By Erickka Sy Savané
“You can’t have more cookies until you work off that pudge! Your sister already lost hers. But you think you’re going to sit around here and get fat,” says my friend to her little girl.
She puts her head down. She’s seven years old. Her sister is three. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard my friend blasting her girls about their weight. The first time was right after Thanksgiving, and the difference was that both my friend and her husband were calling them ‘Pudgy.’ The crazy part is, I think they’re a normal size for kids. But even if they were pudgy or obese, what’s with the fat shaming?
When I ask my friend about it she says that it’s tough love. “I don’t want them to get fat and teased out there because kids can be way crueler than me,” she answers.
“But don’t you worry that calling them names will have a negative effect?”
She tells me a story about a family friend that went from an active 8-year-old to a fat 14-year-old who now takes depression medication. She’s convinced that the young girl’s problems begin and end with her weight. “I’m not letting it happen to my kids,” she says with conviction.
In a weird way, I get what she’s saying. I remember getting called names like “Big Bertha” and “Thunder Thighs,” growing up, by some people in my own family. It was as cruel as when the big sister of my best friend slapped my thigh and pointed out how the fat jiggled in front of a bunch of people. I was young, but old enough to be mortified. So I get why my mom would tell me things like, “You better lose that weight because they don’t make cute clothes for fat people.” Though today she admits that it was a horrible way to shock me into losing weight, I can’t say that it didn’t help. It did prompt me to eat two plates of food at dinner instead of three, but on the flip side it made me feel bad. The fact that fat people weren’t worthy of someone making them cute clothes left me feeling unlovable. Like my value as a person was connected to my weight. Now that’s good if I lose it, which I eventually did, but unfortunately weight can fluctuate so when it’s good, I’m great; when it’s not, I’m back to feeling like sh*t again. As an adult, I still struggle.
Statistics even show that no matter how well-intentioned parents are, shaming kids about their weight actually increases their chances of developing negative body image, which can lead to an eating disorder (something struggled with in high school and beyond), which is increasingly putting more kids under the age of 12 in the hospital. It can also lead to depression. With these odds, fat shaming is too tricky. So what’s a good alternative?
According to fitness expert Tarik Tyler, who regularly works with kids, “The first thing to change is nutrition. And that starts with the parents. Seriously, kids don’t have access to credit cards. So how does the junk get into the kitchen in the first place? The parents.”
It’s true. In my friend’s case, tater tots and chicken nuggets are a dinner staple. And they have enough sweets to open a bakery. As for me, it was customary to eat a whole sweet potato pie in one sitting around he holidays. The problem is a lot of parents don’t want to change their own eating habits, let alone that of the whole family. But Tarik says it’s imperative:
“Kids will eat whatever you put in front of them, so it’s important to feed them the right things.”
He also stresses the importance of getting kids involved in an activity that is fun and interesting. “But you have to let them know why the activity is good for them. You gotta be encouraging.”
His words are coming at a good time, because with two young daughters whose weigh can easily fluctuate, I know to focus on nutrition and fitness for them and the whole family. It’s so much better than calling them, “Blubber Butts.”