Pam Luk always encourages body positivity (or not talking about people’s bodies at all) when talking to her daughter. But when the child was 5 or 6 years old, she turned to Luk and said, “You’re fat!”
For some, hearing an assertion like that can be jarring, even hurtful. However, Luk recognized that her daughter’s tone was observational, not mean or negative. “So I responded with ‘Yup!’ in a positive and energetic way,” the California-based mom and founder of plus-size athletic wear brand Ember & Ace tells Yahoo Life. “Just a neutral fact voiced and confirmed.”
Luk isn’t the only parent who’s had to navigate this situation. Online forums, for starters, show how common this phenomenon is. Kids may call strangers fat in their earshot, which can be uncomfortable for parents as they worry the stranger's feelings were hurt. While “fat” is just a descriptor, it can be used rudely.
Is it OK for kids to describe people as "fat"?
“Fat” is used in a derogatory way in many settings, from a kid bullying another kid to a family member warning someone to “not eat that because it will make them fat.” But activists have also reclaimed the word “fat,” recognizing it’s not a “bad word” — only a descriptor, like “tall.” In reality, there’s no morality attached to body size.
But with American society is stuck in this in-between place where people feel differently about hearing and saying the term, is it OK for kids to use it? The short answer: It depends on the context. “If a kid wants to use the word ‘fat’ as a neutral and/or positive descriptor, then I am all for it, especially if they are choosing it to describe themselves,” says Ragen Chastain, a fat activist, researcher and writer who has a newsletter and workshops on topics like weight stigma.
Along those lines, it can be a great conversation starter with kids. How do they see the word, and what are their intentions? This is something Dr. Anna Tanner touches on. “We need to remember that kids are kids,” says the vice president of child and adolescent medicine for Veritas Collaborative and The Emily Program. “It is our job as adults to mentor and shape how they talk and how they interact with the world.”
Tanner adds that while “fat” can be used cruelly, some kids may use it out of sheer curiosity. “Discussing how and why they use this word can be a great opportunity to shape kindness in speech but also, remember [to] not make assumptions,” she says. “What do they think that word means, and why did they use it the way they did?”
How to explain the nuance of the word “fat” to kids
This conversation will probably be tricky. How does someone teach a kid — who, naturally, probably isn’t great with nuance — that “fat” isn’t a bad word, but it can be used in that way?
Tanner recommends framing it around how the word makes some people feel. “Kids know how they want someone to talk to them,” she says. “They also know that some things hurt them that don’t bother others.”
Ultimately, focus on how the child uses the word. Chastain shares an example of what to say to them: “Sometimes, people make fun of other people for having bigger bodies, and that’s wrong. There’s nothing wrong with being fat; there is something wrong with making fun of people for how they look, or using words that describe bodies, like 'fat,' as insults.”
How to respond to a kid who uses “fat” as an insult
It’s understandable that parents may be quick to chastise kids who say “fat” to hurt someone, but Tanner encourages digging deeper first for a more effective, long-term resolution. “Were their feelings hurt? Are they angry? Getting to the root can help them manage emotions in other ways,” she says. For example, if a child is lashing out because they fel angry, a breathing exercise might help them calm down.
Chastain either refuses to participate in the negative belief, or she starts a conversation about it. When someone makes this comment to her and she doesn’t want to get into a big conversation, she says something like, “Bodies of all sizes are amazing,” or “Accurately describing someone isn’t an insult,” or “I’m also short and brunette.” If she’s in the mood to dive deeper with others, she may ask why they're saying the word “fat” like it’s a bad thing, or asking the person why they're fat-shaming her.
How to have the “fat talk” with kids generally
From social media posts to parenting books, the world is full of opinions about how to talk about body size, if at all. For example, with Ariana Grande’s recent TikTok, we’ve learned the harms of commenting on people’s body sizes. At the same time, several children's books, such as Bodies Are Cool and Starfish, talk about embracing the beauty of body diversity.
And again, kids are curious. How can a parent navigate those natural, inevitable questions in a helpful way? How can various viewpoints be valid and respected?
“We need to give them safe places in our homes to ask any questions they have,” Tanner says. “If we don’t answer their questions, someone else will. And we might not like the answer they get.” She encourages setting boundaries around this, though, like suggesting they ask any questions at home, where conversations are private (and feelings are less likely to get hurt accidentally).
When those discussions happen, parents only have to tell kids one thing: the truth. More specifically, Chastain suggests telling them that “bodies come in all sizes, [and] all bodies are good bodies, but some people don’t know or believe that.”
Chastain also believes in inspiring kids to spread positivity around body diversity. Examples she gives include telling them to speak up when someone is teasing another person for how they look, as well as reading them picture books that have many different body types represented.
It’s also important to have conversations around how fat characters are portrayed in children's books. Are they made fun of? Are they only the villains or sidekicks?
For further education on this topic, consider reading a book like Virginia Sole-Smith’s Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, where she explains how to have the “fat talk” in sports settings, in regards to social media, at the dinner table and more.
Along the way, don’t expect perfection. “Parenting is an awesome and very hard job, and we should never expect ourselves, or our children, to get any of this perfectly right the first time,” Tanner says. “Keep having these important discussions. Promote body positivity. Promote kindness.”
Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.