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!

Just now…aka WTAF.

S: Hey, let’s play that game I like! You say, ‘Hmm, I think I want to buy a new kitten. I’ll go to the pet shop.’

Me: Hmm, I think I’ll go to the pet shop to get a new kitten. Now, where is the pet shop?

M: deep voice The pet shop is over here.

Me: Oh, you’re like my sat nav.

M: I’m not. I’m the shopkeeper.

Me: oh, okay. Aw, look at this baby kitten. She looks lovely. S meowing and cuddling up to me. I’d like to take her home.

M: You have to give me money.

Me: okay, how much?

M: you do not have enough. You only have two pounds and she costs a LOT of money.

S purring and doing various kitten things.

Me: I’ll go to the bank.

M: no. The bad guys went to every bank, and every house, and there is not enough money anywhere. All the banks only have two pounds.

S: Baby kitten forgot! I have money. I don’t need it, you can have it and use it to buy me.

M: No. I need to fix her body.

Me: what’s wrong with her body?

M: she’s a robot. A robot kitten.

Me: I…oh. Uh, are you a robot?

S: I’m not. I’m a kitten.

s and I make various sad faces and plead to the shopkeeper about how we want to be a family. M refuses. It’s all very lighthearted and m and I are laughing. S is staying true to role and does not deviate from being a sad, affectionate cat. Excuse me, a baby kitten.

S: very sad face. Maybe you’ll have to buy a different kitten. Baby kitten is sad because she likes you.

Me: No, I want you to be my kitten.

M: No! You cannot buy her!

S makes claws and a terrifying mean cat face at M.

M bursts into tears.