One of the most common questions I get from parents is what to say when a child claims to hate their fat fill-in-the-blank.
I have a five-step process that helps parents step away from the almost universal response “No, you’re not!!” It’s a good process to learn because saying “no you’re not” drives body confidence down, not up. Most parents don’t want that.
But this article is not about how to respond to that question with good long term effects. Instead, it’s about some of the uncomfortable reactions I’ve noticed when people hear what I have to say.
The first look of discomfort usually shows itself when I suggest acknowledging to your kid that feeling ‘fat’ sucks and that the world is a bit mean to people in bigger bodies. I stress how powerful it can be for parents to have this conversation with kids of any size, and particularly if their kid is on the bigger side of the size spectrum.
It’s powerful because it helps kids of all sizes understand that they live in an unjust world when it comes to body size. It teaches them that our culture stigmatizes people who are bigger and gives privilege to those that are smaller. This means kids learn that they can choose to reject social narratives around size and worth. They don’t have to buy into it. That’s a good lesson to learn when you’re young.
This conversation helps to get kids to see that being smaller doesn’t mean you’re more worthy of love and attention, even though you’ll find a thousand messages this side of Sunday telling us that’s true. Acknowledging the world is a bit screwy about the way it views bodies, gives our kids a chance to define themselves by something other than the commonly held stereotypes our culture assigns thinner and fatter bodies. Say, oh, I don’t know, the contribution they make to the world? That’s some cool parenting in my book.
But not everyone agrees. “You would talk to a child about being fat like that’s okay?” was one interviewer’s response like it was the worst possible thing a parent could do. He then stopped the interview dead without exploring why being straight-up about how living in a bigger body in our culture is hard and how to handle that powerfully, without feeling like your body is shameful and needs fixing, might be a good idea. I can only assume he thought the best conversation to have if your child is big-bodied is one about how to make it smaller, rather than teaching your child to see cultural pressures and tell them to eff off.
Exploring why he might have reacted this way, we can find some pretty sad ideas. Like, for instance, if we tell kids they don’t look fat, they will believe us. I mean, how misguided is that? If a child is tall, can we imagine them believing us if we said “no you’re not!” As if a big kid can’t figure out they are bigger than other kids around them anyway.
A thin kid hating a ‘fat’ part of themselves isn’t going to believe us either. They’re really telling us how they feel, not describing their body size. Telling them they are ‘not’ simply tells them you’re not going to take their feelings seriously. This ‘you’re not’ response does two things. It tells our kids we don’t believe how they are feeling is ‘valid’ and it sends the message, loud and clear, being fat is bad. If your kid is fat or feels fat, you’ve just told them fat bodies are bad bodies. That sets them up to either fear being fat or feel stink about the body they have. Either way, they lose.
And if that isn’t problematic enough (and believe me, it’s a problem I’m doing all I can to help solve), there is another slightly more clandestine issue going on. One I’d like to bring to light.
We seem to have an unspoken social rule that our kids should be protected from feeling bad.
It can play out like this. If we tell them they are “not fat” it feels like we are protecting them from the very real pain of feeling bad about their body. If pressed, we probably believe our kids shouldn’t have to feel the pain that’s part and parcel of living in a culture that normalises disordered eating and body shame.
Viewed from another angle, there is an almost unchecked social expectation that parents ‘should’ guard kids from pain at almost any cost. That cost is high and worth looking at.
What if, instead, we teach our kids that bad shit will inevitably happen to them – including social stigma of some kind, bullying, unfair decisions, bad luck – but that when it happens they are absolutely up to the task of being awesome regardless? That they get to choose to be bought down or fired up. Then, can you see, they have power. That’s what we want right? Kids who are empowered, no matter the container they get about in.
Imagine if we taught them that they don’t have to be offended, or triggered, or helpless. They can be fierce, loving, kind, and take things in their stride. They can also work toward change that sticks. It takes guts and resilience to do that.
On the other hand, if we teach them that the world shouldn’t be mean to them and that it’s unfair and besides they are beautiful and they deserve better, well, they have no power. And that’s not great.
What I mean to say is that the cost of protecting them from pain is resilience. It’s really hard to contribute to the world in a meaningful way without it. That’s a big cost.
The benefit on the other hand, of teaching them they have the stones to handle hard shit, is massive.
Teaching kids body confidence is not about teaching kids to love how they look, or to never feel bad about their body, or protecting them forever experiencing a bad thought about their body or that they will never have to do the very hard work of choosing to stand up for themselves in a situation that sucks. It’s about teaching them that when sucky things happen when they inevitably have a painful moment, they don’t have to be defined by it.
Here’s to powerful kids who can handle what life throws at them. Body confident kids who have resilience.
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