Well, it happened. A number of weeks ago my 4 1/2 year old daughter and I were sitting together and she was remarking on some new people in her life. She proceeded to tell me about one person in particular and described the person as “big.” I took a deep breath, knowing that this type of situation is one that I’m very often asked about: what do I do when my child comments on someone’s size?
I calmly asked her if she meant a grown up—sometimes big to her means older and I never want to assume I know what she’s describing. “No mommy, like her body is big.” She said this in the calmest of tones, there was no judgment or animosity. I replied, “Oh yes! I know who you’re talking about—she’s so nice.” I then proceeded, “And yes, her body is bigger than some people’s bodies and smaller than other people’s—all bodies are different.” I then finished with “and you know it’s probably a good thing not to comment on peoples’ bodies.” She then responded with, “OK!” And that was the end of it.
I’d like to break this down for you, dear reader, and highlight what I did, why I did it and common questions. First, the tool to remember above all else is to maintain a low, calm and nonjudgmental energy. Not only was I matching her energy, but I was not making this conversation into something big or dramatic. Second, I made sure to clarify. People often forget that the words “fat” or “big” are just descriptors; somewhere along the way we have equated these with a judgment or consider them bad words. Responding to a child as if this is a bad word then teaches them that it is a “bad” word. My daughter was using this word just like she would use the word “tall” or “brunette” and if I reacted in any other way, this reaction would have reinforced the cultural messages that we as adults have internalized.
My first response to my daughter was very intentionally to comment on the person beyond a physical descriptor, to show that what we value is deeper than size. Then I validated my daughter’s use of the physical descriptor—yes, this person is in a bigger body. This was not said with any negative energy. It was as if my daughter said this person wears glasses and I agreed—yes, she does. I was showing her that this is a neutral term. And then I went on to inform her that we do not comment on bodies—this would have been true if she described the person as thin or small—we do not comment on body sizes.
This area tends to feel confusing. Why would I teach her this? Isn’t that showing her that there’s something to hide?
People tend to have a lot of feelings about their bodies which can relate to cultural ideals, traumas and messages they’ve received intentionally and unintentionally. I know that in my home, my daughter will receive messages that all bodies should be respected. I also know that she will likely be inundated with messages telling her the opposite. This not only feels heartbreaking, it also feels scary; I know that if she comments on someone’s body to or around that person, the individual might not understand that my daughter is doing so nonjudgmentally and this can accidentally cause harm or lead to a negative reinforcement.
I therefore want to teach her that we do not comment because bodies can be complicated to people and because bodies are the least important or interesting part of a person. So I spoke about it in a way that my four-and-a-half year old could understand. It is not that bodies should be ignored, shamed or hidden. It is that bodies are just meant to be. We take care of them; we do not judge them; we celebrate and appreciate them.
When people respond with, “don’t say big—that’s a bad word!” they’ve just taught their child to be ashamed and also to shame others. Big is not bad. When the response is, “that person isn’t big, she’s beautiful,” you’ve taught your child that one cannot be both big and beautiful and also confused the child since the person is indeed big. Ignoring a comment causes you to lose an opportunity and also sends a subtle message that the child did something wrong or that you cannot tolerate it when they discuss this subject.
In our community we tend to be up in arms about the need for more mental health services, but we deny the way dieting and eating disorders are all on the same spectrum. To actually make changes within our community we must open our eyes to the way we speak and joke about bodies—it is all related, and we will not heal until we shift. Do not be afraid and do not be judgmental. Teach your children, those around you, yourself (!) that you can be accepting and answer questions. Stop the cycle of fat-phobia and create an opportunity for change.
Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works in New York and New Jersey with individuals ages 18 and older who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness, and a Metro-New York consultant at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.