Am I Fat? Thoughts on Self-Image in Young Girls

My eight year old daughter just finished a session of swimming lessons last week.  She was in a group of girls and boys about her age.

After the first day, M. told me that a girl in her class had asked M., “Do you think I’m fat?”

I was surprised to hear that, given the age of these girls. I asked M. how she answered. M. said, “I told her no, because I didn’t think she was fat.”

Easy enough to give an answer when you can honestly say no. We talk occasionally about what matters about a person – it is more important to be kind than to be pretty. Inner beauty is more important than outer beauty. It is important to take care of our bodies with adequate rest, nutritious foods and exercise, and that being healthy is more important than how we look. From infancy, I have stressed that my children have qualities to praise beyond how cute they are. They are cute, but that’s by no means all that they are. They are strong, kind, intelligent, and so on. We praise their actions. “That was really nice when you…” “I enjoyed watching your baseball game. That was a really good hit.” “I’m proud of you for trying your best today.” “You were a good friend when you…”

I think my kids do believe that looks aren’t what matter about someone.

So, what do you say if someone who is overweight asks if she or he looks fat? What if you can’t honestly say no? My first thought is not to give a yes or no answer at all, but simply say something like, “I think you look nice.” This can easily be an honest answer, because everyone has good qualities that we can look to.

This kind of response might be adequate, but what if someone persisted for a more specific answer to the very specific question they asked?

When you are trying to teach your children to be kind and to be truthful, how do you handle these kinds of delicate situations?

It saddens me that this has already come up.

My daughter and I talked about all these things again, and we both agreed that it was too bad that the other girl felt she needed to ask such a question.

What do you think? Are you as surprised as I was that such a young girl was already worrying about her weight (even though she is a healthy weight)? What would you say? Do you have ideas how to encourage others to put the focus somewhere other than looks without hurting their feelings?

Maybe it’s time to start putting some Operation Beautiful notes in the locker room. That might be encouraging to someone as well.

I would be grateful for any additional suggestions.

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8 thoughts on “Am I Fat? Thoughts on Self-Image in Young Girls

  1. I am not too surprised that an 8 year old asked that question. Especially since she could have picked up the action/question from an older woman and role model in her life.

    I think the approach you have is commendable – to focus on praising a variety of qualities and looking at the beauty in all people. It’s hard to know what to tell a child to say in a situation like that since kids that age view things very black and white. I like the suggestion of always telling someone they look nice and hope an 8 year old wouldn’t push the issue? But who know with today’s looks focused society. I think all we can do is set an example by not tearing our own bodies down, speaking about the importance of health, focusing on the true qualities of people and our children, and hope the kind spirit will help them in delicate scenarios.

    If only we cuold protect children’s hearts completely, right?!

  2. I’m not surprised that this came up, either. I think talking to your daughter about why people hate on their bodies when they feel stressed, and the damage this can cause to your self esteem, is really important. Maybe you can talk to her about how a great response to a negative body comment is a positive personality compliment. So if the other girl says, “I am so fat,” your daughter can say, “You are a great friend, Ali.”

  3. It’s so sad that this is happening younger and younger these days.
    I would hesitate to tell someone who asked that, “I think you look nice,” though. As someone who has struggled with body issues and weight, I always took that to mean “She thinks I’m fat, but doesn’t want to say it out loud.” I wish someone had told me that beauty has nothing to do with weight.
    It’s wonderful that you and your daughter are having these discussions! It sounds as if she could become an ally for girls who are already struggling or are exposed to women with body issues.
    And Operation Beautiful Notes in the locker room would be a great idea!

    • I did worry that sort of changing the subject could come off as an insult, and it sounds like you agree. Maybe pointing out that at our house, we don’t think fat is a nice word and that beauty is so much more than what we look like?? I really just want to be careful with my words and offer a positive response that doesn’t patronize them or hurt their feelings, and help my children know how to respond. Thank you so much for offering your perspective!

  4. As a mother of two daughters I the same approach you do. While I do compliment my girls by telling them they are beautiful, adorable, etc. I also compliment them on their intelligence, their kindness, their determination. I think it’s imperative that girls (and boys!) are told from the start how wonderful they are without all the emphasis being on their looks.

    Honestly? I’m not surprised that an 8 year old is asking that question but I’m not sure how I’d advise my daughter to handle it. My knee-jerk reaction is that even if you DO think someone looks fat you should never say so. I cannot imagine saying yes would do anything but hurt the little girl’s feelings and I just can’t advocate that.

    • I agree; I would never want to say yes! I just want to answer in a kind way and shift the focus. I just think it can be tricky, especially for a child, to find the right words. Thank you so much for your feedback!

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