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Why body shaming children is a strict NO. Read about the adverse physical and mental health consequences

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Fat-shaming children and adolescents is becoming a common phenomenon. Worryingly, it can lead to serious psychological consequences. Read on to find out why

Why body shaming children is a strict NO. Read about the adverse physical and mental health consequences

Scenario 1: Ron, an academically bright seven-year-old boy of higher weight, avoids eating in front of his father. He also avoids participating in physical activities in school. The problem? His father comments on his weight while buying him clothes, calls him ‘fatso’ in an effort to motivate him to exercise, and forbids him from eating what he calls ‘bad’ food. Of late, Ron has started reporting sick each time the PT period approaches.

Scenario 2: Melissa, a 14-year-old girl of higher weight, writes a photography blog, which is an instant hit with many teens at her school. Of late, however, she has been skipping meals and following unhealthy eating patterns. The problem? She has started receiving negative comments about her appearance on her blog. Instead of commenting on her writing or her photography skills, a few girls from school have started commenting on her pictures, calling her fat and chunky, and making rude jokes about her appearance.

Two different scenarios, but one common problem – fat-shaming. Equally, the two scenarios are becoming increasingly common in today’s ‘thin world’. Fat-shaming or weight-based teasing comprises humiliating a child who is judged to be of a higher weight by resorting to mocking or critical comments about his size, shape, or weight.

Fat-shaming among children and adolescents is more common than we may think. It can take many forms - from rude stares and disparaging remarks to weight-based victimization, resulting in teasing, discrimination, and even violence. Irrespective of whether fat-shaming is subtle or overt, or whether it is perpetrated by peers, media, teachers, or parents, the intensity of the feeling of shame is often felt acutely.

Negative stereotypes toward higher-weight peers begin early in childhood; even preschoolers learn that society judges people by how they look. Yes, you may be stunned that we said this, but there are studies pointing towards this in recent times. An Australian study published in 2019 found that by the age of 5, 50% of the 111 girls surveyed had internalized the thin ideal. Today, more than ever before, there exists a dangerous cocktail of increasing representation of the ideal body size and shape, together with strong (and often misleading) messages about dieting and nutrition control. Adding to this, the continued obsession of the media with actors and models who have perfect bodies also plays a part.

Are parents guilty too?

Helping children feel good about their bodies is a critical aspect of adolescent parenting. Unfortunately, knowingly or unknowingly, many parents too are guilty of fat-shaming their children. Statements such as “That baby fat is still hanging on, huh?” or “You’re going to eat ALL of that?!” may sound painfully familiar to any child or teen whose weight has been commented upon by their parents. In a 2012 American study on children at a weight-loss camp, 37% said that their parents had bullied them about their size. Parents may fat-shame their child because of their own feelings of inadequacy, inordinate concern about what others think (as a result, they may feel ashamed of their child), or genuine health concerns about their child being of higher weight. The biased perception that higher-weight children are lazy or spoilt further compounds the prejudices.

Fat-shaming FACTS
  • Over 90% of high school students have witnessed peers with overweight/obesity being teased because of their weight, as found by researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University (2011)
  • Among children and adolescents with overweight/obesity issues, up to 60% report weight-based teasing by peers and family members
  • It’s not just parents and peers, even teachers, coaches and healthcare providers have been found guilty of fat-shaming on separate occasions
  • Weight‐based teasing is consistently one of the most common reasons cited for bullying among children and adolescents – victims as well as perpetrators of bullying

Why we shouldn't fat-shame children

You might think that calling out a child or chastising him for being higher weight may push him towards corrective measures, but it does not. On the contrary, it can lead to adverse physical and mental health consequences, according to several studies on the subject. Here is why -

  • Teaching children and adolescents that their bodies are shameful is deeply problematic. It can make the child feel inadequate about her body (leading to poor body image) and about herself as a person, thereby preventing the child from developing a reliable sense of self
  • To shame children into weight loss teaches them to equate their worth with a number on a scale and sets them up for a lifetime of thinking their size is an indication of who they are. Research on weight-based teasing has shown unhealthy effects on body dissatisfaction and self-esteem. Fat-shaming could lead a child to compare himself (in unhealthy ways) with others, rather than appreciating his own unique talents and contributions
  • Fat-shaming children and adolescents has been linked to harmful psychological consequences. In a Canadian study published in Paediatric Child Health in 2010, a significant association was found between weight-teasing by parents and peers, and depression and anxiety. It can get worse considering the potentially debilitating effects of depression. Weight-based teasing is also associated with suicidal ideation according to a 2013 study at Yale University
  • Overweight children who are fat-shamed are more likely to gain further weight.
  • A National Institute of Health (NIH, US) study published in Pediatric Obesity in 2019 found that overweight children and adolescents who were ridiculed about their weight increased their body mass by 33% and their fat mass by 91% more per year than those who weren’t. In an exclusive interaction with ParentCircle, Schvey, the lead investigator of this study, says, “A child who is teased might feel badly about his body and try to lose weight quickly to prevent further teasing, turning to unhealthy or extreme weight loss methods which may actually cause them to gain weight in the future”
  • Research has amply demonstrated that fat-shaming doesn’t motivate a healthy behavioral change. On the contrary, it propels unhealthy behaviors. Children are likely to find solace in food and indulge in binge eating. Equally, they could completely avoid physical activity. “Children who are teased about their weight may use food to cope with negative feelings. They may also feel more self-conscious when participating in P.E. or sports and may actually begin to avoid exercise altogether. Collectively, these behaviors might all contribute to weight gain”, adds Schvey. The increased weight gain may increase the risk of fat-shaming, creating a vicious cycle
  • Fat-shaming may contribute to the elevated secretion of the stress hormone, cortisol. According to a study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology in 2014, elevated cortisol can stimulate the appetite, blunt satiety cues, inhibit self‐control, and increase preference for energy-dense food. This may further lead to weight gain
  • Weight-based teasing also poses a very real risk of the child developing an eating disorder, most commonly bulimia. With children as young as six developing eating disorders, and more adolescents than ever admitted to hospitals for eating disorders, weight is not what we should be focusing on

What parents can do instead

You can help your child deal with fat-shaming and develop a positive body image in the following ways:

1. Develop positive ways to celebrate yourself

• Avoid negative words and phrases. Observe and notice any negative body talk you engage in even if it is about yourself. Instead of saying "These jeans make me look fat," consider modeling body positivity by saying, "I like the way this dress looks on me," or "I feel beautiful today." Avoid using the words ‘fat’ and ‘obese’ and instead, use neutral words like ‘weight’ or ‘body mass index'.

• Check for messages from others. This includes peers, teachers, coaches, family friends and relatives. Are they reinforcing the ‘ideal’ body weight or shape in your child? For example, is his coach telling him that he can’t take up boxing because he is not muscular enough? Teach your teen to stand up for himself when he hears negative messages from others about his body

• Strengthen relationship with the body. Teach your child to appreciate her body not only for how it looks but what it can do, like how much fun it is to use her body to ride a bike or play an instrument or a sport. Twenty-six-year-old cricketer, Rahkeem Cornwall, weighing nearly 300 pounds, was selected for the prestigious Test match squad of the West Indies to play against India. Well, if he was fat-shamed, he would never have made it this big. Remember, simple experiences can teach us to be mindful of our bodies and strengthen our relationship with it

For your teen: Help your teen inculcate self-compassion and love towards her body by practicing body-positive affirmations. Some examples are given below:

  • My body deserves love
  • Just because someone looks perfect on the outside doesn’t mean they have a perfect life. The struggle is a part of our lives, and just what being human is
  • I feed my body nutritious food and give it nourishing exercise because it deserves to be taken care of

Expert speak

Judith Matz is a US-based clinical social worker and author of 3 books on weight issues: The Diet Survivor’s Handbook, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, and the children’s book Amanda’s Big Dream. In an exclusive interaction with ParentCircle, she explains:

“I’d gently like to suggest that the term ‘overweight’ is fat-shaming in itself. Over what weight? Who gets to decide what the proper weight is for someone? So many factors impact weight, and even if we all ate and exercised the same there would be a wide variety of body sizes. I prefer a weight-inclusive model that accepts the idea that there’s a wide range of body sizes. I tend to use the term ‘higher weight’ which is more neutral.

If your child is being fat-shamed, start by offering the same compassion you would to any other painful event in their life. Explain that people can be mean and that the problem is with the other person who doesn’t understand that bodies come in all sizes, or maybe is having a bad day himself. Brainstorm ways to respond to fat-shaming. Introducing books such as Amanda’s Big Dream can offer a way to help your child know that they are not alone, serve as a resource for teachers and other caretakers to send a message about body diversity, and model values of kindness, acceptance, and respect.”

2. Develop critical thinking

  • Talk about the representation of people in media. Have ongoing conversations with your child about how people are portrayed in the media, including TV soaps, movies and advertisements. A female lead actor mostly conforms to the stereotype of ‘tall, thin, and fair’ while her male counterpart is mostly tall, muscular, and has six-pack abs. Talk about how most media images are airbrushed, photo-shopped, or otherwise altered
  • Teach appreciation for diversity. Strictly avoid commenting on others’ appearance (say in a market or while looking at photos). Discourage body negative comments and jokes about their weight. Teach appreciation for all body sizes and shapes. Discuss how these outward characteristics tell nothing about a person’s character
  • For your teen: Talk to your teen about how being surrounded by idealized media representations may make her feel dissatisfied with her own body. Seek out, unconventional role models. Celebrities like Kate Winslet and Adele have spoken out against being fat-shamed and have never resorted to the ‘ideal’ body shape, despite immense pressure.

In the situation above, Melissa was fat-shamed by her peers on her blog. How could Melissa’s mother respond?

Response: Melissa’s mother could empathize with her daughter’s feelings and assure her that fat-shaming is not her fault. Melissa’s mother could talk to her daughter about the importance of loving one’s own body. She could encourage her to keep writing her blog and posting her photography. Now that she is aware of the fat-shaming situation, she could have ongoing discussions with Melissa about developing a critical perspective on the unrealistic, stereotypical images of bodies rampant in media today and how it impacts our minds. In a nutshell, she could sound very reassuring to her teen. She could also tell her to focus more on her overall health (both physical and mental) rather than focusing solely on her looks.

What’s RIGHT with this response: Melissa’s mother is helping her cope with this fat-shaming by working out how to respond to these people online. She is also helping Melissa understand the importance of good health over looks.

3. Develop positive ways of being fit

  • Focus on fitness, not weight. Talk to your child about how eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly and staying fit matters more than being fat or thin. Encourage your child to join sports or physical activities. Eat at least one meal together as a family
  • Encourage an active lifestyle. Adopt an active lifestyle as a family by choosing to walk short distances instead of using the vehicle, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Together, explore other positive ways to be active
  • Focus on talents and strengths. Focus on what makes your child mentally (as opposed to only physically) fit. Talk about your child’s strengths and talents and discuss how these make her unique and can help her face life’s most beautiful and challenging moments gracefully For your teen: Talk about the dangerous effects of being too thin or too bulky. Starving, crash dieting, binge eating and consuming diet pills or steroids are very unhealthy and carry harmful consequences. Similarly, exercising excessively will wear out your body and not give it the rest and replenishment it requires. Together with your teen you can watch documentaries of people who have fought eating disorders and the havoc starving, purging, or overexercising have played on their bodies.

In the situation above, Ron was being fat-shamed by his father. What should he do instead?

Calling Ron ‘fatso’ will not motivate Ron to start running. Also, equating exercise to losing weight won’t help. This sends Ron the message that exercise is punishment for eating the wrong foods and the main reason to exercise is to change your body. This makes children link lack of physical activity with being fat; it interferes with one’s natural love to move their bodies because it’s fun and feels good. Instead, the father could:

  • Participate in physical activities with Ron that involve moving his body (walking, swimming, gardening, etc.)
  • Teach Ron how to have a healthy relationship with food rather than referring to food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
  • Help Ron identify his strengths and talk about how to build on them. For example, does he have a good sense of humor? Writing skills? Talent for theatre? His father could help him hone his skills

While you can’t control all the messages your child gets in the media, on the playground and even from other adults in their lives, you can make sure you're not contributing to negative attitudes toward weight. In fact, you have help your child actively fight fat-shaming.

IN A NUTSHELL

  • Fat-shaming or weight-based teasing among higher-weight children and adolescents is worrying, but common
  • Weight‐based teasing is one of the most common reasons cited for bullying and victimization among children and adolescents
  • Multiple adverse outcomes are associated with exposure to weight-based teasing, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, suicidal ideation, lower physical activity and maladaptive eating behaviors
  • A fat-shamed child is likely to gain more weight if the situation is handled inappropriately
  • Parents can help their children deal with fat-shaming. They should help children develop positive ways to celebrate themselves

What you could do right away

  • Model body positivity to your child. Initiate an experiment in which you catch each other saying unkind things about each one’s own body or appearance
  • Talk to your child about how eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, and being fit are more important than being fat or thin
  • Enjoy fitness activities as a family, be it going for a walk together after dinner, or putting on music and dancing


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