For Children, “Fat” is the new “Ugly”

CNN has an excellent series on perceptions of beauty in contemporary US culture. This week’s was on how the age for body anxiety to set in is getting younger and younger:

“Fat is the new ugly on the school playground. Children as young as 3 worry about being fat. Four- and 5-year-olds know “skinny” is good and “fat” is bad. Children in elementary school are calling each other fat as a put-down.”

The message that “thin” = good and “fat” = bad is everywhere, and kids are pretty good at picking up on it. Children hear their parents talking trash about their bodies, obsessing over exercise, moaning about the pants that no longer fit, and chatting about whether they’ve been “good” and had a salad or whether they’ve been “bad” and had some cake.

And they hear adults saying unkind things about other people’s bodies. They learn from TV, from movies, from toys, from T-shirts, and from God-only-knows what else, too. I don’t exactly know what the answer is. I just know it has to stop.

The stakes are high–very, very high:

“People who diet a lot — and therefore regularly spend a lot of attention and self-control on what they eat — often don’t have enough focus for math problems or other exercises, says Jennifer Thomas, a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School. 

Even worse, Dr. Thomas goes on to say, is that people who severely limit their food intake for prolonged periods actually SHRINK THEIR BRAINS.

But hey, in a culture that worships the external appearance, maybe that’s a small price to pay for being skinny?

Seriously, though–and I’ll keep beating on this drum as long as it needs to be beaten–we’ve got to fight back.

It’s an insult to the Creator God to speak of anybody’s body with anything less than respect.

It’s an insult to a human being to be judged as if he or she were only a body.

I have cried actual tears over the time I wasted worrying about my body. No one goes to their deathbed thinking that things would’ve been better if they’d just made time to work out more and lose those last 10 pounds.

We just don’t have time for this nonsense.

What can we do?


4 thoughts on “For Children, “Fat” is the new “Ugly”

  1. Just learned last night of an acquaintance–a girl my daughter’s age (12)–who is hospitalized several states away in an intensive program because she had wasted away to just over 50 pounds. 12 years old. I cannot understand how that happens. But I also can. It’s so hard. My two girls are very different. One really doesn’t worry much about her appearance. The other, only 8, already stands in front of the mirror critiquing herself. I watch my own language and actions carefully, but she is clearly getting plenty of messages from other sources. As a parent, I feel a bit powerless over how to shield her from it all.

    1. Oh, that is SO sad. Twelve! The terrible thing is that it is an obsession that runs so deep that sometimes there is so little we can do. I don’t know what the answer is. There is no formula that we can apply to protect our kids absolutely. One of the more encouraging studies I know involves verbally critiquing the thin ideal 3 hours a week for 6 weeks (this was with university-age women). This was remarkably effective. The other things are the things you already do: eat together, don’t fuss about dessert, don’t critique anyone’s body/appearance.

      Healing thoughts to the 12 y.o. girl…

  2. Rachel, this body image thing has reared its ugly head in my own family and it makes me sick. I remember too when I was a kid that some of the other kids called me Blimp. I wasn’t round, but I also wasn’t thin as a rail like they were and this was a definite put-down. Gotta tell you, that was over four decades ago so the phenomenon is not new.

    Thanks for helping to shine the light on this. Your words here should be enshrined on every church and school ground:

    It’s an insult to the Creator God to speak of anybody’s body with anything less than respect.

    It’s an insult to a human being to be judged as if he or she were only a body.

    We just don’t have time for this nonsense.


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