'Fat Talk' reframes how to talk to kids about weight in a dieting world

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Research shows that children between the ages of 3 and 5 have already learned to equate the word "fat" with negative traits. ] Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

By the time they reach kindergarten, most kids have learned that "fat" is a bad word. As we grow up internalizing our culture's beauty standards, it's impossible not to notice all the privileges that come with thinness. Add in relentless marketing from the multibillion-dollar weight loss industrial complex and a medical system that pushes weight loss as the cure for ailments with little or no connection to body size, and it's no wonder that many people, including young children, pursue thinness with an obsessive devotion that has little to do with actual health.

At a time when the CDC is advocating bariatric surgery for children, the time is ripe for conversations around body size and our value as people — especially when it comes to how adults lead children through the heinous maze of diet culture. In her book "Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture," Virginia Sole-Smith argues that we should worry less about the "childhood obesity epidemic" and spend more time supporting kids in the bodies they have.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

KCRW: How early do children start to look at their bodies with a critical eye informed by others and the media?

Virginia Sole-Smith: It's so early. Research shows that between the ages of three and five, children are learning to equate the word "fat" with all sorts of negative traits. And by elementary school, they're starting to be more concretely anxious about their own bodies. I think this really shocks parents. Often, I hear from parents, "I don't know how to talk about this, because I don't want to give her something to worry about." 

But the truth is, they're absorbing this from everything around them, and even from really well-intended things. Like if your toddler in the grocery store points out a fat lady and says, "Mama, look at her fat tummy," parents rush in and say, "Don't say fat, don't say fat, that's not nice." Then right away, even though you're trying to ease them through an awkward moment, you're also telling them that fat is not an okay way to be.

You write that because we've tangled health, beauty, and morality all together, "preventing or reversing fatness has become our culture's passion project, our spiritual calling, and our most popular national pastime." You also say that this leads parents to experience fat-phobia as a kind of terror. Can you expand on that?

Anti-fat bias is this set of preconceived notions we have, the judgments we make when we see someone in a bigger body and we think we understand their eating habits, their lifestyle habits, their work ethic, all these negative connotations we associate with fat. None of that is necessarily true about a fat person any more than it's true about any other person. These are stereotypes, this is bias. But it brings with it a ton of judgment and a ton of really negative consequences. 

Our culture does treat fat people worse than thin people. We know that fat people earn less money at jobs, they're less likely to get hired, less likely to get promoted, they have a harder time accessing health care, even access to public spaces, and the ability to buy clothes in their size. All of that can be so much more fraught. So for parents, there is a fear because we don't necessarily want our kids to experience that. 

If we grew up with that ourselves, we know about the bullying that can happen, we know about the stigmatization, and we want to protect our kids from that. We also want to protect ourselves because parents face a tremendous amount of judgment if they're the parent of a child in a bigger body, especially if they're in a bigger body themselves. But the problem is, because of the way the culture has taught us to think about fatness, we then zero in on trying to prevent or change fatness. We try to control the child's weight, we try to control our own weight, instead of saying, “This whole system is wrong.” We want to work on making the world safer for our children's bodies and our own bodies.

There is definitely a way of eating that can be seen as virtue signaling, especially if you do it via a plant-based, locally sourced, whole foods diet as some kind of virtuous, socially responsible act, like limiting your child's screen time or saving for college. It just complicates everything.

It really does. And it's because we've got thinness tangled in there where it doesn't need to be. If we were just talking about nutrition in the sense of, "How do we raise kids who feel confident around trying different foods? How do we raise kids who can experience joy in foods, and also understand how different foods feel in their bodies?" That would all be fine. That would be a pretty unbiased way to engage with food. You could then decide for yourself, "I feel good when I eat salad some days, but some days, I really do want the cheeseburger." You could interact with food in this very not fraught way. 

But because the pursuit of thinness is embedded into how we think about nutrition, when parents are thinking about how to feed their kids, they have all this added pressure. They're thinking, "If I get this wrong, I'm gonna end up with a fat child and that's going to be so terrible. That's going to lead to all these consequences." This is what leads us down a really dangerous path, because we know for kids [of] all body sizes, the number one predictor of future eating disorder risk is experiences of weight-based shame or teasing and childhood dieting. A really restrictive approach to how you feed your kids can amount to both of those things.

"Because we've tangled health, beauty, and morality all together, preventing or reversing fatness has become our culture's passion project, our spiritual calling, and our most popular national pastime," writes author Virigina Sole-Smith. Photo by Gabrielle Gerard Photography.

Who did you talk to for the book, besides experts?

I did a lot of interviews with researchers of all stripes — obesity researchers, weight stigma researchers, nutrition folks, pediatricians. That's the expert column. But the people I really wanted to hear from and, in fact, the way I started every chapter before I would do those expert interviews, was with real families, real parents and kids who are navigating this, whether they have a child with an eating disorder, a parent with an eating disorder, a child in a bigger body, sometimes with an eating disorder — the whole range of experiences. I really tried to include as much diversity as I could in terms of race and ethnicity, gender identities, etc. 

Too often, when we hear about eating disorders, we automatically picture a thin, white, teenage girl. Then when we hear about the "childhood obesity crisis," we automatically picture a fat kid and probably a brown or Black kid. I wanted to help us collapse these things, because one of the biggest problems we have here is how all the rhetoric on the "war on childhood obesity" has led us to be okay with eating-disordered behaviors from kids in bigger bodies. We are like, “Well, they're on the right track, we want them to lose weight.” The same things that would be a red flag in a thin, white teenage girl, it's fine if it's a 10-year-old boy doing it in a bigger body. That's really terrible and really dangerous for kids' health.

Can you talk a little bit more about fatness in its intersectionality?

Anti-fat bias is really rooted in anti-Black racism in this country when we trace it back and look at the rise of modern diet culture. Throughout history, we've had rigid body ideals. Every culture in the world has had rigid body ideals. That's not new. But in the United States, at the end of slavery, at the end of the 19th century, we see media representations of ideal bodies getting much thinner. We also see the medical community starting to praise thinness and demonize fatness in the literature. 

The other thing that's happening at that same time is this massive cultural shift where Black people are no longer enslaved, so the white people in power are trying to preserve the social hierarchy. It makes sense that you would start to really idealize a thin, white body in order to demonize and other larger Black and brown bodies. It's really useful to understand our current body ideals as coming from that. 

What that also means is all of our understanding about weight and health is rooted in that same bias. The bias predates the current research on obesity. So all of the scientific understandings we've been grappling with over the last 40 years, all that research was conducted from a place of "fatness is bad," "fat bodies are bad." That does really impact how the science is getting done and what questions aren't getting asked.

Let's talk about puberty, the focus of a chapter in your book. It seems that puberty is coming earlier than ever, at least for girls, and often does so regularly for Black girls. Could you talk a bit about that and if this situation affects girls more than boys?

It does seem to affect girls more than boys, or girls and gender nonconforming kids, I should say, because of the way we have conflated anti-fatness, anti-Blackness, and misogyny. It's all intersecting here. As girls start puberty and begin to develop, it is biologically necessary for them to put on a significant amount of body fat. You cannot start menstruating if you don't have adequate body fat. So girls often have this really rapid growth spurt starting at age 9, 10, 11. Lots of kids look like they're getting rounder rather than getting just overall bigger. This is often a moment when parents and pediatricians really freak out. 

I cannot tell you how many people I've interviewed, who say their eating disorder struggle started at their 10-year-old wellness checkup, when the doctor grabbed their belly or made a comment about cutting out junk food or switching to skim milk, or something that completely reduced the child to their body size and made them feel like, “My body is this huge problem to solve.” 

We're alienating kids from their bodies at this time when puberty is fraught and challenging in so many ways. The last thing we need to do is make kids feel like they're more at war with their body during that time. We should instead be really normalizing the fact that bodies change, but you are still you. Puberty is this big set of changes, but there may also be pregnancy, there may also be injury or disability, there may be aging. We're all going to change if we get to keep living. So we should really be embracing the idea that bodies change.

You talk very powerfully about why we should expect children to take up more space, physically and metaphorically, as they go through puberty, even down to the fact that our organs grow.

I think [we need to be] helping kids understand the absolute magic that is happening in their bodies at that stage. But we're really uncomfortable with the idea that people we want to think of as little girls are starting to look like women. We especially see this stigma being weaponized against Black girls. There's lots of research showing they get sexualized much younger, they get accused of bad behavior [that] white peers get away with much more. 

They're adultified because of their bodies. So what we really need to do is change our understanding of what a "little girl" looks like and understand that a 10-year-old may be in a bra and they're still a 10-year-old. They still deserve all the support and care that you would give any 10-year-old. They are not an adult, they are not ready to take on all of that.

"Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture" argues that in an attempt to combat childhood obesity, society has created a secondary crisis of disordered eating and body hatred within children. Photo courtesy of Henry Holt and Co.

Cognitive development isn't in step with early reproductive development. How has the punitive measuring stick of BMI made all of this more complicated?

BMI is, to be honest with you, a trash measurement for health, especially for children. It doesn't take into account puberty development stages. When you see kids developing earlier than their peers, they're going to be ranked higher on the BMI chart, but they're just on a different point of their growth trajectory. It's not anything to pathologize. 

The first thing we do at a doctor's visit — and this is true for adults, too — is we all get on the scale and then we get classified on that BMI chart. The doctor immediately walks in and interacts with us as a BMI number instead of as a whole person. We've seen this really lead to folks with higher BMIs being more likely to be turned away from certain medical procedures. They're less likely to get referred for testing, the entire conversation the doctor wants to have is about weight loss, weight loss, weight loss. Meanwhile, you came in for knee pain or a sinus infection or something that you need actual intervention on, and they want you to go away and lose 50 pounds before you actually seek treatment. 

Fat folks are more likely to doctor shop because they experience such stigmatizing care. They're more likely to put off going to the doctor. I heard from lots of people who, after that appointment where the doctor says the stigmatizing thing, just try to not go for several years. And, of course, when you're avoiding preventive healthcare, that can take a toll on your health because you're sicker by the time you finally get there. So it's a really critical piece of it. We think of BMI as this barometer of health, but it's actually become an enormous barrier to accessing healthcare for way too many people.

Have you done any research or spoken to parents in the course of your work, beyond this particular book, about the way in which getting children involved in preparing food can also mitigate negative feelings?

I have done some reporting around that, and I think there are a couple of ways to think about it. If you're thinking, "I want to get my child involved in cooking food with me because I want them to eat vegetables," and underpinning that with "I want them to eat vegetables because I don't want them eating junk food because I want them to be thin," I think it's going to be no more useful than any other strategy. When that underlying goal is thinness, we ended up in the same place that we're talking about. 

But if you're thinking about it as a way to help a cautious eater expand their palette on their own terms, if you're thinking about it as a way to just bond with your kid because you get a lot of joy out of preparing food and it's something you can do with them, that's a totally different conversation. I think that can make food a really joyful place. That's fundamentally what we want our kids to experience around food — connection and love, and understanding food as a way to be in community. Cooking together can be wonderful, but I do think there are often some unrealistic expectations and standards around this.

I remember interviewing an expert about screen time for a parenting piece I was writing several years ago. He was really strict about minimal screen time for kids. And I was like, "Well, what am I supposed to do while I'm cooking dinner on a Wednesday night with my two-year-old, because I gotta get dinner on the table and letting her watch TV is how I'm achieving this goal?" He was like, "Well, have her cook with you. Give her a bag of flour, let her make a giant mess in the kitchen." 

I was just thinking, that's fine on a rainy Saturday when we don't have anywhere to be, but when I'm doing the weeknight dinner rush and we've got bedtime and we're all stressed out, the last thing I need is to let my kid make a huge mess with a bag of flour. So it's a lot of things here. It can be wonderful. It can be connection. It can also be added pressure and be unrealistic for the needs of your family on any given night. Letting people just make their own calls about that feels really important to me.