Body Shame Hurts
When I was a kid, starting at about age 9, my step-mother used to sit me down for very serious talks about how if I didn’t stop eating so many Oreos, I was going to end up fat just like my mom. “You aren’t fat,” she’d say. “Yet.”
I also wasn’t graceful and slender and beautiful like my two sisters, neither of whom got the Oreo talks. The three of us were Cheryl Tiegs, Brooke Shields, and the-girl-who-would-get-fat.
Looking back from the vantage point of 25-ish years in the future, I choose to believe that my step-mother honestly thought she was doing the right thing. I don’t think (I really hope) that it wasn’t her intention to hurt me. But that’s what happened. I became hyper-focused on my weight. I would look in the mirror, even in elementary school, and see a belly that wasn’t flat enough, boobs that were too big, and a body that just took up way too much space.
I cannot believe that my step-mother knew, throughout the 1980s, the full extent of the damage her shaming would do. I do think she was smart enough to know, however, that sitting a kid down and talking about how they are on the path to fatdom, and then comparing her negatively to her mother, was shaming. I’m even pretty sure that she knew it was unhealthy. Just not, in her mind, as unhealthy as the possibility of being fat.
And that’s the crux of the thing.
We live in a society where doing or saying ANYTHING to a fat person in an effort to get them to wake up and lose weight is still acceptable. Because whatever pain the shaming may cause must be less than the harm done by being fat in the first place. And that is so, so misguided.
Here’s the thing. Oreos aren’t any closer to health food for skinny kids than they are for fat kids. Fat kids don’t need exercise more than thin kids. And it is not okay, ever, to shame anyone for the shape of their body (or for any other reason).
Those Oreo talks at the dining room table led to a lifetime of self-hatred, yo-yo dieting that killed my metabolism, and disordered eating that I still struggle with sometimes. There are worse things than being fat. For parents out there who have a child whose weight worries them, here are a few tips for taking action without causing life-long problems:
- Encourage movement in a joyful way. If your kid is open to sports, sign them up. Dance classes, swimming, soccer, whatever. Exercise is healthy, whether or not it ever causes change in body size. If your kid isn’t into sports, don’t push it on them. I bet they’d still love to take a walk with you. Or ride their bike. Or go for a swim. How about bowling? Roller skating? Karate? Just turn on the music and dance in the living room. The key is to offer opportunities, and let your kids pick and choose the ones that please them best.
- Stock your home with lots of good food. If your kids have access to it, they’ll eat it. I’m not talking about carrot sticks here. Don’t have separate diet food for the fat kid. Don’t restrict treats by having them for everyone else, but not that one kid who might end up fat like her mother. My kids are allowed to eat as much fruit, veggies, whole wheat bread, peanut butter, pretzels, yogurt, and cheese sticks as they are hungry for. As a result, none of them hoard food or obsess about it like I did as a kid.
- Make your home a stigma-free zone. This one has been the hardest for me over the years, because confrontation is difficult for me. It involves never, ever letting anyone else talk to your kids about their weight. No well-meaning grandparents or aunts or uncles or teasing cousins or siblings get to talk about your kid’s body in any way that doesn’t celebrate the wonderfulness of them. No “does Suzie really need a second helping?” during family dinners. No “Bobby really needs to start doing some sit-ups” while poking Bobby in the belly.
- Stop shaming yourself. This was another difficult one for me. It goes along with number three. Don’t talk about how fat you are, how much you hate your thighs or your stomach or your upper arms. Don’t refuse to wear a bathing suit. Instead, talk about your body with respect. Treat it with respect. Your kids are learning from you, even when you don’t think they are.
- Instead of spending your energy hyperventilating with worry about your kid’s weight, take the time to talk to them about how, and why, their bodies are wonderful. I guarantee you, they are wonderful little bodies. Point out how awesome it is that they share some things in common with the people most important to them. Celebrate their bodies with them, in all their quirky individuality. For example: My seven-year-old daughter, Ruby, is by far the tallest kid in her class. We talk a lot about how her Auntie Jill (who STILL looks like Brooke Shields) is more than six feet tall. Even taller than Ruby’s daddy. And isn’t it so cool to come from a really tall family?
Bodies come in all shapes, sizes, and abilities. Help your kids learn to be proud of what their bodies can do.