Helping Your Large Child Thrive in a Fat-Phobic World
by Julie Dillon, MS, RD, NCC, LDN, CEDRD
“As a parent of a larger child, the difficult challenge is the voice inside my head telling me that I am doing something wrong. It’s telling me I am ‘letting’ her get fat and not doing something about it.” —Jennifer, mom
We live in a world where fat bodies are discriminated against, bullied, and considered unacceptable. What if your child is larger than what society deems ok? It is important for you to teach your large child how to respect his or her body since our society will not. You will be your child’s advocate for healthy ways of experiencing food, exercise, and body image. Where do you start?
Let your child know through your words and actions you accept him or her unconditionally. If your child comes to you upset about his/her large body, let your child know you love them as he/she is, that you love them no matter what and no matter what size. Do not suggest a diet or exercising together. If you were to do so, the suggestion sets up a condition. It says, “No, you are not ok as you are. I will help you change.”
Meals and Snacks
Set up regular meal and snack times so your child knows when food will be served. Older children and teens may start to feel ashamed of eating enough in public. They may restrict themselves to low-calorie foods when eating with friends. This way of eating is often referred to as “eating for show.” It means that even though your son or daughter is hungry for a variety of foods, he/she may feel like he/she should be restricting in order to repent for their large body. This leads many kids (and adults!) to eat more in private and even binge eat.
If your child knows your meal and snack times and falls into this “eating for show” trap, he/she can avoid binge or secret eating by consuming enough at the next meal or snack time.
Consistent eating times also offer the opportunity for every child in your home to learn how to detect, respect, and satisfy hunger and fullness cues. Besides promoting healthy eating, this also promotes positive body image.
High-Calorie Fun Foods
By banishing certain fun foods, you may set your child up to sneak foods or binge eat. Be sure to stock your house with a wide variety of wholesome nutritious foods. This variety will include fun foods too. Fun foods include cakes, cookies, and chips. I encourage all families (no matter what body size) to offer cookies at snack time once a week. I also encourage a few fun sides such as potato chips a couple times a week with meals. Offering fun foods alongside nutrient-dense foods helps in many ways. It satisfies cravings, models moderation, and prevents shame and binge eating high-calorie low nutrition foods.
Jennifer has found strength thanks to professionals and others who have gone through the same thing. “I have to get grounded by people who understand. While I know my family is concerned, their way of ‘shaming’ her or me because of her food choices or size and trying to manipulate her diet makes helping my daughter so hard. Having other parents to talk to that have been there, BUT also agree with the Body Positive philosophy is essential for support. I also have needed the support of a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist to help me let go of my anxiety about this.”
Every body is meant to move—not just fat bodies. Encourage all of your children to find activities they enjoy. If time and finances allow, let your children pick one organized physical activity per week. Maybe they will enjoy soccer, tae kwon do, salsa dancing, or ice-skating!
Do not make your large child do an activity that he/she does not feel comfortable doing. Avoid “no pain no gain” cliché philosophies. Instead of motivating, they will only shame your child more. Also do not single out any child and make him/her do an exercise while others do not. Moreover, don’t encourage more exercise in relation to foods consumed nor discuss completing a certain amount of exercise to burn off calories consumed. Thinking about food in this way is disordered and could set up genetically predisposed children to start practicing an eating disorder.
Jennifer states: “I try to listen to my daughter’s sadness and frustration about not fitting into ‘skinny jeans’ and not tell her she is wrong for feeling that way. But I also talk to her about how her body is going to change and grow forever and how learning to love it is the best gift. I talk to her a lot about how strong her legs are and how graceful she is when she is figure skating. Not about what her body looks like but the amazing things it can do.”
Your large child needs you to communicate unconditional acceptance in order to thrive in a world stereotyped against his/her body type. Avoid shame-based language, singling out, or punishment. Rather engage in modeling healthy eating, pleasurable movement, and respectful body image for all your children, no matter their size.