“Filet mignon!” That’s what a random man said as he grabbed my 14-month-old daughter’s thigh. What began as a normal, neighborly interaction—both of us nodding in acknowledgment as we passed each other on the street, me waving at his grandson and him smiling at my daughter—took a turn when he reached into my stroller and started yelling about steak. I wasn’t sure what bothered me more—that, especially in this post-pandemic world, he thought it was appropriate to touch a child he didn’t know or that he would do so while body-shaming my baby.
It wasn’t the first time a stranger had commented on my toddler’s body. Look at those rolls! Or OMG, those thighs! Or even I love chubby babies. It always seemed like they genuinely meant well and were oblivious to how much their comments made me cringe. It made me wonder: Is this actually a problem, or am I just being sensitive?
Is Body-Shaming Babies a Thing?
“I think you’re being aware of how early comments start about kids’ bodies,” said Judith Matz, LCSW, when I described the interactions to her. As a therapist, author, and speaker who specializes in eating and body image issues, Matz continued, “At an early age, people are already making assumptions based on physical characteristics without any information, and those kind of comments can be harmful.”
Research led by Dr. Amanda Harrist, a professor in Human Development & Family Science at Oklahoma State University, echoed this sentiment. The study found that, as early as first grade (6 years old), overweight children are more likely to be ostracized.
Lily Nichols, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, was inundated with judgmental comments about her son’s size after his birth. “We know it’s wrong to call an adult ‘big’ to their face, but with kids? People do it all the time. They think it’s harmless, but I, for one, think it’s not.”
So why, according to the experts, are these “well-meaning” comments a problem?
The Problems With Body-Shaming Babies and Kids
It can set off maternal anxiety.
Comments aimed at newborns and infants highlighted this issue for Nichols. “For a mama with a slow-to-gain, breastfed 3-month-old, a simple, Oh, he’s brand new, isn’t he? could be enough to make the mother question her milk supply (more than she already is because that pretty much comes with the territory). Or a comment that your child is too big may make you worry you’re over-feeding him or doing it wrong.”
It normalizes teasing someone about their weight.
Both the mainstream and social media seem to be rife with body shaming. “It’s kind of like the last category of person that our culture is ‘allowed’ to make fun of,” Dr. Harrist cautioned. “Nobody seems to object too much. But in the last couple of years, the body positivity movement has started to change that.”
It takes away a child’s agency and can stunt independence.
Nichols asked, “Isn’t the whole point of raising children to help them develop an inner compass to make good choices? If I make all the choices for my son (especially around food), how is that serving him in the long run? What’s the one thing that will always be with him to guide his choices? Him. His body.”
It can invalidate intuitive eating.
“We’re born knowing how to [eat intuitively],” said Matz, as we discussed why body shaming could make children avoid certain foods. “Intuitive or attuned eating is where kids learn to trust their bodies. We want to validate that in our children. We want them to continue to trust their bodies and believe they know best. Young kids don’t need to hear about what’s healthy and unhealthy.”
It can cause ostracization, which can lead to trouble in school.
Dr. Harrist published an intervention study based on Vivian Paley’s book, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. “We found in our research study of 1,200 [first-grade] kids that the more they weighed, the less they were liked,” said Dr. Harrist. “Kids are rejected or ostracized for being different. Being overweight makes them different. And then, there’s this spiral: If [you’re] overweight in first grade and nobody wants to play with you, then you’re not getting exercise before or after school. Getting teased or bullied in the classroom [results in] lower attendance, which [leads to] academic struggles. That makes you more different and more disliked. It’s a vicious cycle.”
“We had this rule [in some of our first-grade classrooms] that if somebody wants to play with you, you have to let them play. Teachers have rules that kids can’t hit each other, but it hurts just as much to be rejected, teased, and ostracized. [We found] the feeling of belonging and acceptance in first grade put kids on a trajectory that changed their weight.”
It can inhibit a child’s ability to emotionally regulate.
We know that adults can “emotionally eat,” but Dr. Harrist’s research group was the first to show that kids also do this. “Two of the feelings they regulate [this way] are worry and sadness. There’s a big link between the social and emotional world, in terms of what’s going on with food and activity.”
What Parents Can Do to Counter the Effects of Body-Shaming
As a parent, I feel like my default setting is worried. Learning about the potential impacts of body shaming added to my laundry list of anxiety sources. So I asked the experts what, if anything, can we parents do to help or protect our kiddos?
1. Don’t restrict foods
All three experts agreed on this one. “Every study shows that when parents try to restrict foods, it backfires—they eat more,” said Dr. Harrist. “When foods are off limits,” Matz added, “they increase in value. Your kids are going to be exposed to them sooner or later, and it’s going to increase their preoccupation [with them], setting them up to eat more than they need.”
Nichols has seen this play out firsthand in her work as a registered dietitian and nutritionist. “I’ve known too many people who grew up in super strict, health food-only houses who rebel beyond comprehension when they first contact highly palatable processed food.”
2. Talk to your child’s teacher
Following the success of her intervention study, Dr. Harrist strongly suggests proactively speaking with your child’s teacher. “You could say something like, I really don’t think it’s OK for children to be teased about how they look. Or even give them an article. Try to sensitize the teacher and ask them to ensure your child is not being teased or bullied.” Dr. Harrist and documentarian Ruth Thomas-Suh are currently producing a film for teachers titled Belonging about the “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play” program, which should be available in the summer of 2024.
3. Build resilience and self-esteem
Many of the adult clients Matz works with have been body-shamed since they were little girls. “When you’ve gotten the message early that your worthiness is tied to your weight, it’s a lot harder [to heal] because there’s nothing to go back to.” The ones who’ve healed the fastest “grew up with moms, in particular, who taught body positivity as best as they could. They wanted their girls to have a positive body image and did not focus on weight. The shame isn’t woven into their psyche in the same way.”
4. Embrace teachable moments
Whether it comes from a conversation, a television show, or heck, even a stranger yelling about meat on the street, teachable moments are everywhere. Matz suggested saying things like, “All bodies are good bodies. All bodies can be healthy. The most important thing is how you take care of your body.” Need help starting the conversation? Books like Amanda’s Big Dream (written by Matz), Starfish, and Your Body is Awesome can make broaching the topic less awkward.
5. Work on your own relationship with food and body image.
“Kids are incredibly perceptive,” said Nichols. “They pick up on so much, whether we like it or not. Your relationship with food will be, for better or for worse, something that they pick up on.”
Matz agreed, adding, “One of the best things parents can do is to work on their own relationship with food and their body. If you can work on your own ‘unlearning,’ it will be more natural to pass those messages down to your kid and break these generational cycles.”
6. Have compassion for yourself.
Moms are under extraordinary extents of pressure, something Matz feels deeply. “Let’s get rid of the idea that we have to do this perfectly. If you don’t know the answer in the moment, it’s OK to say, That’s such a good question, let me think about that and come back to you. Or if you say something that you don’t feel good about later, you can go back to that, too. There’s always a way to reconnect or repair. And remember, you can do everything ‘right,’ but you are only one of a lot of influences out there.”
Personally, my biggest ah-ha! moment came when Matz referenced the dreaded day when your child asks, Mommy, am I fat? Even with how young my daughter is, I could envision that moment. The hurt in her voice. The surge of mama-bear anger I’d feel, alongside an overwhelming desire to cocoon and protect her from the big, bad world outside. But then Matz said, “One of the mistakes parents make is to say, Nooo, you’re not fat! Because what that implies is, Thank goodness you’re not fat. It upholds the thin ideal. So it’s better to say, Your body is doing exactly what it’s meant to do. It’s changing, and it’s growing. All body sizes are beautiful, but you might hear people say something differently. And if you’re ever worried about that, I want you to tell me.”