Good Parenting Means Telling Your Children They’re Fat

fat kid stock photo

Pure evil.

Meet Josh. He’s 12-years-old, 5′ tall, and weighs a “hefty 15 st” (210 lbs). He “wheezes as he moves.” He is also way, way too young to be the lede on a Daily Mail article about our moral obligation to make fat people feel bad about themselves.

In what the paper calls a “classic case of parental denial,” the boy’s mother–also “seriously obese”–insists his weight (and what the Mail refers to as his “imposing frame”) isn’t a problem. And so begins their latest polemic against fat people, this one filed by Alan Jackson, lead practitioner and researcher for the Weight Management Centre in London and Discovery Learning. Jackson, at least, has been working with obese kids for “twenty years,” so this isn’t your average Liz Jones hate screed. At least.

Anyway, apparently there’s a whole anti-fat cabal in the UK, smothering opposition and plying children with delicious snacks:

In this case, no one has faced up to the fact that Josh is fat. No one dares use that ‘F’ word any more. Parents can’t say it, health professionals can’t say it, teachers most definitely can’t say it. But, I think it’s time we all did.

In the UK, a third of children are overweight or obese – another banned term. In some inner cities, this rises to almost 50 per cent. By cloaking the problem in evasive language, we are failing these children. We need to jolt parents into action – and bald terms help with this. 

Way to take a stand against that shadow lobby of pudgy 12-year-olds. Evasive language may cushion their developing egos, but “bald terms” will definitely put an end to their reign of terror and shame them into dieting.

…No, it won’t. Making children feel bad about their weight isn’t going to help them with anything, because they’ll feel bad no matter what. But Jackson knows that, kind of:

People complain that calling a child ‘fat’ or ‘obese’ stigmatises them, but this is nonsense. It’s not the labelling that stigmatises the child, it’s being overweight that sets them apart. Society judges the obese very harshly

It’s always strange to see arguments like this–that making a child feel bad about himself is somehow for his benefit because it rescues him from an adulthood where people make him feel bad about himself (it doesn’t, PS–people will make you feel like shit no matter what).

The thing is, though, fat kids know they’re fat. And a lot of them feel a deep shame over it! Using “bald language” will make them feel worse; exercising with them and enabling them to make better food choices won’t. Our point is not that children should be fat; it’s that–if the ultimate goal is saving them from the oppressive psychological torment of being a fat adult–why the hell should the solution be tormenting them psychologically as children?

Jackson goes on to blame various aspects of the modern world for childhood obesity–more stress! less time! crisp sandwiches! lazy parents!–but doesn’t much bother with addressing all that complicated stuff about the food system itself:

People of my generation (fiftysomethings) remember that if we turned down healthy food, we would be offered no alternatives and would go to bed hungry. We learned to like the stews, the greens and the porridge because they were infinitely preferable to a growling, empty stomach.

This is inconceivable now. Many parents today will supplant the rejected food with a crisp sandwich or something equally appealing to a child’s palate, thinking ‘at least he’s eating’.

But it’s also worth noting that when I was a child, there wasn’t the huge array of unhealthy foods on offer.

What Jackson ignores here is the accessibility and affordability of those crisps, the scientific wizardly that engineers them to be as tasty and cheap as possible, and the government policies that facilitate their enduring ubiquity. Why change the food system when we can just make fat kids feel bad about themselves? It’s better for them in the long run. Apparently.

Jackson ends on a striking moment of sensitivity: “I believe if parents could see the distress and abject misery that awaits most obese children when they reach puberty, they would do things differently,” but still doesn’t seem to understand the distress and abject misery that “bald language” engenders at any age.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

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    • Julia Sonenshein

      What a brave soul, standing up to those 12-year-olds.

    • mal_ed

      This is going to be make me so unpopular, but what the hell: while I disagree with how he’s gone about saying it (absurdly over the top, horribly shaming, etc), I’m not going to disagree with the sentiment. As a parent, part of your JOB is to ensure your children are optimally healthy. If you’re consistently making your kid “crisp sandwiches” for dinner, you’ve failed. If your child is overweight and you’re NOT promoting healthy alternatives and exercises – which this woman seems in denial about – you’ve failed. You signed up to procreate because – one would hope – you’d be able to reach for the peanut butter/banana OR beans & rice OR cheese and crackers over a crisp sandwich. Equally economical, far more nutritious.

      Yes, crisps and other junk foods are cheap, very tasty and supported by the corn lobby. I think, more fundamentally, is that we’re lacking clear and, yes, “bald” communication about nutrition. You can definitely say that this communication can’t happen without the removal of these cheap, tasty, government supported foods. But to me, that’s like preaching abstinence to a classroom of horndog teens: it’s unrealistic, it’s defeatist, and it’s fcking ineffective. It’s also a bloody disservice to children who are going to grow up with shame being one among a whole coterie of serious medical problems. Diabetes anyone? Asthma? Heart problems?

      Children cannot and SHOULD NOT be held responsible for their weight. There parents can, however. What this woman is doing is nothing short of abuse, in my opinion.

      • Twentisomethingmom

        I agree. Its not the child’s fault they are overweight, its the parents. And maybe those parents were overweight as children and never broke the cycle of obesity. The best way to help is to do just that- help and not shame. Provide families with educational information about making healthy choices and preparing healthy meals for cheap.

      • AlexMMR

        I’m working my ass off to end the cycle of obesity in my family. By the time I hit puberty, I was familiar with Weight Watchers. I have a permanent scar on my hand from opening a can of Jenny Craig “food” in high school.

        I had 2 underweight preemies (twins) and the whole first year of their lives their health struggle was needing to take in as many calories as possible. Now that they’re toddlers, while they’re still in the lower percentiles for weight, they’re healthy and that’s not a major concern. I’m doing everything I can to instill a palette that appreciate vegetables, protein on every plate, and only resorting to pre-prepared toddler meals once a week or so when I’m in a hurry. I was raised on “cream of this” and “breaded that”. It’s really hard to figure out 3-4 meals a day that aren’t based on the obesity inducing staples that I’ve eaten my entire life. I’m at my record fat weight and I HATE THIS. I desperately hope to turn the tides for my girls.

      • MammaSweetpea

        I’m gonna jump in here Twentisomethingmom. My parents gave me healthy meals. And for the most part I ate what was given to me. But I was very often a sad child, and eating made me feel better. No one knew, it was my secret. It was not my parents fault that I was overweight.

      • Larkin

        Yup, I totally agree. I don’t think that kids should be shamed for being fat… but I also think that feeding kids junk food at every meal and then refusing to acknowledge that it’s affecting their health is irresponsible parenting.

        And I actually think he makes a valid point about the use of language, though I don’t think we should all run around pointing fingers and labeling everyone that’s a little overweight by any means. But we’ve become so PC that we can no longer tell unhealthily overweight people (I’m talking about people where it’s clearly a legitimate health issue, rather than those who are naturally larger but live healthy lifestyles) that it’s in their best interests to change their habits. I once read a rant by an overweight woman because a doctor told her she needed to lose weight or she would face a bunch of health problems down the road. But all she took away from the encounter was that the doctor was “fat shaming” her.

        Obviously, I don’t think anyone should be called names or socially isolated because of their weight. But there’s got to be an in between right? A compromise somewhere between fat shaming and refusing to acknowledge a health issue because it might offend someone?

      • JennyWren

        But I don’t think the article IS saying that it’s fine and dandy for children to be overweight, hence the part about helping them exercise and teaching them about better food choices. All it’s saying is that using harsh language towards children (and yes, it’s a shame and misuse that the word “fat” has become so loaded, but it’s happened and we have to deal with things as they are) isn’t going to help them. And it won’t. I was a very overweight teen, and people calling me fat never did anything except make me feel like shit. Which meant I ended up comfort eating more and not exercising because I didn’t want other people to see my body (which I thought of as gross and repellant due to the “fat” label) in motion. Shame is a paralytic.

      • Ashley Cardiff

        (Thank you kindly, Jenny)

    • DaisyJupes

      I think you’re overreacting to this. I don’t see him saying that you should torment and bully children by telling them they’re fat, “hey, look at that gut!,” and all that. He seems to say you need to let your kids know they’re fat (like, “honey, you’re overweight and it’s hurting your health. We need to do something about it”) and not tell them that they’re perfect the way they are. Sure, tell them you love them unconditionally, but not that every thing they do is perfectly fine and that people will be mean and judge them (which is how you get the 5’3″ 300 lb “curvy” women who are in denial about their health).

      Parents are supposed to: 1) love their children and 2) make sure they have the skills they need to live a successful, healthy life. That includes teaching them to love themselves by always seeking ways to better themselves. Deluding them into thinking being obese is perfectly fine isn’t the way to do that.

      • Jackie Rose

        Fat people can be healthy, and thin people can be unhealthy. What works is focusing on health regardless of body size. It seems these days people like to claim fat people who don’t hate their bodies are delusional. Meanwhile behaviors strongly correlated with starvation eating disorders are seen as the new healthy.

        What’s worse a fat healthy child who doesn’t feel they deserve to be shamed for their weight, or a child who refuses to eat anything from fear of becoming fat? When we push eating disordered mentality on children, that is child abuse.

    • Heina Dadabhoy

      I got told all the time by friends and family that I was fat all the time I was growing up. Guess what? All that anxiety and self-hatred led to my overeating and getting obese instead of just plain fat.

      The studies back me up, here. It’s not just anecdote:

    • mary

      The parent, not the child, should be shamed. People who give their children diabetes and other life-shortening conditions should absolutely be held accountable.

    • Move

      You know how to get kids not to be fat?
      Move with them! I take my grade 8s students out for a walk once a week, all their teachers do. They are getting a 45 minute walk in each day in addition to gym. Walk with them. Play games with them.
      And plus, I have lost 5 pounds since we started this September.

      • JennyWren

        This is a great point. My parents fed me good healthy food but they didn’t really encourage me or my sister to be very active- neither of them were very sporty and I think they just didn’t see it as important. Gym classes (which we only got twice a week anyway) were an absolute torment, so It took me a long time to work out that I actually like walking, and hiking, and even running. It’s so important for children to see exercise as fun and not as a penance.

    • CW

      It *IS* lazy parenting. Eating healthy on a budget is possible but the parent has to be willing to buy & prepare those foods. Also to be willing to turn off the television/video games/etc. and get some exercise with the child.

    • July

      Who is saying that we need to call kids fat? The doctor is just saying that we need to stop sugar coating (no pun intended) the issue. You have to admit there is a problem to fix it and constantly talking around the issue (“he’s just big boned!”) will do nothing to fix it.

    • MammaSweetpea

      Before I even read the article I want to respond to the title. NO. NEVER. My father did that to me when I was 10 and it messed me up. Now. I will read the article, because maybe there is something in there I may agree with….

      • MammaSweetpea

        I agree, it isn’t of any help to deny that a child is in need of help with their weight. My thing is in how you tell them.

    • choala

      When I was twelve, I got put on medication. It worked, as in, I didn’t feel anything except feelings of hunger and sleepiness. I gained about 60 pounds in three months, weighing some over 200 pounds when I was thirteen (and at my heaviest). I’ve lost weight and gained it back since then, so I’m still around that weight, I just grew a bit taller.

      Being fat when just a kid sucks. You can’t physically keep up with the things your age-mates do, become insecure during PA-lessons and refuse to join. If you join, you get made fun of, people won’t pick you for sport teams, people will refuse to let you actually try to play along. I still kind of hate exercise and sports because of it. This is not healthy for a kid, being fat and learning that exercising means being made fun of – it’s not healthy for someone growing up.

      When it comes to food, it’s mostly about the amounts, not what they eat. When I was on medication, I spend my days making and eating huge, family sized, bowls of salad. I probably ate 1500 calories daily in salads alone, without the dressing.

      I think the problem lies with being outside. A kid who has friends, goes out more often, moves more, eats less. A kid who hates moving will say no to friends, just because it may mean the kid needs to get outside. Focus on getting the kids outside, let them have fun, let them enjoy life. Instead of telling them they are fat, make sure they are out and about, make sure they aren’t bullied when exercising. It’s how I initially lost 40 pounds (after I quit those meds): a friend of mine went jogging, so I went along on my bike, taking her uphills on the backseat/luggage carrying thing.

      I went out and moved more then usually, not caring or being judged for my physical condition, weight or whatever.

      tl;dr: I was the fat kid. I hated exercise due to bullies. I lost weight by naturally moving and being out with friends. Restrict the sitting/eating possibilities by making kids like moving around.

    • Eric Strauss

      Here’s an idea. Why don’t we tell everybody that their body shape doesn’t actually matter at all. Eat what you want. If you don’t like being fat, diet. If you care, nobody else should either. Sanctimonious anti-weight crusaders can go suck it.