"I'm So Fat." 7 Things to Say When Your Child Says This to You

Thoughtful ways to respond when your child criticizes her own body

Even young children can face body-image issues and think, "I'm so fat!". Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Have you heard your child call herself fat or criticize her own body or face? The pressure to look a certain way is no less prevalent and damaging for kids as it is for adults, and in fact, may in some ways be greater for children today. As kids grow, their bodies change, and those who may not fit into the waif-thin or, for boys, muscular and athletic ideals may be targeted with criticism, teasing, and even bullying by peers.

With more companies increasingly marketing more things for teens and young adults to school-age kids, the age at which kids develop body-image problems has been getting lower and lower. Now, it's not uncommon to hear a 6-year-old call herself "fat" and express unhappiness about her body and her looks. Clothing lines like Brandy Melville, which sell to skinny (and only skinny) girls and are reportedly very popular, aren't helping things.

That's why it's important for parents of school-age kids to start thinking about how to encourage a healthy body image in kids at an early age. Here's what to say the next time you hear your child say, "I'm so fat!" or make some other negative comment about her appearance.

1. Humans have different body shapes. Ask your child to look around at all the many different kinds of body shapes and sizes around her. Despite what many fashion magazines (and for that matter, TV shows, print ads, and most kinds of media and advertisement) show, very tall and very thin bodies--and in the case of men, muscular, chiseled guys who have six-pack abs--is definitely not what everybody looks like.

(And of course there are dolls like Barbie, who, as has been noted by many critics, have proportions that are closer to some alien creature than an actual human woman.) Ask your child to question what she sees and to think about how these images can lead to people having unrealistic ideas about what people look like.

2. Most of what you see is Photoshopped. Speaking of unrealistic, there have been countless examples of images of perfectly beautiful celebrities and models that were Photoshopped to make them look flawless and skinnier. These are people who already have teams of stylists and makeup artists and lighting designers who work hard to make them look gorgeous. If their images are altered to look "perfect" without a hair out of place, without any blemishes or cellulite or any other human "imperfections"--which is, in fact, humanly impossible--then we should never, ever fault ourselves for not looking perfect.

3. Kids grow at different rates and in different ways. Some kids get taller faster, others may take a bit longer to lose the chubbiness they had as toddlers and preschoolers. What you look like at age 6 or 7 is not what you will look like at 10, at 14, and so on.

4. The most important thing is to be healthy. We can work together as a family to eat healthy and nutritious foods and get lots of exercise.

And it will be fun! Let's sit down together and plan some things to do, like bike riding, hiking, playing Frisbee, and more. Let's make a pledge to work on healthy eating habits and shop together and buy lots of fruits and vegetables and other whole foods and cut down or get completely rid of processed junk food and food that's high in sugar, like soda and juice.

5. Build your mind and spirit and relationships. Our looks are temporary and changing, and putting focus on that instead of developing our minds and our spirits is silly and ultimately not worth the effort. Let's think about books we can read, fun games we can play, and ways we can spend time together as a family.

6. Recognize sexism and fight it. This is an important message for both boys and girls: Girls and women can be especially be under an unfair amount of pressure to look a certain way. They are also criticized or praised more for their appearance than boys are. It's something that exists in society, but that doesn't mean it's right. Girls need to acknowledge that this exists and refuse to accept it. Boys need to know what it means to grow up to be a good man--to respect women and girls by seeing them as individual people who, like them, should be valued for who they are, not what they look like.

7. See the mean girls or boys for who they really are. People who may say things to you or make fun of other people for what they look like are insecure about themselves. They need to put other people down to feel good about themselves, and that's a sad way to live. Give them your sympathy, steer clear of them as much as possible, and make friends with people who are nice, friendly, and know that character is what counts.

And finally, try to pay attention to your own attitudes. If you say the "I'm so fat" phrase in front of your child, make a conscious effort to stop and make a pledge to yourself and your child that you'll try not to criticize your own body.

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