You may have spent your entire life hoping you wouldn’t “look fat” in photos or items of clothing, but if you’re someone who can walk into any clothing store assuming it will fit you, then you benefit from the privilege of being skinny every single day.
If you have a child who lives in a larger body, that means you’ll have to do some work in order to see the world from their perspective and appreciate how much anti-fat prejudice they have to deal with – often from the professionals they’re supposed to care about.
As a parent, you can’t shield your child from every negative experience they’ll have because of their weight, but you can equip them to recognize fat phobia and discrimination and make sure they understand that you don’t view their body as a problem that needs fixing.
Here are some of the things experts suggest you keep in mind.
Diets rarely lead to permanent weight loss, but they often do harm.
When you hear a medical professional use the word “overweight” or “obese” to talk about your child, your instinct is likely to be to put the child on a weight loss diet. We’ve been led to believe that obesity is a medical condition that requires treatment, usually in the form of exercise and food restriction, although increasingly—even in children—doctors are recommending weight-loss medications and operations.
But the relationship between weight and health is more complex than most of us know. We can’t reliably predict how weight will affect health, but we do know that fad diets can cause physical and emotional damage.
“There are physical effects of dieting on children, such as decreased metabolism, nutrient deficiencies, and stunted growth,” Emily Ochman, a registered dietitian, told HuffPost. The metabolic effect of the diet can make it difficult for your child to maintain or lose weight in the long term, which means that the diet can perpetuate the problem it is meant to solve.
“There are more mental effects that can occur from dieting, such as developing a fear of certain foods, an increased risk of binge eating, an unhealthy relationship with food and/or their bodies, an increased risk of depression or suicidal thoughts, and eating disorders,” Ochman added. .
Virginia Sol Smith, author of Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, cites a body of research, notably the EAT Project at the University of Minnesota, that “show conclusively that childhood experiences of dieting and weight-shame or stigma are the most important indicators of eating disorder risk.”
Many of us imagine a very skinny girl when we think of eating disorders, but they can affect people of all races and sizes — although they are less likely to be diagnosed, and more likely to be diagnosed later, in people who are obese.
“Dieting behaviors that larger bodies engage in are disordered eating behaviors in what is classified as a ‘normal’ or ‘skinny’ body,” said Ochman.
Alyssa Ramzy, a nutritionist and author of the book “Unusual eating,” he told HuffPost that diets can also lead to “low confidence, 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 start with dieting,” said Rumsey.
The word “fat” can be a neutral descriptor.
Just as people have different heights, as well as different eye, skin, and hair colors, their body sizes are also different. You can model the use of the word “fat” as a neutral way to describe the body rather than as an insult.
“What I’ve seen in my reports and interviews with children in larger bodies, and the experiences of adults who were obese children, [is] When parents rush in and say “You’re not fat; you’re pretty” or “You have a pretty face,” all of those things, they’re denying what the child already knows about themselves. They know they are older than their peers. “It’s kind of gaslighting,” said Sol Smith.
Alternatively, parents can confirm the fact that their child has a larger body and indicate that they do not see it as a problem. Sole-Smith gives the following examples to confirm things parents might say instead: “We have no problem with your body. We love you in the body you live in. You are just the right size for you.”
Fat kids, like all kids, need to know that we love them unconditionally, just as they are, and no matter how their bodies have changed over the years.
Your child does not need a doctor to tell them they are fat.
The ritual of taking your child to the pediatrician for their annual visit and seeing “how much they’ve grown” can often be excruciating for large children. As a parent, it is appropriate for you to ask how the healthcare provider talks about weight with your child.
“As an adult who was an obese child, I remember dreading going to the doctor for fear of getting the talk of ‘lose weight’ or ‘your child is fat.’ While providers may use medical terms such as overweight or obese, most children will only hear that Their bodies are fat and that there is something wrong with that,” Ochman said.
But you can set limits with your child’s doctor. Ochman suggested that when you talk to your doctor about your child’s weight — which doesn’t have to happen in front of your child — you ask, “Are they naturally going about their growth and maintenance (rather than just looking at what percentage they’re compared to their peers)?” You can also ask about other health indicators, such as blood pressure.
“I think there’s a real case for putting an end to it with your pediatrician that any conversation about BMI or growth charts you want to take place away from your child,” Sole-Smith said.
The best time to talk to your provider about these limits is before you bring your child in for their appointment. You can call ahead or send them a message explaining why you don’t want to discuss your child’s weight in front of them. Sole-Smith also suggested writing this request on Post-it paper to stick the nurse in your child’s chart as an extra reminder.
If the doctor misses your request, or ignores it, and your child puts on weight anyway, advise Sol Smith to speak up, saying something like, “I’m really not worried about his body. I think he’s doing a really good job. That’s not a concern for us.” This way your child hears you confirming that his or her body is not a problem. Even if you don’t feel comfortable confronting the doctor right now, “you can have that conversation later with your child and let them know you’re not going to push the doctor’s schedule,” Sole-Smith said.
“In my work with clients, childhood memories of doctor visits and his weight evoke feelings of deep shame,” Laura Gordon, a therapist specializing in trauma, body image, and eating disorders, told HuffPost.
“Over time, medical visits and procedures cause tremendous distress that may manifest as anger, irritability, withdrawal, or resistance to seeing doctors. When they are old enough to do so, some choose not to receive medical care altogether,” Gordon continued.
You may choose to drop your child out of the school weight.
In some states, children are measured and weighed at school as part of health screening programs aimed at preventing obesity.
“There is no good evidence that weighing children and sending letters home does anything. In fact, there is a lot of data showing that most of the time parents throw letters away,” Sol Smith said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested a number of preventive measures to mitigate the harm of children’s weight at school, such as doing it in private, not saying numbers out loud and not linking BMI to student or teacher assessments—but an individual school may or may not use these as guidelines .
Sole-Smith said that in her work she still hears stories of children who “weigh and the teacher reacts to the number or says it out loud to the class…it’s a disgrace.”
It’s up to you to decide if you want your child’s school to calculate 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 explaining your concerns. The National Eating Disorders Alliance helped write this sample letter that you can use as a template. The letter notes that such programs have been shown to be ineffective and cause harm, and notes that “when measurements are collected at school, children compare their ‘numbers’ to others.”
“Child choice and advocating an end to these often traumatic practices for young children is the most supportive thing you can do,” Sarah Herstitch, a therapist in the same practice as Gordon, told HuffPost.
“These types of tests plant seeds in young children’s minds that there is something wrong with them,” she added.
Reassure your child that it’s not their fault when clothes don’t fit or don’t fit.
Putting on new pieces of clothing in the bright glow of dressing room lights can be a nerve-wracking experience for anyone. If your child has a larger body, you can help by being supportive and reminding him that the problem is with making clothes, not with his individual body.
Herstich said that while shopping for clothes, parents should “stay neutral about sizing when trying on clothes, avoiding any comments about sizing, finding things ‘flattering’ or adhering to certain color schemes due to societal influences.”
She added, “If your child feels emotions surrounding the availability of a made-to-measure garment or clothing he or she hopes to wear,” parents should try to “stay emotionally attuned, responsive, and validated.”
Clearly explaining to the children, he advised Sole-Smith that “this is not your body’s fault. This is a massive system failure, and this is where the market is doing such damage.” As parents, we can explain to our children that “It is not their body’s job to fit the clothes. The clothes should fit their body.”
Sole-Smith mentioned shopping for a girl in the boys’ section (which tends to have clothing a size larger) and striped pants, or looking for capris in a size larger that fit kids as well as regular pants—some of the strategies parents use to find comfortable clothes for their kids. There are a few brands that do better when it comes to plus size clothing and at least one brand, Ember & Ace, specializes in just that.
Draw boundaries with relatives and discuss them as necessary.
While you can think carefully about what to say about bodies and food within the walls of your home, all bets are off when you’re near your relatives. Many grandparents grew up at a time when anti-fat language was acceptable and saw no problem declaring themselves “bad” by eating a piece of birthday cake.
Sole-Smith recommended that unless someone says something specifically about your child’s body, you try to “find some sympathy for the fact that this generation has experienced so many iterations of diet culture.” Then, you can explain to your child that you don’t think there is anything wrong with the birthday cake or the people who eat it.
You can also try to explain to relatives beforehand that you don’t talk about good and bad foods in your home, and they would appreciate it if they stopped making any comments about what or how much your child eats. If they say something about your child’s body, it’s important to step in in the moment with a response like, “I’m not comfortable with you talking about their bodies in this way,” Sole-Smith said.
One of the “magic phrases” she recommends in her book is something you can keep in your arsenal to use with anyone—doctors, teachers, or relatives—that indicates your child’s weight is an issue: “I trust his body.”