DEAR FORMER FAT GIRL: My daughter came home yesterday crying because a girl in her class told her she was fat. She is a healthy size and loves to eat, but she is not overweight. I—of course—comforted her and told her it wasn’t true, but I’m wondering if you have advice on how to handle this. I don’t want her to start getting a complex about her weight. Help! —Eliza
DEAR ELIZA: Wow. I’m having flashbacks to the time when, in third grade, a girl told me that her mom said I was the fattest kid in the class. You see how much that affected me, as the only other thing I remember about elementary school is the time I threw up on my desk.
A touchy subject, kids and weight. I can only tell you how I handled the same situation with my son, and direct you to resources by others who are smarter than me. My 10-year-old was also the victim of Fat Talk. When he told me about it, I did much the same as you, saying, “You know it isn’t true, right?” His response: “Of course,” in that “duh” tone of voice preteens are especially adept at.
I was so busy dealing with my own reactions and worrying about his, I didn’t ask until the next morning what he did in response. The last thing I wanted was for him to get into a mudslinging match, and thankfully, he was mature enough not to. He simply told the kid in question, “That was mean,” and informed his teacher. I complemented his handling of the situation, and reiterated that he is not overweight. “I know,” he said, apparently exasperated with me.
I take heart in his reaction for a couple of reasons. First, he responded directly to the kid, rather than swallowing his hurt and remaining mute. That’s what I did. I was silent, because the fact is that I BELIEVED the messages I was getting about my body, whether from other kids or from the mirror or from society-at-large. I internalized those messages to the extent that I let my weight become part of who I was—to dictate how I operated in the world. Rather than calling the kid on her hurtful comment, I wanted to run and hide—and I did, doing everything I could to fade into the background, physically and emotionally.
Second, his sassy exasperation with me actually made me hopeful that he does, in fact, recognize that he is not overweight. While Johnny loves food—fashions himself, in fact, as somewhat of a foodie—his height-weight is very normal. Yes, he eats too fast and loves sweets, but I do too. We both try to use tactics to slow down, like putting our forks down or sipping water between every bite. I rarely have junk food in the house, and we eat most of our dinners at home. I’m confident that he knows what healthy habits are, and have to settle for hoping that he carries them with him into teen and adulthood.
But enough about me. You didn’t say how your daughter reacted to the comment, whether indeed she does have a weight issue (which would NOT justify the insult—don’t get me wrong—but might affect how you deal with it) or whether she has a history with this particular kid (Johnny and the boy who made the comment happen to be pretty competitive with each other, which could have contributed to the issue).
Find out—if you don’t already know—how your daughter responded in the moment—what she said or didn’t say. Then act accordingly. If she did engage in name-calling, deal with that issue first. Not sure whether she took the comment to heart? Watch her behavior closely. Is she eating less at meal time? Turning down foods she loves? Making critical—not necessarily negative, even–observations about her body, or other people’s figures? If so, she may have taken the girl seriously.
If you suspect that’s the case, or if your daughter is overweight (consult with your pediatrician to see how she measures up with other kids her age), this conversation guide will help you address the issue carefully and effectively. Wishing you (and me, and all moms out there) luck.
Lisa Delaney is editor of Spry magazine and author of Secrets of a Former Fat Girl. To submit a question, visit spryliving.com/experts.