You may have spent your whole life hoping you don’t “look fat” in photos or items of clothing, but if you’re someone who can walk into any clothing store assuming that they’ll carry your size, then you’re benefiting from thin privilege every day.
If you have a kid living in a larger body, that means you’re going to have to do some work in order to see the world from their perspective and appreciate how much anti-fat bias they have to deal with — often from the very professionals who are supposed to be caring for them.
As a parent, you can’t shield your child from every negative experience they’re going to have because of their weight, but you can equip them to recognize fatphobia and discrimination and make sure they understand that you don’t view their body as a problem that needs to be fixed.
Here are some things that experts suggest you keep in mind.
Diets Rarely Result In Lasting Weight Loss, But They Frequently Cause Harm.
When you hear a medical professional use the word “overweight” or “obesity” to talk about your child, your instinct is probably to put the child on a diet to make them lose weight. We’ve been led to believe that fatness is a medical condition requiring treatment, usually in the form of exercise and food restriction, although increasingly — even in children — doctors are recommending weight loss medications and surgeries.
But the relationship between weight and health is more complex than most of us have been taught. We can’t reliably predict how weight will affect health, but we do know that diets can cause both physical and emotional damage.
“In children, there are physical impacts of dieting, such as lowered metabolism, nutrient deficiencies, stunted growth,” Emily Oschmann, a registered dietitian, told HuffPost. The metabolic effect of dieting can actually make it harder for your child to maintain or lose weight in the long run, meaning that a diet can perpetuate the issue it is meant to resolve.
“There are even more mental impacts that can occur from dieting, such as developing a fear of specific foods, increased risk of binge eating, unhealthy relationship with food and/or their bodies, increased risk of depression or suicidal thoughts, and eating disorders,” Oschmann added.
Virginia Sole-Smith, author of “Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture,” cites a body of research, in particular Project EAT at the University of Minnesota, that “has shown pretty definitively that childhood experiences of dieting and weight-based shaming or stigma are the top predictors of eating disorder risks.”
Many of us imagine a very thin girl when we think of eating disorders, but they can affect people of all genders and sizes — although they’re less likely to be diagnosed, and likely to be diagnosed later, in people who are fat.
“Dieting behaviors that larger bodies participate in would be considered disordered eating behaviors in what is classified as a ‘normal’ or ‘thin’ body,” Oschmann said.
Alissa Rumsey, a dietitian and the author of the book “Unapologetic Eating,” told HuffPost that diets can also lead to “decreased confidence and lower self-esteem, and higher rates of weight cycling, which is linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.”
“Not all diets lead to eating disorders, but the vast majority of eating disorders began with a diet,” Rumsey said.
The Word ‘Fat’ Can Be A Neutral Descriptor.
Just as people have different heights, as well as different eye, skin and hair colors, they have different body sizes, too. You can model using the word “fat” as a neutral way to describe a body rather than as an insult.
“What I have seen in my reporting and interviewing kids in bigger bodies, and experiences from adults who were fat kids, [is] when parents rush in and say ‘You’re not fat; you’re beautiful’ or ‘You have such a pretty face,’ all of those things, they’re denying what the kid already knows about themselves. They know they’re bigger than their peers. So it’s like a kind of gaslighting,” Sole-Smith said.
Instead, parents can confirm the reality that their child has a bigger body and indicate they they don’t see it as a problem. Sole-Smith gives the following examples of affirming things that parents might say instead: “We have no problem with your body. We love you in the body you’re in. You are the exact right size for you.”
Fat kids, like all kids, need to know that we love them unconditionally, just as they are, and regardless of how their bodies may change over the years.
Your Child Doesn’t Need A Doctor To Tell Them They’re Fat.
The ritual of taking your child to the pediatrician for their annual visit and seeing “how much they’ve grown” is often painful for kids with bigger bodies. As the parent, it’s appropriate for you to question how your health care provider talks about weight with your child.
“As an adult who was a fat child, I remember dreading going into the doctor in fear of getting the ‘Lose weight’ or ‘Your child is fat’ talk. While providers may use medical terms such as overweight or obese, most children will only hear that their body is fat and there is something wrong with it,” Oschmann said.
But you can set boundaries with your child’s doctor. Oschmann suggested that when you talk to your doctor about your child’s weight — which does not need to happen in front of your child — you ask, “Are they trending normally for their growth and maintaining it (rather than just looking at which percentile they’re on compared to their peers)?” You can also inquire about other markers of health, such as blood pressure.
“I think there’s a real case for setting a boundary with your pediatrician that any conversation about BMI or growth charts you want to happen away from your child,” Sole-Smith said.
The best time to talk to your provider about these boundaries is before you bring your child in for their appointment. You might call ahead or send them a letter explaining why you do not want your child’s weight discussed in front of them. Sole-Smith also suggested writing this request on a Post-it note for the nurse to stick in your child’s chart as an additional reminder.
If the doctor misses, or ignores, your request and brings up your child’s weight anyway, Sole-Smith advised speaking up, saying something like, “I’m really not worried about his body. I think he’s doing really well. This is not a concern of ours.” This way your child hears you affirming that their body is not a problem. Even if you don’t feel comfortable confronting the doctor in the moment, “you can have that conversation later with your kid and let them know that you will not be pushing the doctor’s agenda,” Sole-Smith said.
“In my work with clients, childhood memories of doctor’s visits and weigh-ins evoke feelings of deep shame,” Laura Gordon, a therapist who specializes in trauma, body image and eating disorders, told HuffPost.
“Over time, medical visits and procedures cause tremendous distress that might present as anger, irritation, withdrawal or resistance to seeing doctors. When old enough to do so, some opt out of medical care completely,” Gordon continued.
You Can Opt Your Child Out Of School Weigh-Ins.
In some states, children are measured and weighed at school as part of health screening programs aimed at preventing obesity.
“There’s no good evidence that weighing kids and sending home the letters does anything. There’s actually quite a lot of data showing that most of the time parents just throw the letters away,” Sole-Smith said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has proposed a number of safeguards to mitigate the harm of weighing kids at school, such as doing so in private, not saying numbers out loud and not tying the body mass index to student or teacher evaluations — but an individual school may or may not be using these as guidelines.
Sole-Smith said that in her work, she is still hearing stories of kids “getting weighed and the teacher having a reaction to the number or saying it out loud to the class ... there’s just so many ways for it to go badly and be stigmatizing.”
It’s up to you to decide if you want your child’s school calculating their BMI. Just as with your child’s doctor, you can send a letter to the school explaining that you do not want your child to be weighed and outlining your concerns. The National Alliance for Eating Disorders has helped write this sample letter you can use as a model. The letter notes that such programs have been proved ineffective and cause harm, and observes that “when measurements are collected at school, children compare their ‘numbers’ to others.”
Sarah Herstich, a therapist in the same practice as Gordon, told HuffPost, “Opting you child out and advocating to end these practices that are often traumatic for young kids is the most supportive thing you can do.”
“These types of tests consistently plant seeds in young kid’s minds that there is something wrong with them,” she added.
Reassure Your Child It’s Not Their Fault When Clothing Doesn’t Fit Or Isn’t In Their Size.
Trying on new pieces of clothing in the bright glare of a dressing room’s lights can be a nerve-wracking experience for anybody. If your kid has a bigger body, you can help by being a supportive presence and by reminding them that the problem is with the clothing industry, not their individual body.
Herstich said that while shopping for clothes, parents should “remain neutral about sizing when trying on clothing, avoiding any comments about sizing up, finding things that are ‘flattering’ or sticking to certain colors schemes because of societal influences.”
“If your child experiences emotions surrounding the availability of clothing in their size or clothing that they are hoping to wear,” she added, parents should try to “stay emotionally attuned, responsive and validating.”
Sole-Smith advised explaining to kids plainly that “this is not your body’s fault. This is the failure of a huge system, this is where the market is doing such a disservice.” As parents, we can explain to our kids “it’s not their body’s job to fit the clothes. The clothes should fit their bodies.”
Sole-Smith mentioned shopping for a girl in the boys’ section (which tends to have clothing that’s sized bigger) and hemming pants, or looking for capri pants in bigger sizes that will fit kids like regular pants ― some of the strategies parents use to find comfortable clothing for their children. There are a few brands that do better when it comes to larger-sized clothing and at least one newer brand, Ember & Ace, that specializes in it.
Draw Boundaries With Relatives And Discuss As Necessary.
Though you can think carefully about what you say about bodies and food inside the walls of your own home, all bets are off when you’re around relatives. Many grandparents came of age during a time when fatphobic language was considered acceptable and don’t see an issue with announcing that they are “being bad” by eating a piece of birthday cake.
Sole-Smith recommended that, unless someone says something about your child’s body specifically, you try to “find some compassion for the fact that that generation has lived through so many iterations of diet culture.” Afterward, you can explain to your kid that you don’t believe there’s anything wrong with birthday cake or the people who eat it.
You can also try explaining to relatives ahead of time that you’re not talking about good and bad foods in your house, and you’d appreciate it if they held off on any comments about what or how much your child is eating. If they do say something about your child’s body, then it matters that you step in in the moment with a response such as, “I’m not comfortable with you talking about their body that way,” Sole-Smith said.
One “magic phrase” that she recommends in her book is something you can keep in your arsenal to use with anyone — doctors, teachers or relatives — who suggests that your child’s weight is a problem: “I trust their body.”