Fighting Words

A Relative Is Body-Shaming Your Child. How Do You Shut It Down?

Virginia Sole-Smith, author of Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, shares talking points for *those* relatives.

grandma and her granddaughter at breakfast shouldn't come with any fat-shaming
DaniloAndjus/E+/Getty Images

Hands up if, over the holidays, a relative dropped some remark about your child's body that still has your cheeks burning. Body-shaming is nothing new — just this week, Jenna Bush Hager recalled Barbara Bush’s comment on her bikini body and what a defining moment that was for her (and a growth moment for her grandma). After generations of diet culture, some people still reflexively make comments that they might think are clever and somehow “honest,” but which your child, especially a tween or teen, picks up and internalizes right away.

"You should run around like your cousins!"

"You could stand to eat a few more cookies!" or "Whoa! Maybe go easy on those cookies!"

"What size are you wearing now?" (Come on, they did not need to ask your child that out loud, in front of people.)

Or the outright: "You are looking too thin!" or "You are looking so big!"

Weight and size are fraught issues in our society, and I wish it weren't that way, but it is. Yes, child obesity is on the rise, and the American Academy of Pediatrics just set new obesity guidelines wanting pediatricians to start using "intensive health behavior and lifestyle treatment" to nip obesity in the bud before children suffer long-term health consequences. But that's between you, your kid, and their doctor.

Side comments from family members just make kids more self-conscious, less likely to move their bodies, and more likely to eat as if consuming nutrition is shameful. And teasing kids about their weight leads them to gain more of it.

No matter their size, people say sh*t.

My firstborn was a hilariously roly-poly baby, but since then, both my kids have had strictly mid-percentiles that merit zero comments from their pediatrician. They are fine. And yet. There was a tough moment when a friend whose daughter was battling an eating disorder asked my child to say their weight out loud, then told her kid, again in front of both of them, "See, you could gain 20 pounds and still look great." She meant to be kind but managed to mortify two teens at once. (Golden rule: Never compare kids.)

But friends who have curvy kids have it worse. There is no end to the side comments about how they should move more and eat less. Trust: Kids are already well aware if they are larger than their classmates and cousins! They have eyes and are savvy enough to catch adults looking at them with any hint of disapproval.

How should you respond to a relative who comments on your child's size?

What can you say to a relative when something stupid comes out of their mouth about the way your child is shaped? Is it something as simple as, "Please don't make remarks about my child's body?"

"A phrase such as that is a start, but if your kid hears you say that, it could leave the impression that bodies can't be talked about, or that their body is a problem that needs to be hushed up," says Virginia Sole-Smith, whose book Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, is available for pre-order and coming out this April.

Don't worry about saying the "right" thing to your insensitive relative, Sole-Smith says. The only person to care about in this situation is your child, so be sure what they hear you say in response is on point. "You want your child to hear you advocating for them. I'd go with something like, 'We love and trust their body and have no reason to be worried about their exercise or eating.' This lets your child know that you do not have a problem with their body. The problem is Grandma, or whoever else is making a comment."

What can you say to your child who's just been fat-shamed?

No, you can't erase the tape. But later, in private, you can help your child process what was said.

Acknowledge what happened. "Say something like, 'I'm sorry you heard Grandma making those comments. She grew up believing that thin bodies are really important because our culture pushes that message so hard,'" says Sole-Smith. Teach how you are raising your child to get beyond that. "Try saying, 'We believe that all bodies are good bodies.' Don't demonize Grandma but help your child understand the bigger picture and the larger context."

You can also assure your child that they don't have to listen to lectures from anyone, including family members and friends, if they cross into body talk. It's hard for kids to stand up to relatives in a respectful way, of course. "That said, I think you can tell your child that they can set a boundary and say, 'My body is none of your business,'" says Sole-Smith. Or if that's too harsh, just have them try the simple ‘I don't want to talk about my body negatively; it makes me uncomfortable.’"

What should you say to your relative later, in private?

I'm no expert in the diplomacy of this, having failed to right things in the past. But comments may merit a little, shall we say, "reset" with whoever makes them. Via text or phone, spell out that your child is at a sensitive age and takes even subtle comments to heart. I would not hesitate to lay on the guilt: Depression is up in teens, kids are already painfully self-conscious thanks to social media, and relatives and friends need to rally around kids and boost them up.

Ask for a team effort. Enlist your relative's help — and by help, I mean insist they knock off suggestions, comparisons, and side comments. If they can't heap on praise and love, they can at least stay quiet and keep their judgments in their own head.