Mummy, my thighs are too big. I think they’re bigger than the other girls’.
A few weeks ago my daughter uttered those words, heralding something that I knew was around the corner but was hoping to avoid: her introduction to body shame.
Despite increasing awareness of the need for positive body image, fat-shaming is still the norm in our culture. Workplace tearoom conversations constantly revert to discussions of diets or how ‘bad’ we were on the weekend to eat that cake, or how Rayyan from accounts looks much better after losing 5 kgs. You can’t turn on the television without being bombarded with weight loss ads and, importantly, almost everyone on TV has a thin body (unless they’re being ridiculed as the fat best friend). Even the ABC Kids favourite Peppa Pig teaches toddlers to laugh at fat people, with Daddy Pig’s big tummy providing constant joke fodder. Debates surrounding the use of photoshop and very thin models in fashion magazines have been around for decades but not a lot has changed: Australia still has a body image problem.
We know that most girls start their first attempt at weight loss by about 10 years of age.
At eight, my daughter is on par with her peers. It’s been estimated that half of kids 10 to 11 years old have concerns about their body. We know that most girls start their first attempt at weight loss by about 10 years of age. Eating disorders are on the rise in Australia, even among young children. The problem of poor body image can lead to other health problems, too. As the Australian Government parenting advice site Raising Children puts it, “low self-esteem and poor body image are risk factors for the development of risky weight loss strategies, eating disorders and mental health disorders such as depression.”
Given all of this, I knew that eventually my daughter would start worrying about whether she’s fat, even though physically, there is nothing to set her apart from her peers.
This isn’t the case for me, though. I’m fat. (Yes, I prefer to use the descriptor fat, which aptly describes the adipose tissue on my body. Fat can be used as a neutral term to avoid the medicalised ‘obese’ or the judgemental ‘overweight’.)
My partner and I have tried to instil an attitude of body acceptance in our home. Our daughter knows that I’m not ashamed of myself; that I can be happy, and successful, and loved, whilst also being fat. She knows that we try to take care of her by encouraging her natural inclination for movement, and teaching her how to identify and delight in new foods and tastes, and emphasising moderation and mindfulness. We don’t diet, or talk about how much we hate our thighs. We affirm that her body is lovable in part because of what it can do, in part because of how she delights in it, and mostly because it is hers.
Unfortunately, all of this is not enough.
One day, she came home from school and said that her friend was teasing her about having a fat mum. Fat is so anathema to young people - so heavily associated with laziness, stupidity and ugliness - that even a fat family member is cause for ridicule. Weight stigma is really that pervasive.
The fact is all this focus on weight does not make our kids healthier; to the contrary, research shows that aside from causing low self-esteem and contributing to eating disorders, weight stigma can actually lead to weight gain as well as physiological stress. This means that well-meaning attempts to curb a perceived ‘crisis’ of childhood obesity may in fact be causing more health problems than they are solving.
Increasingly, fat people - even children - are fighting back against this culture of shaming and finding new ways to define health and wellbeing. Health At Every Size (HAES), an idea pioneered by American researcher Dr Linda Bacon (and popularised in Australia by Dr Rick Kausman) is the idea that enjoying regular movement and eating a range of foods in moderation is the best way to attain wellbeing, whether or not these actions lead to weight loss. In other words, it’s living a healthy lifestyle without ever getting on the scales. Health At Every Size puts emphasis on enjoyment over punishment, and celebration rather than deprivation. If you love dancing, you’ll get more out of a regular boogie than slogging it out at the gym, is the common sense principle it espouses. For parents, this makes intuitive sense. My kid will make me linger forever at the park while she performs endless iterations of her latest monkey-bar trick: I don’t need to put her on a treadmill to get her to be active! Of course, people who don’t engage in exercise or have a traditionally ‘healthy’ body never deserve to be stigmatised or discriminated against either, whatever their weight. But the HAES model can be helpful for people who want to encourage children to take on healthful habits without recourse to the rhetoric of obesity panic.
Our daughter knows that I’m not ashamed of myself; that I can be happy, and successful, and loved, whilst also being fat.
We have a responsibility to encourage young people to love and appreciate their bodies. When we do, they can be wonderful advocates for themselves, and others. An Illinois teenager made headlines this month for refusing to calculate her BMI on a PE test and schooled us all when she said:
“I am just beginning to love my body, like I should, and I'm not going to let some outdated calculator and a middle school gym teacher tell me I'm obese...My BMI is none of your concern because my body and BMI are perfect and beautiful just the way they are."
Of course I tell my daughter that she is perfect as she is, every day, and that has nothing to do with how thin or fat her thighs are. But I am only one voice amongst a whole culture that she’s immersed in. If you talk about hating your thighs, you contribute to a system of body shaming that diminishes the wellbeing of us all. Our kids are listening, and they need to hear that their bodies are worthy of love, whatever size or shape they are.
Elizabeth Sutherland is a writer, teacher and mother based in Melbourne. Her hobbies include feminist snark and waiting impatiently for marriage equality. Follow her on Twitter @MsElizabethEDU