Reader Ashley wrote me with a question that is something that a lot of parents go through. She has given me permission to quote the question and answer it here:
I have a problem I don’t know how to deal with. I used to homeschool my kids and therefore outside pressures were extremely limited. However a few years ago I got very sick and am now disabled and had to enroll my kids in school. I’m sure you can imagine how much they’ve gotten the message that fat is an insult word. I do everything I can to fill them up with truths at home. I have a daughter who was a huge baby and has always been big and thick. She’s now 8 and is best friends with another girl at school who is larger than her. On the school bus my son called her best friend fat as an insult and made her cry.
This had be raging on many levels. First, that he would use his words to hurt somebody. But second, that he wielded the word “fat” as some great insult. I had a long talk with all my kids about it but I don’t know how to handle the mother of the child he called fat. I called her and left a message bc that’s what I would do in any case when my child is in the wrong. I had my son write an apology, careful though not to apologize for the word “fat” but rather for trying to be mean. If she calls be back and takes extreme issue with him calling her fat, how do I handle it? How do I scold my kid for being mean while telling him calling someone fat isn’t mean? His intent (self admittedly) was to be mean as revenge for something she said, so I was able to address it. But in the future, my kids may casually mention someone is chubby (bc I have taught them that is a descriptive word not an insult) but how do I handle any backlash?
I tell my kids commenting on anyone’s body is not necessary nor entirely appropriate, but I just don’t know how to navigate all these pitfalls.
This is so tough because there are so many layers to it. There’s kids being mean to each other which we obviously don’t want. But choosing to be mean to each other using fatphobia as a basis makes things much more complicated.
Ashley has done a great job creating a basis to have these difficult discussions. It’s important that we talk to kids about this. In this article I’ll focus on fatphobia and weight-based oppression, but of course we (we being especially people who are privileged and not affected by a particular marginalization) need to talk to our kids about racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and other types of oppression.
When it comes to fatphobia, it’s important that we try to immunize kids early and often from the weight-based oppression they will see and hear (and possibly experience) in the world (especially since stigmatizing fat children all too often passes for healthcare.) I’ve written before about specific ways to do that.
But once you’re kid has committed fat-shaming, you have to have a couple of different conversations. The first is about not being intentionally mean, the second about not being a bigot.
These two conversations are intertwined because you have to explain that not only was it wrong to be intentionally mean, but that there’s nothing wrong with being fat, and that by trying to use fat as an insult, then you are hurt all fat people. Explain that bodies come in lots of different sizes, shapes (abilities, and colors, genders) and no body is better than any other body. Explain that there are a lot of people who are confused about that – explain the concept of being prejudiced, and why it’s not something that you want to be.
This is a talk you’ll need to have over and over again because your kids are going to be bombarded with negative messages about fat people. At some point you’ll also want to talk about healthism since that’s so often used as a defense for fatphobia. Explain that there are healthy and unhealthy people of all sizes and that health is not an obligation, barometer of worthiness, entirely within our control, guaranteed under any circumstances, or something to tease someone about. Explain that while there’s nothing wrong with bodies of any size, some people are uncomfortable with having their bodies talked about and that there is almost never a need to comment on body size anyway.
To answer the question as to what to do if another parent contacts you because your kid fat-shamed their kid, this could be tricky because you don’t know what kind of fatphobia the other parent might harbor. I would make it clear immediately that you understand that there is nothing wrong with fat bodies – or bodies of any other size – and that you’ve made it clear to your kid that all bodies are good bodies and that being intentionally mean was wrong and is unacceptable.
We grew up in an increasingly fatphobic world. Kids now are growing up in an increasingly fatphobic world (that is also awash in racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other types of oppression) so it’s important – in addition to the work that parents of marginalized kids have to do to help them navigate the world – that we talk to kids early and often about their own privileges, how they can spot injustice and oppression, and things they can do to dismantle it, and help them find social justice warriors to be their role models. The more young activists we have, the better things will get.
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