The Fat Hate Starts Early
My son started kindergarten at the end of August, which means he’s only been in school for a bit over two months. I knew that I’d eventually have to deal with issues of fat shaming and weight stigma in school, but I certainly didn’t think it would be this soon. I know studies have shown that children even younger have demonstrated weight bias, but I thought I could overshadow social messages with my own body positivity at home. I’ve never hesitated to answer questions that my son has about why I’m fat, why some people are fat and some are thin, and I never show any shame in my body. I had never specifically seen or heard any negative body messages from him or his schoolmates, until recently when one of his peers called me “a fat ugly lady.”
My son was talking to another friend, so I don’t think he heard. This was handled pretty well by the teacher and I wasn’t personally hurt or offended (the kid’s only five after all). What concerned me more, and had me heating up my email, was when my son, later that same day, told me that candy would make you fat and fat is bad.
His PE teacher, trying to be positive about food (I give her total props for that), let the kids know that it’s okay to have food to celebrate something. You just have to exercise extra because too much fat and sugar can make you “overweight,” which can lead to being unhealthy as an adult. I’d hoped to hold off on telling him that teacher’s aren’t always right or knowledgeable about everything, but I couldn’t just let him think that information was correct. I told him that she was wrong and that she just didn’t know, so I would tell her.
Boy did I.
I emailed the PE teacher, the principal and the assistant principal (as well as CC’ed his teacher to keep her in the loop). Here’s what I wrote:
I hope that you take the time to really think about the information that I will present because I’m writing out of deep and grave concern for the children’s health, well being, and self esteem. Today two things happened that bothered me. Firstly, a child from my son’s class called me “a fat, ugly, lady” (this has already been addressed with the asst. principle) and, secondly, my son told me that his PE teacher told him that candy makes you fat and that being fat is bad. I see a direct link between what’s being taught and the comment from my son’s classmate. By focusing on weight instead of health, programs like this teach kids to hate their own bodies as well as hating other people because of their bodies. Weight bullying, stigma, and discrimination are serious problems. Children who are not only fat, but perceive themselves to be fat, are at a higher risk of suicide (1) as well as eating disorders (2). (I want to emphasize that fat doesn’t make these kids depressed or develop ED’s- rather, being shamed, stigmatized, discriminated against, and bullied puts them at a higher risk. Constantly being told their bodies are bad, wrong, and need to be changed is what puts them at a higher risk.) Not only that, but eating disorders are becoming a problem for younger children and more of them with boys quickly catching up to girls in this area. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness (3). These kids, who are being taught that being fat is bad, have fat parents, siblings, friends, classmates, teachers, or may be fat themselves. By falsely claiming that something like candy will make you fat and that fat is bad, you are setting kids up to bully and be bullied by placing stereotypes on these kids. A recent study found that fat kids ate less on average than thin kids (4). More so, no study has ever shown that certain behaviors result in thinness. In fact, studies done on genetics and weight show that weight is up to 80% inheritable (5).
So what’s my alternative? Teaching kids to eat healthy and be active for the fun of it. Because they want to be healthy and not because they want to be thin and not because they think fat is unhealthy- studies show that being fat but leading a healthy lifestyle leads to being as healthy as thin active people and more healthy than thin inactive people (6). Studies also show that people in the “overweight” category lived longer than “normal” weight people, “obese” people up to a BMI of 35 lived just as long as “normal” weight people, and “underweight” people lived the shortest (7). Now with that statistic, consider that 74% of women chose an ideal body that was 10-20% underweight (8). Basically, teach the same things- be healthy! be active! eat healthy foods! Just without any mention of weight whatsoever. Making weight loss the primary goal simply ensures that later in life they will see things like exercise and healthy eating as punishment or a chore rather than something to be enjoyed. In addition, by setting it up as a weight issue, kids (or later when they’re adults) who eat healthfully and exercise regularly who don’t become thin (and studies show that even healthy eating habits and regular exercise do not result in thinness) will believe that weight is the only thing that matters and give up on healthy lifestyles or simply push them to exercise more and eat less to greater and greater extremes- and thus you have the reason why kids who perceive themselves as ‘overweight’ are at a higher risk for eating disorders. These programs teach kids that it’s okay to not only judge a person by their appearance, but to assign moral value to health which results in many people with certain illnesses being stigmatized and since emotional health and well being are so incredibly important to overall physical health, it creates a vicious cycle.
The thing is- you can’t tell kids that fat is bad and then punish a kid for using fat as an insult. What are we teaching kids? That it’s okay to think these things but we can’t say them? The Academy for Eating Disorders has put out a statement specifically about anti-obesity programs in schools (9) which points out the dangers of these programs and ways to promote health without focusing on weight. NAAFA (the national association for fat acceptance) also has a pamphlet which you can print out, hand out, and discuss (10).
I know I’ve thrown a lot of studies and statistics out there, but this is an incredibly important issue and these methods are putting my son (as well as his friends and classmates) in danger. Because he’s not old enough to read the studies himself, to research the science himself, then it’s up to me and up to you all, to give him not only the correct information, but also to ensure his best chances at health and happiness. I hope for and expect a reply to this and to engage in an open discussion. I can certainly recommend more references, books, studies, etc. I’ve taken a lot of time to write this out in the most thoughtful and informative way I can think of so please take the time to really read through all of the arguments and information I’ve offered.
I know this reply wasn’t perfect, but I do hope that I can change something. I’ve gotten an apology from the PE teacher and am continuing to exchange emails with the principal who has forwarded my emails to the school nurse and the district health coordinator. Of course, when I’m in a fat-related jam I turn to you all. I’d like to hear experiences from others as well as additional resources, links, studies, and advice to pass on to school officials.