One day my son, who happened to be in kindergarten at that time, gave me a big wonderful hug and said, “Mama, I just love giving you hugs around your big fat belly.” My daughter, who was in 4th grade, exclaimed, “You can’t say that! That’s not nice, it might make Mama feel bad. She’s not fat, she’s…she’s…she’s…great.” I was completely taken aback. Not by what my son said, because what he said was purely true and beautiful. I was shocked by my daughter’s reaction. Where was this shame and judgement about fat and body coming from? When did fat become the ‘F’ word?
Our house has been free of ‘Fat talk’ well before my kids were born. I have discussed (out loud in front of my kids) with family, friends and neighbors that there is no need for body disparaging comments, many of them now sing a different ‘song’, or at least around us. After viewing Georgia’s misguided ‘Strong4Life’ campaign, my daughter, then in 2nd grade, was so angered that adults were publicly shaming kids, she decided to participate in the ‘I Stand’ campaign that Marilyn Wann created. Her caption: We Stand for Treating All Kids with Kindness and Respect. She even speaks now a days about not judging people based upon anything. “People are people, and we all come in different sizes, shapes, colors, abilities and interests and it’s all fine!” Pretty impressive for a 4th grader.
So I asked her, “What is the problem with using the word fat?” She stated, “It’s mean.” I go on to explain it’s only mean if there is judgement passed along with it. I explained that her brother was not passing judgement, he was only stating what he saw and felt. He could have said he liked my red shirt or how I tell funny bedtime stories and it would be in the same vein. She replies, “I know mom, but at school we can’t use that word. We will get in trouble.” Ahhh, so now I get it. My rule follower (for the most part) is torn between the messages she has been raised with and what one of her main communities touts. I think crap!
A teachable moment
One of the great things about our school is we participate in Project Cornerstone’s ABC Reading program. I highly recommend this program to parents and educators. When it came time, I jumped at the opportunity to be an ABC reader for my kids’ classrooms. Last year, when I was reading “Thank You, Mr. Falker” to the kindergarteners, we discussed what bullying is and how it isn’t ok. I went on to say how it’s not ok to make fun of people or tease them if they have difficulty reading (as did the author) or running, have straight hair, look different, talk with an accent or are fat. I purposely used the word ‘fat’, as Project Cornerstone does a great job of pointing out how bullying can be played out and that it is not acceptable, but they don’t out right mention it’s not ok to discriminate based upon size.
Anyway, from how the kinders were responding you would have thought that I had let out a huge fart or something. They were all over the carpet rolling around whispering, “She said Fat!” After a few minutes when they all calmed down. I explained that the word fat isn’t a bad word unless it is used in a teasing, mean spirited way. Some of them got it. Others, in their very concrete, developmentally appropriate way, stated, “Fat is a bad word and it’s not ok to use it.”
Now I understand that schools have to have rules. Most likely this rule was developed because ‘fat’ can be used in a demeaning way and some kids may not be able to discern what is an honest description from what is shaming. Having this rule is the school’s attempt at protecting kids from weight based bullying. My daughter refusing to use the word fat is her attempt at protecting others as well. Both of which may appear as good, but what it really does is add shame to the word fat. If it’s not ok to use the word fat as a harmless descriptor, then it means that there is something wrong with the word fat and therefore, there is something wrong with being fat.
How to stop weight stigma
Now I don’t expect children to be the ones to rise up and challenge the culture/school, but it would be super awesome if that happened and us grown-ups were there to support them. Children are amazingly brilliant and can learn the nuances of what is demeaning and what is an honest descriptor. The more exposure kids have to language the better they are at determining it’s meaning and power. So this is where us grown-ups come in. We can make sure our conversations are weight/size neutral. We can challenge and change the ‘Fat Talk’ that we come across. We can use the media and situations as teaching moments. We can have discussions with schools and other communities we are involved with about the issue of weight stigma and how we can best support all kids to be their best and feel welcome and safe.
More about Stephanie Brooks
Stephanie Brooks has been practicing as a registered dietitian since 1991. She earned her BS in nutrition and clinical dietetics from UC Berkeley, her MS in nutrition and food science from San Jose State University, her certificate in eating disorders from John F. Kennedy University in 2003 and . Stephanie founded Bay Area Nutrition, LLC in 1999, a nutrition practice providing individuals, families and groups with the most up to date and user friendly nutrition information and guidance. Stephanie is a nationally recognized expert in the field of disordered eating and pediatric feeding problems. Stephanie also provides training and supervision for nutrition and other professionals. She is passionate about her work and loves to see the ‘ah-ha’ moments when clients start to feel better, have more energy, improve health and fine the right balance for them. She practices a “Health at Every Size (HAES)” philosophy and utilizes a “non-diet/mindful” approach to eating, activity and life balance when appropriate. Stephanie is a published author and speaker often speaking to professionals, school and community groups and corporations.
Stephanie is a member of the following organizations:
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
California Dietetic Association
Academy for Eating Disorders (AED)
Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH)
Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA)
NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association)
San Jose Peninsula Dietetic Association
Pediatric Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group
Sports and Cardiovascular Dietetic Practice Group
International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals- treasurer of SF Bay Area Chapter Eating Disorder Resource Center