact that kids who diet are at greater risk of weight gain, binge eating, and other eating disorders, compared to their non-dieting counterparts.
Don’t talk about your diet in front of your children—or better yet, don’t diet! Disconnect conversations about eating from any weight focus.
3. Laughing at fat jokes
Weight bullying is the number one type of bullying that takes place at schools, and participating in fat jokes gives permission to tease peers based on weight. It also teaches kids that, as adults, we believe it’s okay to single out a particular group based on physical characteristics that are different from us, a message that promotes an attitude of intolerance toward other human beings. Turn these jokes into a teachable moment to share your values about size diversity with your child.
Depending on the age of your kid(s), help them understand that these types of jokes are based on stereotypes, which make unfair assumptions about people who are fat. Teach them that jokes based on weight hurt people’s feelings and contribute to weight stigma. Everyone (including them!) deserves to be treated with respect.
4. Referring to food as “good” and “bad”
There’s so much focus on “healthy” eating these days that it can be confusing for parents to know how to feed their children. Too much fat? Too many carbs? Gluten free? Paleo? Of course, it’s important for kids to have access to nutritious foods, just as it’s important for kids to eat foods that taste good. Too many children are becoming obsessed with healthy eating (which is often a disguise for diet behavior) and therefore aren’t learning how to eat all types of foods, which is an important skill. The flipside is that many kids will eat the “bad” foods when they’re away from you – whether they’re hungry for it or not.
Instead, teach your kids how to have a healthy relationship with food—instead of just eating “healthy” foods.
Help kids recognize and honor cues for hunger and satiation by providing a wide variety of food and letting them decide what and how much to eat. Talk about foods in a non-judgmental way. Children can learn that some foods are more nutritious and help their bodies grow strong; other foods are less nutritious but taste good. If you’re concerned about the connection between health and weight, read up on the Health At Every Size approach so that you can support your child’s health and well-being without a weight focus.
5. Treating children differently based on their size
I know of kids who are required to exercise every day – while their sibling is not, and children who aren’t allowed to have dessert – while their siblings are. This type singling out fatter kids leads to feelings of shame that can – and do – last a lifetime.
Instead, decide what behaviors are age-appropriate for your children, and apply them equally to kids of all sizes (unless there is a specific health/mental health issue).
Whatever behaviors you value for you family, be consistent. Exceptions might include a child who needs to be dairy free due to lactose intolerance or a child diagnosed with an eating disorder that has a specific meal plan as part of treatment. The key is to take the pursuit of weight loss out of the equation.
6. Talking about exercise as a weight loss method
“I have to exercise because I ate too much” or “I need to workout more to lose weight” are typical comments people make these days. And the message we give to our kids? Exercise is punishment for eating the wrong foods, and the main reason to exercise is to change your body. This sets kids up to hook physical activity with being fat – or the fear of becoming fat – and interferes with children’s natural love of moving their bodies because it’s fun and feels good.
Instead, keep in mind that physical activity, appropriate for a person’s ability, can be a source of pleasure and/or fitness.
Participate in enjoyable activities with your children that involve moving your body (walking, swimming, playing catch, gardening, to name a few), and reflect back the joy they experience – as well as your own – when engaging in physical activity. Encourage kids of all sizes to participate in sports or activities that appeal to them.
7. Complimenting or commenting on other people’s weight
We’ve all heard (or even made) comments such as “You look great – have you lost weight?” or “I can’t believe how much weight s/he’s gained.” When our children hear these words, they learn what’s valued when it comes to body size. They also learn that it’s acceptable to judge other people’s bodies. If we tell kids that they look great because they have a thin build, what happens if they gain weight? And if a teen loses weight and we compliment him/her, what happens if the weight comes back? Commenting or complimenting people based on body size is a recipe for shame.
Instead, best to say nothing! If someone you know has lost weight and is looking for a compliment, consider saying something like “I’ve always valued our friendship no matter what size you’re at!”
We need to model for our kids that bodies (including theirs) are not up for discussion. If children want to talk about the topic of weight, create safe ways to have open and non-judgmental conversations that respect weight diversity. The Healthy Bodies Curriculum by Kathy Kater, LICSW is an excellent way to bring this issue into the classroom.
8. Focusing on your child’s weight
Ask anyone who was fat as a kid what the adults in their life said them about their bodies, and chances are you’ll hear things like, “You’d be so pretty if you lost weight,” or “No one will want to date you if you’re fat.” Shame is insidious, and we’re hurting kids when we give them the message that thinness is the only road to becoming happy and successful in this world.
Instead, focus on their character or accomplishments. If you make appearance-based comments, compliment the cute t-shirt, the new hairstyle, or even how strong they are when they help you bring in the groceries.
9. Missing the opportunity to see weight as one more aspect of diversity
Where did we ever get the idea that among human beings, there is only a very small window for the physical size of attractive and healthy bodies? Body size has a genetic base, and equating body size with health issues means that people often turn to unhealthy practices in order to try to change their physiology – a nearly impossible task that often leads to poorer health, getting caught in the diet-binge cycle, eating disorders, and a culture that reeks of weight stigma.
Instead, let your children know that, weight is a characteristic, not a behavior.
Just like they don’t get to decide how short or tall they’ll grow to be, or the color of their skin or eyes, they don’t get to choose their weight range. The current focus on helping kids celebrate diversity when it comes to race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexuality must also extend to helping them understand the natural diversity of body size.
Helping kids feel good about their bodies in this fat-phobic culture isn’t easy, and we need to be able to talk about body size in an open and non-judgmental way. Children are like sponges! Not only will they be exposed to messages in the media and on the playground, as members of this weight shaming culture, parents often have their own attitudes toward weight that are passed down – often unintentionally – to their children. While we can’t control all of the messages our children will receive, we can do our best to make sure we aren’t contributing to the negative ones.
As we teach our kids to accept – and even embrace – the many differences among human beings in all areas, we need to include the diversity of body shape and size in our conversations and in our actions. If you find that you carry your own internalized weight stigma, you’re not alone. Remember to practice self-compassion as you work toward acceptance of others – and of yourself! Whether it’s building a positive body image on an individual level or working toward ending weight stigma on a cultural level, these are precious gifts to give our next generation of children.