Explaining the ‘F’ word (that’s ‘fat’) to kids
The “F” word has landed in our home. No, not that “F”word. I’m talking about the other one: FAT.
The number on the scale is not what is bothering me, and I’ve always felt it is more fun to hug a healthy baby than a skinny one. Because of this, I never noticed the tendency of people to say out loud that a child is fat, usually out of “gigil“—a tight hug or squeeze. I always thought it was completely understandable.
Then my daughter dropped the F-bomb.
“Mama, it’s not nice to be fat, no?” she said. My jaw dropped. “No anak, who said that?! It’s nice to be fat! ABC is fat and you love her, right?”
“But mama, you’re payat.” Switch to reverse mode. “Yes, but I don’t like to be thin! It’s not nice. I want to get bigger also, that’s why we have to eat plenty, ok?!”
Poor girl. She looked bewildered trying to figure out how to make sense of the whole thing. As for myself, I don’t know what else I said as I tried my best to head off any more thoughts on fat and thin in her little three-year-old head.
But I know my explanation was a disaster. Even I was confused with what I was saying!
On one hand, I don’t want to put her on the road to excesses and its future dangers, such as diabetes and hypertension. On the other hand, I don’t want her to end up in the direction of malnutrition, eating disorders, and their dangerous, if not fatal, consequences.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve made a conscious effort never to describe anyone by size, or let my daughter hear side comments on body shapes.
At her age, her only concern with her body should be feeding it and wearing as much pink as she can get away with. Anything else is my problem and responsibility.
But how can I keep these thoughts away if she constantly hears it outside our home? Notice how one’s weight status is considered the greeting norm—“Hi! Uy! Tumaba ka!” or “You’re so thin now! Did you get sick?”
It is never said with malice. It always comes from truly loved and close friends and relatives, so nobody gets hurt or offended.
But ever since Adriana brought it up, I realized that it’s one thing for an adult to be faced with these things. It is quite another thing for a still impressionable child to hear them.
I wonder what the effects of constantly hearing these things at such a young age are? Will she forget them as she gets older, whether or not she loses the baby fat? Or will it haunt her and turn into a teen insecurity?
Whether she is fat or thin is not the issue, as I truly believe that at her age, children’s bodies are still changing and growing. I believe that interfering with natural growth, through special diets, may just lead to more harm. So, for as long as her doctor says she is on the right track, I am not worried.
But I realized that I also had to make sure she would grow up with a healthy body image and sense of self-esteem. Even if I give her the most nutritious meals, if she grows up not liking what she sees in the mirror, it will all just go to waste.
The first thing I did was to try and correct the disaster of an explanation I made when she first brought up the whole thing. Upon the advice of my sister-in-law, Ana (she’s got four confident and healthy kids, so I figured she would be a good sounding board), I concentrated on the subject of being healthy, regardless of one being fat or thin.
At her age, a one-on-one discussion is out of the question, but for about a week, I tried to slip it in subtly, especially when good opportunities would pop up. Rather than avoiding the subject of “fat/thin,” I discussed it in relation to being healthy. I tried to make her understand that neither fat nor thin was a goal to be attained or avoided at all costs.
Rather, she had to find a healthy balance between the two where she could be at her strongest (“Like the Beast who fights the wolves to save Belle, Mama?”) and happiest.
Did it work? I don’t know. I hope so, but I guess I’ll find out in about 13 years, but at the very least, it did seem to clear up her original question.
Next, I went to everyone’s favorite source of knowledge—Google. I typed in “children’s body image concerns” and was able to fish out great information from several articles.
One website was very helpful. It’s www.empoweredparents.com—run by a psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders.
The first thing she points out is that kids are quick. Anything parents say or do is picked up and used as guide to everything, from how they should eat to how they should feel about their own bodies. If you constantly complain about your body, don’t be surprised if one day, your child begins to do so as well. Parents can sometimes be part of the problem if they are not careful with their words and actions.
She advises parents to help their children develop a healthy attitude toward food and their bodies, by educating children and helping them see food as a necessary “life-sustaining” fuel, and not an enemy of the body.
She also teaches parents to avoid equating “healthy” with being restricted, but rather with moderation.
‘Immunity to media messages’
It is also important to listen to children when they talk about their bodies and not to negate or ignore their concerns, even if they seem unfounded. Discussion leads to understanding.
The tip I found most interesting was the one on helping children “develop immunity to media messages that distort their perspective by teaching them to be more critical” and discerning.
Another tip she gives is that parents must invest in their child’s self-esteem as early as possible, and let this evolve. Self-esteem is necessary in a child as it builds confidence and self-worth, making her less likely to give in to peer pressure and distorted self body images.
This doesn’t mean raising obnoxious little narcissists. Instead, Dr. Abigail Natenshon says that “self-esteem comes from making a contribution to the world around one, to the community of the home and of the greater world beyond its borders. It comes from developing interests and passions, from being valued, respected, heard and accepted… Self-esteem comes from a sense of belonging and a loving connection to other human beings.”
She cites ways parents can help build self-esteem in a child, like giving a child an appropriate amount of control over certain aspects of her life, but remembering to keep limits.
She discusses the importance of teaching children how to solve their problems and get over conflicts in a healthy and productive manner.
Among her tips, what I really liked was how she encouraged parents to “provide your child with meaningful life values and genuine connectedness” by volunteering and going to church together. I guess this is a way of helping girls grow up knowing that there is a lot more to life than what they see in the mirror.
Maybe I am getting a little ahead of myself, especially since Adriana seems to have forgotten the whole thing already, but I would rather read about prevention now than when I have the problem already. Hopefully, with the right words and actions, my daughter will grow up knowing that she is more than just her body type.
I hope by then that she will have her health, values, intelligence, talents, sense of humor and kindness to be proud of, and she will know that these are worth more than any kind of body.
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