My four-year-old daughter, Anna, and I are looking through old photos. “That’s not Bubbie, she doesn’t look old,” she says about one. “How come your brothers used to be smaller than you and now they’re bigger?” she asks about another. Then we come across another image. “Who’s this?” she asks, her tiny finger landing on what is clearly a photo of me.
“That’s me, when I was a bit younger,” I respond.
“Oh.” There's a notable pause before she speaks again. “It didn’t look like you. In the picture you’re fatter.”
In the picture, I am fatter. Ten years ago, I was a substantially different size than I am now. As a child I was tiny, consistently underweight for my age, likely as a result of being born a month premature and being a picky eater. But somewhere around my late teens, I put on a lot of weight.
I actually didn’t think much of it at the time. My relatives didn’t like it, but they also didn’t like the haircut I loved or the acne I didn’t choose, so them badgering me about my appearance was nothing new. My friends didn't care; I mostly socialized with queer women, who rejected ideas of beauty standards. In fact, some of my friends did activist work around fat issues and are great role models for plus-sized women in my life. I did end up getting harassed by men about my body, but given that I’d always been harassed about something, and it was not much different.
I wound up losing a lot of weight due to some chronic health problems. I cut many foods out of my diet, and would sometimes involuntarily throw-up due to anxiety. My relatives thought I looked great. I felt awful. At some point in my adult life, I came to identify with the Health at Every Size (HAES) philosophy, which prioritizes health over weight or obesity and challenges the hatred that fat people face.
As a parent, "fat" usually comes up as comic relief in kids' books, TV shows and movies. Often this comic relief is insulting to fat people. There's a hungry hippo, or an obese spinster aunt, or a fat lady that sits on a house or crushes a piano. Rarely does a chubby character get to be at the centre of a story.
Before the incident with the photo, Anna’s co-parent and I had both overheard her and a friend referring to a schoolmate as fat. From their tone, it seemed as through she and her friend were laughing about it, if not openly teasing the child in question. Objectively, the kid is chubby—so it became a matter of teaching Anna that fat is not funny.
Due to my own strong feelings on the issue of weight, which fat positivity is central to, I was embarrassed. How had my young daughter already come to dismiss fat people as funny or unworthy? Where had I gone wrong?
I emailed a bunch of friends—those who actively educate others about fat positivity, who are progressive educators, who do body positivity workshops with girls. Did they know of a kids' book that discussed weight, outside of the context of bullying? No one did. No one could think of any strong examples of fat children or women featured in picture books. No one at various bookstores could suggest a resource, either. Apparently, they don’t exist.
Back to the photograph. “Anna,” I asked my daughter, after her comment about me looking fatter, “remember how we talk about how everyone’s bodies are different and look different from each other and work differently?” She did. This is a conversation we usually have in the context of disabilities; sometimes she’ll ask about a child with a mobility device, or an adapted park swing. “Remember how we talk about how we're all different, but that all of our different bodies are still good?” She did.
As the conversation went on, Anna affirmed that she knew a person could have any skin colour and be beautiful and healthy; she knew a person could have various types of mobility and be beautiful and healthy; she knew a person could be any gender or age and be beautiful and healthy. “Do you know that fat people are pretty and healthy?” I asked her, finally, point blank. “No,” she responded.
I spent the next little while establishing that one could indeed be pretty, healthy and fat. Anna processed this information for awhile and accepted it. We talked about how there aren’t a lot of pictures of fat kids in books, or fat animal characters (save for Garfield, which I do not want to get into) or fat princesses. I told her that her reaction made sense since she hadn’t been exposed to the idea that being fat is OK.
It was an instant turnaround—the miracle of being four and not 40 and set in your ways. Now Anna describes a person as chubby and points out that she’s not saying "fat" to be mean “like bullies do.” I have made sure that weight isn’t something we turn our heads from or don’t discuss, and that she sees images of fat people engaged in the same activities as she sees thin people doing.
Sometimes the values most obvious to me—the things I thought would be in the top issues I'd articulate to my child—are the ones that escape me. So often, especially once Anna started school, my “lessons” have been reactions to things she’s come home with, rather than ones I actively endeavoured to lay out and address. This one hit me hard and taught us both a lesson.
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