THE BLOG
08/14/2013 09:57 am ET | Updated Oct 14, 2013

Reclaiming the 'F' Word: It's For the Children

"A few months ago, my 3-year-old asked an acquaintance, "Why are your arms so fat?" The acquaintance responded with a joke, "Why are yours so skinny?" More recently, my daughter put a pillow on her belly and said "Look, I'm a fat girl!" Then, when she got tired of being ignored, she started singing the words over and over. I don't want the word 'fat' to be bad or taboo... what would you say?"

I say it's time to reclaim the 'F' word. Fat. Read it. Say it out loud. How does it make you feel? Are you squirming? Angry? Hurt? Feel judged or judgmental? I've seen an increasing reluctance to use the word 'fat' in any situation, particularly among mothers (many struggling with their own body image issues) who are simultaneously terrified of obesity and eating disorders. Two recent articles by mothers of young girls imply that banning the "F" word protects a child's self-esteem. ("Until my daughter said it, the "F" word -- fat -- was not heard in our house.") I'm not so sure.

That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named

Fat is a descriptor, but in our increasingly fat-biased and phobic culture, it has become strongly associated with undesirable traits like being lazy, stupid, mean and more likely to steal -- beliefs held by preschoolers and doctors alike.

In our example, "fat arms" was an observation. We can take it further as we talk with our children, "My arms are fatter than yours, and your aunt has thinner arms. And look at all the wonderful things arms can do! You can swing on the monkey bars, and I can do a cartwheel, and auntie put up the tent on Friday." The woman with the arms-in-question felt no malicious intent -- now the rest of society gets to catch up. (Another example where we can learn from our children.)

When the word "fat" is taboo, if a child happens to be a little chubby, solid and muscular, gaining weight before a growth spurt or bigger than peers (many "normal" children feel "fat" compared to smaller peers), they learn to feel shame. Slim children are not immune, as they internalize the fear of becoming fat -- something so awful apparently we can't even say it, like Harry Potter's "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named." Regardless of body mass index, children who feel 'fat' tend to be less confident, less active, and more likely to diet and gain weight -- and no wonder, when we look at what "fat" has come to signify.

Be patient with yourself

As I began challenging myself to say "fat," it felt awkward and scary. Tall, lean, thin, fat, curvy, round, short, thick and strong are physical descriptors, just like having straight or curly hair, brown or pink skin.

From when my child was barely walking, I peppered the word "fat" into conversations as appropriate. I did not flinch from "fat" used as a neutral descriptor. I did not correct my daughter's words if she pointed out someone who was "fat" at the store. We did talk about not pointing, or talking about people in general, but if we were out on a bike ride and she saw a fat person (passing us as often as not) and she commented, I'd say something like: "Yes, she is fat. She's going pretty fast. Her curly red hair reminds me of Brave!"

It can feel somewhat forced at times, but children are literally inundated with images and reminders of how fat people (or cartoon characters) are lazy, unattractive, unfit and greedy. Sometimes, when undoing brainwashing, we need to be proactive.

Fat isn't funny

When children almost inevitably start to giggle when they hear "fat," as did the little girl above, don't punish, but explain. Children are simply absorbing a cultural bias. When we use the word "fat" with relative ease (like any other word), it loses its power.

When you see or hear fat bias, call it out in an age-appropriate way. Maybe something like, "That's a stereotype. See how they only talk about that boy in class being fat, greedy and mean?" Just as we educate around other stereotypes, from gender in the toy store aisle, to ethnic stereotypes in Disney movies, we can do the same with fat bias. (I'm not always the most fun person to watch TV with.)

Deb Burgard PhD, psychologist, eating disorder specialist and a co-founder of the Health at Every Size (HAES®) approach adds, "Talk about how 'fat' is used as a weapon sometimes, and how that is a problem, not the word itself, and neither is it a problem if a person's body is fat. If kids are aware and old enough, I might give other examples, like using 'gay' as an insult, or 'queer,' or 'lame.' None of these words, used in context as a descriptor (or for a horse!) are a problem, but when they are used to insult they are a problem, and their history of use as an insult may make people uncomfortable. Given that, I would also say that it is important to listen to other people about what they prefer to be called, so if someone seems hurt if you say 'fat,' it is polite to notice and ask what words feel better to them."

When "fat" is a four letter word

As always, children mostly do as they see us do. Too often in our culture, the way most of us say "fat" is a dirty word, as in, "I feel fat today," or, "Do I look fat in this dress?" Using "fat" this way should be banned in the home, and probably does help promote positive body image. Instead of focusing on appearance or on negative self-talk, let's send a message about what really matters. "I'm so happy to go out for a special dinner!" or "I had a great time on my walk; the sunset was so pretty!"

Instead of automatically greeting friends with, "You look great!" try, "I missed you!" or "I'm so happy to see you!" We want our children to be happy -- happy to see themselves in the mirror no matter what they look like. Maybe rehabbing the word "fat" can help.

What do you think? Does this sound doable?

More to ponder:
Kate Harding's "You're Not Fat" essay
Writer and therapist Dawn Friedman's post on talking about weight