What Happened When My 5-Year-Old Daughter Called Me Fat

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It was a sleepy Sunday morning and my 5-year-old daughter and I were having a nice snuggle in the big bed. I was reaching for another picture book to read when my pajama top rode up. Immediately, I felt a small finger insistently poking my exposed tummy. "Mama, why is your belly so wobbly?" she asked. "It wiggle wobbles. Is it because you're fat?"

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Nothing like starting your day off with some brutal honesty.

In the moment, all I could think to do was to ask her to stop poking me because poking isn't nice. I stayed silent on the "fat" comment because I honestly just didn't know what to say. The thing about her comment is that my daughter isn't wrong. I am plus-sized, or thick, or overweight, or even, yes, FAT.

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At 5, she still thinks of words like "fat" or "skinny" as simple descriptors, just like noticing someone has red hair or blond hair. I don't think she is making a value judgment that "fat" is a bad thing to be. But I'm also aware that we live in a society that does consider "fat" to be an insult. My goal as a parent is to raise a kid who recognizes that people come in all shapes and sizes, and that we want to celebrate physical diversity.

Still, I don't want my daughter to get in the habit of noticing other people's weight. I want her to be honest, but I also want her to be kind. Even if I'm not offended if she calls me fat, other people might be, and I really don't need my 5-year-old body-shaming anyone. But how do I talk to my daughter about weight and being fat without making it seem like it's a big deal?

Dr. Jephtha Tausig-Edwards, a clinical psychologist who works with kids of all ages, says this is a common struggle for parents. Kids can be "relentlessly and ruthlessly truthful," says Tausig-Edwards -- which comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever spent time around a 5-year-old -- but, she adds, raising kids to "have tact and compassion for other people and themselves" is an important part of the parenting process.

So, how do we do that?

Validate it when kids make a comment about our bodies or someone else's, and respond in a positive way.

"Acknowledge what she [your daughter] says," advises Dr. Tausig-Edwards. "You can say things like, 'Yes, we are different sizes. Wouldn't it be funny if we were the same size?' Or you can ask her, 'What do you think about that?'" 

Keep your explanations simple and kid-friendly.

"When you're having hard conversations, take into account age and developmental level," Dr. Tausig-Edwards says. "One size rarely fits all."

Finally, share your values with your kids and help them to see all bodies as good bodies.

As Dr. Tausig-Edwards explains, when a child comments on someone else's body or the way that person looks, it's a "good opening to talk about body diversity in general and to remind [kids] that people come in all shapes and sizes."

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After talking to Dr. Tausig-Edwards and stewing on it some more, I've come to realize that I don't need to stress so much about saying the "right" thing, because this is a learning process for me and my daughter, not a single conversation. I'm probably going to end up having a lot of talks about weight and body image with my daughter, and at 5 years old, she isn't ready for a dissertation-length explanation about body acceptance, fat-shaming, gender norms, or even hearing about my long journey toward accepting my own weight.

Right now, all my daughter needs to know is that other people's bodies aren't a topic for conversation because there are a lot more interesting things to talk about in the world.

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