Help! How should we talk about fat?

My kids know everyone’s body is different. Different skin colours, different hair texture, some big, some small, some tall, some short, some needing wheelchairs, some not. We’re okay; we’ve got that.

What we don’t have is a Me who knows how to deal with what is often termed ‘the honesty of small children.’

A few weeks ago as we were walking through the woods, a large man went past us. One of the kids said, loudly, ‘Wow, that man is really fat.’

I will leave out the discussion we had (another somewhat inane everyone is different thing, with some added awkwardness about how to talk about differentness).

The thing is, many people are sensitive about their weight. And someone pointing out their size in a slightly awed voice may sting.

But the other thing is that I’m trying to raise kids who celebrate difference. My kids don’t mock people for being fat/disabled/black/a ‘masculine’ woman, but they do sometimes notice it. And I think that’s okay.

I was raised with a ‘colourblind’ society being hailed as the utopia. But I don’t agree with it. I’m different; I’m a queer woman. My difference isn’t one I want silenced – surely we can all be different, can learn from differentness? It doesn’t naturally lead to exclusion or derision. In my utopia it leads to celebration.

That means I have a lot of conversations with my kids. Sometimes they don’t notice what makes people different, and that’s okay – they are too busy noticing what we have in common with others. And that’s great. But when they do – they ask about why some people wear head scarves or niqab, they ask why a black friend has curlier hair than we do, they ask how prosthetic legs work. And then they get on with their day, a little more clued up and a lot more likely to accept these differences in an easier way. Because I try to be open.

Did I initially have an easy time explaining women covering their heads or faces, when my kids have no concept of religion? No. But I muddled through, because we may be different but we are learning about respect, beliefs, choice, and how to talk about these things.

But fat? I don’t know.

It happened again at the pool yesterday. Another, ‘Hey, that man is really, really fat.’ We had a quick conversation about not pointing out how people are different, how it may make others uncomfortable.

But really, I was the only uncomfortable one. Hushing up fat talk, but not hushing up talk about that kid in the wheelchair with the awesome Spider-Man wheels….what message am I sending? That being overweight equals something shameful, abhorrent, embarrassing?

My kids tested it on me. ‘Mama, why are you fat?’ Then, rushing and somehow sly, ‘Oh, sorry, I called you fat.’

Somehow I had turned fat from an ordinary adjective into something darker. And I don’t like that.

So what do I say? How do I say it?

I’m sending mixed messages by talking about my stretch marks with pride, about how all our bodies are just right for each of us. And then cringing with horror when my kids dare to innocently point out a body that is outside of what many would consider a normal weight range. Wasn’t that my opportunity to say, ‘Yes, we’re all different! Isn’t that great?’

Instead I feel like an awkward, socially inept person who knows this conversation is ongoing…and has a long way to go…but I don’t know how to talk anymore. It’s uncomfortable for me. This may be our first experience of really going against the grain when, actually, we may be rubbing people the wrong way no matter what we say.

Maybe I need to carry on explaining that difference can be a really good thing, a chance to learn more about other people and the world around us. But that we need to think about how we point it out – and here’s where I draw a blank. Anyone have ideas? Please do leave a comment below!

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8 thoughts on “Help! How should we talk about fat?

  1. Interesting! I have noticed how the reverse is often true with adults, so that it is ok to point out a person being skinny/underweight/small/slim, it’s somehow acceptable to tell a slim person that they should eat more or that they are looking thin….and this is adults we’re talking about, not just noticing difference, offering judgements and opinions. With my kids it’s only happened once (so far!) with the ‘fat’ comment and I talked about hurting people’s feelings and the fact that different people are different sizes, it hasn’t happened again (yet!) I think it is the words we use and kids learning when it is ok to be up front and honest and when to use diplomacy and this is a skill that they learn as they grow. Most people are pretty forgiving of what kids say, I think it is definitely up to us parents to normalise difference in our responses and reactions to their honest remarks. Sounds like you’re doing a great job 🙂

  2. This is hugely (pun intended) topical in our house currently. 7yr old just cannot comprehend that describing her friend as fat and/or chubby might upset her. “Fat is an adjective mummy. That means it describes something”. Fascintating conversations have ensued about the importance and weight of language. How one word can be manipulated to mean so much more (we’ve discussed e.g the sentence “throwing like a girl” and how the word girl is used as a slur).

    But we have basically boiled it down to being sensitive to others’ feelings. Would someone like to be singled out in a room full of people to be described? Maybe we could lower our fingers and voices so as not to bring attention to them? Does *friend* use the word fat as an adjective or have people used it as an insult to her before, might that make her feel bad to remember?

    Finally, we bring it close to home. Mummy is fine to be described as fat. Because she is. But Mummy doesn’t like people drawing attention to her in public. Just like 7yr doesn’t like it when someone tells her they love her curly hair and everyone starts to touch it.

    Exploring the multiple meanings of words and how language evolves and is inherently MAN-made is a common theme in our house anyway. It’s approached with fun and interest so far and we have used it delicately to begin talking about ‘swear’ words.

  3. My approach, which isn’t just for children, is that it is ok to comment on an aspect of someone’s appearance that they have chosen – Spiderman wheels, a nice shirt, a particular hairstyle. Commenting on something that is simply an inherent trait of them, like height or body shape or skin colour, is best avoided unless they are close friends and have asked you directly. This way, the dividing line isn’t “what are good things and what are bad things?” but “am I complimenting something they have actively done, or simply something that has happened to them?”. I feel uncomfortable when someone comments approvingly that I’ve lost weight; for a start I don’t see that as an inherently positive thing to do, and also I am worried about the fact that I’m losing weight without trying to. So you just can’t know, basically!

  4. We had a similar moment not too long ago. I said that not everyone had had people around them who knew that all bodies are beautiful, and in particular might have been told that the more they weighed the less they were worth as that was a really weird idea that some people had. So even though someone’s size might be something so amazing or interesting or beautiful that you want to say something, the thoughts in their own head might not hear the good thing that you mean, only the thing that they already think, so it was nice to try and take that into account.
    Still not sure whether it was a good way to handle it but it was the best I could think of, like you say it’s really hard as it introduces a dark aspect to it that just didn’t exist for them before, but I hope that it’s tiny in comparison to the rest of the messages we’re giving them about body image.

  5. We have a lot of these talks! I remind them that we don’t need to point things out loudly as people may not be comfortable with it being pointed out for everyone to hear, I also point out that we are all different sizes and being ‘fat’ isn’t wrong or bad it’s just how that persons body is, I remind them they can always talk to me about what they see and ask me about someone but just not shouting and loudly, they have kind of got this now and they still point stuff out but do it quietly to me then I can talk to them about it. I may be doing it ‘wrong’ but hey t works for us!

  6. We were at the grocery store probably about a year ago and my oldest greeted the cashier by saying, “you have a big butt” he would also give compliments on people’s shoulders or stomachs being big or small or whatever. To him it was a compliment. He accepted everyone for who they were and thought it was cause to celebrate. We had a talk that we keep those comments to ourselves incase someone took it the wrong way and instead we ask them how they are doing today. I walked out of the grocery store in tears because I was laughing so hard though.

  7. If you don’t want to send a message that says “fat = bad” then you might want to avoid telling kids it’s not okay to say someone is fat. That says fat = bad. You could say something like this:

    KID: Hey! That guy is fat!
    YOU: Yes. There are people with all kinds of body types. Isn’t it awesome that we all look different?

    Or something like that.

    My sister used to always say to my nephew, “I love your fat belly! It’s so cute!” and then one day Lucky said to me, “Aunt Barbie, I love your fat belly! It’s nice to lean on.” 🙂 I just snuggled him closer.

    • I think the post was about, yes we don’t teach fat = bad (in the safety of they’re personal lives) but what do we do when our children venture outside into the big wide world and call a stranger fat? Do we let them carry on regardless of what the other person is feeling or has been taught about ‘fat’ themselves? Do we wait until our children are old enough to be unaccompanied and run into the hurdle of describing someone as fat and then getting into an altercation over it?

      I think this is a significant post on not only the ‘fat question’ but how responsible parents help their children survive in a shifting, often hypocrital world.

      My children use the word fat in it’s correct and original form but are learning that it has multiple meanings when used in differing ways.

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