I often wonder how many children first learn to shame their bodies (as well as other people's) through their parents and carers. There are so many societal factors we can blame for our debilitating, often life-threatening obsession with weight, dieting and beauty (from TV, to school environments, to the tabloid magazines at the grocery store check-out aisle) and they're all worth interrogating, of course. Still, how often do fat-phobia and other ideologies of body-hate first plant themselves into our psyches in the home—from the people closest to us?
When my neighbor's 8-year-old daughter rejected an offer of cake a few months ago, for example (only to longingly look at me eating my own slice from afar), did she do so simply because she didn't want the cake? Or, had she heard her parents talk about how "sugar makes you fat," just as I had listened to them say several times?
When a friend's 6-year-old niece anxiously refused to try on a new dress in front of us one summer day, did she really just want to watch Frozen in that moment? Or, had she detected the ways the women in her life regularly dissect and hide their own bodies? Had she listened to them berating themselves for being "too fat," "too saggy," "too old," or generally "too much?" Had someone already pointed out that her body was a little bigger than her best friend's, or made her feel that this basic fact of physical diversity is supposedly a horrible thing?
When the 3-year-old and 5-year-old boys I babysat before my own kids were born asked me if I was sad because I was so enormous, had the thought truly occurred to them out of nowhere? Or, had they heard their mom critically joke about my body, her body, other fat people's bodies, or all of the above?
We often love to describe children as sponges; tiny, absorbent beings who can learn everything from languages to arts and crafts skills at a lightning-fast pace, especially compared to those of us who've been on the planet for a few extra decades. Yet, we do not connect those same dots when it comes to the body-shaming language and actions we utilize around them. If kids are little sponges (of course they are), surely they're consuming our insecurities and prejudices as well.
As such, eradicating body-shaming from our day-to-day lives stands to have a deep impact. For example, what would happen if instead of participating in January's "new year, new you" rhetoric, obsessing over how to "make our bodies better," or humiliating ourselves and other individuals based on their proximity to whatever aesthetic has been deemed "aspirational" at that moment in time, we resolved to let go of all of it?
What would happen if we only used the word "fat" as the neutral descriptor that it is; if we taught our children that some people are "fat" and some people are "thin" and that these differences make life all the more interesting and beautiful?
What if we never commented on other people's figures? Or, better yet, if we actively explained to our offspring that other people's bodies are not our concern? What if we taught them that health is so much more complex than the size tag in our clothes? What if we never spoke ill of our acne, cellulite, stretch marks, wrinkles, or rolls in front of the mirror? What if we referenced our "cute, big tummies" or "wobbly thighs" with affection in the company of our daughters? What if we told them that treating our figures with compassion is a gift that will change our existence in countless ways and always for the better?
On more than one occasion, little ones have picked up body-shaming language and behaviors from their parents right before my eyes. I'll never forget the time a father of three called me a pig and a cow in front of his kids when I dared wear a bikini to the beach. The children laughed because that was what they were being taught to do. Or, when a man at Home Depot told me to get my fat body out of his face in the paintbrush aisle. He had a little girl in his shopping trolley, and she quickly gave me some serious side-eye. Or, the time a friend tried on about 15 outfits in front of her son, ripping off each one because it made her look "so big." A couple of weeks later, he told me I should go on a diet because I was "so big" too.
When I think back to my own childhood and my induction into the world of self-loathing—a world all humans are told to be a part of, but that women and femmes are especially funneled towards—the first images that come to my mind are of my family. It's with great sadness that I remember my aunties going through entire parties with their tummies sucked in as much as possible. Long before anyone at school started bullying me for my body, it was my sister who encouraged me to go on my first diet. I sometimes think of my mom, who has spoken of aging as an ugly thing for as long as I can remember. I think of my dad, who was quick to call people "fat" in a derogatory tone despite being fat himself.
Committing to doing better for our own children is not something we should reserve for January of each year. Still, in the face of so many images, infographics, Twitter rants, and glossy magazines telling us that now is the time to change, shrink, tone, or zap away, if not disappear entirely, it feels especially important to fight against the noise.
We will never be able to fully save or shield our children from the harmful effects of diet culture, anti-fat bias, or beauty standard nonsense. However, we can do our best to teach them that choosing a life in which they respect their own bodies and those of other people will make for a far gentler, kinder, exciting journey than the alternative.
After all, when we free ourselves from the burdens of self-hate and shaming, we finally give ourselves permission to do everything we previously believed we didn't deserve.