Harriet Brown on Weight Bullying by Parents

Image courtesy of Stocky Bodies

Image courtesy of Stocky Bodies

[Discussion of bullying and weight punishments; feel free to skip.]

Harriet Brown has a piece in the New York Times Well blog on “Feeling Bullied by Parents About Weight“:

Parents and other adults who are “only trying to help” may do harm rather than good, as a recent study from the journal Pediatrics makes clear.

It is a good discussion and I’m glad to see it.  At the same time, it can be upsetting to see things you’ve lived with discussed dispassionately. Dr Rebecca Puhl, from the fat-phobic Rudd Center, appears, as does Ellyn Satter.

“There still remains the widespread perception that a little stigma can be a good thing, that it might motivate weight loss,” said Dr. Puhl, a clinical psychologist. (Medical doctors, too, fall prey to this misconception.) But research done at the Rudd Center and elsewhere has shown that even well-intentioned commentary from parents and other adults can trigger disordered eating, use of laxatives and other dangerous weight-control practices, and depression.

Hells yes, y’all, parents can bully their fat children.  Or maybe you don’t want to call it “bullying.”  Maybe you want to call it teasing, belittling, or harassing.  Oh, here’s one: providing incentive.  Maybe buying your kids clothes that “will fit when you lose weight” instead of now, or pointing out that the fat kid gets different (less) food than the rest of the family, is just something that “has to be done” too.  No, it’s not.  It is abusive. And you should not be surprised if the kids you reject for being fat reject you in turn.

Kudos to Harriet for broaching a topic that many parents like to pretend doesn’t exist.  Also for common sense suggestions, including

¶ Don’t blame your child for his weight. […]

¶ Don’t engage in “fat talk,” complaining about weight and appearance, whether it’s your own, your child’s or a celebrity’s. [….]

¶ Don’t promise your child that if only he lost weight, he wouldn’t be bullied or teased. […]

¶ Don’t treat your child as if he has — or is — a problem that needs remedying. “This will make him feel flawed and inferior,” says Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and therapist in Madison, Wis., and author of “Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming.” Instead, she suggests, focus on a child’s other good qualities, and encourage traits like common sense, character and problem-solving skills.

I would strongly recommend NOT reading the comments in the Times. 

14 thoughts on “Harriet Brown on Weight Bullying by Parents

  1. Yup! I experience this first hand through my parents throughout my teenage and even younger years. I always thought it was just in my culture where the adults and parents would say mean things about kids’ weight, and expect it to have this reverse psychology affect on them. But, I see that it does happen across the board with different people and different levels. I think it is ridiculous that some people think that by making someone feel bad will help change them for the better.

    • I’m sure a lot of people think that anything less than “getting tough” on the problem only sets their children up for failure later in life.

      But of course, using a technique proven to not work is foolish. Even if I thought “getting tough” was the right thing to do, I would also need to believe it was the effective thing to do before I started it.

      My wife and I are obese and my kids are, as yet, quite thin. We never say anything about their size and make it clear we won’t accept any bullying of heavier children. But they already fret about their size. :(

      • “Getting tough” or “tough love” is subjective and it is very sensible of you to see how effective it is before thinking of taking action. But, one should also think about how it will affect the child emotionally and mentally. Since different people react to different types of upbringing. It is unfortunate that not only adults but kids are so immerse in one standard body imagine that they look at their own negatively. Thus, I think it is important to promote healthy living and positive body image no matter what size we are at now.

  2. My parents have bullied me about my weight my whole life and even at 41 years old, and despite years of therapy, I still know they’ll still never love me unless I’m thin, which I also know will never happen. So tough love has a price, I’m always shocked by how many parents think the price is worth it.

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  4. You mean making your kids feel crap about themselves makes them feel crap about themselves? I for one am shocked. SHOCKED.

    I can’t believe people still resist this.

  5. My grandmother bullied me about being fat for most of my childhood. When I became anorexic (in college), she bullied me about being too skinny. When I gained back all the weight with interest, she bullied me about being fat (again).

  6. I think readers of this blog SHOULD read the comments, because mine is one of them! I was very honest in it, and got a few replies, only one of which is the typical “who are you really punishing with your weight” BS. I got a LOT of thumbs up too. Here is my comment in its entirety:

    “”And my family still wonders why I moved 3000 miles away, and seldom visit. The damage, once done, never leaves my head or my heart. I hate them for it, it has colored my entire life with stigma, I was not safe even at home. Every morning I woke up fat, I was a failure. I lost all ambition for everything, straight A’s, a career….what was the point since I was a failure every morning when I woke up and was not thin.

    My grandmothers…and lucky me, I had 3…would call me after school, knowing I was home alone, and harrass me about my weight.

    I can still remember overhearing my mother make comments to my friends. And laughing about it. Nice Mom, thanks.

    It’s the stigma that affects one for life and keeps the weight on, of that I have no doubt; it’s been proven, but the bullies of the world just keep right on.

    I weigh what i weigh now BECAUSE of that bullying and stigma from adults. Every adult in my life felt free to pile on, and some of them even lied about things, like my high school gym teacher who knew an aunt of mine, and was constantly telling her that I refused to co-operate with the diets she tried to put me on…when that women never spoke one word directly to me, ever, let alone tried to force a diet on me.

    I love my mother and family, but there is a knot in that love that will never be undone.””

    A couple commenters noted my ending line, and the idea of “waking up in the morning already a failure”. And that is exactly how I felt at 8, and 10, and 12 and beyond.

    Thanks for having such a great forum for the thinking fatties!

    • I’m glad you said that and I’m glad you shared it here. Sometimes I have the wherewithal to read the comments on articles and sometimes I don’t, if I think it might trigger eating disorder behavior. Thanks for saying what you did!

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