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No, Time, telling kids they are fat is not the answer

Having conversations with your children about their health can be challenging, but fat-shaming is not the answer
Having conversations with your children about their health can be challenging, but fat-shaming is not the answer
Illustration by Charlotte Alter

Last week, on Feb. 27, Time magazine aired an article that provided the author's perspective on how her mother's fat shaming helped her live a healthier life; yesterday Mar. 2, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) responded. The timing of this Time article could not have been any more inappropriate, given that it coincided with National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, a week in which people generally attempt to forego fat-shaming even if that is their normal bent.

However, Charlotte Alter decided to use this opportunity to express her views on how parents need to broach the weight topic in order to make the issue less taboo and help effect change. Done in the right way, this perhaps would not be so controversial, but the example Alter used was her own experience, stating that her mother said “I don’t want you to freak out, but I think you may have put on a little bit of weight.” Her mother continued by saying, “It’s only 3 or 4 pounds, and it’s not the end of the world. It happens to everyone. I’ll help you figure it out.”

Thus, Charlotte's weight became something to 'figure out' and the answer was to diet and exercise in order to lose weight. Charlotte was pleased to report that the next time she asked her mother if she looked fat, she was told she looked great, obviously implying that if you are fat, you cannot look great.

Alter emphasized that her mother's words and continuing conversation about weight did not put her into a 'tailspin' or cause any psychological harm, but that does not mean the same conversation would not be detrimental to others. And although Alter does give airspace to campaigns that focus on inner beauty and improve positive body image, she invalidates their importance by saying they deflect attention from the real issue.

But as NEDA pointed out in their response, it is not appropriate to tell your child they are fat and to focus specifically on methods to help them lose weight. That is not to say that you should not talk to your child about healthy eating and exercise, but those are not the same thing as weight. There is actually empirical evidence for this; a 2013 article in JAMA showed the results of a study looking at the children of parents who engaged in weight-related conversations compared to those of parents who discussed healthy eating behaviors. Children of parents who had weight-related discussions were more likely to diet, engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors, and binge eat, whereas the conversations around healthful eating provided protection against disordered eating behaviors.

Charlotte Alter's experience may have been positive, but there is clearly evidence that considerable harm can be done by parents focusing on weight instead of health. Conversations between parents and children can always be a challenge, especially around sensitive issues such as health, which is why NEDA has provided a guide with practical advice for how to broach these subjects in a positive way without resorting to fat-shaming.

It is irresponsible for us to encourage parents to perpetuate weight bias in an already-prejudiced society in order to address childhood obesity, especially when there is evidence that the risks far outweigh the benefits. Instead, let us focus on sending encouraging messages to our children so they can live healthy lives focusing on eating for health and exercising for enjoyment rather than losing weight to please others.

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