Talking with Kids about the “F-Word”
Recently I had a conversation with a young mother who asked me about dealing with children and body-based insults. Her two middle-school aged children regularly call each other “fat” or “skinny” when they are fighting. She recognized this as a problem and wanted to know a good way to intervene. This is a very good question, and one that does not often get the attention it deserves.
My first suggestion was that they watch the “Poodle Science” video as a way to open the discussion. Then, point out that it is never okay to insult someone about their appearance. By middle school, kids understand the concept of bullying. Making fun of a person’s appearance, whether that is size, a disability, a birthmark, the color of their skin, their height or hair color, is all bullying behavior. Ask them, “Is that who you want to be? Are you a bully?” The conversation can also address whether characteristics can or cannot be changed. Just as we cannot change how tall or short we are, explain how body size is not under out control. In contrast, a bad choice of hair style or clothing is something we can control, but it is still bullying to make fun of someone because of it.
The young mom also asked me how to talk about the F-word “fat.” She wanted to forbid it altogether; I suggested a more nuanced approach. Maybe explore the fact that the word “fat” is, actually, a neutral descriptor, like tall or short or blond or brunette. (I also commented, at this point, that “blond jokes” can be considered a type of bullying based on appearance.) We can reclaim the word “fat” as neutral, and also discuss how it has been weaponized and used to sell diet culture. Even if we personally use the word in an unbiased way, we need to be cautious and mindful when we use it with other people, who may see it differently.
This can lead to a conversation about “media literacy,” which is a discussion that should be ongoing. It is beneficial for children to be reminded that what we see and hear from movies, television, magazines and the internet is frequently designed to sell us something, to separate us from our money by saying that something is wrong with us that we can fix by buying something. As Regan Chastain says “They steal our self esteem in order to sell it back to us.” The Center for Media Literacy website has extensive resources for how to talk with kids about what they see and hear.
For those of us who are fortunate enough that we discovered the Health At Every Size® principles before we became parents, we can raise “second generation HAES® kids.” Even if we find our way to weight-neutral living later than that, we can share what we are learning with our children at any age. Of course we want our children to have good body image and a good relationship with food, but we have to be able to push back against the societal pressures that surround them. We do that by setting a good example and by having these kinds of conversations whenever the opportunity presents itself. We can teach our children factual information about the harms caused by the pursuit of weight loss even as we teach them about nutrition and the benefits of physical activity. We can stand up for other people when they are being bullied about body size and we can honor our own bodies by taking loving care of them.
For more ways to protect kids from weight stigma and diet culture, see chapter 9, “But What About the Children?” in my book “Thrive At Any Weight: Eating To Nourish Body, Soul and Self Esteem.”