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What to do when your kid asks you if they are fat

BY Zali Yager

Despite being a body image researcher, I was not prepared for my kids to start saying the word ‘fat’.

When my oldest boy was four, it seemed like he started to say ‘fat’ a hundred times a day- and I freaked out. I tried to ban it like a swear word. Of course that didn’t work, but it also wasn’t necessary. Without all of the negative connotations and associations that we’ve given this poor little word, it is just an adjective – a describing word.

And that’s what we want it to become- a neutral word that we can use to describe lots of things. A macronutrient. A necessary part of our bodies.

But when our kids come home asking: “Am I fat?” we can panic. We can rush in with ‘you’re not fat, you’re just right’- but what that does is reinforce the negative associations of ‘fat’. We want to keep this word as neutral as possible, explain that saying this to people can hurt their feelings, but that it is just a word, and that we all have fat.

Usually, what kids are really asking here is ‘am I ok/ do I belong?’. They see kids being called ‘fat’ to hurt their feelings, and exclude them from friendship groups. They want to know if they are this thing that they see being used to label others as ‘not ok’. They want to know if they are accepted.

So what do we say when our kids come home asking ‘Am I Fat?

Here’s an excerpt from to get you started.

There are two main binaries to reject here:

  1. There are no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bodies, and
  2. We don’t need to be one or the other – thin or fat.

Everyone has fat. All bodies are good bodies. Accepting all bodies as they are removes all of the shame of being ‘bad’, and frees us up to nourish and nurture our bodies.

Fat is a really important part of our body, and it wouldn’t work well without it. Fat doesn’t just sit there doing nothing, either. Fat tissue insulates all of our organs and protects us from the cold. Our fat stores ensure that our brain will always have a steady supply of glucose in order to power our body functioning and our thinking. Fat helps us to metabolise a range of vitamins that can’t be absorbed without it.

‘AM I FAT?’

If your child asks you if they are fat, or tells you that someone called them fat, please, as we mentioned earlier, try to resist the urge to say ‘You’re not fat! You’re beautiful’, as this reinforces some of the power of the word. The aim is to keep your response as neutral as possible. Here’s how you could respond – either at the time, or in a quiet chat afterwards.

  1. Don’t freak out. Be curious about what they have heard, and the context they have heard it in.
  2. Empathise with them. You might talk about a time that you were called ‘fat’ as an insult at school or at home, and how it made you feel.
  3. Explain that some people use the word ‘fat’ to make people feel bad about themselves, and it’s not okay. In our family, we believe that all bodies are good bodies, and we know that all people have fat on their bodies, and it’s really necessary for their body to work properly.
  4. Emphasise the fact that it’s quite a serious problem if people are teasing each other about the fat on their bodies. Just as we wouldn’t tease someone who has a disability, or whose skin is a different colour, we shouldn’t tease people about their size and shape.
  5. Tell them that there is nothing wrong with their body, that you love them just as they are.
  6. Brainstorm some of the things that their body can do that they are proud of.
  7. Think of some of the kind things they can say to themselves to make them feel better. Empower them with things they can tell themselves and others if this happens again.

The main message is this:

“Your worth has nothing to do with your weight.
All bodies are good bodies.
Everyone is worthy of respect and love
regardless of how they look. “

This is just a short excerpt our new book ‘Embrace Kids’, Taryn and I talk a lot about how and why you should try to improve your own feelings about your body in order to encourage your kids to have a positive body image. The whole first part of the book is dedicated to this actually! You can buy the book here.

2: Weave representation into teaching

Inclusion isn’t always about what we say, it’s about what we do as well. It’s important that we include a range of appearances in the images, toys and books you use whilst teaching. When using images, videos and resources in class, actively look for ones where there are people of different shapes, sizes, cultural background, abilities, and some with visible difference. This can be done subtly so as to not draw attention to anyone in the class that may also have similar characteristics. It is important that children in your class feel safe and seen but also something which is often overlooked is the importance to include a range of appearances that are not represented in class, as children will be less likely to be familiar with these. Watching a video where someone has a visible difference and having an open discussion about it makes it much easier to have a conversation when you have the new student in class. Picture story books are an excellent way of representing diverse appearances and humanising the people with various conditions.

For a useful game that has this representation, check out ‘Everybody’s Different’ the boardgame here.

3: Check the terminology you are using

Language is something teachers are often worried about. They tell me: “especially nowadays when we’re all striving to be very politically correct and fearing offending people, but I think knowing what language is appropriate and what you can and can’t say…”

Although language is constantly changing, here are some guidelines:

  • The way people identify with their condition varies. There is no one ‘right way’. The only way to ensure that you get it right for that person is to ask that person, or listen to the way they introduce themselves, and reflect that.
  • This might look like: “Jenny has a cleft lip” or “Max had an accident that means he uses a wheelchair”. Use no-judgemental language and avoid adding adjectives of pity or negativity
  • Some people identify strongly with their condition, but otherwise, in general, using ‘a person with [condition]’ is appropriate.
  • There is more detail on language in the free teachers toolkit and (if you haven’t already), it is recommended you check out the work of Carly Findlay a writer, speaker and appearance activist.

4: Celebrate our uniqueness

It is beautiful in itself that we are all unique and this should be celebrated. This doesn’t have to be a dedicated lesson, but flows through each and every thing you do in your classroom, Celebrating our strengths can look like “isn’t it fantastic that when we all bring our strengths to a team, we can achieve so much more than doing things on our own” or pointing out the many different and varied flowers in a garden, or different types of dogs in picture story books. Emphasising how boring it would be if we were all the same is a quick and easy way to celebrate diversity. Positive affirmations can really go a long way in this and remember the students can mirror your own behaviour, so try to practice what you preach!

5: Set up a support group

Support groups can help build confidence and champion appearance inclusivity, why not put together a support group with your fellow colleagues to champion inclusivity? This can become a safe space to talk about these topics. No one gets everything right first time but opening up a dialogue with colleagues can help.

You are already doing a great job

Teaching can be demanding and this is one of many things to consider as the role of a teacher but you’re doing a great job and any steps you can take, big or small to being an appearance inclusive teacher and person will not only benefit you but also your students and particularly those who are often underrepresented.

Meet The Author,
Zali Yager

Dr Zali Yager is the Executive Director of The Body Confident Collective [BCC], a social enterprise that is on a mission to improve health and wellbeing by promoting evidence-based body image content and professional learning programs at the individual, organizational, and cultural level. In her research position as Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Zali was also the Chief Investigator on the Goodform project for boys, a WADA-funded, Randomised Controlled trial of this 4-session school-based program.Connect with Zali via LinkedInInstagram, and her website. The Body Confident Collective (Facebook and Instagram) Visit the Goodform site and sign up for updates to receive more resources.

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