“Mommy, am I fat?”. This is a question that has plagued my mind from even before my daughter could speak. While she hasn’t asked me yet, I’ve worried about the day she might and wonder how I would respond. She’s not quite 6 but, as research tells us, it would not be that surprising for kids as young as that to ask that question.
40 – 50% of children ages 6 – 12 are dissatisfied with some aspect of their body’s shape and/or size ~ Body Image, 2nd edition, Cash & Smolak
Having worked through my own body image issues and an eating disorder, I don’t want either of my children to have the same concerns and fears that I had. I hope their body confidence is strong enough to not let their size, shape or unique features be a source of anxiety or hatred. But should either of them ask me THE question, what would I say???
Well, this past week I attended the NEDIC Beyond Images Conference in Toronto, where self-esteem, body image, media literacy and other eating disorder related topics were on the agenda. The closing keynote presentation came from singer-songwriter, author and speaker, Jenni Schaefer. Her talk was titled “Almost Anorexic” Does Everyone Have an Eating Disorder and was based on her latest book that comes out this summer. She spoke candidly about her own ED experience and how the “Am I Fat?” question was something she remembers asking from as early as age 4.
When that question comes up our go-to response might be to reassure the child with love, hugs and perhaps with a “No Sweetie. You’re beautiful”. But what Schaefer suggests is taking the opportunity to dig a little deeper, starting a conversation with our daughters and sons with a follow-up question instead:
What does fat mean to you?
Hmmm, think about the possibilities with that one! That open-ended question has the potential to bring about further questioning, greater dialogue and amazing lessons for our children. Imagine, with that one question, what they could learn about:
- Media Literacy: where we get our messages about fat versus thin and how those messages do not accurately represent real life
- Body Diversity: that people come in different shapes and sizes, there is no “perfect” size but rather a size that is predetermined primarily by genetics and a healthy, balanced approach to one’s lifestyle
- Size Acceptance: don’t judge a book by its cover; everyone is beautiful; there should be love and respect for one’s own body as well as for others
So, if either of my children ask me the “Am I Fat?” question I’ll be better equipped to lovingly help them along the journey of positive self-esteem and body image as their bodies grow and change. Instead of sweeping in and reassuring them with a “No, you’re not” response, I’ll be able to assist them in questioning society’s expectations and advocating for a change in mindset.