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Body Shame Hurts

September 11, 2012

When I was a kid, starting at about age 9, my step-mother used to sit me down for very serious talks about how if I didn’t stop eating so many Oreos, I was going to end up fat just like my mom. “You aren’t fat,” she’d say. “Yet.”

I also wasn’t graceful and slender and beautiful like my two sisters, neither of whom got the Oreo talks. The three of us were Cheryl Tiegs, Brooke Shields, and the-girl-who-would-get-fat.

Looking back from the vantage point of 25-ish years in the future, I choose to believe that my step-mother honestly thought she was doing the right thing. I don’t think (I really hope) that it wasn’t her intention to hurt me. But that’s what happened. I became hyper-focused on my weight. I would look in the mirror, even in elementary school, and see a belly that wasn’t flat enough, boobs that were too big, and a body that just took up way too much space.

I cannot believe that my step-mother knew, throughout the 1980s, the full extent of the damage her shaming would do. I do think she was smart enough to know, however, that sitting a kid down and talking about how they are on the path to fatdom, and then comparing her negatively to her mother, was shaming. I’m even pretty sure that she knew it was unhealthy. Just not, in her mind, as unhealthy as the possibility of being fat.

And that’s the crux of the thing.

We live in a society where doing or saying ANYTHING to a fat person in an effort to get them to wake up and lose weight is still acceptable. Because whatever pain the shaming may cause must be less than the harm done by being fat in the first place. And that is so, so misguided.

Here’s the thing. Oreos aren’t any closer to health food for skinny kids than they are for fat kids. Fat kids don’t need exercise more than thin kids. And it is not okay, ever, to shame anyone for the shape of their body (or for any other reason).

Those Oreo talks at the dining room table led to a lifetime of self-hatred, yo-yo dieting that killed my metabolism, and disordered eating that I still struggle with sometimes. There are worse things than being fat. For parents out there who have a child whose weight worries them, here are a few tips for taking action without causing life-long problems:

  1. Encourage movement in a joyful way. If your kid is open to sports, sign them up. Dance classes, swimming, soccer, whatever. Exercise is healthy, whether or not it ever causes change in body size. If your kid isn’t into sports, don’t push it on them. I bet they’d still love to take a walk with you. Or ride their bike. Or go for a swim. How about bowling? Roller skating?  Karate? Just turn on the music and dance in the living room. The key is to offer opportunities, and let your kids pick and choose the ones that please them best.
  2. Stock your home with lots of good food. If your kids have access to it, they’ll eat it. I’m not talking about carrot sticks here. Don’t have separate diet food for the fat kid. Don’t restrict treats by having them for everyone else, but not that one kid who might end up fat like her mother. My kids are allowed to eat as much fruit, veggies, whole wheat bread, peanut butter, pretzels, yogurt, and cheese sticks as they are hungry for. As a result, none of them hoard food or obsess about it like I did as a kid.
  3. Make your home a stigma-free zone. This one has been the hardest for me over the years, because confrontation is difficult for me. It involves never, ever letting anyone else talk to your kids about their weight. No well-meaning grandparents or aunts or uncles or teasing cousins or siblings get to talk about your kid’s body in any way that doesn’t celebrate the wonderfulness of them. No “does Suzie really need a second helping?” during family dinners. No “Bobby really needs to start doing some sit-ups” while poking Bobby in the belly.
  4. Stop shaming yourself. This was another difficult one for me. It goes along with number three. Don’t talk about how fat you are, how much you hate your thighs or your stomach or your upper arms. Don’t refuse to wear a bathing suit. Instead, talk about your body with respect. Treat it with respect. Your kids are learning from you, even when you don’t think they are.
  5. Instead of spending your energy hyperventilating with worry about your kid’s weight, take the time to talk to them about how, and why, their bodies are wonderful. I guarantee you, they are wonderful little bodies. Point out how awesome it is that they share some things in common with the people most important to them. Celebrate their bodies with them, in all their quirky individuality. For example:  My seven-year-old daughter, Ruby, is by far the tallest kid in her class.  We talk a lot about how her Auntie Jill (who STILL looks like Brooke Shields) is more than six feet tall. Even taller than Ruby’s daddy. And isn’t it so cool to come from a really tall family?

Bodies come in all shapes, sizes, and abilities. Help your kids learn to be proud of what their bodies can do.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2012 9:07 am

    This almost makes me wish I had kids so I could raise them in this loving environment. ALMOST… lol 😉

  2. September 11, 2012 9:29 am

    This was the best blog I’ve ever read and mercy I wish someone had done it in my family when I was a kid. My parents never ever shamed me. My brother tried and was told off. But other family and family friends did it. Teachers at school tried it (I got transferred twice to different teachers because of it – my parents were a no shame zone, god bless them). Kids at school tried it and they succeeded. I remember being 11 years old, grade five and had a crush on a boy. I chased him until I caught him, sat on him (I know…I know but I was a kid and nobody had taught me this wasn’t a good idea)…all I wanted was a kiss. I realized as I sat on him (the shame of doing that still haunts me 36 years later), that he wasn’t interested in me, didn’t want me to kiss him and was ashamed the only fat girl had a crush on him. So, I walked away and thus started my long life of loneliness. But that aside, I wish someone had been there to teach me about shame and it’s harmful affects as I feel that shame even today. I struggle hard with it, sometimes to the point where I can’t even look in the mirror. And I have never, with all my neices and nephews, used shaming as a way to motivate them in any way. I always use love and positivity and I hope they remember that one day when they look back at their childhoods. Great blog. Great great blog. I’m going to facebook it.

  3. September 11, 2012 2:09 pm

    great article… believe me I understand how she felt. I heard basically the same thing,people try to be nice,but yes as a kid,or even as an adult-words do hurt…

  4. Fab@54 permalink
    September 11, 2012 2:45 pm

    I love this… permission to cut in paste into email to several friends and relatives — all with kids of all ages and sizes?

  5. LittleBigGirl permalink
    September 11, 2012 3:52 pm

    There really is nothing like the scar that you get from your parent essentially telling you “I know I said I’d love you no matter what – but your appearance has become unacceptable to me.” I never understood why the kids at school treated me badly because I was fat, or why my mom was always so ‘worried’ about my being fat. They acted like it was a bad thing but I couldn’t see what was bad about it. They said it was “unhealthy” but I didn’t feel unhealthy…my stamina wasn’t what it could have been because I wasn’t encouraged to do the physical activity I liked (i.e. non-competitive), and I hated P.E. because I was teased and the focus was on winning and not fun. My health now (since I [re]discovered dance) is proof that my fat was not the reason I did poorly in gym.
    Thanks to SA/FA and lots of therapy, I don’t hate myself the way I was conditioned to as a child – I only hate the way the world treats my because of how they judge my size.

  6. September 11, 2012 4:53 pm

    All the while growing up my twin sister and I were subjected to diets (or encouraged to diet), starting about third grade. Our older two siblings ended up tall, lean and slim. My twin and I ended up short and fat. My older siblings were bought debbie snacks (hello, swiss cake rolls!) and sugary cereals (Oreo O’s, anyone?) while my sister and I were encouraged to undergo diets like an all-you-can-eat salad diet (ONLY you can eat salad diet, that is). I remember my older siblings putting peanut butter into a bowl, pouring sugar over it, and eating it with a spoon. By the time we got older (like 12) we mom couldn’t keep the sugary foods in the cupboards anymore because I’d “sneak” them (stick my hand in the cereal box for a handful at a time–all the time). Then I’d sneak into my older sister’s closet where she’d keep the fudge covered oreos and swiss cake rolls, and simply pray that she wouldn’t notice some of them missing, all too often.

    And it’s not like we were so different from my older siblings, activity-wise. We played sports just like they did. In fact, we spent our summers outside and in the woods and building forts while growing up and I’m not sure they ever did that. They got the coveted skinny genes though (get it? a play on “skinny jeans”).

    I didn’t realize until a year ago or so how much this kind of upbringing impacted me. The worst part is that I still do it. I can’t keep sugary cereals in the house or anything else like that or else I sneak-eat it until it’s gone very quickly. I closet eat all the time and hide it from my husband. He’s just too easy to keep oblivious about food because food has never mattered to him whereas I think about food constantly. Eating peanut butter and sugar out of a bowl is a huge downfall for me. I shouldn’t keep peanut butter in the house at all, but I often have to bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch for lack of anything else. At least that somewhat keeps me out of the vending machine at work….some of the time.

  7. The Real Cie permalink
    September 12, 2012 11:04 am

    I also destroyed my metabolism with years of extreme dieting and bulimia. I had to STOP dieting so I’d stop gaining weight. Literally.

  8. September 17, 2012 10:07 pm

    This right here: “Here’s the thing. Oreos aren’t any closer to health food for skinny kids than they are for fat kids. Fat kids don’t need exercise more than thin kids. And it is not okay, ever, to shame anyone for the shape of their body (or for any other reason).” That is everything that needs to be said on this issue ever. So true, so succinct. How do you do that?


  9. Miriam permalink
    March 25, 2013 9:21 am

    Mea Culpa – I am a mother who ‘guided’ my child on the need to lose weight. Of course I was relentlessly pressured by my family to ensure that I provided this guidance. The implication was that somehow I was a bad mother if I would stand by and allow my child to be overweight. Obviously I must not have been preparing nutritious meals, not encouraging healthy physical activity. In fact, I believe that I could not have been a more conscientious parent. But, I can’t blame it all on pressure from others. I was ignorant about the genetically bigger body type. I had been naturally skinny myself, and felt that there had to be something I could do to ‘help’ my child. So, I lovingly had the ‘talks’ with my child, and allowed other ‘well-meaning’ relatives to do so too. It did offend me that they presumed to provide advice to my child, but the combination of having a non-confrontational personality and assuming that they only meant well, prevented me from stopping them. Now, I see the harm done to my precious child. As an adult who still struggles with weight, there is also the added burden of the psychological damage. I wish I could turn back time and undo the harm done, but I can’t. All I can do is to be present to support the healing process, and hope that I will be forgiven. And, I hope that the message in this blog will be received by all parents of children who are still young enough to escape this tyranny.

    • Fab@54 permalink
      March 25, 2013 12:07 pm

      Miriam, we all make mistakes; as parents, as children, as spouses, as humans. You made mistakes, but now you recognize them for the mistakes they were and you do your best to never repeat them. You help with your adult daughter’s self-esteem and healing- that’s really wonderful! Do you know how many parents never see their mistakes and certainly wouldn’t admit it if they did? Too many…. way too many.


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