By Katie Hurley
“Hello, I’m a fat person, fat, fat, fat.”
Taken out of context, these words, from the mouth of a 6-year-old female toy tester at the Mattel headquarters, are a bit jarring. They are the kind of words you hope your child won’t use out in the world. They are words laced with hurt and judgment.
For her Time cover story on the new and improved Barbie, Eliana Dockterman observed young girls at play with the new dolls. While the first child referenced was direct with her body comments, another girl attempted to spare the feelings of the doll by spelling out the word, “F-A-T.”
How do very young children learn to judge others by the shapes and sizes of their bodies? Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer. Between subtle messages in the home, the influence of media, peer interactions and the shrinking of childhood (many girls are growing up quickly these days), young girls consume and internalize countless messages about body image every single day.
Many parents know to be careful about the words they use when discussing their own bodies. We know, for example, that saying things like, “I feel fat today” or “do I look fat in these jeans?” sends harmful messages to young girls. Parents avoid those overt statements and replace them with comments about physical strength in an effort to teach young girls body confidence. But what about the most subtle statements that sometimes slip through the cracks?
Standing in line at Gap not long ago, I witnessed a mother-daughter conversation that sent a subtle, but powerful message about body image. A young girl, about 6 years old, ran up to her mother with a pair of winter gloves in her hands. “I found some but I don’t like them that much,” she stated, in that matter-of-fact tone kids of that age often use. “They make my fingers look too skinny.” She looked up her mom for confirmation. Her mother’s response took me by surprise. “That’s better than looking fat,” she uttered, without missing a beat.
Perhaps it was an isolated incident. We’ve all experienced impatient moments and bad days and sometimes we respond before we consider the potential impact of the response. But what if it wasn’t an isolated incident? What if that message was one of many?
For years, I worked with a young girl who struggled with body image, self-esteem, and anxiety. Her home life was defined by a seemingly endless discussion on weight gain, weight loss, exercise and fad diets.
Ever on a quest to find the perfect diet, her mother constantly removed foods from the house and talked obsessively about calories, sugars and “bad” foods. Don’t get me wrong; her mother had good intentions. Maintaining a healthy weight was a lifelong struggle for her, and she wanted to make the challenge easier for her daughter.
The body and diet talk was overwhelming for this young girl, however, and she developed her own coping strategy to combat the negative emotions she experienced almost daily: sneak eating. She saved her coins to purchase snacks from the school vending machine and ate them in the dark of night. In doing so, she lived up to her own carefully constructed self-fulfilling prophecy: a young girl powerless over the lure of junk food.
Recent findings show that kids as young as 32 months pick up on fat shaming attitudes of their moms, and a report released by Common Sense Media reveals that half of the girls and one-third of the boys between 6 and 8 think their ideal weight is thinner than their current size. It’s time to consider how we talk to kids about body image.
It’s easy to set a few rules around body talk, including removing “fat” from your vocabulary and not commenting on the size or shape of someone else’s body. Where it gets complicated, however, is when your daughter comes home with difficult questions. “Am I fat?” or “will I get fat if I eat this?” speak volumes about the inner struggle of a young child.
Cara Natterson, a pediatrician, and New York Times bestselling author of The Care and Keeping series has some great tips on talking body image with young girls.
“I have always felt that the most important thing a parent can do is, to be honest,” explains Natterson. “But when there is an issue – particularly around weight – it can be incredibly difficult to walk the fine line between protecting your child and being truthful.”
How should parents handle questions and concerns about body image? Start here:
Answer the question with a question
Natterson suggests using conversation starters to help children uncover the feelings beneath the surface. She suggests, “What makes you ask that question?” as a starting point. “This is seriously the BEST answer because it allows your child to explain where the concern is coming from,” Natterson explains.
It’s important to keep the dialogue open. When we jump in with solutions to “fix” the problem, we close down the conversation. To help young girls work through these difficult topics and overwhelming emotions, we need to listen more than we talk.
Watch your words
Words like “fat” and “chubby” are sometimes used in jest to describe animals in books, toys or other fictional characters. While that seems harmless at the moment, it can send mixed messages. Sometimes the subtle messages internalized early on can lead to negative thinking later on.
Emily Roberts, psychotherapist and author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are, cautions parents to choose their words carefully. “Don’t fat shame, weight shame or categorize others by their weight,” says Roberts, “This sends the message that their weight is what you see, not their character.”
Talk about strengths
Children need to feel heard and understood. To that end, it’s important to listen to your daughter’s concerns about body image. Empathize with her and talk about what it feels like to struggle with the emotional and physical changes that naturally occur as children grow. Then steer the conversation toward the positive.
It is imperative that young girls hear body positive messages. Talk about physical strength and what their bodies can do for them (hanging from those monkey bars isn’t easy, after all). Educate them about healthy eating and playful exercise. Cook meals together and helps your daughters take control of their own health so that will internalize a positive message: They have the power to live healthy and happy lives. That’s a message worth sharing.
Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator in Los Angeles, and the author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, Practical Parenting.