As a fat mother to two little girls—and someone who spent a substantial portion of her own childhood and adolescence taking life-threatening steps to shed my “excess” weight—it’s indescribably important to me that my partner and I don’t contribute to harmful fat-phobia within our own home. When it comes to the task of raising body-positive children, I believe we can begin by re-framing the word “fat” in our day to day lives. As a friend of mine recently mused when reflecting on the language used in children’s books, every word matters when we’re teaching brand new humans how to speak, think, and act.
As a starting point, particularly in terms of very young children, I think it’s crucial to neutralize weight as best we can.
When considering my 4-year-old, for example, I know she’s at an age in which she is noticing the aesthetic differences among the people she encounters (as well as her Barbie dolls). She might ask me why someone is Black, or why we are white, or what the spots around her friend’s nose are (freckles), or why her eyes are brown but her sister’s are blue. Just as we’d try to tell our little ones that everybody is different—be it in terms of race, ethnicity, hair texture, or eye color—it’s straightforward enough to explain that some people are “thin,” or some people are “fat,” or some people are “in between.”
I have also started to acknowledge the size difference between my husband and myself, telling my daughters that Papa is “thin” and Mama is “fat” because all bodies are different shapes and sizes—reiterating that these variations are “normal.” I tell her frequently that all bodies are beautiful, because they are all so unique. Because she is 4, I try to use simple language that I know she can understand, whilst hoping that this creates a foundation for considering bodies in as neutral a capacity as possible. Although I know that our culture at large does not think of fatness with any sense of neutrality, I don’t believe I can prepare my daughters for combatting those messages unless I do so in my home first.
Incorporating a dose of positivity into language around my body feels important, too. I might tell my eldest that I like the way my “big belly” looks in a certain dress. She and her sister both love cuddling up to the softest parts of my body (mostly my tummy) and I would never discourage them from doing so. I speak in terms of affection about being “soft” or “wobbly,” and in lighthearted ones if and when my “big butt” knocks something over. Our bodies, regardless of size, do strange, funny things all the time, and I want my kids to be able to see the humor in that. When my youngest recently told me, “Your big bum is like the moon,” I smiled and giggled with her. There was no malice to her words (nor was she wrong, TBH), so there was no reason to react with sadness or discomfort at her observation.
It should go without saying, but refraining from using the word “fat” as an insult or a synonym for deplorability is also imperative. This applies to both the ways we speak about our own bodies and the bodies of others. For instance, my partner (who is very thin) would never use a phrase like “I feel fat today” as a catchall for being uncomfortable in a particular outfit or feeling bloated after a heavy meal.
We also try to call out instances of body-shaming (weight-centered or otherwise) when we hear them, especially if we hear them around our children. Even something as seemingly benign as including the word “fat” alongside a list of negative characteristics when describing a person we don’t like risks teaching our kids to associate fatness with villainy. If we struggle with confrontation (I certainly do), I’ve learned that gently requesting to change the subject in such a moment, or stating that we don’t like to use certain terminology in front of our kids, is a simple boundary to make.
While my partner and I believe in the importance of encouraging our kids to be active (hopefully finding movement practices that they genuinely enjoy and find fulfilling) and eat as well-balanced a diet as is possible for two very picky toddlers, we always keep weight outside of these discussions. It’s perfectly possible to talk about the benefits of exercising, of keeping our hearts strong, of vitamins, or of endorphins without ever needing to bring body type into the conversation. I want my girls to work out (if they so please) and eat all kinds of delicious foods for the joy of it—not because they are ever made to believe their bodies need to be “fixed.”
Not long ago, a friend of mine, who is a pre-school practitioner, told me a story about an interaction between herself, one of her students, and the child’s mom. At pick-up, the boy told his mom that my friend was his “fat teacher.” The woman turned bright red in embarrassment and proceeded to apologize to my friend. My friend, who is plus-size, responded brilliantly.
“It’s ok! I am fat,” she told them with a smile. “Some people are little and some people are big, and there’s no shame in that at all.” Knowing my friend, I’m sure she maintained an absolutely pleasant and bubbly disposition throughout this whole interaction, thus reifying the notion that shame needn’t be part of our discussions around bodies and weight.
Perhaps that is the crux of it, really. Socioculturally speaking, fatness is shrouded in a veil of shame. When I hear adults using the word “fat” in front of kids, they typically represent two categories: those who ridicule fat people and fatness in general, thus teaching their little ones that this is an acceptable way to behave, and those who shy away from the word altogether, treating it as a source of embarrassment. Always, there seems to be shame.
As our children get older, we will undoubtedly be having more in-depth conversations with them about the biases that exist against fat folks (much like we’ll do with issues around race, sexuality, gender identity, or disability). We will explain that even some people who are fat have a complicated relationship with the word—because how could they not?
In these early years, however, keeping shame away from the language we use to talk about bodies feels imperative. Our little sponges, as we are so fond of calling them, learn so many things from us at home. It’s our responsibility to teach them how to talk (and not talk) about bodies.