My kid loves to sing, any and all songs. The other day I heard “1, 2, buckle my shoe” and I thought this could be an opportunity. The version she knows from school ends with “9, 10, a big fat hen.” This time when she sang it, she laughed and said “fat is a funny word.” I asked her if we could talk about the word fat and she agreed. I asked her if she knew what fat was and she said no.
I decided a while ago that I was going to explain fat to her using the biological basis. So I explained that fat is a substance in our body that is important to all of us. It protects our bones, our organs, and our insides. I also explained that we all have different amounts of it, but we all have it and need it. I told her that having fat is important and in some cases not having enough can make a person a little sick. I also said, having too much can also sometimes make a person a little sick.
We pulled out the computer and looked at some pictures, studying the yellow bumpy goo called adipose tissue. She thought it looked yucky and I told her that it’s ok to think that. Not everyone likes to see what’s inside the body.
I then explained that even though fat is something in our body, some people use it as a way to describe people and can use it in a mean way. I said that calling someone fat is not a nice thing to say to people, because people have said it so much in not a nice way, that this is how it feels now when people hear it. Even if that is not how we mean it. She asked me if she could still sing the song. I said, yes, it’s ok to use fat to talk about animals. That a big, fat, hen is a way to describe a hen that looks yummy to eat.
Later than evening, we were watching one of her favorite baking shows. She has a favorite person on the show because she thinks he is “cute.” (It starts young!). With no prompting, at one point she said “I just love his big, fat belly!”
I immediately turned to her and said, “Hey, remember what we talked about? We don’t use that word to describe people as it’s not nice.”
Her face was crushed, and she jumped into my arms very upset. To see her little body so upset with herself is so overwhelming as a parent. I should have gone at this softer, she is still learning. I told her as such.
The word fat is so nuanced that I am finding it hard to explain. I have been challenged on presenting it to her this way because many are trying to reclaim the word. But how do you teach nuance to a 4 year old? It feels nearly impossible. Right now, it feels best to let her know that the word is not okay to use when describing people and to keep talking about it. I have promised myself to go back to this conversation when it makes sense to do so. I want her to know that the key piece is that fat is not meant to be a funny word. It can be a word used to describe something, but we need to be careful because the word is often hurtful. I also know that it’s only a matter of time before she hears her classmates, family, or other adults use the word to describe themselves in a negative way.
All of these details feel entirely impossible as I try to teach her that her body is hers, it’s perfect no matter what size or what it looks like, and that others have no right to make judgments about it. I also want her to know that hearing people make judgments about themselves is also not kind and we should be kind to ourselves.
If there is any consolation, we were talking before bedtime last night all about her friendships and the people in her class. She likes to share when people go into time out, so I push her to think about why time out can be ok, that we all do it, and that some kids have other things going on. One is always in time out, so I coach her to say that he has a hard time probably because it can be hard to be away from family and sometimes kids want to play what they want instead of what school has for them to do. I want her to feel like she can rebel, that rules aren’t the end all be all, and that there is so much more to kids “misbehaving” than adults make them believe.
She looked at me and said “Mommy, I love you because you always tell me what not to do.”
Even though that’s not the point. I know what she means. It was validation that helping her understand the confusing parts of life is something she values. Thank goodness. Every day is a fight against the messages of society and her trust gives me great relief and a push to keep going.