While oppressive messages surrounding weight (examples: fat people are lazy, fat people just need to lose weight, etc.) are widespread, they’re false. Health, weight, behaviors, and personality characteristics are not all one in the same, and weight isn’t the sole indicator of health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), your social, economic, and physical environment, along with your individual characteristics, behaviors, genetics, and more, make up the many determinants of health. Plus, the National Eating Disorders Association says even if we all ate and exercised the same, our bodies would still look different.
But from health classes to conversations over lunch with friends, that’s not the message many kids are learning when we talk about weight (which we’ll get to more below). Virginia Sole-Smith talks about this in her recently released book Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture.
She references lots of research, such as a study in Obesity Research that found children liked pictures of the fat child the least, and that the stigma surrounding living in a fat body is increasing. Further, a study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology found that when kids between three and five years old—yes, that young—were asked to identify the mean character, they chose the fat one up to 81 percent of the time. Another study included in Body Image found children under the age of six years old experience body dissatisfaction.
As a result of this and a myriad of other contributors, 46 percent of kids as young as nine to 11 years old are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets. Further, 22 percent of children and adolescents engage in disordered eating, and eating disorders are the second-deadliest mental illness. None of this is okay.
We must educate ourselves and our kids about anti-fat bias, how to identify it, the harm it perpetuates, and how to fight against it, both proactively and reactively.
How and where kids learn anti-fat bias
In short, anti-fat bias is everywhere, from daily conversations to movies. “We are often familiar with the overt ways kids learn anti-fat bias, like being told that they need to lose weight [or] having parents or other adults dieting or talking about their own bodies in negative ways,” says Breese Annable, PsyD, CEDS-S, a therapist who specializes in eating disorders.
But it’s not always that obvious. “Anti-fat bias is often learned in subtle and insidious ways,” she continues. “For example, media often portrays people in larger bodies as the evil villain, the funny (but unattractive) friend, or the clumsy, lazy person.” Think Dudley in the Harry Potter series and Mr. Waternoose in Monsters Inc. Those are only a couple of examples.
While this may seem innocent, as if it wouldn’t really impact kids, therapists assure these characterizations do have an effect—especially for kids at that age. “As kids are exposed to social media at a young and developmentally crucial age where they are figuring out how they and their bodies fit into the world, they are more vulnerable to messages around dieting and weight that are inherently fatphobic,” says Samantha Bickham, LMHC, a therapist with Choosing Therapy.
Kids can also sense when “fat” is used as an insult by adults and peers alike. “The message that gets relayed—loud and clear—is that having a larger body is negative, something to be avoided, or to be embarrassed about,” Dr. Annable adds.
At the same time, it’s important to note that people don’t always intend to be mean. “Media portrayals, comments by family members, and well-meaning teachers or coaches may all inadvertently say or do something that reinforces fatphobia,” says Anna Tanner, MD, FAAP, FSAHM, CEDS-S, the vice president for the department of child and adolescent medicine for The Emily Program. For example, parents may tell a child to eat less “or they’ll get fat,” thinking that can protect them from being bullied or having health issues. (Spoiler alert: It’s not that simple.)
While changing our everyday talk about fatness on an individual level is vital, it’s a systemic issue in which our society needs a complete overhaul, too. For example, Dr. Annable talks about how desks are made in a way that’s not comfortable for people in larger bodies, and health classes emphasize inaccurate messages about “good” foods and “bad” foods, which “often goes hand in hand with messages that conflate health and body size,” she says.
In her aforementioned book, Sole-Smith talks about how sports uniforms are also rarely (if ever) made in larger sizes, and social media content portraying thin bodies is pushed more by the algorithm. Kids are learning, in many different ways, that it’s only okay to have a body that’s a certain size (when in reality, body diversity is natural and good).
Addressing anti-fat bias proactively
Unfortunately, no matter how much you talk to your child about focusing on body liberation (in a way they’ll understand, of course), they’re going to come into contact with anti-fat bias. They also probably won’t be able to recognize all the many ways in which it’s discussed and veiled.
“I see this already beginning to bloom in my three-year-old boy, who, despite our best efforts and having wonderful advocates within his preschool, has identified a number of specific foods that will help him ‘stay healthy and build big muscles’ and a long list of foods that make ‘your insides and outsides sick,’” shares Megan Holt Hellner, RD, head of nutrition and physical activity research at Equip.
So how can you protect and prepare them as much as possible?
Show them lots of positive body-diverse content
Dr. Annable encourages exposing kids to media that counters the idea that certain bodies are superior. One book she loves is Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder. “As parents, we need to proactively seek out books, TV, [and] movies that centralize bodies of all shapes, sizes, colors, physical abilities, etc. to combat the hierarchy that kids are taught,” she emphasizes.
Address your own deeply rooted biases and how you may act on them
Even if you believe in body diversity, fat positivity, Health at Every Size, etc., you may still notice old programming pop up—which can sneak into your words and behaviors. So, before (and as) we work with kids on this issue, we have to work on ourselves, too. “Examine your own attitudes and beliefs around weight, and specifically fatness,” Hellner says. “Even if you aren’t ready to make changes, start by getting curious.”
Additionally, she encourages not making comments on people’s weight, even if you consider it to be positive. After all, congratulating someone on losing weight suggests that being smaller is an accomplishment and a way to get loving praise.
Model how you want them to behave
Just like you model how you want your kid to treat people generally, model how you want them to act and speak about the topic of fatness and bodies specifically, too. “Mirror the kind of self-talk you would like them to engage in,” Tanner suggests. “Do not promote body dissatisfaction. Model being kind to yourself and proud and grateful for what your body can do—and encourage them to do the same.”
Examples of this include not looking at fat parts of your body with disgust, not commenting on a family member’s weight changes, avoiding small talk about how you “need” to go on a diet to lose weight, and expressing gratitude toward your body.
Talk to their pediatrician
Since the doctor’s office is another common place where you may be confronted with anti-fat bias, consider having a conversation with your child’s pediatrician ahead of time, when your child isn’t in the room. “It is important that parents are clear with their kid’s doctor that body size or weight loss is not to be discussed with the child present,” Dr. Annable says. Instead, she continues, tell the doctor you’re okay with them talking to your child about healthy behaviors, such as moving their body in enjoyable ways and adding in (not subtracting) foods of all kinds.
Note: It’s important talk with and for thin kids, too
Hellner adds that these conversations are important even if your child is thin. Sole-Smith points this out in her book, as well. First, because their body now is just that—their body now. “After all, not every thin kid grows up to be a thin adult,” Sole-Smith writes.
Plus, the glorification of thinness is both fatphobic and harmful in its own way. “When I did, say, eat an entire box of fudge in one afternoon, and didn’t immediately gain weight, it reinforced my sense that my thinness was some kind of innate superpower…[that I] was therefore superior to people who couldn’t,” Sole-Smith continues. “Thinness gradually became wrapped up in my sense of myself as a talented and successful person.”
The (inaccurate) idea that “thin is best” can also hide and exacerbate eating disorders. Harrop, a nonbinary individual Sole-Smith interviewed for her book, struggled “with how much thinness felt essential to their identity” growing up. Over time, their behaviors became more disordered, turning into a full-blown eating disorder. “Thin privilege disguised my eating disorder for a long time,” they said.
It’s also crucial to note that these are only a few reasons why parents should consider talking to their children about anti-fat bias, regardless of their size. It doesn’t take into account how this knowledge could help your child support their friends, or feel loved for who they are rather than for what they look like, and so on.
How to respond to anti-fat bias around your child
Now, let’s say someone said something anti-fat, or commented on another person’s body, or you and your child just watched a fictional portrayal of what you know to be anti-fat bias. This will happen regardless of your actions, and is a great teachable opportunity to take advantage of. (Without these moments, how will kids learn?) In the heat of the moment, what do you do?
Listen to their concerns and hurt
So your child has just experienced body shaming firsthand. They may seem hurt and/or unsure about how to feel, and they may not know how to express their feelings well. “I would encourage parents to always stop and listen when our children approach us with a concern, especially something that may prompt them to feel vulnerable or confused,” Tanner says. Not only can you help them feel better and adjust their attitudes accordingly, but she reminds us to treasure that meaningful time with them.
Normalize body diversity
Let’s say the fat comment wasn’t necessarily said in a mean way, but stated more factually. Keep on that same thread! “When kids, especially little ones, point out a person’s body, I always say, ‘Yep! People come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors, huh?’” says Heather Clark, MA, LCPC, clinical director at Rock Recovery. “My hope is that this repeated phrase will be internalized and become part of the voice in their own heads.”
Talk about the implications of anti-fat bias (in a kid-friendly way)
Another possible situation: You just watched The Little Mermaid together. While it’s a staple, the portrayal of the villain, Ursula, as a fat character (and the protagonist, Ariel, as a thin character) is a problem.
After enjoying the movie together, consider starting an age-appropriate conversation. Clark has done this with her own children after watching media promoting anti-fat bias. “I asked them things like, ‘What do you think the people who made this movie/story think about fat people?’ I shared my own reflections, and fostered discussion around whether or not we agreed with those ideas,” she says. “Spoiler alert: We did NOT.”
Share your perspectives and break stigma
When anti-fat bias is expressed elsewhere, like at school or a friend’s house, Clark responds with this: “‘A lot of people think that way. But what I know is…’ and then I share what I know to be true about weight and health.” (AKA, the information listed above about the determinants of health and how amounts of food and exercise aren’t the only factors in weight, to start.)
This work isn’t easy or a one-and-done effort, but it’s necessary for everyone’s well-being. “It’s never too late to challenge and address weight bias,” Hellner says, “and we owe it to all children (regardless of their size) to do so.”
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