Like many kids, my 6-year-old was anxious about going back to school this fall. Sure, she was a bit worried about which friends from kindergarten would be in her first-grade class, and whether she'd have homework now. But mostly she was nervous about her new teacher. Why? Because her new teacher is fat.
My daughter admitted this to me reluctantly, in a wash of tears. I think she had the sense somewhere deep down that she “shouldn’t” feel this way about her teacher, and she may have been worried about hurting my feelings. Because I'm fat.
I felt like the breath had been knocked out of me. I've been an outspoken advocate for size acceptance for years and have worked hard to create a home free of “fat talk,” thin ideals, and body judgment for my two little girls. Yet even with all of my careful calibration and self-acceptance, here’s my own daughter exhibiting implicit weight bias — negative attitudes about heavy people that exist beneath our conscious awareness. A seminal study from 2000 found these attitudes were already fairly prevalent in kids as young as 3. Earlier this year, a study published in the journal Pediatrics found that tweens have about the same levels of implicit bias around weight as adults have around race. But my kid? Mine?
So what? you may ask. Perhaps you believe, like that sadly misguided British journalist who recently admitted to pulling her toddler out of a daycare because the staff was overweight, that fatness is contagious, and that what fat people need is not body-positivity and acceptance but “tough love.” Welp, society has been trying that for decades — it hasn’t worked.
In fact, “tough love” is likely having the opposite of its intended effect: An increasing number of experts agree that, rather than spurring any kind of positive change, weight shaming may lead to worse physical and mental health in people who live in large bodies. One study of thousands of Brits found that heavy people who were harassed about their weight gained pounds over a two-year period, while those who were more or less left alone lost some (ignoring the fact, of course, that fat and healthy aren't mutually exclusive, and losing weight needn't be a goal). Other research has linked weight stigma to comfort eating, exercise-avoidance, and an increased risk of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.
Once I got over my initial “wait, what?” reaction to my daughter’s revelation (and swallowed my own lightly bruised pride), I quickly reassured her: It was totally okay to have whatever feelings she was having, and it was good that she shared them with me. Then I prodded gently. “What is it about her body being fat that upsets you?”
“She looks weird,” my daughter whimpered.
It felt like anywhere I stepped next was full of landmines. Either I make my big-hearted daughter feel like shit by implying that the involuntary feelings she’s having are wrong, or I pass up a teachable moment to impart a key lesson for any young woman: that weight doesn’t matter. Afraid of saying the wrong thing, I asked more questions, instead.
“Her body looks weird to you, and so it makes you feel a little weird inside?” She nodded. “Does mommy’s body make you feel weird?” I asked. “No! I’m used to you!” she said, as if I was being very silly, then added, “And, you’re pretty.”
The “pretty” comment made me wonder if it wasn’t just weight bias at play but beauty bias, too. “Oh, okay,” I said. “Does the way your teacher looks make you think she might be...mean or something?” She nodded.
Her teacher is an older lady with well-earned wrinkles and coarse gray hair, who dresses nondescriptly and doesn’t wear makeup. I thought about the villains in some of my daughter’s favorite books and movies either being fat, ugly, old, or all three: Ursula from The Little Mermaid, the evil fairy in Ella Bella Ballerina and the Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, and the scariest of them all, Mother Gothel in Tangled. And I realized, my daughter was just plain frightened. So I went into comforting mode.
“I have heard really good things about your teacher. Actually, other parents have told me that she’s the best one, and that’s she’s super nice.” My daughter seemed reassured and ready to move on, so we did.
I’ve gone over the conversation in my head a few times since. Did I say all the “right” things? Is my own fatness having some sort of unintended consequence on my child’s psyche? Should I stop painting her nails or letting her play with nude lip gloss? I don’t know, but here’s something I do know: In that moment, I showed my daughter that she can tell me anything, even if she’s worried it will hurt my feelings or that it’s somehow “wrong.” I showed her that I accept her, 100% — a good first lesson in accepting others.
Implicit weight bias and all manner of other kinds of unfair, unconscious prejudices are everywhere around and inside of us. And one way we can help our kids navigate them is to confront our own. I encourage every parent to do yourself and your kids the favor of taking an online weight-bias test through Harvard’s Project Implicit. It takes less than 5 minutes, and you might be surprised by the results. (I was.)
And consider checking the children’s picture book Shapesville out of the local library. It came in handy for me on back-to-school night when my daughter was about to meet her teacher in person for the first time. “I told you I didn’t want that teacher!” she cried on my shoulder. I pulled her aside and said, “I remember. You think she looks weird, right?” She nodded. “You know who looks weird to me? Daisy the orange diamond in Shapesville, with her funny chicken-legs!” Before I could even finish my lesson, my daughter started laughing and said, “Oh yeah! And it says she has a beautiful heart!” I dried her tears and patted her, and then she was ready to meet her teacher.
After the first day of school, I asked my daughter how things went. Did she like her teacher? Was she nice? “Good! Yeah!” was all she said. And that was that.
Sunny Sea Gold is the author of Food: The Good Girl’s Drug — How to Stop Using Food to Control Your Feelings.
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