What Kids Hear About Fat
by Lizabeth Wesely-Casella
I’ve been hearing a lot of cranky comments lately about “…it’s for their own good” and “…they need to suck it up and get a thicker skin” as it relates to the ‘right’ to comment on the size or shape of a stranger’s body. While I have very strong feelings about the inappropriateness of these comments, when they are made about children I find that I must swallow my anger and grip as tightly as I can to my long held belief that education and proximity can overcome reactionary convenience (read, SNARK).
Here’s the premise that I’m working off of in order to make my point. Kids are vulnerable because they 1. Want to be accepted if not loved; 2. Have a basic understanding of the information they’ve been surrounded by, and 3. Hear more than we give them credit for.
With those tenets in place, and assuming that this is not a conversation about intentional psychological abuse, this is a good place to remind adults who are speaking about “fat kids” and the “obesity epidemic rampant in our schools” that the people who feel the most hurt when hearing scary and negative phrases like that, are our kids. The one’s we’re talking ‘about’ thought not ‘to’.
Regardless of how you or I feel about the overall health of the younger generation, before we espouse our views, let’s (and I mean ‘let us ALL’ – myself included) make it really personal. Instead of thinking about kids as a generic set of “others”, think of kid – your kid, your nephew, your niece, and ask yourself what they hear when they hear the words “fat” and “obese” and compound those feelings with phrases like “war on” and “outside of acceptable limits”.
My work within the world of advocacy and weight stigma has given me access to many reputable, amazing and hard working experts in the field of weight stigma and body acceptance. During this last quarter organizing the Weight Stigma Awareness Week campaign for the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA), I was lucky enough to work closely with experts specializing in the area of children and weight stigma. Featured contributors included Marci Warhaft-Nadler, author of The Body Image Survival Guide for Parents: Helping Toddlers, Tweens and Teens Thrive, Dr. Rebecca Puhl, Deputy Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, Nancy Matsumoto, author of The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders: Supporting Self-Esteem, Healthy Eating and Positive Body Image at Home, and Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, Advocate and President of Nutrition for the Future to name a few.
One of the consistent themes that I ran across speaks to the fact that children associate some of the worst possible personality traits and social outcomes with the words “fat” and “obese”. Today, the younger generation no longer thinks of fat as simply a descriptor for shape or a biological substance, they equate it to lazy, bad, evil, uneducated, unacceptable and unlovable. When they hear “fat” they do not hear that a person is fat shaped, they hear that a person is unworthy of respect and acceptance, consequently if they think they are “fat, they believe those same negative things about themselves.
Many studies demonstrate just how children connect these dots, one of which is a 2008 report from the collaborative partnership between Girlguiding, the leading charity for girls and young women in the UK (similar to Girlscouts or Brownies in the US) and Beat, The report was titled ‘ ’, and it looked at the influence of views about weight and shape on young girls aged 7, 8 and 9.
According to Susan Ringwood, Chief Executive at Beat, “Small groups of Brownies were shown line drawing of girls who represented their age, but in a range of sizes. The range wasn’t extreme, but did vary from slender to large. The Brownies were asked to talk about these girls, and say what sort of person they were likely to be.
The drawings which depicted girls who were the most slender were unanimously described as happy, healthy, good at sports, someone to be friends with, and successful at school. The girls who were shown as larger were described as unhappy, lazy, bullied, not someone to be friends with and no good at sports.
The Brownies were 7 years old and they already knew that the size and shape of your body alone told the world what sort of person you are. They had internalized those weight stigmatizing messages that surround us daily.”
There are many more studies available for review however; this is an especially interesting outcome as the children giving the feedback were also participants in a socially empowering organization focused on teaching children to value others by their actions rather than their appearance. Evidently the comments we are making are overpowering the messages we are trying to send. Children are HEARING and absorbing the message that fat is unacceptable and if a person is fat, they in turn, must have a harder life.
If the ‘takeaway’ information from our comments is that fat is negative in every possible way, what does the child who is told they are fat think? Additionally, in a growing body, being “healthy” is more complex than size, shape or BMI. The reality is, the random comment assessing the overall health of another person is based more in judgment than fact and those comments are harmful – not just annoying or hurtful, but that they are actual eating disorder causing, malnutrition inducing, body acceptance diminishing harmful.
Do we assume that children are capable of constructing the argument that they ‘have the substance fat on their body, which may or may not be a healthy part of their overall body composition because weight, especially in children is incredibly complex’? Or do we find it more likely that the child thinks, ‘I AM fat. I AM the embodiment of the negative things I associate with fat. I am not good and I am not worthy of respect and acceptance.’? Considering children have a limited set of experiences to work with, black and white thinking is the tendency, meaning the equation of ‘you are fat = you are bad’ is generally how their minds work and how their minds work to solve it. Fat comes from food so I’ll stop eating a variety of healthy foods, or I’ll exert my only form of control and NOT eat.
So now, without belaboring the point, and with the hope that this is a quick reminder that ‘the fat kids’ isn’t a nebulous group that can’t hear you and whom you don’t profoundly affect, lets (again, this is not a sermon, this is encouragement for ALL of us) consider whether saying the unkind phrase or having righteous indignation toward a gathering of children is the best way to make the change you want to see.
Keeping in mind that we sell a good many programs, products and concepts by invoking “the next generation”, maybe treating them with kindness and meeting them intellectually ‘where they’re at’ is more in line with our true feelings than waging war or causing them to develop that “thicker skin” that speaking about them carelessly can cause.