When Your Child Says She’s Fat

when your seven year old tells you she's fatThis post is inspired by and sponsored by the movie The Way Way Back.

Today my daughter, only seven years old, said something today that I’d hoped I wouldn’t hear from her until she was a teenager. She said, sighing, “Every day I just get fatter and fatter.”

Ironically, we were driving to the woods to go for a long hike, but my heart plummeted through the floor panels and got left on the road. I was very, very careful to school my face blank and just said, “Why do you say that?” She thought for a moment and said, “I just am.” I told her that, in fact, that while her body might be bigger than some of her friend’s bodies, she’s still in the average range for her height and weight according to her doctor. And then I said it’s important to remember that being healthy is more important than worrying about the size of your body. We then spent some time talking about the various fruits and vegetables she is willing to eat, and what new ones she might try this summer.

I feel like I dodged a bullet, in a way, because Tori mostly doesn’t have a negative reaction to the word “fat.” We’ve talked about it rather extensively because, of course, I’m fat. But with my recent focus on losing weight and exercising, I think I’ve unintentionally given her the idea that being fat is bad. Which hurts my heart, of course, because if fat is bad and she thinks she’s fat she will soon make the leap to the idea that SHE is also bad.

And that’s not okay. That is a particular family legacy that I do not want to pass down. I vividly remember the body shame that inspired a liquid protein shake diet at age 11. I wish I had photos of myself at age 11 (we had no camera and didn’t buy the school pictures then, so I don’t have any, sadly), but I was not fat. Not in anyway. But not long after that diet I started putting on weight, eventually getting to size 16 by the time I graduated high school.

That liquid diet? It was the same one my mother was doing. Even now she still struggles with her body image, refusing to don a bathing suit even though her physical therapists have said swimming would be ideal for her issues. She tried hard to not pass her body stuff on to me (trust me, her mother was quite cruel about body stuff), but I still got it. As will, apparently, my daughter.

Today was just the start of the long fight to bolster my daughter’s self image in a society that asks women to get thinner and more sculpted all the time. I want her to get to age 11 and face down coming of age with a strong self awareness and at least an intellectual understanding that her body is hers and is beautiful, healthy, and strong – even if it doesn’t look like the bodies she sees on TV and in movies.

Last week Charlie and I saw the movie The Way Way Back. The movie opens with a wrenching scene between a 14 year old boy and his mother’s boyfriend. The boyfriend asks the boy to rate himself on a scale of one to ten, and when the boy says, “I don’t know, a six?”,  the boyfriend responds, “I say a three. But let’s work on getting that number up this summer, okay?”

Kids can so easily be devastated by just a few simple words. I’ve worked hard to keep from saying words to my daughter about her appearance, always telling her she’s smart as well as beautiful. I want her tween and teen years to be focused on exploring who she is – instead of how she looks.

And when someone asks her how she thinks she looks on a scale of one to ten, I want her to look at the person asking as if they are insane and say, “What a dumb thing to rate someone on.”

……………….

This post was sponsored by Fox Searchlight Pictures and the new movie The Way Way Back, an amazing bittersweet coming of age comedy that Charlie and I were able to go see a couple of weeks ago and deeply loved. I’ll include the preview below, but really – we loved this movie. It was remarkable – even if Steve Carrell (one of my favorite actors) plays an asshole in it (that’s not a spoiler, promise).

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Comments

  1. Pris says

    Every parent of a girl, and maybe, boys now, will hear that phrase. It is everywhere.
    Do schools talk about this and nutrition, at all?

  2. Shandra says

    This is a tough one. I agree that health is much larger than weight, and that media standards can be unrealistic. There’s also a natural flow to kids’ bodies where they chunk up and then they grow. And I think all people should be treated with respect and I don’t care if people are overweight, with exceptions, below.

    But…my parents are overweight, esp. my mum. They are under 70. They walk and are relatively active but don’t really exercise. They have both had major cardiovascular issues that have changed their retirement. They are fat, in part, because despite working with nutritionists, they eat out a lot, sometimes junk.

    I don’t think it’s my job as a parent to keep my kids from understanding it’s not great to be fat. It doesn’t make them bad people. I think our kids are capable of hearing that distinction even when it is hard, and they certainly will be hearing society’s message.

    Healthy eating is all about choices — what not to eat, what to eat, the difference between boredom and hunger, to slow down and feel full. It’s also about occasionally getting ice cream. But to make good choices our kids need real answers.

    Tori’s concern doesn’t mean she will end up on protein shakes; it means she is developmentally at an age where she is learning society’s norms and developing her views. Her body is a part of her, too; its not all ir nothing. I’d let her doctor talk to her at her next appointment about weight charts and let them establish that connection.

  3. me says

    Best thing is for,her to find an activity or sport that she likes and that can be done all year long and all life long. Eating is only part of the equation–moving your body is even more important, especially for girls, I think. Mastering a sport or activity means increased self-confidence, strength, coordination and so much more.

  4. MD says

    My 7 year old daughter and I have been part of a study about food, eating behaviors, body image etc since she was 2. Last year, during an interview, the research assistant lined up 6 girl figures, identical, except they got progressively more rotund around the waist. She asked my daughter to list in order who she would be likely to invite to a party first to last. I was horrified that she picked them in order skinny to chubby… Mortified…. We have always tried to maintain the healthy active body line too. I have struggled with my weight forever, 1st doing weight watchers at 11.

  5. says

    My daughter is aware of how I am not happy with my body image and she isn’t with hers. Being 4 foot 8 she is happy to be a little heavier than some would consider slim and for that I am grateful and she is only trying to lose weight because she has put quite a lot on after suffering a double bereavement and grieving.

    However, I go to great lengths to not pass on what I grew up with and still hear from my mother every time I lose weight (and yes, I yo-yo constantly) “You won’t keep it off” and then when I don’t “I told you that you would put it all back on”. I love every bone in her body but neither of those comments is helpful and I do sometimes wonder whether some of the reason I yo-yo is because it is expected of me and all I have heard all my life.

  6. says

    This is a tough one. It is tough because we don’t want our kids to be obese. Everyone from Michelle Obama on down is talking about it. Our elementary school won’t let the kids have juice at school, for example, even 100% juice because it supposedly leads to obesity. One of my boys even said that they can’t have juice as a choice because it ‘makes kids fat’. WTH?

    I think the best thing to do with kids about any fears, including that they think they’re fat, is to sit and listen and not talk. At least for a little bit. Tori being afraid to get fat is a legitimate concern. So talk. Tell her about your issues. Tell her that you are making healthy food and exercise choices together. Tell her that it is about health, and that includes her mental health. And listen to yourself, too. Weight is genetic. If your metabolism slowed down and put you on a gradual slope to serious weight gain, then help it not happen to her. Tell her how your body image problems hurt you and you don’t ever want it to happen to her. If you love yourself, that is the best example you can give. You and Charlie are doing everything right. Have faith that sometimes a kid saying she doesn’t want to get fat is just that, like saying they don’t want cavities, or that they don’t want the mean teacher next year. In other words, don’t panic!

  7. Me says

    I think, having been a child who started dieting at 12, even though I didn’t need it – the trick isn’t to help Tori lose weight (like some comments suggest) but to teach her to love herself first. Love her body no matter what it looks like, and loving it includes fueling it adequately and exercising it…but teach the love first. It’s the hardest part to teach since most of us don’t even know how to love our bodies as adults…but if she doesn’t learn to love her body and herself, she’ll yoyo anyway because it will be about the numbers on the scale not about taking care of her. Have you tried to focus your own health goals simply on feeling better and not on the actual weight/size you are (atleast when she’s around)? That might help if she sees you just focusing on how good you feel and nothing else. I think it’s normal for girls to say things like this but it makes me sad that she’s only 7…kids are growing up sooner these days so I guess it’s not surprising.

  8. Melissa says

    I’ve been a casual reader of yours for years. Food and body issues have been a constant theme in your blog. Your concern for your daughter is understandable. Use that as fuel to help her now! Sticking with the old philosophy of “eat less, move more” is a great way to start. Look into PAL (police athletic league) or CYO programs so she can try a team sport. Nothing is more empowering to a young girl than being a part of a team and using the strength of your body and mind to work towards a goal.

  9. says

    We’re trying to walk a fine line with TJ (7 turning 8 soon) because he’s been sneaking food and starting to cross the line from healthy weight to unhealthy weight… but we don’t want to mess with his head about it. I’m trying to remind him that he doesn’t need multiple desserts, that he shouldn’t be eating 600-calorie breakfasts, and that it’s important to make healthy food choices. He IS a growing boy, so he needs to eat, but gosh it’s hard to strike a balance here with arguing for eating healthy snacks even though grandparents and others keep giving him treats that he, of course, wants instead.

  10. Spacemom says

    My 7 year old said that too and she was underweight.
    I don’t know if it is a phase that they go through or not. We focus on healthy rather than weight, as much as possible.

  11. Sarah says

    Cecily–11is particularly difficult, or 9 for early developing girls because in order to store up fuel and create extra skin for the tremendous growth spurt of puberty, the body becomes temporarily insulin resistant maybe start talking about this now? Talk about babies and how their smart bodies make the extra skin before they are ready to grow into it.

  12. says

    I die a little inside when Roo makes comments like that. I try so hard to not let my own body image rub off on my kids but I still do things like shy away from cameras and I am sure they pick up on it. Sigh.

  13. says

    You handled that situation brilliantly. We deal with this subject in our house, since my husband battles with his weight, and the kids are always watching what we do and talk about when it comes to being healthy. The words “fat” and “skinny” are both viewed as hurtful in our home, since I also battle with weight, but in an opposite way. We want the kids to know that neither word needs to be said when it comes to describing themselves, or others. Please tell Tori, from me, that she’s not fat nor skinny, but beautiful. Inside and out. That’s all that matters.

  14. Lauren says

    I’m not on twitter, so I can’t see what you’re talking about, but I hope that tweet was being facetious!

    That’s a good point though– if the more unhealthy snacks aren’t in the house, she’s not going to be able to eat them. Limiting it to ONLY fruits and veggies doesn’t seem necessary, but they should definitely be the base.

    Growing up, I didn’t have the best diet. My parents were — and are — FANTASTIC parents. Both worked very hard, with long work days. They tried their best with dinners, but I was also a picky kid, and they were often exhausted, which meant a lot of take-out and prepared foods. (Nowadays, luckily those prepared foods can be very healthy! But in my day, we’re talking spaghettios and frozen pizza).

    They did a good job of teaching me the importance of exercise though, and I played sports. Still, my poor eating caught up with me around 6th grade… I would describe myself as a little chubby back then. My after school snack was usually chocolate chip cookies and Dr. Pepper. I began to notice my chubbiness though, and would talk to my mom about it. She stopped buying the cookies and Dr. Pepper and other junky foods. I balked at first, but now I’m glad she did it.

    My mom had weight issues herself. She was often on a Weight Watchers-type plan and talking about dieting. Looking back… I stayed chubby until about 9th grade, and I think she was VERY careful not to make me feel shameful about my weight, even though I knew she was trying to lose weight herself. However… and I’m not sure how to put this… I wish she *had* been more straightforward, and pushed me to be healthier. I think in her sensitivity to not hurt my feelings, she was a bit TOO lenient. Sure, she wasn’t buying me loads of cookies anymore, but she still didn’t say anything when I chose fried chicken with french fries as my entree when we went out to eat.

    I guess my point in this brain-dump is this:

    BALANCE.

    Weight is a tough, tough issue. But I think it’s possible to strike a balance in teaching our daughters that they can love and respect their bodies by not moderating every little modicum that goes in their mouths, while at the same time being mindful about the effects that different foods have on our bodies. You’re not going to feel your best when you’re restricting yourself to a carrot and celery stick diet, nor will you feel your best if you’re eating comfort foods for every meal. Balance!

      • Lauren says

        Haha funny you should say that, because in my original comment (I had written something but my browser crashed, so I hastily re-wrote) I had mentioned that I thought YOUR comment was fantastic, and right on the money… especially about the doctor comment.

  15. Emma says

    I was given a big wake-up call by my mother when I was just entering puberty, and the way she reacted had a huge impact on me, helping me NOT worry about my weight from then on. I had always been around 25th percentile for weight and at the latest doctor’s checkup, my weight had gone up to 50th (this was probably in 4th or 5th grade). I wondered out loud if I should go on a diet. My mother FREAKED OUT. She told me about her sister who had become anorexic and had enormous associated mental problems; she told me that my weight was ABSOLUTELY NORMAL and that I absolutely was NOT allowed to diet. She was so upset by it that I never mentioned it again, and felt guilty any time I thought my thighs were fat from then on! Our family always did focus on eating healthy foods, but we never talked about amounts. I don’t think it’s usually recommended to teach by freaking-out, but my mother’s freak-out and vehement support of NOT DIETING was part of what made me stop myself worrying about my weight.

  16. Kim says

    Difficult topic and you’re right about kids being sensitive to comments. My son is 8 with a healthy appetite and doesnt do loads of exercise – but enough at school etc I suppose. He isnt really overweight but on the borderline. I have to keep him from overindulging though and am trying to teach him healthy eating habits. I try to talk about weight in health terms rather than looks terms. Unfortunately I have to keep reminding him as he would have a donut every day if he could or Oreo ice creams. I say he can have one or two at most but not more unless he is doing a lot of exercise. So far it is ok, but it is difficult as he is growing so feels hungry.I’m just trying to cope with it by teaching him about foods, which are healthy, which are not and how it is ok to have a couple of biscuits, but not the whole packet. Also, to eat slowly and enjoy the taste of the food. When we ate at subway he used to say that he ate his the fastest so he won. Now he says he ate his the slowest, so he won as he got to enjoy eating it for longer.

  17. Hetty Fauxvert says

    Weight and health and their relationship is a very difficult issue. Our 6 y.o. twin boys straddle both sides of the line. We have one who will eat anything if it’s not nailed down (though luckily his huge activity level keeps him muscular, rather than “padded”), and one who has to be cajoled to eat, and weighs ten pounds less than brother. (Guess who I worry about more?) We try to just keep them healthy by feeding them healthy foods, promoting LOTS of physical activity, and keeping sweets to a real minimum. (They didn’t even taste candy until they were three.) So for dessert after dinner, they might get a piece of fruit, then a treat of a single Hershey’s kiss or one cookie or something along those lines.

    I hope this doesn’t sound too draconian! They do get sweets, probably daily, but just not large amounts. This approach seems to keep them happy but on the slim and muscular side.

    I hope this won’t get me banned here, since I do enjoy your blog, but I feel like I need to mention a photo I saw here a few weeks ago. (I don’t remember which of your posts it was, sorry.) You posted a picture of Tori looking absolutely charming (as usual!), but I noticed two things about the photo. One was that she did indeed seem to be carrying several “extra” pounds around her waist and hips. (I realize girls are different from boys because sometimes they start getting their womanly figures early. But at seven?) The other thing I noticed was that she had (what seemed to me to be) an enormous ice cream cone in her hand. Maybe that cone was for all three of you, I don’t know. My boys and I often share treats that way. But the impression that I got was that the ice cream was all for Tori … and I have to say my boys have never gotten that huge an ice cream cone in their lives. So was the cone a “one off,” or was it an example of the food and serving sizes she’s getting on a regular basis? Only you know the answer to that one.

    I’m not trying to be cruel or holier than thou or anything. I’m fighting my own weight battle here (I gained sixty pounds carrying our boys, and a lot of it is still there!) so I think I grok it. But … that was one large ice cream.

  18. says

    I loved this post , I have an 11 year old and 12 year old both affected by a metabolic disorder that requires them to snack frequently and messes with their metabolism. Already my 11 yo old Zoe has asked me why she has a tummy and her big sister does not! pre- puberty vs. puberty.. lol!
    My name is Suzanne Perryman of SpecialNeedsMom.com. I was fortunate to be named as one of BlogHer’s 2013 Voice Of The Year Bloggers ( Op-Ed) . I just wanted to visit your blog, learn a bit from your experience, and thank you for being a reviewer. I am sure it was a tough job and a lot of work, so thanks for giving back.

    Writing is my thing, and I celebrate the simple, everyday of special needs parenting, one story at a time. I have never been to a blogging conference and look forward to attending BlogHer this year.Hope to meet you there!

  19. says

    I have struggled with my weight quite a bit growing up and I commend you for being a mother who is caring and proactive about your child’s self-image early on. Weight and food shaming only worsens the problem and reinforcement of positive self image regardless of your child’s weight is key. I began to be able to make healthier choices for myself only after I was able to separate my self-esteem from a cookie cutter idea of beauty which can get extremely discouraging. Show her role models that are not skinny that are icons to reinforce that beauty doesn’t come in one size (One of my favorites growing up was Beyonce Knowles). Today there are a plethora of beauty, fashion and music icons out there that don’t fit the mold of the traditional size two a lot of us grew up with. Make healthy food fun too depending on the age… put a tbsp of peanut butter on a waffle and make a smiley face on top out of fresh fruit or a balanced meal out of some of her favorite foods. Teach her early on that food is good and should be enjoyable even when it is healthy. Try to find things that are physically active but meet her interests whether it is climbing trees, dancing or even just running in the sprinkler in the lawn. Health should never be a chore for a child or an adult. The best way to be healthy is to enjoy and take pride in yourself and what you eat the best you can and love yourself always.