National Eating Disorders Association

Actually, Telling Your Child She (or He) is Fat is Not the Best Thing Ever

Maggi Flaherty, Communications Manager

This week, Time published an online article entitled in its “Ideas” section, “My Mother Told Me I Was Fat, and It Was the Best Thing Ever” in which author Charlotte Alter recounts a conversation her mom had with her at the age of twelve about losing weight. Luckily for her, the author views this as a positive experience that spurred the development of healthier habits – an incident that she acknowledges many thought would not turn out so well:

Horrified relatives said I would need years of therapy to forgive my mother for
“fat-shaming” me into anorexia, that I would eventually turn to drugs and cutting
to heal my crippled psyche before I succumbed to a life of crime.

[Editor’s Note: Why is “fat-shaming” in quotes? Does Ms. Alter believe it does not exist?]

It’s a shame that the author uses her personal life experience to dismiss these fears because research helps us to understand that her “horrified relatives” had every right to be concerned.  In fact, when parents focus conversations with their children on the need to lose weight, they are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors.

A 2013 study published in Jama Pediatrics found that:

Mothers and fathers who engaged in weight-related conversations had adolescents
who were more likely to diet, use unhealthy weight-control behaviors, and engage in
binge eating… Parent conversations focused on weight/size are associated with increased
risk for adolescent disordered eating behaviors, whereas conversations focused on
healthful eating are protective against disordered eating behaviors.

So, while Ms. Alter’s experience did not end negatively for her, we should not consider that proof that it is a more effective or appropriate approach to take with your children. Instead, research suggests that parents should avoid focusing on weight loss and instead promote healthy behaviors with their children. Check our NEDAwareness Week guide, created based on the research noted above, "How to Talk to Your Child About Weight, Shape and Size" for more information and tips on how to do this when the topic comes up. Eating disorders are complex illnesses, with complex roots, but we know body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness are significant risk factors. So while there is no single cause, many people who were vulnerable to developing an eating disorder remember comments exactly like the one this author's mother made - from parents, doctors, teachers, and peers - that set theirs in motion.

As NEDAwareness Week comes to a close, the article serves to underscore that while we have made a great deal of progress in raising awareness that eating disorders are serious illness, not choices, we - as eating disorders advocates - still have much to do in educating the public about these illnesses. Time re-tweeted the author’s article out to its 5.48 million followers with the #NEDAwareness hashtag.  We just hope that individuals searching the hashtag for resources and inspiration weren’t too triggered by the article, and that Time might consider selecting submissions about weight and body image that weren’t so potentially dangerous in the future.

NEDA is here to support you during the evolving COVID-19 outbreak. The health of our community, especially those who are most vulnerable to the virus' serious complications, remains paramount. To access resources that can provide free and low-cost support, please click here.