I have a kid who is learning about the world. He’s noticed that some people are bigger than others, and he points this out to me when we are out in public. He doesn’t yet know how to say the word “fat” with venom. He doesn’t associate weight with morality. All he sees is big people, medium people, and small people. This state of affairs won’t last long, and I want to get him before the prejudice settles in.

The first time he commented on a person’s size was at the library. He said, loudly, “Mom! That person is really big!”  I felt as if I had unexpectedly been shoved onto a brightly lit stage as I was acutely aware of the fact that everyone within earshot would likely be aware of my response to my child’s observation.

I knew better than to frantically shush him, because all that would do is teach him that to be fat is shameful, and it’s best to pretend that such people just don’t exist, something I don’t agree with. I did my best to say in a bright calm voice, “Yes that person is big.” I hoped that he failed to pick up on my anxiety.

The truth is that at that moment all sorts of urges were tugging at me. The urge to look like a good mother. The urge to avoid being the star of a horror story about something-I-overheard-someone-say-about-fat-people. The strongest was the urge to teach my child that people are how they are, and that we should love them. That is is very difficult to tell why someone is how they are, and that it isn’t fair to us or to them to jump to conclusions about why that person is fat, or that person is skinny, or why that person has a beard, or that one rides in a wheelchair, or that other person is grumpy.

Only later did I pick up on something that bothered me. I also felt the urge to protect. To somehow communicate to the big person my child singled out that it is okay. I wanted to spout off the best ever answer to awkward child observations and through that answer let all who heard that I am Not Judgmental and that fat is not a moral failing. The thing is though, I don’t know that person. Unless one assumes that all fat people are the same, then no single answer could feasibly introduce fat acceptance to everyone, or even most people. My urge to educate all and sundry about fat-acceptance is really just as humanity erasing as fat-hatred. The thought that I should, or even could magically make everyone feel good about their weight just makes the whole thing about me.

All I can do is continue to combat out my own prejudices, try to teach my kid how to combat his prejudices, and talk with people as individuals, learn from them and share with them. I also want to teach my kid first and foremost that one shouldn’t talk about people, one should talk to them, because they are, after all, people.


Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.

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12 Responses

  1. Stella says:

    Working with people with eating disorders, I am usually walking around town most of the time with a girl who weighs under 100 pounds. Usually, at the beginning of treatment, they are much less than this. People stare, a lot, they want to comment, and sometimes they do, and sometimes they point. It’s hard on the girl. On the other hand, my patients do the exact same things to women and men who are of average size (but to them they have a warped view and believe that they are obese). Or to anyone that might not be perfect in body. Being around these mindsets daily really reminds me to be gentle with people.

    My day to day is helping these girls feel comfortable with who they are and teaching them to allow others to be how they are. I find that when a person is truly happy with who they are, then they do not feel the need to make judgments or assumptions about others.

    As per children, every adult, big or small, knows that kids are observers and in the end, it doesn’t come down to your kids saying what he said…it comes down to the fact that the person in question probably felt shame and embarrassment because we have a society that DOES judge someone on whether they are big or small–and kids have nothing to do with that.

  2. Janna says:

    My comment is trite, but I don’t care…

    I recently viewed an art collection that contained over 100 Renoirs, the majority of which were of very round, very nude women with coy smiles and sideways glances. Their expressions were the opposite of shame, the opposite of low self esteem – but, rather, “Hey, I’ve got, and I know I’ve got it. Take it all in.”

    Someone, a long time ago, purchased these works with these images for lots of money, then hung them in a special building built just for them. Even longer ago, the artist himself viewed these models as the pinnacle of beauty, as opposed to what contemporary viewers might deem as, “Needing to tone up a bit.”

    My physique is reminiscent of these models, and since viewing the collection, as I’ve caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I see myself more favorably. Why did I need someone else thinking that roundness is gorgeous for me to see my roundness as gorgeous?

  3. Bri King says:

    I have a 3 yr old daughter and have dealt with the same sort of situation, although being that I am a fat woman myself, my daughter is used to seeing fat people. That said, if she comments on the size (or some other feature) of someone, my standard response is to say ‘Yes that person is/has *insert feature* and isnt it interesting how we are all different? Wouldnt it be boring if we were all the same?’.

  4. CatherineWO says:

    “I also want to teach my kid first and foremost that one shouldn’t talk about people, one should talk to them, because they are, after all, people.”

    I really like this, Starfoxy.

    I have a son who is very overweight. Several months ago we were having a family dinner and my daughter’s four-year-old son said something about how fat his uncle is. My son turned around to the child and said, “Why yes, I am,” and then engaged the child in a conversation that went on to other topics. It quickly diffused a potentially awkward situation (and prevented my daughter from jumping in and embarrassing her child, who certainly meant only to state a fact).

  5. Starfoxy says:

    Stella- You mention how people with eating disorders have a skewed view of reality as far as healthy bodies go, I wonder though if all of us might be similarly skewed, though not to the same extent. And you’re right that it is the society and not the innocent & observant kid who is to blame for any shame those with non-ideal bodies might feel.

    Janna- I remember having an epiphany where about the body types in the art you mention. I remember thinking that they just had a healthier/more realistic view of what bodies should look like (which is true), but I realized that they idolized those body types just as we idolize certain body types now. The real kicker was realizing that even back then, most people still didn’t look like that. This gives the lie to the evolutionary psychology idea that humans (especially men) are hard wired to be attracted to a very narrow body type.

    Bri-King- it is interesting how kids point things out in strangers even though it is present in people they are familiar with. I really wonder how much they pick up from the media at that early age, and how it changes what ‘normal’ means in young minds.
    I’ve also tried to remind my kids of people they know who have similar qualities. IE “Yes, that person is big, just like Grandma.” Or “Who else do you know that uses a wheelchair?” It is something I do naturally when discussing features that aren’t as highly charged- things like blond hair, or glasses. But when it comes to other things like race, weight, and disability all that natural flow disappears and it takes conscious effort to get it back.

    CatherineWO- I am so grateful to people like your son. The people who are able to not only be generally happy with themselves, but also rise above and educate others about their lives are truly exceptional people.

  6. Chandelle says:

    I had a similar experience last week. In a large, packed restaurant there was a single Black man. My daughter, who is 3, and who does not know many people of other races and cultures, just stared and stared. I didn’t know how to handle that situation. I wanted to encourage her to say hello instead of staring, but also I didn’t want this man to feel like an ambassador for people of color. I just felt uncomfortable and not a little guilty.

    I recently read the book ~Nurture Shock~ which discussed race in relation to children. The book pointed out that children have determined differences between races before we, the parents, ever think to discuss it. They may naturally decide that race indicates goodness or badness, intellect or ability, before we ever get in there to explain that this isn’t true.

    The studies cited in this book indicate that thrusting kids into multicultural environments while avoiding a discussion of race in the hope that a “color-blind” experience will naturally unfold is a completely inaccurate assumption. Even children growing up in very diverse environments may end up racist without guidance. We have to talk about it.

    So after we left the restaurant I asked my daughter if she’d noticed a man there with a very different color of skin than we have. She was a bit startled that I mentioned it, but we had a good discussion about it. I still have no idea how to handle the situation as it happens, but at least we talked about it after the fact.

    I think this situation is similar as far as “fat” people are concerned. One of the greatest issues with weight is moralizing. Fat people are lazy, hedonistic, and ignorant. Probably poor, too. Adults are the ones who are guilty of these assumptions. Children, as you mentioned in the OP, are innocent of this. They learn from US what it “means” to be fat (or very skinny). If my kids exclaimed about a fat person in public, I’d just say, “Yep, we’re all different sizes.” Then I might draw comparisons between height and age to try to even it out. But I’m honestly not sure if that’s effective.

  7. Caroline says:

    This reminds me: I think I’ve heard on NPR that ‘fat’ is one of the last categories of people that people feel comfortable to mock, make jokes about, or discriminate against.

    I like what the others have said. If my son, noticed someone heavy and commented on it, I’d probably just casually say, “People are all different, aren’t they?” and move on.

  8. Am says:

    I have had similar experiences with my children, and I think they are trained to notice differences- but they don’t often yet see it in a moral way. Sometimes I think it would be better if we were all like them. Why can’t being “big” be just as normal as being “blonde” or “brown-eyed”. Same with being “black” or “brown” skinned. Perhaps if we can all learn with confidence that those things matter about as much as someone’s hair color, maybe we would all be better off!

  9. Janna says:

    Starfoxy – so true! Hm. Something to think about.

  10. Kelly Ann says:

    I remember when I was in elementary school I described a new friend to my mom. After telling my mother about various things we had done and general descriptors, my generally non-biased mom asked me “so what is she”? I asked her what she meant. She told me race. I remember having to think about it. I hadn’t even noticed she was black. It didn’t make a difference to our friendship. I wish I could still say that I didn’t think of race being an identifier. I don’t really, and have a very diverse set of friends, but know that race is still often in the first few descriptors I use. While I’d like to think it can just be stated as a fact, this post does make me think about how I use all potentially sensitive descriptors. And wish we could all maintain the child-like state of not assigning meaning.

  11. css says:

    It’s not only children.

    I am a biological anthropologist and one of my favorite classes to teach is about modern human variation. I ask my undergraduates to line up according to height. They’ve done this since kindergarten and so it is banal. Then I give them other categories (they are free to opt out of the line up if they choose), such as: weight, skin color, eye color, hairiness, intelligence, and even gender. Afterwards, we always have an enlightening discussion about human variation and culture. Why are some variables so emotionally charged and others not? How much of what we think is biological reality vs. cultural construction? etc.

  12. Olive says:

    When my kids went through this stage I sternly told them we do not talk about people’s bodies and that it is mean. Then later we had a talk about how everyone is different, but we do not point them out in public because it hurts people’s feelings. And not just fat people either…this goes for “skinny” people, too. Please, people, bite your tongue when you feel impressed to comment on ANYONE’s size or shape (unless you are saying “you look fantastic!”)

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