As a fat woman raising three children, I sometimes feel compelled to defend their eating habits, their activity levels and their bodies. Part of me feels like I am obligated to explain to people how they eat and move so nobody will be able to accuse me of teaching them “bad habits” or putting them in “danger” of ending up fat like me.
This is a result of internalized fatphobia. No matter how much work I do to find peace with my body, there are some myths and negative societal attitudes toward fatness that still shape the way I feel about fat bodies in certain situations. Anti-fat bias is so pervasive in our culture that I will probably always fight this urge to defend my body and my ability to parent.
I do, of course, recognize that in reality, I don’t owe anyone anything. I don’t need to defend the way my kids eat or move. They’re healthy, perfect and even if they weren’t—I don’t have to defend the way I parent just because I live in a fat body. That’s not how it works. Society’s perception of my shortcomings as a healthy person are a result of diet culture and fatphobia. They are not in any way based on a picture of my actual health—something that nobody has access to but me.
Because I am in good health and take excellent care of myself, mind, body and soul, I am more than equipped to instill healthy habits in my children.
At home, my children hear that it’s important to move your body. They know their bodies need a wide variety of foods. They know that it’s important for them to choose clothes from their closet that fit and make them feel comfortable—regardless of the size on the tag. We even discuss how foods can affect the function of their bodies, and how to choose foods that serve their goal of growing up healthy and strong.
What we never, ever discuss is how food might affect the way they look. First of all, the science and psychology of body size is more complicated than just food intake. If one of them ends up fat, I don’t want them to think back to every morsel of food they’ve ever eaten with regret. I don’t want them to develop ideas that will set them up for a lifetime of disordered eating.
And that’s a valid concern.
According to Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietician and author of “Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace with Food and Transform Your Life,” a child is 242 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than Type 2 diabetes.
Read that again. Two hundred and forty-two times more likely to develop disordered eating habits than diabetes.
How often do we hear about the “childhood obesity epidemic” and “skyrocketing type 2 diabetes rates?” ALL THE TIME. Fat kids are treated like ticking time bombs just waiting to drop dead from a dreaded disease.
Maybe we should be worrying that focusing on thinness and including children in conversations about the appearance of their body is setting them up to suffer with disordered eating patterns for life.
“If you took a sample of 100,000 children, only 12 would have type 2 diabetes,” Rumsey shares. “But 2,900 would meet the criteria for an eating disorder.”
Of course, those twelve children are important, and looking after their health is crucial. But there’s a much higher chance that my child will become one of the 2,900. As they get older, that number only increases, especially for my daughter. According to Rumsey, “3/4 of women in the US meet the criteria for disordered eating.”
I want my children to be strong and healthy, but mental health IS health.
If I fuck up my kids relationship with food in an effort to keep their bodies in an ideal state for society to accept them, I’m not doing them any favors. As a matter of fact, I’d be actively harming them, and I’m unwilling to do that.
“The best-known environmental contributor to EDs is society’s idealization of thinness & the stigmatization of, & discrimination against, fat bodies,” Rumsey explains.
As much as I hate it, my kids are going to grow up in the same world I live in. The anti-fat rhetoric that has devastated me for most of my life will be in their ears soon enough. There is no way to shield them from those messages.
All I can do as their mother is try to protect them from growing up to hate their bodies is to make sure that our home is body neutral. Here, there is no ideal body. The body you have is the body you’re meant to have, however that looks.
Our home is also neutral about food. We offer our kids all kinds of different things, and we don’t assign any kind of moral value to food. Food is here to help us grow, fuel our bodies and also to bring us pleasure, help us celebrate and bring us together with the people we love. Food carries memories and traditions. I don’t want my kids to miss out on all the ways food can be a source of connection and happiness.
Of course, I’ll always be vigilant about my kids’ health, whatever the size of their bodies.
They’re young now, but as they grow, plenty of things could happen that could require me to be carefully in tune with the way they are functioning. I am not saying that the emergence of Type 2 diabetes in a child is not a valid concern, and that increasing rates are not something we should work toward managing as a society.
What I am saying is that while we are worrying about the health of a couple handfuls of kids per one hundred thousand, we should also be taking care of the mental health of the almost three thousand kids per one hundred thousand that are developing lifelong disordered eating habits because they are terrified of getting fat.
If we can’t stop chastising fat people just because it’s mean, harmful and upsetting, maybe we can consider challenging anti-fat bias in society when we hear it for the sake of the thousands of children who are listening and choosing to deprive their bodies of the food they need to grow out of a fear of accidentally eating “too much.”