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Ask an Expert: When your daughter says she’s fat

Q. My 9-year-old daughter says she’s fat. In fact, she’s healthy. She has put on some weight this year and may weigh a few more pounds than she should. How should I handle this? Is it best to say, “You’re not fat” and let it go? Or give her a more nuanced talk about what’s healthy? How do I encourage her to get more exercise and eat better without making her think I’m telling her she’s overweight?

What we do is more important than our size

One of my favorite times was when a young female student approached me with a worried look on her face.

“Ms Theresa,” she said quietly as she looked up at me, “Does my butt make me look strong?”

In all my classes I have always taught the kids that we are powerful based on what we do, what we achieve…not what size we are (or aren’t). That strength matters more.

Sometimes girls say “I’m fat” because that’s what they have heard others say. And it’s a “safe” thing to say, and girls often bond over their hatred of their bodies. We’ve become a culture that expects people to dislike their bodies. It doesn’t mean that’s what she truly thinks, but it’s a good idea to ask “what does that mean to you?” especially if she says it again. The answers may surprise you. And I’d like to know, is it something she is feeling or thinking? There is a difference.

Women can attribute different feelings to “fat.” It can cover a whole slew of other things. It’s like a catch-all that could even mean she actually feels ugly/sad/alone/lethargic/nervous. Or, “being or feeling fat” she may say she feels bigger than other girls. She may think she should be a certain size/weight; or it may be another category of feelings that are tough to put into words.

So open up a conversation about it. It doesn’t have to be heavy and nerve-wracking. It can be a nice open talk about how we feel about our bodies, what other girls say about themselves, how we idolize thin. It can be an ongoing dialogue.

What it’s tough to talk about our bodies

This conversation may feel awkward at first since we have not been taught how to talk about our bodies. No one teaches us this, and we usually say that people who like their bodies are conceited. How many people do you know in the “I like my body” category?  We aren’t taught the behaviors, words, or methods for being happy with ourselves, let alone our bodies. As a culture, we are constantly striving to better ourselves, so we turn that same dissatisfaction to our external package.

If we, as a culture, can learn to treat ourselves (and bodies) with respect and love, role modeling what it looks like to take care of our bodies because we love ourselves…we may see miraculous changes. Imagine people exercising because it’s not only good for you, but feels good to move;  or eating healthy foods because they care what fuel they put in their tummies. That’s what I’d love to see role-modeled.

— Theresa Byrne, fitness instructor/life coach

Watch how you talk about yourself


What I want to know about this first is the context. Is this the first time she has asked this question or has she asked several times?

If it is the first time, you may not have much to worry about. You may ask what caused her to ask the question. If she has asked this several times, I believe that it is important to spend more time with her on this.  Sit with her and inquire more in-depth into what is driving these concerns for her. The answer to the question of  “am I fat?” can be tricky.  It may be tempting to respond with “No, you look great.”  Or, “You’re not fat.”  I think it is best to respond instead with no words referencing specific size or how good she looks. Instead to say, “What do you think?” or, “I think you are beautiful inside and out.”

Another thing to be careful of is how you respond to your own body.  If you are asking your spouse how you look or if she is over-hearing you tell others that somebody is fat, this could affect her in a negative way.  Focus on acknowledging yours and her good qualities and not just on looks, and not talking about body size in front of her.

My feeling is that if she continues to persist on this line of thinking, you should have her evaluated for a developing body image issue that can lead to an eating disorder. There are a lot of tough influences out there such as the media where we are bombarded by images of thin and beautiful people and by peers that have no problem pointing out another child’s shortcomings.  You can’t put your child in a bubble and stop all of that; you can learn how to teach her to deal with it in a healthy and positive way.

— Steve Sarche, adolescent psychiatry


About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.