Fat-shaming children and adolescents is becoming a common phenomenon. Worryingly, it can lead to serious psychological consequences. Read on to find out why
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.
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.
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 -
You can help your child deal with fat-shaming and develop a positive body image in the following ways:
• 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:
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.”
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.
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:
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
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