My mother read an earlier post of mine, “Memories of a Body.” We have never really talked about these issues before. It’s just too painful for both of us. After she read it, she told me, “I am so sad that I experienced the same issues with being an overweight child and because I didn’t want my daughter to go through the same experiences, the steps I took just made it worse.”
And I get it. I’m an adult now. I don’t have children, but I imagine it’s impossible to have a child and not feel a primal need to protect them from painful things you experienced in your childhood. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to look at this small creature you created moving through the world without projecting your own insecurities from your own childhood onto them. I understand that she was trying to protect me. The issue was that I had no context for it, because while she had experienced bullying and pain, I had not. And in trying to preemptively protect me from bullying, she ended up being the first person to teach me to distrust and feel ashamed of my body.
I don’t blame her or hold a grudge. Parents do the best they can with the tools they have. When my mother was parenting me, there was no guidebook for how to raise a fat child. The only thing she knew how to do was to teach me to protect myself by thinking about what people might tease me for, sign me up for sports, listen to the pediatricians telling her I should lose weight, and encourage me to eat less and move more. In my case, it was trying to fight city hall. I come from a family of large, stocky people. I was going to be fat no matter what she did.
So, since no guidebook was available for her, this is my attempt to help parents who are where she was — how do you raise a fat, healthy, happy child? I’m not a doctor or a psychologist. I’m just a fat kid who grew into a fat adult, and here’s what would have been helpful to me.
Just as a note, I often talk about my relationship with my mother as context here — that’s because my mother was my primary care provider. My father passed away when I was just a baby and my stepfather was not very engaged in my care and rearing. But everything here applies to mothers and fathers … and non-binary parents, too.
1. Teach them about body diversity.
One of the most harmful things we can teach our children is that there is a Default Human. Currently, the Default Human is male, white, able-bodied, straight, cis and thin. But we live in a wonderfully diverse world. Most children are exposed to people of different races, different religions, different abilities, different sexual orientations. And children can have questions about these differences, but are able to accept these differences stunningly well when they are explained to them in a neutral, accepting way. As a society, we have gotten much better at teaching children about the differences in humans, and that they are fine … but we rarely include weight diversity in these lessons.
Raise your children to understand that thin is not the default, but just one point on a vast spectrum of different sizes bodies can be. Some bodies are thin. Some bodies are fat. Some bodies are skinny. Some bodies are muscular and burly. Some bodies are fat in some places while being thin in others. And they are all good.
When your child asks, “Why is that person fat?” or “Why are you fat?” or even “Why am I fat?”, don’t tell them it’s mean to ask that question. Tell them that it’s just one way for a body to be. Explain to them that no two bodies are alike, and some bodies are bigger than others, just like some bodies are smaller than others. Teach them that no body has more value than another. Tell them all bodies are good bodies. Ask them, “Isn’t it amazing that there are so many different ways to be?”
One of the most painful things I experienced as a fat kid was the sheer helplessness I felt being in my body. Thin was the default. All the kids around me were thin. My siblings were thin. My mom was thin. I was not. I just moved further away from the default all the time. And it really and truly was not my fault; I was destined for chubbiness. Fatness is hard-coded into my DNA. And I was devastated when I realized that everything I was told about it being “baby fat” was a lie, that one day I would not magically shed my “baby fat” like a snake shedding its skin and find a thin body underneath. Instead the skin got thicker and more painful to carry around. I felt like my body failed me. But what would have happened if I was told that my body was good as it was? What if I had learned about body diversity as a child instead of my late twenties?
I may not have had to spend decades of my life agonizing over my body, chasing the dream of shedding my skin one day.
2. Teach them to trust their bodies and their hunger.
Or, rather, don’t teach them to distrust their bodies. Children are born with inherent body trust. They know, without trying, what their bodies want. Babies know when they are hungry, when they are ready to roll over and hold their own heads up and stand and walk for the first time. Distrust is taught.
It happens slowly. Sometimes, distrust is sown by unavoidable things, like when a child feels confident they can jump from a great height and instead ends up falling and hurting themselves. That kind of distrust, the kind that teaches caution, is useful. And sometimes distrust is sown by parents question things that a child inherently knows. For instance, when a parent questions whether their child is really hungry, or really needs a second helping or snack. That kind of distrust is poison. And fat children learn that distrust much more often and more harshly than thin children.
In fat children, this is the beginning of disconnecting mind from body. It’s how children develop fraught relationships with food and eating and internalize shame around food.
I’m 35 and I am still working on reestablishing the connection between my mind and body. By the time I was a teenager, I no longer felt the normal cues of hunger and fullness. I had my hunger interrogated as a child and learned to interrogate it myself. And soon I no longer had any sense if I was hungry or full. I turned to diets to teach me how to eat, because I no longer had a clue, and didn’t trust my own hunger and body. This pulled me further and further away from these natural cues I had lost.
Allow your children, even when that child lives in a fat body, to trust themselves.
3. Let them try different activities, and let them walk away from activities they don’t enjoy, without guilt or shame.
Joyful movement is an essential part of Health At Every Size (HAES) — moving not as punishment, or penance for being a certain size or eating a donut for breakfast, but because you genuinely enjoy it. And this is something children come by naturally, whether they’re riding their bikes, running around with their friends, swinging from jungle gyms at recess. Kids know how to move joyfully.
And it’s great to encourage kids’ interests in organized movement, like sports teams, dance or gymnastics classes, etc. But where it gets tricky, and where it can have a lifelong impact, is when they are not allowed to quit activities they don’t enjoy.
I get it: Youth sports? Expensive as hell. Dance class? By the time you buy the leotards, tights, ballet slippers, and pay tuition, it’s not just a class, it’s an investment. And then there’s the time commitment. Schlepping the kids around early on Saturday mornings to games, piling them into the car for softball practice on a weeknight after working a full day. At that point, you’re in as deep as your kids are. And when your kid says, “I don’t think I like soccer, I don’t want to do it anymore,” it can be hard not to remind them of all the time and money you’ve spent supporting their desire to play soccer.
It can also seem like a great time to teach them a lesson about commitment. It’s tempting to remind them not only of the costs that have already been sunk into a particular activity, but that they’re letting the team down. So, by quitting, they’re not only disappointing you, they’re disappointing their coach and their peers.
But here’s the thing. Childhood is a time of exploration. And when it comes to trying out new activities, well, they are probably going to find that they don’t like about half of what they try. That’s not their fault; it’s simply the nature of trying new things. But when it comes to exercise and movement in particular, the ramifications of either forcing children to finish out a season of a sport they tell their parents they don’t like or continue going to a class they don’t want to go to just because the tuition is already paid, can be long-lasting and severe. It can turn an innocent attempt to try something new into something that feels like punishment. And that, in turn, can make physical activity in general feel like a punishment.
For fat kids especially, a lot of different things can make them say they want to quit a team. A fat kid may feel left out, or ostracized by their teammates. Coaches may even treat fat kids differently, perpetually keeping them on the bench or placing them in positions where they are literally in the outfield, as far away from the action as possible. Softball, for me, was largely just standing bored in the outfield where no 9 year old could ever hit a ball, where people couldn’t even really see me, waiting for the game to be over while sweating in the hot sun. And at 9, I knew why I was out there. My coach had to give me something to do, to look like he was giving everyone an equal chance to play, so he gave me a position where I was least likely to encounter any game play — thereby ensuring that my fat, slow-running body would not ruin his team’s chances of getting to the playoffs. I knew that. I felt it deeply. And yet I still had to go, every week, every game, because we’d already paid for registration, bought me a glove and a bat and a uniform that didn’t fit. Because I’d made a commitment.
And here’s the effect it had on me, as it happened with not just softball, but soccer and basketball and dance class and even a youth bowling league: It made me view all organized physical exercise as punishment. I felt punished for being fat and on a team, and I felt punished for deciding I didn’t like it.
So here’s what parents of fat kids can do: Let your kids try new things. If they express an interest in soccer or tap dancing or karate, great! Find out why they want to try it, and sign ’em up. And if they enjoy it, awesome! But if they come to you and say they don’t want to go anymore, let them walk away. Certainly, ask questions, ask them why. But then just let them.
Consider any money invested in sports or dance class or martial arts or whatever lost at the moment of payment. Which, essentially, it is. You get nothing more out of it if they finish the season out than if they don’t. So, just as you should consider any money you lend to a friend or family member a gift and not expect repayment for the sake of maintaining that relationship, consider money spent on sports a loss the moment you lay it out. For the sake of your child’s happiness, continued interest in exploring movement that is joyful for them, and maintaining your child’s trust.
3b. Don’t continually sign your fat child up for sports to “help them be more active.”
This is the other part to the joyful movement piece of the equation. As a kid, I was signed up for a lot of sports. A few each year, if I’m remembering correctly. More often than not, this was not because I had asked to be signed up for a sports team or had any actual interest in the sport, but because my mom was trying to help me “be more active.” Which I correctly interpreted as “play sports so you can lose weight.” And that, frankly, was something my pediatrician and everyone my mother consulted about the “problem” of my weight recommended.
I was a very indoors-y kid. My interests were reading books, drawing pictures, playing with my Barbies, writing stories, watching Nickelodeon, unicorns, and being the best at Chinese jump rope. I was not athletic, nor did I have any interest in being athletic, much to the chagrin of my mother and pediatrician. So, year after year, season after season, I was signed up for sport after sport … and I usually asked to drop out before the season was over. (Which should not have been a surprise to anyone — I hadn’t wanted to participate in the first place.)
So this, in addition to never being allowed to leave a team without guilt or shame or just straight-up being forced to finish the season, made exercise feel like punishment. It totally killed joyful movement for me. It made me feel like exercise was the punishment I deserved for being fat, which was not my fault, which is not any kid’s fault, or even something one should be considered at fault for at all.
It’s fine to ask your fat child if they’re interested in trying out something new. Maybe they’ve been wanting to give soccer a try, and maybe they will love it. But don’t sign them up without asking them and listening to their answer. There are probably other activities that you’d both get more mileage out of — for instance, things they are actually interested in. Because one thing is certain: if you treat sports as a weight-loss tool, you are essentially guaranteeing that your fat child will not enjoy it. And you could damage their relationship with their body and movement in the long run.
4. Don’t restrict their diets, and don’t moralize food.
This is hard for parents of fat children: year after year, when they take their children to the pediatrician, they are told their child is too heavy. They are told their child’s weight is a problem. And usually the advice is not much different to the advice adults get: eat less and move more. (Can you hear me sighing through the text here? Because I’m loudly and dramatically sighing.)
But here’s what restriction does to people’s brains: it makes them hungry. And restriction can lead to bingeing for many people. It’s the old “don’t think of an elephant” trick, in diet form. And, in children, it can lead to all sorts of weird and disordered behavior around food.
Here’s what happened when my mother attempted to restrict my diet: I started hiding food. I started hoarding snacks in my room. I started sneaking into the kitchen at night and eating in secret. I became afraid of eating in front of people. I often ate two meals — the smaller “healthy” meal of “good” foods I ate in front of my mother, and the secret meal I ate later when I was still hungry and obsessing over the food I actually wanted to eat.
There’s a couple of things going on here. One, food restriction and binge eating are connected — we know this. Dietitians know this. Scientists know this. So, if you start restricting a kid’s food, you’re basically just guaranteeing one thing: your kid is going to be hungry as hell. And probably obsess over the things you’re not letting them eat. And you may find them eating the forbidden foods in secret, at friends’ houses, late at night and out of your view. Because that is just how the brain works when it is deprived of calories and, uh, when you tell it not to think of ice cream.
Second, kids really don’t have a context for this. I certainly didn’t! The instinct is to frame certain foods (“healthy” foods) as “good” and other types of foods (“junk” foods) as “bad.” But kids don’t understand what this mean. Adults usually have a very tenuous grasp on how to feed themselves properly; scientists can barely settle on what is “good” and “bad” for us from one minute to the next. (Who knew that fat, the scourge of nutritionists for decades, would be the next health food craze?! Or that coconut oil, the saturated fat that the American Heart Association has been warning us about since the 80s, would be something health nuts would be sautéing their greens in and slathering on their hair and faces?!) So kids really, really don’t have a grip on this stuff. When you restrict certain foods, and frame them as “good” and “bad,” it’s hard for kids to make heads or tails of. What it usually results in is a fear of food, and a feeling that their own natural desire for certain foods that are “bad” is in fact what’s “bad.” It creates guilt and shame around food.
Lastly, it creates a sense of food scarcity. Which can, in turn, lead to food hoarding and bingeing (which are both things I did as a kid when my mother tried to curtail my desire for sweets.) And can lead to a general sense of insecurity in a kid’s life.
Instead, offer kids an abundance of food. Make all kinds of food available to them. Encourage a love of food. Have them cook with you and develop positive memories of food while teaching them valuable skills that will help them throughout their lives. Add foods, don’t take them away. And be neutral about food. All food can be part of a healthy, well-lived life. Teach them that food is just food. Eating broccoli will not put halos around anyone’s heads, and eating ice cream or chocolate or greasy fast food is not “indulgent” or “bad” or “sinful” or “decadent.” It’s all just food. This doesn’t mean that if your kid wants ice cream for dinner every night, you should give them ice cream for dinner every night. You’re still ultimately in control of what your child eats. It just means not putting them on a diet, not assigning moral value to food, not wholly cutting out foods or types of foods. It’s not about adhering to all of your child’s food whims, it’s just striking a balance of providing thoughtful guidance about how to eat for nourishment and setting them up to have a positive relationship with food and their bodies.
Because what we know doesn’t work is restrictive diets for kids. It usually does nothing but fuck up their relationship with food and themselves and you as their parents and providers. And for fat kids, it can make them feel unfairly penalized — it basically uses deprivation as punishment for something that isn’t their fault — which can have life-long effects.
5. Work on your own fucked-up relationship with food and your body.
This is essential because, you know, little pitchers have big ears and all that. Your kids see you. They watch you. They notice the things you do. You’re their role model for how to be a person. So, if you’re struggling with your own shitty relationship with food and your body, they will absorb that. And, sooner or later, they will start to mirror that shit right back to you.
Neuroses about food and bodies tend to run in families. I can trace a straight line through my mother’s side of the family and see how certain neuroses were passed down from generation to generation. So, be the brave person to stop passing down this terrible, cursed family heirloom of food and body weirdness.
It’s not easy. But it’s essential for parents to model a positive relationship with food and their bodies. This means:
- No food moralizing at the dinner table or anywhere
- No talking shit about your own body or anyone else’s
- No dieting (really — no dieting)
- Eating intuitively
- Learning about Health at Every Size (HAES)
- No limiting your own experiences and enjoyment because of your body size (ex: not joining your kids in the pool or at the beach because you don’t want to be seen in a swimsuit)
- And so on
And this is hard. It really and truly is. If you have a fraught relationship with food and your body, it’ll take some fake-it-to-make-it. It’ll take some soul-searching and maybe even some therapy. But it will be worth it, not just for your kid, but for you.
You cannot possibly hope to raise a happy, confident fat kid if you are personally torn up about your own weight. You just can’t. You can’t make your kid believe that they are worthy, good, loved and enough at any size if you can’t believe it about yourself. You can’t save your kid from a lifetime of dieting and misery while you’re doing keto or Weight Watchers or Googling weight loss surgery to lose weight yourself. You can’t teach them to trust their bodies when you don’t trust your own. And you can’t instill in them the idea that all bodies are good bodies when you associate your body and your child’s fat body with pain, humiliation and torment.
6. Don’t try to protect your child from bullying by assuming the role of the bully.
I thought it just happened to me, but apparently it’s more of a universal experience to have your parents bring up things you could potentially be bullied for.
For me, it started when I was a chubby little kid who wanted to buy a bikini in my favorite colors. I didn’t care that it was a bikini; I just liked the colors. I also really hated having to pull down a wet one-piece to use the bathroom at the pool, and having just a bottom to contend with seemed grand. I tried on the bikini and my mother frowned at my round little kid belly poking out. She said, “What if kids at the pool make fun of your stomach?”
It had never occurred to me before. It was, honestly, the first time I had really considered my fat belly at all. And all it took was a quick disapproving glance and question to create 30-odd years of intense insecurity about my belly.
I get that this is hard. When you have kids, you’re seeing them through the eyes of all the schoolyard taunts you endured. So, letting them leave the house in the outfit they love but might get them teased, feels like sending a lamb to slaughter. But when you try to stop them, you assume the role of the bully. You are bullying your child to prevent them from being bullied.
And here’s why that’s wrong:
- It lends validity to the theoretical bully’s taunts
- It places the onus on your child to avoid bullying, rather than on other children not to be bullies
- Your child legitimately might not get bullied or taunted at all, which means that you’ve crushed their confidence on the assumption that they will be teased
- It can be the first time your child has ever considered that something about them is something they could be teased or bullied about, building new insecurities
- It erodes their trust in you as their parent and protector
- It chips away at their self-confidence
- It teaches them to consider what others might think or say ahead of what they want and how they feel
- It can make them feel hurt, ashamed, embarrassed and unsafe
- And really I could just go on and on forever
This requires abandoning some control. Your child might get teased. They might come home in tears. Because other kids can be truly terrible, especially to fat kids. But you should be a safe harbor. You should be a place of acceptance, safety and love. And you can talk to them about bullying, how to deal with people who are mean to them, and you can reinforce that their body is their own, belongs to them, and it’s not okay for anyone to make fun of it. But you should never, ever imply that they were even remotely at fault, or that they are deserving of ill-treatment.
7. Be a fierce advocate for your child with doctors, schools, and other adults.
Fat kids are almost certain to have their weight singled out as a problem by multiple adults. But you, as their parent, need to be their fiercest advocate.
If your doctor is telling you that your child’s weight is a problem, here’s what you can do:
- Insist, up front, that these conversations be had with you, without your child around to hear
- Request that your child not be weighed
- Talk to them about the Health at Every Size approach
- Request that they provide you with evidence-based medicine, and provide scientifically sound information about their concerns and recommendations
- If necessary, move to a pediatrician who focus less on your child’s weight
- Utilize this helpful resource from Dances with Fat
Don’t allow them to beat you down into thinking that a higher-weight child is medical crisis. Don’t allow them to convince you that you must make your child lose weight at any cost. Stand firm in your belief that all bodies are good bodies, and call them on fatphobia and bad information. Arm yourself with knowledge — Dr. Linda Bacon’s book Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight is a great place to start.
This applies to dealing with school as well. When I was a kid, we all got weighed every year in elementary school, and had to strip down for scoliosis test. A school nurse even approached me in the 4th grade without parental permission to recommend Weight Watchers. You are perfectly within your rights to tell a school that you do not give them permission to weight your child or evaluate their health based on their body size; you can tell them that you’ll address any potential health concerns privately with your child’s pediatrician.
Other adults, even ones who are “professionals,” have no right to undermine your intention to raise your child to believe they are good, worthy, valuable and loved at any size. You do not have to cotton to pediatricians or school nurses or administrators. Stand. Your. Ground.
8. Teach them about fatphobia, weight bias and why it’s wrong
Like many prejudices in the world, your child is sure to encounter fatphobia at some point in their lives, directly or indirectly. And, like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination and hate, it’s important to talk about it with your child and let them know that it’s wrong.
This can mean pausing a movie and talking about negative depictions of fat people. (I love Harry Potter, but woah nelly, the Dursleys would be a great entry point to talking about how fat people are often portrayed as villains.) This can mean calling out a friend or family member making fatphobic comments about other people’s bodies. This can be sitting down and having tough talks about discrimination your child personally experiences.
But it’s important to frame it as what it is: inexcusable, rooted in hatred and fear, and never okay.
9. Expose your child to positive representations of fat people (and limit exposure to negative ones)
When I was a kid, I loved to read. My bedroom was cluttered with books and I read above my grade level. I especially loved books about girls my age or slightly older — books by Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. And my mom was more than happy to buy me all the books I cared to read. One time, she picked out a book for me as a surprise one day. It was called Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade. I must have been in third grade or so when I first read this book. Here’s the description on Scholastic’s website:
“In this award-winning, national bestseller, Elsie Edward is the new girl in fifth grade. Her new classmates dislike her because they find her disgusting. And Elsie even steals their lunch money. When Jenny, another fifth grade, befriends Elsie, she begins to feel more comfortable in school. And the other students begin appreciating Elsie’s good qualities. And while nothing seems to be fair in fifth grade, ‘some things are not as bad as they seem.'”
Why is Elsie disgusting? She’s fat. The story, told from Jenny’s point of view, is cruel toward Elsie. Her classmates ostracize her, and this bullying of a child is portrayed as an absolutely normal and logical response to being in the presence of a fat body. Her body, and just how disgusting it is, is written about in horrified detail. She is on a diet of clear broth and carrots, which the principal announces to the whole class — so they won’t feed her. She’s starving and steals her classmates’ lunch money to buy candy. Eventually, Jenny reluctantly befriends her, realizes that she’s sort of a human being, and Elsie makes some friends. At the end of the book, her transformation from vile human-shaped garbage bag of fat to actual human being is complete when she loses weight.
And I will never forget how it ends: One day, Elsie is quiet and staring at her feet a lot. Her friends wonder what’s wrong. She tells them that nothing is wrong, she is just amazed that she can finally see her feet.
Yes, seriously, this a is a real book. See?
I think my mom probably saw this book and thought I might be able to relate to it. I doubt it was given to me to teach me that if I lost weight, I would finally be able to make friends and not be tormented by my classmates. (I hope this is the case.) But, wow, this book stuck with me. The sheer disgust the author and the characters in the book have for Elsie was stunning to me. Because it was written from the point of view of a thin girl who was disgusted with Elsie, instead of Elsie herself, I was forced to think about all the things kids in my school must have thought about me.
But at the same time, Elsie was actually the only fat character in any book I had read. Which is sad to think about now, but at the time, at least I was able to see myself in Elsie. It wasn’t a very flattering or positive mirror, but it was representation … however problematic.
While things have gotten better since that horrific book was published in 1981, it’s still slim pickings when it comes to positive representations of fat people. But here are some resources:
- 20 Diverse, Body Positive Books For Kids That You Definitely Need In Your Home from The Militant Baker
- Fat Positive Children’s Books by Rebecca Rabinowitz from KateHarding.net
- 11 Body-Positive Children’s Books, Because Kids Should Know That Every Body Is Beautiful from Bustle
- Celebrating Every Body from A Mighty Girl
- Daring Children’s Stories Championing Fat Liberation from Books for Littles
Representation is important, so make sure your fat kid has access to media where they are represented. And while I’m not saying don’t let your kid read Harry Potter or ban WALL-E, it’s also important to have conversations with your kids about the representation of fat people in books and movies where fat means villainous, dishonest, lazy, bad, stupid or mean, as well as balancing these portrayals with positive ones.
10. Love and accept them for who they are
This should go without saying, but it can be hard for many parents to do in practice. Sometimes fat children can grow up feeling like nothing they do will make their parents prouder than losing weight. I still feel that way sometimes. So it’s important to commit to accepting, supporting and love your child no matter what … even if they remain fat their whole lives.
When you raise your fat child in an atmosphere of love and acceptance, they may grow into fat adults. But they will grow into confident, capable fat adults well-equipped to deal with a world that still has a million miles to go toward body liberation. And that, really, is the best any parent can do.