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What To Do If Your Child Thinks They’re Fat

What To Do If Your Child Thinks They're Fat

This has been a post that I’ve known I would write since starting blogging. It has taken me over 6 months to get the courage and feel comfortable enough to write it. I hope that by writing my story I can help other children who think they are fat.

It all started when I was 9 years old. A certain event took place and I was told that I was FAT. This is when my body image problems began. The people who told me that I was fat told me that men didn’t find fat women attractive and that if I did get too overweight I would never get married. I trusted these individuals and as a result, I believed everything they said and took it to heart. I was told at the end of our conversation that the only way to ensure that I didn’t become obese was to exercise everyday and diet.

The next few years I ran almost every morning before elementary school. Everyday (multiple times a day) I would look in the mirror and tell myself that I was fat. As a result, I believed that I didn’t deserve to be loved. I’d pray every night that God would make me thin. I’d cry a lot at night when everyone else was asleep about it. I didn’t know how to get the little stomach rolls of fat I had off my body, so sometimes I would roll up in a ball and try tearing them off my body. I was trying everything I could. There was a mirror in the bathroom that was in sections. If I stood exactly in between two of the sections where the crack in the mirror was (that separated the sections) it made me look much thinner. I used to stand in front of that exact spot (for longer than I like to admit) and wonder what it would be like if I was that thin. Everyday for years and years and years, I’ve told myself multiple times a day that I am fat.

I feel really pretty bad for my little sister because I would ask her each day about every outfit, “Does this make me look fat?” “Do I look fat?” She would always tell me that I wasn’t fat. She was so unbelievably patient and supportive of my issues.

I was on a competition soccer team that I loved and was good at. I really enjoyed practices and sports. Later I was on the junior high cross country team, the basketball team, and the soccer team. In high school, I was on the tennis team and was an avid snowboarder. But despite loving sports and working out all the time, my mind was more powerful. My friends and coaches would even tell me I was fit, in shape and beautiful. Looking back at my photographs I realized how not fat I was. But my mind was more powerful. I kept telling myself I was fat and I began gaining weight.

I went on almost every diet I could find during these elementary, junior high, and high school years. A few were: The Atkins Diet, Body for Life, The Suzanne Sommers Diet, the Carbohydrate Addicts diet, Meal planning with different personal trainer diets, Slim Fast, no sugar diets, and many other diets. A good friend of mine once told me that he found it interesting that since he met me (years before) I’ve never not been on a diet.

In high school I began taking diet pills. They did make me lose weight but my legs would shake underneath my desk pretty bad because of the ingredients in them. I liked taking them because I actually saw results. Little did I know that by taking them for as long as I did, I was actually harming my metabolism and my body.

I was also very careful with what I ate when I was on my own. I would abstain from sugar, desserts, candy, etc. If I ever did allow myself to indulge I usually made up for it with a strict regime and diet in the days to follow. I would do this until I got so sick of the diet I would binge and scarf down as much unhealthy food as possible. Then I would feel guilty and recommit to another diet.

I did enjoy junior high for the most part but by the time I got to high school all of these diets and the negative thoughts I had been feeding my mind and body were catching up with me. By this time I KNEW I was fat. No matter what my friends or family said. I was fat and as a result I KNEW that I didn’t deserve love. I also didn’t feel like I would ever be good enough (until I got rid of all my fat) and years later I resorted to the most extreme type of dieting out there (I’ll mention this in part 2).

Oh, and I did gain weight. I started gaining in 9th grade. I gained quite a bit actually. I was your typical yo-yo dieter. I’d gain and lose, gain and lose, and gain and lose again.

I’ve struggled for years trying to reverse the effect of what 20 years of dieting, diet pills, and most importantly the damage that came from telling myself that I was fat did. Believing something so completely and having that belief throughout life is VERY TOUGH to UNDO. So if you have a child who thinks they are fat -no matter what their age- there are things that I would recommend doing NOW so they don’t have to live a lifetime of negative self talk or battle eating disorders. I understand that sometimes the best of parents still can’t change a child completely. That said, parents have a lot of power and influence in helping their children establish a healthy life (both emotionally and physically) so below are a few ways to do that.

1- Help them and give them a reason to fight their own negative thoughts. Explain to them the POWER of their thoughts. You could try doing an experiment with them. Have them close their eyes and imagine they are eating a lemon. Describe the lemon to them and have them pretend they are taking a bite of it. Describe the tart and citrus sour tastes. Make the illustration believable. Before you have them open their eyes, ask them to what they observed. Were they salivating? Were their lips puckered up? Chances are their body was reacting just like there was an actual lemon in their mouth.

Next, explain that what our minds believe our bodies react to. Our body doesn’t say, ‘Wait, the mind says we are eating a lemon but we actually aren’t eating a lemon so I’m not going to salivate’. Whatever the mind believes, the body achieves (more or less). Just like the lemon, if someone believes something about themselves for so long (like they are fat), their bodies will do whatever it takes to make those beliefs a reality.

There have been real studies done of children who are told positive things about themselves daily and they totally change everything and become what they told they are. Similarly I was told I was fat and believed I was fat for so long that gaining weight was/is something my body fights to do. And a main part of it comes down to THOUGHTS. Your children should understand this.

2- Examine what or who your kids are being influenced by. Do they have a best friend who is anorexic? (The most unexpected of my friends had eating disorders). If you do find out, tell their parents. You wouldn’t want your kid starving without your being informed would you?

Did they read something somewhere that convinced them if they weren’t a size 2 they were fat? Did they see a favorite T.V. star make fun of fat people? Are the parents or siblings making derogatory comments towards overweight people? Do they kid about sibling’s, families, or friends body images?

Really take your time to think about these questions. If they do apply to you (or your child), I recommend sitting down with them (all together and or one at a time) and explaining that whenever you made jokes about fat people you were setting a bad example. Tell them that their worth to you (and people’s worth) is not determined by shape or size. Explain that you would love them just as much if they were bigger or smaller, taller or shorter, had a different color of hair, etc. Assure them that your love is not based on their physical attributes but rather their divine worth of being your child.

3- Set a good example. What have you been teaching your children by your actions? Take some time for introspection. Do you weigh yourself on a scale in front of them and tell them that you are fat or that you need to lose a certain amount of weight? Often mothers pass on their body insecurities by making comments like they can’t eat something, they are fat, they need to lose a few pounds, etc. I know a little girl who often comments on how many pounds she wants to lose. She is very young – like kindergarten age. I imagine its because her mother or perhaps an older sibling is often saying how many pounds they want to lose.

Some spouses watch what their spouses eat and make ugly comments like: don’t eat that, it’s going straight to your hips, that’s too much food for you, etc. These actions typically set an unhealthy(emotionally) precedent for their kids. If this is you, you may consider weighing yourself in private and not voicing how fat you are or how ugly, etc. Also, talk with your spouse and find emotionally healthy ways to communicate in front of your children. Trust me, if you are voicing your disgust of your spouse’s eating habits, your children will think you are disgusted with them eating the same thing. Children are very observant so be careful what you are letting them see and hear and ultimately LEARN from your actions.

On the other side, are you setting an example of healthy living? Exercising and eating right? Example is one of the best ways to influence another, for good or for bad. By setting a good example of health, you are teaching your children how to positively treat themselves.

Many women are insecure about their bodies. We live in a society that is brutal about body images. If you are insecure I like to think of the quote, “fake it until you make it”. Fake self esteem until you feel better about yourself. Thoughts become words so if your words are voicing low self esteem, then change your thoughts. It’s tough, believe me (in part 2 I’ll talk more about this), but it’s worth it for your kids to see that you respect yourself.

4- Compliment your children on non physical qualities. I write more in depth about this here. But it is worth repeating that unfortunately our physical attributes are the ones that are usually noticed, commented on, and made to be of worth. But our physical bodies don’t determine who we are or our worth. We should be complimenting children on their non-physical attributes. If your child needs or asks for a compliment on their physical attributes, then tell them they are beautiful or handsome. If they are truly overweight and ask if they are fat you can say. You are beautiful, you may not be thin, but you are beautiful. Children need positive affirmation, love, and acceptance.

5- Be observant. I had a few friends who were anorexic and a few more that were bulimic in junior high and high school. I never could get away with that because we had family dinners every night together and we had to eat our meals. But be observant if your child is no longer eating or if he/she is spending a lot of time in the bathroom after they eat. If so it is time to get help. Also, be in the know. At my age, the sign of an anorexic was a pink bracelet. I don’t know what the signs are today, but knowing those signs can help you determine if your child (and/or their friends) are anorexic, bulimic, etc. Being thin does not equal health. Just the same as being a overweight doesn’t always equal unhealthiness. If your child is dropping or gaining a huge amount of weight it is important to figure out what is happening to them.

Anorexia and bulimia as well as binge eating are all signs of emotional issues that can lead to severe physical issues. If your child has developed an eating disorder, I highly recommend getting an expert involved.

6- Love your child unconditionally. If you weren’t raised with unconditional love, this is a VERY hard one to accomplish. Often condition based loved is a family origin that is passed down from generation to generation. It is very difficult to learn and to practice unconditional love if you weren’t loved unconditionally as a child. Reading books on the topic, or even seeking professional help can make a big difference in learning how to love yourself and your children despite looks, performances, and behaviors.

7- Empower your children with knowledge. Your kids may not have the vital information needed to make correct food choices or realize that they aren’t fat. Empower them with knowledge of what is healthy and what isn’t. Do they know about the vitamins and minerals they get from fruits and veggies? Do they understand that eating a cereal like Grape Nuts or Raisin Bran will keep them fuller for longer than Capn’ Crunch? Teach them the differences and give them reasoning. Carrots are really good for your eyes. Eggs are great for the brain. Teach them a little here, a little there of what healthy foods do for them.

Also, feed them healthy food as often as possible. Have family dinners together. It’s sometimes best to not bring the really unhealthy stuff into the home at all. That said, ‘forbidding’ sweets may be worse than allowing your child to choose. I’m not a nutritionist or dietician (although I support what they do), I just speak from experience. Banning foods just made me want to eat them more.  Your child will have to choose for themselves eventually, so educate them as best as you can and don’t restrict them so much they will want to rebel and eat only unhealthy stuff.

My friend’s mom was an excellent example of educating her daughter. She told my friend growing up that even though she was in a bigger size of pant and shirt she was still thin and healthy (lots of girls compare their sizes in junior high and high school). She would tell her daughter that her frame is much bigger than her friends’ frames because of bone structure and not to compare sizes. My friend was/is thin but her body frame made it so she bought bigger sizes. Another one of my friends was a different culture. She had a tiny frame and was not as thin but she wore a pant size 6 sizes smaller. It’s important to explain body differences so when the girls all compare they don’t think they are fat because they wear different sizes.

Educate your kids about the consequences of strict dieting and eating disorders. Males are developing these more and more as well. So talk to both genders about them. If they know how starvation or bulimia or binge eating ruins a lot of their body functions, they might avoid it (and encourage others to avoid it as well).

I wish I never had to go through 20 years of thinking I am/was fat. If there is ANYTHING you can do now I really encourage you to do it. It’s so important for children to develop healthy thinking and eating habits early on. Do all you can to help your child form a positive self image early and fortify them against the negative self-talk that can be so destructive.

In Part 2 I will be writing about how I’ve began the road to diet recovery and developing self confidence based on my worth. I will also be covering other ideas of what parents can do to help truly overweight children.

UPDATE- It has been awhile since I wrote this and I have kept putting off writing part 2. So I’ll just write a little part 2 here.

I actually have gained a lot of weight and lost it and gained and lost. I’ve done some extreme dieting. I did an HCG diet multiple times (which was basically starvation). I lost lots of weight but that diet caused me to gain as soon as I was done with it. Then I’d try and lose again. It was the typical gain and lose yo-yo dieting. Overall it really messed up my metabolism.

Five years ago, I gave up extreme diets altogether. It has been extremely difficult giving up extreme dieting. I actually developed an addiction to food. After kicking both of those, I am now at a point where I practice good health and moderation. I’ve come to learn that beauty comes in all different shapes and sizes. And I haven’t done an extreme ‘diet’ for years. I have done calorie counting and programs like weight watchers but the extreme stuff that was addicting I completely stopped and I truly have been MUCH happier.

Yes, I want to be thinner. But I want to become more fit in a healthy balanced way. I have a health trainer that agreed to slowly coach me through making changes that will last. I’m planning on it taking a full year to do but I’m excited to take a slow but steady approach this time around.

First, I worked for a month on adding a salad to my diet each day. Now I’m working on only snacking on whole and healthy foods. I’ve been drinking mainly water and next we will be working on getting my exercise going.  These slow lifestyle changes are so I can become more fit, but this time around I know that my worth is not based on my body size. Those that are closest to me love me just the same. Even if they didn’t (which they do) but even if they didn’t I am the same person in my 140 pound body as I have been in my 215 pound body at 5’8.

If you or someone you know really struggles with their self image I believe a few things really can and will help. 1- Unconditional love and support. 2- Refusing to go on extreme diets and even extreme exercise binges can be unhealthy. 3- Taking a break from the pressure on one’s self to look a certain way. 4- Allow yourself time to heal. 5- Once you feel like you have been able to heal start making SLOW healthy habits apart of your daily life.

Mental and emotional health are a huge factor in physical health. You need all three in order to be truly healthy. I’ve been working hard on healing my mental and emotional health. Now that I’m pretty much healed I’m starting slowly on the physical side.

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21 Responses to What To Do If Your Child Thinks They’re Fat

  1. Katie says:

    This is a great post, Anita, that I really identify with. I was never told that I was fat (at least not to my face) and my parents were always so kind and encouraging toward me. But seriously, it’s so hard, even when you do lose weight, to feel like you aren’t the weight you used to be. I look back at pictures from just a few years ago when I really felt like I was “fat” (even though I wasn’t), and I think it’s crazy.

    I’m grateful that I was able to lose weight without going to extreme measures. I’ve never been one to go on fad diets, or starve myself. But I did have very low self confidence when I was obese, and even though I’m not any longer, it’s really affected my confidence today.

    I think it’s so important to not just teach our kids to lead a healthy life style, but to feel good about themselves to. I think it’s a very fine line, especially if your child is overweight. But I think it can be done.

    Great post.

    • Anita Fowler says:

      Thanks Katie, I really appreciate your comment! Yeah the mind does interesting things. It’s tough to have the right balance you are right and I hope in part 2 to be able to make a few suggestions that will help those that are truly overweight be inspired to get healthy all the while knowing that they are loved and valued as they are.

      Congratulations on your success in getting fit and doing it the healthy way. As a child I was told to diet so I tried all the diets out there. Now I understand that diet doesn’t mean fad diet, but rather eating healthy.

      Thanks again!
      Anita

  2. Timmi says:

    I am curious who called you fat. You don’t have to answer, its a personal story that I think many girls and now boys can relate too. I was called “overweight” and “heavy” by a DR. I was always skinny as a kid because of the ADHD meds but when I was taken off of them I gained weight and add that with the fact that kids put on some bulk before a growth spurt, this is just a bad thing to say to a kid directly. I have NEVER been able to achieve the ideal BMI that the stupid government says I should be at. I always tried to reach that weight but became so sick from trying to achieve it. It doesn’t help that my mom and sister would chime in with their own you’re getting “chubby” comments. My dad was the only one who cared that I wasn’t eating right and would encourage me. I finally realized that moderation in anything is a good thing and that one should ditch the scale and get to their “happy weight.”

    • Anita Fowler says:

      Thanks Timmi! I really appreciate this comment. Your DR was wrong in saying that, I think it is really sad for a medical professional to say things to a child like that.
      It’s great that your dad recognized that healthy eating and being a healthy you is better than the ‘ideal’ BMI. I too have been all over the BMI scale from under to overweight to even obese and it hasn’t changed the person who I am on the inside. My husband is very supportive of this and asked me to stop the diet pills and dieting and eat healthy. He has loved me the whole time.
      I would rather not say who it was but I really thank you for the comment and wish you the best. Sorry it took while to respond for some reason I didn’t see your comment until today.

  3. Whitney says:

    Anita, great post!! If I didn’t know better I would think you were telling my story….. seriously! Thanks for sharing!

    • Anita Fowler says:

      Whitney- I’m so sorry to hear this!I’m sure childhood was very difficult for you then as well. I hope you are able to heal (if you haven’t yet) from the damage that thinking you are fat can do. Best of luck!

  4. Jewel Lindquist says:

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  5. vanessa says:

    What a sad story,it inspires.

  6. Julie V. says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I love your advice.
    I think that it can be a fine line sometimes between teaching kids a bit about eating healthy but not making it about body image.
    When I was teaching 6th graders starting a unit on healthy eating, I started with a clip about kids talking about the topic.
    A few gírls immediately expressed opinions that those kids didn’t need to worry–they weren’t fat!
    To think you should only eat healthy if others don’t think you’re fat. How awful!
    Hopefully I helped them understand that it’s impotant to eat healthy and not to judge others by their weight.
    I think your advice is helpful for teaching kids. Sometimes I’ve seen advice like, “Don’t tell your kids some food is unhealthy because they could get eating disorders.” That advice bugs me. So thanks for this. Pinning

    • Anita Fowler says:

      Julie- Thank you for this heartfelt, educated, and kind comment. I really appreciate your input as a teacher and I’m glad you are helping other kids realize these important things! Thanks again!

  7. Michelle says:

    Thank you for this article. For a few years now, my 9-year-old daughter has been consumed with “being skinny”. She isn’t fat, but she isn’t as thin as some friends (who have a different bone structure because of genetics). She eats healthy and exercises (bike riding, etc). I’m keeping a super close eye on her. She’s super shy and I know she wouldn’t talk to her doctor if I made an appointment.

    • Anita Fowler says:

      This article is obviously very near to me so when I hear about others having similar struggles it really makes me empathetic. I hope she is able to realize her intrinsic value and worth and develop self confidence soon. Great job keeping an eye on her. You sound like a great mom!

  8. Elizabeth Steele says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. This topic has been weighing heavily on my mind for the past year and a half. I had an opportunity to teach about 100 girls in a summer camp this past summer about their self-worth and how it comes from their personality, abilities, talents, ect , not their looks. I’m also raising 5 daughters of my own and I know it is a subject I need to be educated on.
    I wanted to recommend a wonderful website that has incredible articles about this topic. There is even an article about how the BMI is completely wrong and we shouldn’t base our weight and health by it. I thought Timmi should read it. The website is beautyredefined.net.
    Thank you again and I look forward to part 2.

  9. Landrie says:

    So inspirational! I’m still young but I think I’m over weight a lot. My mother tells me I’m not but I still think I am. But I enjoy stuff like chips and brownies and cookies etc. and I’ve been bullied in school some. It’s hard because other girls at my school (my friends) are skinny and beautiful and I feel like I’m ugly and fat.:((

    • Anita Fowler says:

      I’m so sorry! You are worth so much no matter what you look like. Chances are you fine the way you are. Focus on healthy choices for your brain, body, and functions to work optimally. Listen to your mother in this case. If she is being supportive and loving her opinion counts. Kids can be very brutal. Most of them make fun of others because of their own insecurities. You are amazing. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I wish you the absolute best!

  10. Acoe says:

    Thanks Anita
    Do you have any ideas if it were to be a boy which was anorexic crossed with obsessed by being in the gym.
    Cheers

    • Anita Fowler says:

      I would look for a qualified counselor/therapist who has had experience helping boys with eating disorders. I know they are wired so much differently than girls. I’m really not sure what specifically you could do. I’m sorry I’m not more help!

  11. Wow!!! Thank you for this post!! For your vulneralbility in sharing. It was raw. It was real. It was open and hones. This is something I am passionate in changing with my girls. I wrote a post on it as well, but this. This was so inspiring!!!

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