The pressure to be thin affects kids far earlier than you might imagine, but you can counter that with some gentle messaging and good role modeling.

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Molly, a mom of two in Washington, D.C., didn't expect the F-word to come up at a rehearsal for her daughter's dance recital. But during a break, 5-year-old June came over and said, "Rosie saw me in my costume and asked me why I'm so fat." Molly's heart sank. "It could have been a neutral question, but it sounded like a judgment," she says. "Especially because Rosie is a slender white child and June is Black and at the time was a bit bigger and rounder than the other kids in her grade."

You probably assume that body-image anxiety is something you'll be dealing with in middle school. But 34 percent of girls are already restricting their eating by age 5 so as not to get fat, according to a 2015 study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. And more than half of 6-to-8-year-old girls and a third of boys that age think they should weigh less, according to research by Common Sense Media. "Children as young as 3 are already beginning to express and internalize stereotypes about body size," says Jennifer Harriger, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, in Malibu, California, who studies body-image issues in children.

Illustration of a child on front of mirrors
Credit: Illustration by James Yang

Of course, it's also true that kids are, on average, bigger today than they were a generation ago—and there are real health consequences associated with having a high body weight during childhood, including an increased risk for diabetes, asthma, and heart disease. "However, studies show that putting kids on a diet doesn't reduce their risk of those health issues, and dieting during childhood is the number-one risk factor for developing an eating disorder later on," says Anna Lutz, R.D., a pediatric dietitian in Raleigh, North Carolina.

You want your children to be healthy and feel good about themselves. But what if your kid is chubby? Experts say that the strategies for nurturing body positivity are the same for kids of all sizes: "We can teach kids to love their body just the way it is," says Parents advisor Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. "And part of loving their body is taking good care of it so they can learn better, sleep better, and play better."

Put "Fat" In Perspective

It can be hard for doctors to know whether an increase in a child's weight reflects a problem or a typical growth spurt. Many kids experience a pretty dramatic weight gain either just before or during early puberty. It's normal for girls in the 50th percentile to gain around 10 pounds per year for four years beginning anywhere from 8 to 10 years old and for boys to have a similar growth spurt a few years later.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises pediatricians as well as parents to have fewer discussions about weight and dieting with children and instead to talk to kids of all sizes about building healthy lifestyle habits. "If you're talking about portion sizes or always restricting whether they can have dessert, kids will put that together and internalize shame," says dietitian Maryann Jacobsen, R.D., author of My Body's Superpower. Instead, think about your child's health in a more holistic way. "If they listen to their hunger and fullness cues, get enough sleep, are physically active, and have good emotional health, you can trust that their weight will fall wherever it's comfortable for their body to be," Jacobsen says. If one of those areas of health is off—they're watching TV more than they play outside or bedtime has been a disaster recently—you can focus on getting that habit back on track without making it about weight.

Think About Your Own Issues

When my older daughter was about 18 months, I was in a pretty dark place with my own body—far enough past the initial postpartum window that I thought I should have lost the baby weight but still struggling to get enough sleep and find my way back to an exercise routine. One night at dinner, I said to my husband, "I just don't like my body right now." My daughter immediately began patting herself all over, saying, "My body! My body!" I froze. I knew she didn't understand everything I'd said, but she could pick up on my worried tone—and I knew that soon enough, she'd understand the full context.

I decided right then to stop saying negative things about my body or anyone else's within my children's earshot. It's a promise I've kept for more than six years, and I've found that not body-shaming myself out loud has gradually turned into less body shame in general. And when those thoughts do come up, I try to think about what's really going on (usually, I'm tired, stressed, or anxious about something entirely unrelated to my body).

Keep in mind that negative body talk can manifest itself in various ways. "Anytime we make comments like, 'I know I shouldn't eat this giant brownie' or 'I'm so bad for getting seconds,' we're making a negative evaluation of our body," says Analisa Arroyo, Ph.D., associate professor of communications at the University of Georgia, in Athens, who studies conversations around health and weight. Instead, let your kids see you existing in your body without apology. "Our kids are often in and out of our room as we get dressed or take a shower in the morning," says Callie Glorioso-Mays, an American mom of an 8-yearold nonbinary child and a 4-year-old girl living in Kaiserslautern, Germany. "I think it's important to let them see my naked body with all its natural stretch marks, sags, and wrinkles."

Dr. Arroyo's research shows that parents who model body-positive behaviors—including a relaxed attitude about healthy eating and enjoyment of physical activity—are more likely to raise body-positive kids. Let your children see you taking care of yourself—and consider whether intermittent fasting, for example, is sending the right message. Says Jacobsen, "You know you love your kids unconditionally and they love you back the same way—so why wouldn't you give yourself permission to love yourself the way they do?"

Notice Weight Stigma

Just as research shows that parents can inadvertently reinforce racism when they avoid discussing race with their children, pretending that fat bodies don't exist or shouldn't be talked about doesn't help our children either—because they will notice body size sooner or later. And most of the messages they get about bigger bodies will be negative. Consider how every Disney princess is thin, and many of the villains are fat.

In one study, Dr. Harriger asked girls ages 3 to 10 to play with the "Barbie Fashionista" collection, which includes dolls of different ethnicities and body sizes. Curvy Barbie—whose real-world measurements would make her a size 6 or 8—was the doll that the girls said they liked the least. Not surprisingly, children classified as overweight or obese are far more likely to experience this kind of internalized stigma, which is directly related to body dissatisfaction.

These messages can be even more loaded for kids of color, who are facing the intersection of our cultural biases around both weight and race, notes Dr. Spinks-Franklin. "We know that physicians have an implicit negative bias against weight, and the majority of American physicians are white," she explains. "It's highly likely that a child of color in a bigger body will experience this double bias.

As a result, the doctor may come off as hostile or just seem less trustworthy." This can have an impact on a child's overall health if parents then avoid preventive health care because they don't feel safe or welcomed by their provider.

Child in a cape jumping on skateboard
Credit: Illustration by James Yang

Rethink Your Responses

Fortunately, you have a tremendous influence on your children and can help counteract what they see and hear in the media. "I often talk with my daughters about how everybody has a different body and some people are tall and some people are short, some have larger bodies and some have smaller bodies, some have darker skin, some have lighter skin, some have straight hair and others have curly hair," says Dr. Harriger, a mom of 9-year-old twins. "I mix weight in with other traits to neutralize it, so they see weight as just one example of body diversity."

When your child makes a loud observation in public—yelling, "Wow, that lady is so fat!"—avoid the impulse to respond, "It's not nice to say fat!" because doing so reinforces the message that fat equals bad, Dr. Harriger says. Instead, try a positive response like, "Isn't it cool how bodies come in all shapes and sizes?"

If your child uses the word fat to describe themself, your first instinct will be to reassure them with, "You're not fat!" But take a step back. A very young child may not even use the word negatively. "My then 2-year-old came home from day care and asked, 'Am I a chubby toddler?' " says my friend Amy Palanjian, a mom of three in Pella, Iowa, and creator of YummyToddlerFood.com. Start by asking your child what they think that word means. If they express concern, you can say, "There's nothing wrong with being fat [or chubby]—all bodies are good bodies!" If they're taking it more in stride, just reinforce that with something like, "Your body is the perfect size for you!" You might read a book together that reiterates your words, such as Bodies Are Cool, written and illustrated by Tyler Feder.

With an older child, start with empathy. You might say, "I'm sad you're feeling bad about your body. Can you tell me more about why this is worrying you?" Dr. Arroyo suggests. It's worth exploring where they got the impression that, say, a tummy should be flat, or thighs shouldn't touch (and whether they may have heard it from you). Then gently correct their perception that their body is flawed: "We get a lot of messages about what kinds of bodies look best, and it can be hard to tune them out. All kinds of bodies are beautiful, but what really matters is all the great things that your body can do."

Focus Less on Looks

Girls are particularly prone to what researchers call self-objectification, in which they think more about how they look than how they feel in their bodies—in part because grown-ups are quick to praise their outfits and hairstyles. Boys can also get caught up in the idea that they should have big muscles to look like a superhero. It's just as helpful to avoid praising kids for their thinness or beauty as it is to prevent fat-shaming, Dr. Harriger says. If your mother waxes poetic about your 8-year-old's "long ballerina legs," you can chime in about how strong she is, how hard she works on her arabesques in dance class, or how much she loves twirling.

Another way to de-emphasize appearance is to choose their clothes for function as well as or even instead of form. "We often buy pants from the boys' section for our daughters because they have reinforced knees, and we talk to them about how they can do more on the playground that way," says Lexie Kite, Ph.D., a mom of two in Salt Lake City and coauthor of More Than a Body: Your Body Is an Instrument, Not an Ornament.

You don't have to dismiss your child's desire to be attractive—it's something we all want, after all. There's nothing wrong with telling your child that they're beautiful or handsome sometimes. However, continuously remind them that it's not the only or most important thing: Being kind, generous, and creative, for example, means a lot more. Even if your child just rolls their eyes, it'll sink in that you see them as much more than their body.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's October 2021 issue as "When Your 6-Year-Old Thinks They're Fat." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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