What Kids Hear About Fat

by Lizabeth Wesely-Casella

What Kids Hear About Fat

Credit: iStockphoto/Nick Schlax

Credit: iStockphoto/Nick Schlax

I’ve been hearing a lot of cranky comments lately about “…it’s for their own good” and “…they need to suck it up and get a thicker skin” as it relates to the supposed “right” to comment on the size or shape of a stranger’s body.  While I have very strong feelings about the inappropriateness of these comments, when they are made about children I find that I must swallow my anger and grip as tightly as I can to my long held belief that education and proximity can overcome reactionary convenience (read, SNARK).

Here’s the premise that I’m working off of in order to make my point.  Kids are vulnerable because they 1. Want to be accepted if not loved; 2. Have a basic understanding of the information they’ve been surrounded by, and 3. Hear more than we give them credit for.

With those tenets in place, and assuming that this is not a conversation about intentional psychological abuse, this is a good place to remind adults who are speaking about “fat kids” and the “obesity epidemic rampant in our schools” that the people who feel the most hurt when hearing scary and negative phrases like that, are our kids.  The one’s we’re talking ‘about’ thought not ‘to’.

Regardless of how you or I feel about the overall health of the younger generation, before we espouse our views, let’s (and I mean ‘let us ALL’ – myself included) make it really personal.  Instead of thinking about kids as a generic set of “others”, think of kid – your kid, your nephew, your niece, and ask yourself what they hear when they hear the words “fat” and “obese” and compound those feelings with phrases like “war on” and “outside of acceptable limits”.

One of the consistent themes that I’ve run across during my work with leaders in a diversity of communities speaks to the fact that children associate some of the worst possible personality traits and social outcomes with the words “fat” and “obese”.  Today, the younger generation no longer thinks of fat as simply a descriptor for shape or a biological substance, they equate it to lazy, bad, evil, undisciplined, uneducated, unacceptable and unlovable.  When they hear “fat” they do not hear that a person is fat shaped, they hear that a person is unworthy of respect and acceptance, consequently, if they think they are “fat, they believe those same negative qualities about themselves.

If the ‘takeaway’ information from our comments is that fat is negative in every possible way, what does the child who is told they are fat think?  Additionally, in a growing body, being “healthy” is more complex than size, shape or (the dreaded, misused and scientifically questionable) BMI.  The reality is, the random comment assessing the overall health of another person is based more in judgment than fact and those comments are harmful – not just annoying or hurtful, but that they are actual eating disorder causing, malnutrition inducing, body acceptance diminishing harmful.

Do we assume that children are capable of constructing the argument that they ‘have the substance fat on their body, which may or may not be a healthy part of their overall body composition because weight, especially in children is incredibly complex’?  Or do we find it more likely that the child thinks, ‘I AM fat.  I AM the embodiment of the negative things I associate with fat.  I am not good and I am not worthy of respect and acceptance and people want to get rid of me.’?  Considering children have a limited set of experiences to work with, black and white thinking is the tendency, meaning the equation of ‘you are fat = you are bad’ is generally how their minds work.  How doe they try to solve this problem?  They reason out that ‘fat comes from food so I’ll exert my only form of control and NOT eat’, beginning a pattern of disordered eating and in turn increasing the likelihood of falling into the grip of an eating disorder.

So now, without belaboring the point, and with the hope that this is a quick reminder that ‘the fat kids’ isn’t a nebulous group who can’t hear you and whom you don’t profoundly affect, lets (again, this is not a sermon, this is encouragement for ALL of us) consider whether saying the unkind phrase or having righteous indignation toward a gathering of children is the best way to make the change you want to see.

Keeping in mind that we sell a good many programs, products and concepts by invoking “the next generation”, maybe treating them  with kindness and meeting them intellectually ‘where they’re at’  is more in line with our true feelings than waging war or causing them to develop that “thicker skin” that speaking about them carelessly can cause.

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