Do you avoid the ‘f’ word? | Talking to kids about obesity

Lately, my nearly 9-year old son has become obsessed with body weight. Not his own, mind you. Everybody else’s.

talking to kids about obesity

It all started with a trip to the vet’s. Our ginger cat was due for his annual well-pet visit and the children wanted to tag along. Having never weighed him at home, we were surprised (well, sort of surprised, okay, not really surprised) when the vet told us that at 19.4 lbs, he was overweight and needed to be put on a diet.

Since then, my son constantly refers to the cat as ‘chubby’, ‘obese’, ‘fatty catty’ and ‘big butt’. While that cat doesn’t seem to mind (he’s wary of A. at the best of times), it bothers me to hear him use those words so comfortably when describing another living being (even if it is just the cat).

Recently, he’s taken to pointing out overweight people when we’re out in public. Most of this time, thankfully, it’s from behind the sound-proof glass of our car. Every now and then, he uses his ‘inside voice’ when we’re out in public.

I’ve had many quiet chats with him about why we don’t call people names and draw attention to their physical appearance (‘if you don’t have anything nice to say about somebody, don’t say anything at all’). He doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with it, as he’s just stating the truth (‘just the facts ma’am’), as we’ve always taught him to.

I worry about this behaviour for several reasons:

  • there is one very obese child at his school who’s been a victim of both school yard and cyber bullying about his weight (his mother is a friend of mine and is working hard with him to modify his diet and help him to lose weight in a healthy manner) and I want my son to understand what can happen when people stigmatize others based on appearances
  • I have a pre-teen daughter who already has food issues (although she currently has no issues with her body, the teenage years are tough on girls and I know very few women who managed to escape them without developing negative thoughts about their weight)
  • ‘fattism’ is all around us. By now you’ve all heard about the Abercrombie and Fitch debacle. While many people were outraged upon hearing this story, I believe that negative images of and attitudes about overweight people are much more prevalent than we’d like to let on (just the other day I ‘unfollowed’ a fellow fitness peep who posted a pair of photos on Instagram, one depicting an overweight women stuffing cupcakes in her mouth, the other showing a lean, curvaceous woman posing provocatively in a bikini;  the caption below read ‘you can either eat delicious or look delicious’)

We don’t use either the ‘f’ word or the ‘d’ word at home.

While we do talk about the health benefits of maintaining an appropriate weight for your height and regularly discuss the merits of eating whole, unprocessed foods (usually when one child or another is trying to convince me to buy something I don’t consider a healthy option while grocery shopping), we try hard not to vilify certain foods or make judgements about people who eat them (who doesn’t enjoy a cupcake, now and then?).

Am I being overly sensitive to language? How do you talk to your children about body weight, obesity, and body image? Do you discourage them from using the words ‘fat’ and ‘diet’? Have you ever noticed them adopting ‘fattist’ attitudes? How does one avoid it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about talking to kids about obesity.

Please add to the conversation by leaving a comment below!


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  1. Great post – I don’t have children but I have a 13 year old niece who is overweight and luckily has not been bullied. The author Jennifer Weiner wrote a great piece on this (as she struggles with her weight). I blogged about it here:
    Erica @ erica finds recently posted…Get ‘Appy with Help from Daily Candy, A Funny & Deals!My Profile

    • Erica, thanks for the link up. I’m heading over there shortly to take a piece. I love Jennifer Weiner’s books so am interested in what she has to say about it all.

  2. Such a hard thing!! My youngest son had a couple of years where he was one of the biggest kids in his grade. He was bothered by it (and I think kids teased him about his stomach some) but we tried not to make it a huge deal. We try to eat fairly healthy and limit the junk so we just kept on doing what we do. This past year he had a major growth spurt and shot up several inches which has helped him a lot!
    Occasionally he called himself fat and I always tried to tell him he wasn’t and that he would get taller…..
    Always hard since like your son said he’s telling the truth like y’all have taught him so what do you do??
    Kim recently posted…Ummm…I Don’t Jog!!!My Profile

    • I think you’re right. We need to not over-focus on it. And it’s very true, kids don’t grow ‘up’ at the same rate they grow ‘out’.

  3. Certain words were not allowed in our household when my daughter was young; fat. hate, and stupid were chief among them.

    Her mother and I never made point to discuss obesity, or exercise for that matter. We just tried to set a good example, and let the overall lesson to be about not being judgmental — regardless of what about.

    In the internet age though, it becomes so much harder to have influence over a child’s values. This is a tough one…
    Contemplative Fitness recently posted…An Open Letter To Leaders In The Fitness Community….My Profile

    • I love this Roy. In my house those words aren’t allowed too, and it may seem a bit old-fashioned in this day and age but I hold firm.
      Suzanne @WorkoutNirvana recently posted…Building Your Glutes with Barbell Hip ThrustsMy Profile

    • Roy and Suzanne, we must all have grown up in the same house (or at least the same time period 😉 ). ‘Stupid’ was referred to as the ‘s’ word and something we never, ever called one another or ourselves without punishment.

      The internet does make it more difficult to control the information and attitude our children have access to. I’m hoping that the baselines of love, gratitude, generosity and compassion that we’ve tried to instil in our kids will win out in the long run.

  4. I do not have my own children, but I am high school teacher . . . and witness teens struggling with food, weight and self esteem. For me, it comes down to being the best role model I can be. I refer to all things in moderation, loving to eating lots of fruits and veggies, cooking at home, my favorite snacks, enjoying being active and working out. I’ve noticed that many students actually have questions about some of this, and will often ask me to talk about something further. So, I guess, I try and lead by example. 🙂
    Michelle @ Eat Move Balance recently posted…Mushroom Quinoa “Risotto”My Profile

    • Michelle, YES! Lead by example and always be open to having those conversations. We never really know who’s watching and listening, right?

  5. Carleigh says:

    I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with those words in and of themselves. The problem is with the way they are used. Kids know the words exist and if those words are not allowed, kids will start to associate them with being ‘bad’ and therefore associate people who they see exhibiting those characteristics with being ‘bad.’ Kids call them like they see them and I personally believe that the focus should be on viewing someone’s weight as only one small aspect of their appearance instead of ignoring it. When my niece or nephews would call someone fat, skinny, or anything else physical, I would always say “what else are they?” Are they tall or short? Blonde or brunette? Do they look happy or sad? After awhile, they stopped pointing out people’s weight and classifying people that way because they realized that it was just one physical trait and not anything special. At that point, it was much easier to teach them how much more fun and constructive it is to look at people’s personalities and observe how kind, friendly, giving, and funny people are. Sorry for the long comment, but it is definitely a difficult topic to navigate nowadays. Good luck finding the right solution for your family!

    • Carleigh, I LOVE your response. Take the conversation deeper. I am going to shift my focus in that direction rather than always repeating they ‘why we don’t call people names’ argument (which, I fear, is starting to fall on deaf ears from repetition)

    • Yes! I love what you say, Carleigh.

      Fat isn’t a bad word and I think by avoiding it, you’re adding to the shame of it. Kate Harding is one of my favourite writers on fat acceptance and she has and EXCELLENT piece about this very thing.

      “So when they say “You’re not fat,” what they really mean is “You’re not a dozen nasty things I associate with the word fat.” The size of your body is not what’s in question; a tape measure or a mirror could solve that dispute. What’s in question is your goodness, your lovability, your intelligence, your kindness, your attractiveness. And your friends, not surprisingly, are inclined to believe you get high marks in all those categories. Ergo, you couldn’t possibly be fat.

      But I am. I am cute and healthy and pleasant-smelling (usually) and ambitious and smart and lovable and fun and stylish and friendly and outgoing and categorically not icky. And I am fat — just like I’m also short, also American, also blonde (with a little chemical assistance). It is just one fucking word that describes me, out of hundreds that could. Those three little letters do not actually cancel out all of my good qualities.”
      shannon recently posted…how to poo in front of your partnerMy Profile

      • Shannon, thanks so much for this very important contribution to the discussion. Yes! It is the underlying meanings of the word that I worry about and the focus on just one aspect of a person (an aspect that has health implications, but says nothing about their character etc.)

        Thanks for the link. Heading over to check it out now!

  6. Man oh man this is an important topic. I’m with you, pictures depicting overweight people in a negative light are out of line, no matter what the “message.” I once posted a picture of a woman who had “thigh gap” and was roundly whipped into line… this can go both ways.

    I also think this is a kid culture thing – it’s ok to ridicule obese people in school. My 9-year-old has also in the past made comments that indicated she didn’t quite respect people who were overweight. She reads her dad’s old Garfield comics and of course “fat jokes” are rampant there. But it’s just not tolerated around here and I of course don’t model that behavior. (Though it doesn’t help when grandma makes comments, ugh.) I haven’t heard her say anything to that effect in a long time, so maybe the message got through.
    Suzanne @WorkoutNirvana recently posted…Building Your Glutes with Barbell Hip ThrustsMy Profile

    • Suzanne, wow! Didn’t think about that ‘thigh gap’ photo as being the flip side of the argument.

      You’re right, culture is also a big part of it (and my kids love Garfield, who my cat actually kind of resembles…)

  7. Like many parents, I have discussions with my kids about accepting everyone as they are, and I focus on healthy eating not calorie content. But I also discuss with them how society makes it very difficult for overweight people to lose weight. Far too much temptation, choice, and manipulation of ingredients by food manufacturers. I don’t want my kids (or others) to put the blame entirely on the individual, because there is more to the story than lack of willpower. Great post, Tamara!
    Carrie Rubin recently posted…The Six Train Entertains Me While Grandma H Reads MindsMy Profile

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  9. Man this one hit home. My son is shall we say “underweight” Meaning he is skin and bones just like his mommy and daddy were at his age. However this is not the norm either and he is self conscious. I have been pumping him up about how he is healthy that he now has been taking to determine those that are not thin are not healthy. Clearly not my intention. He has an overweight friend and makes comments about his weight. It’s so hard because it is a reality. But we talk about being supportive, not hurting people feelings, etc. I remind him how it bothers him when people call him skinny. It is a work in progress and to be honest one I need to work on well.

    • Interesting that ‘underweight’ kids would get the same sort of treatment. I really hate the word ‘skinny’ as it has such an unhealthy, negative connotation.
      And yes, we all need to work on our own inner voices as well; reminding ourselves that just like it’s not okay to call others names, it’s also not okay to call OURSELVES names 🙂

  10. I have 4 daughters and we have been very careful to NOT use the F word and NOT talk negatively about our own bodies. However, they are getting to an age where they’re noticing how different other people look and the discussion has come up. We tried to explain that how a persons body looks depends on a lot of factors, overall health, food, exercise and possible disease. I use that moment to try to teach them the importance of balance in life and putting HEALTH first.
    Tiffany recently posted…Life Is Good #95My Profile

    • Tiffany, yes, always looking for those teachable moments, aren’t we? The things I never thought I’d have to contend with when I first became a parent…

  11. I LOVE THIS POST!!! As one that was made fun of as a kid – both weight & being Jewish, I so get how you want to teach your kids about this! It is so tough nowadays with social media & media in general (as you read in my post today). We can’t escape this bombardment to tell people they need to be better, thinner, prettier & more – good ole media in general. It was bad when I was young but nothing like now & of course bullying is now in person & on the internet. – UGH!

    I watched that Katie show I referenced in my post today & they were discussing how to talk to a child that is overweight or concerned about it.

    It is all so hard & kids learn this stuff from their peers too so as hard as we try in the home, well, it is out there…

    I guess all we can do is try our best & be open & discuss like you do in your home…

    Jody – Fit at 55 recently posted…Comment on I AM ENOUGH – What’s BeautifulMy Profile

  12. Such an important discussion. I think you are on the right track and I think you should stay with it. Would the conversation mean more to him if he had it with his Father? I don’t know… just a suggestion.

    I am curious now… does your D word rhyme with FORK?

    • Elle, the D word is ‘diet’! My kids would never use the word dork; way to retro for them!
      Not sure that having Dad speak to him would help; I’m the main disciplinarian in our house and they tend to listen to me more…

  13. I like Carliegh’s idea a lot. My kids are older now. My son is active and healthy, and I can talk to him about food choices without concern. My daughter has been through food issues and so I try hard to just bite my tongue whether I think she’s eating too much junk or not eating much of anything, and be supportive in other ways.
    Coco recently posted…What I Ate Wednesday (Vitalicious Review)My Profile

  14. I was a biggish kid who was occasionally teased. I can remember thinking, “I won’t always be big, but you will most likely always be mean and stupid.” It’s a tough one, because you want your son to be aware that being healthy and fit is largely a choice, and one you hope he makes, but of course you never want him to ridicule anyone else. I think maybe just have a chat with him and let him know that the “big kid” is already aware of it – he doesn’t need anyone else to point it out, and that we all sometimes struggle with different things. With some kids it’s weight, others have problems reading, some are socially awkward – but no one wants to have their faults pointed out to them. I would go so far as to encourage your son to stand up for the “fat kid” or the “stupid kid” or “the gay kid,” to go out of his way to let those kids know that they have someone in their corner, that he could really make a positive difference in their lives by squelching others negative chatter. Labeling others is hurtful and mean. And I’m sure he’s a smart boy and wouldn’t want anyone attaching “the mean kid” label to him.
    Gaye recently posted…Me and My Fancy-Schmancy New Trek Lexa SLXMy Profile

  15. I have 4 kids in a wide range of ages plus we have done some fostering. They always seem to find people that are different. Some times that is good, and other ties it’s challenging. I am of the mind that it’s a lot less about what we say, and much more about how we say it.

    Kids will always find ways to be mean to other kids. As a parent and ex-school teacher, those are the front lines of shaping kids behaviors and attitudes towards any issue.

    I am an ex-fat guy (obese, overweight, huge) and heart disease almost killed me. I think the real discussion needs to be about health and fitness along with a huge dose of kindness.

  16. Such a great post Tamara and I LOVE Carleigh’s response too! I need to remember that. Like you, it makes me really uncomfortable when I hear my son refer to someone as fat or makes comments about appearances. I want them to look beyond people’s appearance, almost like it’s not there, you know? Not something to judge people by but Carleigh’s response is making me think that maybe I’m doing the opposite in how I react – maybe I’m drawing more attention to the issue. It was so much easier when my children didn’t speak! haha. Just kidding 🙂
    Christine @ Love, Life, Surf recently posted…Fitness Magazine Blogger Meet and Tweet 2013My Profile

  17. My father was horrible to my mother– always calling her fat and being rude and measuring obese people in public about the ‘ax handle’ size of their rears. It’s no wonder with the disordered eating patterns I was taught I suffered from an eating disorder. That in turn through my hormones out of whack so I haven’t been able to get pregnant and actually gained 5 lbs on estrogen/ progesterone treatments. Where before I was super lean (think bikini figure competitor), now I’m…not. It’s hard not to refer to myself as fat or to mourn my lost abs, but it was a great lesson that it’s not healthy to be obese, but it’s not healthy to beat your body down through diets and over-excercise either.
    Blond duck recently posted…Us Again 12My Profile

  18. I am fat because I am lazy. I know from twenty years of experimenting that if I exercise about an hour a day, to the point of sweating for most of that, I lose weight without starving. My diet is good – I lived with a nutritionist for a year and a half and she was surprised that I am able to maintain my fatty weight given that I eat healthily (vegetarian no dairy and mostly produce) and not too much. I don’t binge, I don’t need to diet (given that my diet is already great), but I do need to exercise every day. But I don’t. I watch tv. I play video games. I spend hours cruising the internet. On weekends off or vacations, I opt for the non-sweating activities. I don’t like sports or bike riding or hiking or even walking around new places. There it is. Fat, lazy, but no bad food choices. Another twist on the fat causes.
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