A few weeks ago, a friend texted me: “I have to tell you what happened at dinner tonight.” Her six-year-old daughter had cheerfully announced to the table that a friend at school was on a diet and “it’s working really well!” That friend? Also six.
My friend was at a loss. I was depressed to learn about it, but not surprised. In my work as a journalist who covers diet culture, fatphobia and parenting, I hear from parents and talk to kids every week with similar stories: A group of seven-year-olds hanging out at the playground, comparing their clothing sizes. A nine-year-old who has started weighing herself before and after every meal. And many 13-to-15-year-olds who have progressed from short-lived dieting experiments to full-blown eating disorders.
When it comes to their body image and relationship with food, the kids are not alright. And the problem starts early. Research shows that kids begin equating “fat” with “bad” between the ages of three and five. The first studies documenting negative attitudes toward weight were conducted in the 1960s; researchers showed children pictures of kids with various body types and found that they consistently rated the fat kid as the one they liked the least.
Kids are getting these anti-fat messages from diet culture, which is our system of beliefs that idolizes and attaches moral value to thin bodies and promotes intentional weight loss, often for profit. You might think of diet talk and body-shaming as the sole province of pageant moms or fitness influencers, and you might think of dieting as a sort of outdated activity involving calorie counts and lite salad dressing. But because diet culture is so pervasive, we have all internalized stigmatizing ideas about weight, food, and health. Diet culture shows up in our media, at the doctor’s office, in our kids’ schools, and at our family dinner tables. Our kids are listening when we talk about “earning” dessert with a hard hike or long bike ride, or when we call their Goldfish crackers “junk” and try to steer them toward farmers’ market veggies instead. And they’re watching when we cut out gluten or stare critically at our thighs or our abs in the mirror.
The good news is that there is a lot we can do to change the narrative. It starts with saying less: Don’t label foods as good or bad. Don’t talk about needing to lose weight, and don’t criticize their body, your body, or anyone else’s body. This takes practice. I started doing it when my now eight-year-old was 18 months old and heard me say, “I hate my body.” She immediately started patting herself all over, saying, “My body! My body!” and I saw how badly this might go. But it was months before I fully stopped saying my negative food and body thoughts out loud. And it took much longer for the thoughts themselves to become less frequent. But this kind of harm reduction is powerful. When researchers surveyed 581 parents of children between the ages of nine to fifteen for a 2018 study, they found that the children of parents who did not engage in any kind of “fat talk” were the least likely to report disordered eating behaviors. In contrast, the 43.6 percent of parents who talked negatively about their children’s bodies were the most likely to have kids who ended up sneaking food, binge-eating, or restricting—and these behaviors were also more common for children of the 76 percent of parents who denigrated their own bodies in front of their kids.
But saying less is only the first step. We also need to educate our kids about diet culture and anti-fat bias, so they can recognize it and navigate it. This part may be more difficult; we don’t yet have evidence-based guidelines on how to explain fatphobia to a preschooler. And you may worry that by introducing these concepts too young, you’ll give your kids more body worries. But we also know that when white parents don’t actively call out racism, they are more likely to raise kids who are racist. And that when parents don’t talk about sex, kids learn it from porn. So it makes sense that we also need to talk about weight, call out fatphobia, and explain that dieting doesn’t work, just like porn isn’t real.
If your child talks about a friend who’s on a diet, start by asking some friendly, curious questions: “What do you know about dieting?” or “Dieting, huh? What do you think about that?” They may think dieting is just eating vegetables. Or if they know a friend has been put on a diet by their doctor, they may perceive it as something akin to taking antibiotics for an ear infection. Find out where they are before you tell them where you are.
In my house, dieting came up for the first time a few months ago when my daughter and I read Lisa Fipps’s beautiful verse novel, Starfish. It’s about an 11-year-old fat kid named Ellie, whose mom has been putting her on diets her whole life. When I got to the first mention of the word diet, I asked my daughter if she knew what that meant. She shook her head, so I said, “A diet is when people try to make their bodies smaller by eating less food. It doesn’t work, and it can make you sick, especially for kids who are growing and need to eat as much food as they want.” She nodded and we kept reading.
If your kids use the word fat to describe themselves or someone else, resist the knee-jerk urge to say, “That’s not nice!” or “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful!” Instead, again, start with questions: “Why did you pick that word?” or “What do you think fat means?” If their answer makes it clear that they’ve picked up on the many common stereotypes about fat people (lazy, sluggish, stupid, eats too much, etc.), explain that those negative beliefs about larger bodies aren’t true. Then say, “A lot of people think and say mean things about fat people. This is called fatphobia, and it’s a big problem in our world that grown-ups like me are trying to fix.”
Jeff Hunger, an assistant professor of social psychology at Miami University in Ohio, suggests you further identify fatphobia in concrete terms a child will recognize. You might say something like, “If all the toys you play with are thinner, and all the characters in your favorite shows are too, you might think you’re supposed to look just like them. But everyone’s body is different, and that’s great!”
If someone has called your child fat or made a rude comment about their eating habits, start by validating their feelings. “It really hurt when your friend said you shouldn’t have that cupcake, huh?” Then give them space to explore and process those feelings. You might have to own something you’ve said or done in the past that contributed. (If your child is being bullied for their weight at school or by other family members, a therapist can help.)
Then reframe what they experienced: “Your body is not the problem. You don’t ever need to make yourself smaller by dieting.” The world will find a million ways to tell them something different. But they should always hear the truth from you.