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He’s a cheery wee soul, fond of laughing, eating, kicking his soccer ball, and painting.
He’s also small and chubby, with a bright round face and a beautiful smile.
But my parents think he’s fat, and often make remarks to that effect.
In fact, they make him run up and down the driveway most days, and frequently comment on the food he eats.
I remember being a chubby child and countenancing such comments. I remember pinching the skin on my upper arms, and wishing that my thighs didn’t rub together. I remember obsessing over every calorie I consumed, and getting up before daybreak to run around the neighbourhood in a desperate bid to lose weight. I was still a child but my parents’ fat-shaming comments imparted to me a weight of adult concerns.
Fat-shaming happens when people criticise and harass other folk about their weight and eating habits.
People make such comments for a variety of reasons: out of cruelty or malice, or often, in a misguided attempt to motivate someone to eat less or exercise more.
But fat-shaming doesn’t work, especially when directed towards children.
Countless studies show that instead of motivating people, fat-shaming makes them feel terrible and disheartened, causing people to eat more and gain weight.
It causes their self-esteem and confidence to falter.
Many fat teenagers are secluded and isolated due to fat-shaming and internalised fatphobia accumulated throughout childhood.
When the people one loves most have such negative things to say about one’s appearance, such opinions usually manifest into something more permanent and ingrained within one’s mind.
Fat-shaming is symptomatic of fatphobia, the fear and hatred of fat bodies. Fatphobia is insidious in our culture.
It’s evident in the books we read, the media we consume, from the stereotypically lazy, disorganised, and morally corrupt fat characters like Dudley Dursley, to jokes about Thor’s weight gain in Avengers: Endgame.
It also manifests in online and real life harassment, restrictive seat sizes in public spaces, limited clothing options, diet culture, health policing, fat costumes, fat people getting paid less, only ‘‘thin people’’ being allowed to wear, see, or do certain things, and fat people not being taken seriously in the health-care industry.
Fat-shaming perpetuates negative stereotypes and opinions about fat people within society, causing widespread stigma, discrimination, and psychological harm. Eating disorder expert Andrew Walen argues that fat-shaming contributes to an internalised ‘‘eating disorder’’ voice, which can lead one to engage in countless diets, obsessive exercising, food binges, starvations, and bulimic behaviours. I know I certainly engaged in these behaviours, and still do, to an extent.
There is a common myth within society that eating certain foods makes you a better person. However, as activist Monique Melton states, ‘‘you can eat certain foods and still be an awful person; eating a salad isn’t courageous.’’ Food and moral values should not correlate in this aspect. By automatically deeming healthier eaters as ‘‘good people’’ and junk-food eaters as ‘‘bad people’’, we completely dismiss the huge range of factors that go into someone’s diet.
Morality has also been assigned to weight. Fatness is seen as a failure within society. When people look at a fat child, the blame for failure is often assigned to not only the child themselves, but also the parents, family members, and other individuals in the child’s close circle. The child is placed under a damaging moral narrative. This narrative causes family members to turn to fat-shaming as a form of punishment against the child, impacting their self-esteem and confidence in an incredibly negative way. A child’s body does not dictate their moral value. Their body size is not a failure on their part or the part of family members and other close individuals.
Fat shaming is awful, full stop. But it’s especially cruel when directed towards children, who often lack the ability to defend themselves. The memory of my little brother’s face falling when Mum and Dad talk about his stomach almost makes me cry.
Combating fatphobia needs to start in the home. Unless challenged, it will perpetuate through future generations.
Firstly, parents should endorse healthy living instead of guilt. By encouraging healthier options within the household in a supportive manner, a parent can help a child make smarter choices for herself without the need for shame or coercion.
Secondly, parents should focus less on a child’s appearance, and instead compliment the child in other ways, such as her ability to listen, her thoughtfulness, or her strength. It is important to teach children that looks aren’t everything.
Combating fatphobia requires a great deal of unlearning. It needs to start with a child’s parents, legal guardians, or other family members. Begin by eliminating fatphobic actions in your daily life, such as labelling foods as ‘‘bad’’ or making harsh comments about your weight in front of your child.
Don’t contribute to fatphobia within society by designating fat people as lesser than or abnormal.
Be kind, compassionate, and take actions to change your bias towards the marginalised fat community.
- Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. This article was written in collaboration with Cameron Taylor.