Every parent wants better for their children than they had. My childhood was wonderful: I was happy, safe, tremendously loved, and supported. Still, I strive to ensure my children don't have to go through what I went through when it comes to a sense of shame. I grew up fat, and even though the people who matter the most in my life — my parents and my friends — accepted me for who I was, I did not escape fat shaming, and comments made about fat kids bodies affect them later in life.
I was born "big," at 9 pounds 11 ounces, and I stayed "big." I had a round tummy and thick legs and I was tall. By the time I was in 4th grade I was towering over my peers. I was fatter than the rest of them and while I never called myself fat, I was. Back then, though, I attributed my fatness with my height. I was an "Amazon" and I told myself that in a year or so I would stop gaining weight and inevitably sprout to 5'8" and join the ranks of the '90s supermodels I had come to covet.
I was still "on track" in 5th grade, and while I was still taller than the majority of my friends they were quickly catching up. In 6th grade I shot up another 2.5 inches, and then I stopped. Forever. I topped out in the height department, but I didn't stop gaining weight. In fact, between 6th and 8th grade I gained a lot of weight, something to the tune of 50 pounds. For those of you unfamiliar with middle school (or have somehow magically and luckily forgotten) middle school is a terrible time to gain a lot of weight. Other children (fat, thin, and in-between) are insecure to the point of ravenousness, and a fat kid makes a fine meal. This is also when relatives, loved ones, and random strangers begin to become "concerned." This is when I really, truly, learned to be ashamed of my fat.
Fat cells, also known as adipocytes, don't go away even if you lose the weight. They just lose their fat content and shrink. The shame of ever having been fat, or being fat, sinks between those cells, settling in until it's as much a part of you as your skin and bones, and its effects go on and evolve as the years go by.
They Will Always Feel Like They Aren't In Their "Real Body"
Often, in an attempt to be kind, adults in a fat child's life will assure them that "one day" they will be slim and beautiful, as though their bodies are some bump in the road that they shamefully couldn't swerve around. This is harmful for a few reasons:
- It emphasizes the idea that being fat is so shameful we shouldn't even admit if we are, even when it's obvious (pretty much all fat kids know they're fat)
- It tells them that their bodies don't actually exist yet, but are rather something waiting for them
- It demarcates fat bodies and thin bodies as being completely different entities, even though the same body can be fat or thin at different moments in time. It leaves a former fat kid, who feels like the same person regardless of size (because they are) wondering why they haven't felt some sort of otherworldly transformation. Are they even really thin?
They Will Be Ashamed Of (Or Live In Fear Of) Being Fat
The particular shame of being fat shamed never really goes away, not completely, even if a lot of the fat on your body does. The shame follows like a pesky younger sibling that you wish would just stop trying to tag along. If you lose weight, that younger sibling might fall too far behind for you to see or hear them, but you know they're behind you and you're constantly looking over your shoulder, fearful they're going to sneak up on you when you least suspect it, when you're the most exposed, surrounded by your coolest, most beautiful, thinnest friends.
They Will Always Wonder What You Really Think Of Them, Even When You're Being Kind
Because you've made it clear, in the past, that you have noticed their body, found it wanting, and are "concerned." So even if you're not voicing that concern, even if you're saying nice things about their appearance, they wonder what you're really thinking, or what the catch is, or when you're going to say something like, "Imagine how beautiful you'd be if you lost 50 pounds."
They Will Likely Have A Weird Relationship With Food
A piece of cake isn't a just dessert. It's 500 calories and it's 45 minutes on a treadmill and it's everyone in the room staring at you while simultaneously thinking, "Oh, that's why she's fat."
Eating that harmless piece of cake is an embarrassment you've earned for yourself by being fat in the first place, but at least the frosting is delicious, and if you can't be thin at least you have frosting.
They Will Be Biased Against Fat People
The self-loathing a fat-shamed child will feel will, likely, go beyond themselves and manifest as disdain or outright bullying of other fat people. They may be embarrassed by other fat people because it reminds them that they themselves are fat. They may wind up picking on a fatter person to try to effect some camaraderie with thin people and distance themselves from being fat because they think, "At least I'm not as fat as them." Of course this, in turn, will have the opposite effect and only make them hate themselves more.
They May Actually Gain More Weight
Research has shown that fat shaming children may actually cause them to gain more weight, which, as highlighted in the points above about self-esteem and eating mentality, makes sense.
They Will Feel That Acceptance Should Be Tied To Appearance
When you emphasize a child's appearance as a topic of discussion, either by shaming them or lauding them, it sends the message that complete acceptance hinges upon one's appearance being up to someone else's expectations, standards, or desires. This is a dangerous state of mind to be in when entering friendships and, especially, romantic relationships.
They May Repeat This Cycle With Their Own Children
The scary thing is, it's never done on purpose. In fact the fateful way these situations often unfold is usually structured like a Greek tragedy. A parent who was fat shamed as a kid goes on to have a child. That parent thinks back to their childhood and thinks "Being fat caused me so much heartache and I never want that for my child," and they wind up doing everything in their power to keep their child from becoming "overweight."
Sadly, in their attempt to break the vicious cycle, they wind up putting their kid exactly what they went through. What they failed to realize (not surprisingly) is that it wasn't being fat that was difficult, it was being made ashamed of being fat. It takes concerted effort to break the cycle.
Their Confidence Will Be Unduly Connected To Their Appearance
When you're shamed for your appearance, and shame is the de facto reaction to your appearance, any small glimmer of praise you can get is like being handed a down coat in winter. You wrap yourself up and luxuriate in it for as long as you can because it lets you forget about the fact that you're almost always freezing. Naturally, one wants that feeling as much as possible, because it gives them a sense of security and comfort when both are otherwise lacking.
What Is Said In Childhood Never Stops Being Painful