Talking to Your Girls About Weight

Updated on December 27, 2011
I.X. asks from San Clemente, CA
16 answers

I don't really trust my instincts on this one and you will see why as I explain. Both me and my husband grew up in very weight conscious homes. We are not overweight and neither is my daughter (4). I However had a pretty serious eating disorder from the age of 14-23, as did my sisters. my mother is still prone to extremes in diet which I grew up seeing my whole life. So when it comes to talking to my kids about weight, I feel unsure of myself. While I feel I'm in the range of healthy with my attitude about weight and food, its still on the high end of weight conscious. The issue was far overemphasized growing up. My parents didn't say things like "don't eat that you'll get fat." Nor do I blame my parents for my past eating disorder. But as someone who was once on the extreme far end of body and food issues, I feel so uncomfortable about this topic. I fear talking with her about boys and sex less than weight and body image. My daughter is only 4. So we are only just addressing things like why we don't eat dessert every day and why we need to eat fruit and veg. But the word fat and skinny are now understood and used by my daughter. She loves candy and begs for it. So I am finding myself telling her, "no we don't eat candy all day long it rots our teeth and makes us fat/ overweight". The other day we were picking out apples and she wanted "skinny" apples (meaning she wanted the ones that were more elongated instead of round). Why did that make me uncomfortable? Please go easy on me. I know my past is why I don't trust myself. Does anyone anyone else feel this uncomfortable about words and concepts of fat and skinny and fear you will not be balanced in your approach to this subject with your children? If you are confident on your instincts with this topic, are you frank with your kids? Do you talk about it often?

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So What Happened?

Thanks a lot. I think that avoiding the words fat and skinny is a good idea. I can do that. So many of you suggested that I never discuss food and weight with my daughter. This is unthinkable and unrealistic, especially the food part since it is something we encounter multiple times a day. As for weight, we have never discussed hers or mine. She does know and recognize obesity and knows they are "fat", and that we never never use that word out loud. I don't want to skirt around a very real topic in our society. We can use different words, but the concepts are the same. I am surprised at how many people seem to be telling me to take a very real problem in our society and simply not discuss it. I will have to choose to trust my instinct to at least be honest with her about how we get that way, at the same time helping her not to have unrealistic expectations as I did. And not to link beauty and thinness = being loved as I also did. I don't know if I will do everything just right for her, but avoiding the topic seems foolish to me.

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answers from Philadelphia on

I am sorry if this is a repeat. Instead of saying candy will make you fat, you could say that it is unhealthy for you. You dont have to talk about making a person fat. That could scare her. I would talk to her about healthy vs unhealthy and enjoying things in moderation.

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answers from San Francisco on

Stop talking about weight, period. You should definitely not say things like, ""no we don't eat candy all day long it rots our teeth and makes us fat/ overweight"

When you talk about food, which shouldn't be all that often, the emphasis should be on HEALTH, not weight. We don't eat candy all day because it's not healthy, NOT because it will rot our teeth and make us overweight. Most people brush and floss these days, so they can eat a lot of candy and their teeth won't rot, so that part is just not true. Denying her candy isn't a good idea either.

Remember - All things in moderation, including candy. My husband knew a little girl when he was a kid, whose parents were obsessive about only eating healthy food, so the little girl herself was obsessed with food. She would steal it and hide it etc.

Healthy, slender people can eat dessert every day. Healthy, slender people can eat candy every day. Healthy, slender people don't usually spend a lot of time talking about food, unless they are really into cooking.

I think you need to stop discussing food with your daughter at all. Model healthy eating and exercise, and allow yourselves a reasonable amount of treats every day, and your daughter will be fine.

You have had issues with this, so I understand your concern. But you don't want your daughter to go down the same path you did, and she is already starting to beg for candy. NO more discussions of weight with her. Never. Your family is not overweight, and that's not going to change. Relax about food. And candy. It's not the enemy.

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answers from Madison on

I have two daughters, 8 and 5. I am careful to talk about making healthy choices and do not talk about body weight. "Candy isn't healthy for your body, so you should only have it sometimes." You can say that for any junk food. It's okay to have sometimes, but not all the time because it isn't good for your body. When my daughter asks me why my husband and I exercise. I say because it helps to keep our bodies strong and healthy. Notice there is no mention of weight, just being healthy.

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answers from Chicago on

Why would you tell a 4 yr old that eating candy can make you fat? Why can't you stop at "it's not good to eat it every day - your body needs a variety of foods." Maybe you can go to the library and see if there are some child-friendly books on nutrition.

Good luck.

ETA: You should stress healthy eating habits over "good" or "bad" foods. You need to work on your own food issues too or else you run the risk of passing on your bad food habits to your kid.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

Your post makes me sad for you, but more so for your daughter. It sounds like you are passing on your insecurities already at the age of 4.

You took it too far with the "candy makes us fat/overweight" statement. You should have left it at 'it rots our teeth'. For her sake don't use those words, and hopefully this will start to *heal* you.

My MIL made her kids eat crazy healthy stuff. Told them sugar makes you fat & wouldn't allow any sugars. Now all 3 of her kids are terrible eaters. They gorge themselves on sugars & sodas. My twin SIL's have terrible eating disorders. My one SIL will go to dunkin donuts, eat 6 donuts, drive to 7/11, eat a pint of ice cream, then eat a few candy bars. I am not sure if she pukes all the time but I know my other SIL pukes often.

You may want to seek counseling for yourself.

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answers from San Diego on

I so appreciate that this is not a topic you trust yourself. I have those topics but this one isn't one of them. I had wonderful role models on this account but I have plenty of my own second guessing battles to deal with. So here's my two cents because of this, I feel sure:

I don't think I've mentioned weight one time to my daughter in relation to food, just MD check ups and weight in terms of car/booster seats. I also don't think she knows the words fat and skinny in relation to our bodies, just fat blotch of paint or thin/skinny line. I thing the most important is to watch our own verbiage.

With relation to food, we make choices. If we had a bit of sugar in the afternoon, we choose to not have more because it is not healthy for our bodies. I like teaching my daughter about protein, carbohydrates, iron, the various vitamins and try to eat a variety at each meal. I also incorporate attempting to eat a rainbow. Of course treats (sugar & salt) are fun to eat, but they're not "growing food," which is preferred. We're vegetarian so for that reason alone I want her to be educated about what she is eating. I have her pay attention to how she feels when she eats healthy or if she happens upon a sugar low. This is the most powerful reinforcement for her.

I don't read fashion magazines, she doesn't watch popular TV and because of that she doesn't see airbrushed women or unrealistic body types. This just isn't in her world. She does understand that we need exercise and healthy eating because then she can grow to be a strong girl.

I'm very curious how my daughter will grow and form because she seems more prone to be larger where as I'm genetically thin. I make healthy choices but I'm certainly not as active as I could be.

I also walk around naked and I don't scrutinize myself in the mirror. I look in the mirror to see if I like what I see and/or I'd like to change something. When my daughter wears a crazy outfit in and I want her to change, I ask her if to go to the mirror and ask her if she looks just the way she would like to look. From there I let it go because SHE likes what she sees.

So choice, education, and health are the key messages I try to impart. And pride!

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answers from Austin on

I understand your concern....

Rather than telling her it makes us fat/overweight, just focus on the positives...

We eat healthy food to keep our bodies healthy, and to help us grow strong. Sugary treats, while they taste good, don't have the right kind of foods to help us grow strong. Sugary treats also are bad for our teeth."

Also emphasize that the fruits and vegetables help our bodies grow strong...

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answers from Cleveland on

What a fabulous question! I"m so glad you asked it. I don't come from a background of having a diagnosised eating disorder but i did see my mom, go from weight watchers, to Overeaters anonymous, back to weightwatchers, then to the cabbage diet and on and on and on. I think she suffered from depression but if you asked her why my dad cheated on her, she would say her weight, and that was my impression at the time as well even though i know now there were alot more to it.

I think the majority of girls/women have a distorted body image, I did a neat exercise once for a health class in college, we had to draw our bodies as we thought we were on a big peice of paper, then tape the paper on the wall and stand in front of it and the teacher used a different marker to trace our actual bodies, Everyone over estimated and drew huge people but in reality we weren't that big. That has stuck with me for so long. I"m not a size 2 but i am a decent size. Could i be healthier? heck yeah but i'm not going to get that way by obsessing about it.

Anyhow, my first suggestion, is to try to cut out saying skinny or fat. The aren't good decriptors, say the large apple, instead.

second, i've heard alot about the Dove project using larger models you might try their website, if i have time i'll google it for you, i think beauty or inner beauty might be part of the name of it.
found it its' at and it's the campaign for Real Beauty. They actually have some activities on the website that look pretty neat. The age range is 8- something but i took a quick look and some can be adapted for your dd age. This was my fav. At the dinner table or at bed time you can play a game were every one has to give someone else a compliment, not just a physical one, but more positve behavior. I"ve also heard of a variation where everyone tells one good thing and one not so good thing about the day, so kids at a young age feel comfortable talking with you about anything on their minds.

Third, start looking now for someone to be a mentor to your daughter to sort of help with this topic, maybe an aunt, one of your friends, girlscouts or some sports related coach, but be super careful that they will promote the right values, that healthy bodies are beautiful bodies.

fourth, be careful of what you say and do around her, if she sees you getting tense she will pick up on it. Iknow that might be hard. Is there someone that has helped you in the past that might offer some on going support. Since i'm 100% sure you are not the first women to try to break this cycle and do better for their own children.

Big Big hugs, I wish you and your daughter the best! This is a hard topic, one i think women really need to be more open about.

edited: Wait Wait Wait, I just read your SWH and the responses after mine, I think some of them may have been a bit defensive and not super caring, and i know you are sensitive to this which is why i tried to be super nice. But PLEASE don't tell me that you think it is age appropriate to look at a fat person and tell your 4 yo not to ever be like them. I don't think that is even ok for you to tell a 16 yo!
focus on telling her to be healthy is much much different than telling her not to be fat. That isn't avoiding the subject! that is being a kind decent non judgemental person.
Should i go around pointing out super skinny people to my 6 yo and telling her never never to be like them because they are all bulimic and bulimia is a sign of a mentally unbalanced person. Does she need to know that? not at 6 she sure as heck doesn't. When she is older you can tell her there is a WHOLE RANGE of unhealthiness surrounding weigh BOTH overweight and underweight. But it still comes down to HEALTHY!! NOT about being pretty and not about being loveable or not. sorry I would just love to live in a world where people judged each other on behavior instead of looks.

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answers from San Francisco on

I have tried very hard not to use "fat" and "skinny," and instead try to use words like "fit," "healthy," and "strong." For instance, we don't eat candy because it doesn't give our bodies the fuel we need to grow. It doesn't give us the nutrition we need to be healthy and fit. (AND it rots our teeth! :)

I think it's okay to talk about body image with kids. Since it's been in the news lately, I have pointed out to my daughters how fabulous I think Michelle Obama's arms look (she works out - look how beautiful she looks in that dress!). She's just one example of a woman who has a normal body size, who is healthy and takes the time to work out - great role model for little girls.

Aside from that, I don't own a scale (if I can't button my jeans, it's time to cut back ;). When I talk about eating, I try to think and speak of it as a matter of fuel and enjoyment (something to be savored), not as a matter of gaining or losing weight. If I'm hungry, I eat. If I'm not, I don't. I think of my body as an amazing thing that allows me to do all kinds of great stuff - produce new human beings, think deep thoughts, walk to the mailbox, climb stairs, you name it! Because my body can do all these great things, it does not deserve to have scorn heaped upon it because it is 10 pounds larger than I might like it to be.

Of course, living in the world we live in, and having the backgrounds we do (I, like you, struggled with eating disorders in my younger years), sometimes we will slip up and say something we shouldn't. I think it's okay to admit that to your kids, "You know what? I shouldn't say that this makes me look fat. It's just that empire waist blouses are not the most flattering for my shape." Kids don't need us to model perfection; I think it's better for them to see we're imperfect, and we accept ourselves.

This is a great question! I'm glad you asked it!

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answers from Kalamazoo on

How thoughtful of you to be conscious of setting a good example for your daughter in this way. In our house, we identify which foods are "grow foods" that will help our bodies grow and be healthy. (Doctor Sears in the Sears and Sears series has a book called 'The Healthiest Kids on the Block' - I found it helpful and learned a few things.) We have dessert, but a sliver sized slice of anything is plenty for little kids - they learn portion control of sweets. Plus, we don't use food as a reward. I also think being aware of how you identify or comment about people also has an affect. Kids pick up on those subtleties. A few things my mom did to break this cycle for my sister and I (she grew up in a family that was extremely weight conscious) is not having fashion magazines around the house while we grew up. I wasn't subjected to image after image of skeletal female bodies in that way - plus my parents modeled an active lifestyle for us. For example, we went on a family walk almost every evening (rain? golf umbrellas!) to wind down before bed. I still do it. I am so impressed that you are asking this question and congratulations on all the work you've done already.

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answers from Dallas on

FAT is a naughty word in our house. We use "unhealthy". I too had a short-lived eating disorder when I was a teenager. Thankfully it didn't last too long or get too serious...however, I was at one point very unhealthy. With my own children I explain that we always eat healthy foods and get plenty of exercise. We never ever call someone fat...and if my kids ask questions about gaining weight or getting "fat" I just explain to them that eating the wrong foods or too much of something will cause you to be unhealthy. And quite frankly, being overweight is unhealthy.

It sounds like you're still really sensitive to this subject. Whatever you do, do not make it obvious IF you're counting calories, or make comments about the way you look, or constantly critique yourself in front of her. She'll pick up on whatever you do and begin to do it herself.

The best way to maintain a good and healthy weight is to eat right, exercise, drink plenty of water, don't eat too late in the evening, get plenty of sleep, and stock your pantry and refridgerator with the right foods. If the unhealthy foods are NOT in your house, you can't indulge.

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answers from Minneapolis on


I have this same issue so I'm not sure I can be of any help. I had an eating disorder from age 15-20 and struggled with it throughout my 20s. Every time in my life that I'm under extra stress, I lose weight still. My daughter is now 9, and tall and big for her age. (I'm 5'4" and 125 lbs). I have such a hard time answering her questions and talking with her about weight. I can talk about healthy food choices and such, but when she says things like "Why are most girls skinnier than me?" "Am I overweight?" or she asks me to look up her BMI on the computer (?) I am so afraid I'll say the "wrong" thing.

My father DID say things like "you are getting fat" and then would get mad at me for not eating at meal time. I was always within normal weight for my height. But became so obsessed with food, counting calories, not eating, and staying at EXACTLY 114 lbs that I became withdrawn, had no periods for five years, had almost no social life, and did almost nothing but obsess about food. I don't want any of that for my daughter.

I, too, have no issues talking with her about sex and boys and we've had many of those conversations already. What I've done recently is to be as honest as possible with her. I've said "it's hard for me to talk about these things because of the eating disorder I had when I was in high school." I've told her a little about how it took over my life. At age 4, though, this approach probably won't work.

Added: It's great to say never use the words "fat" or "skinny", but when your daughter comes home from school, looks you in the eye, and says "There is only one girl that weighs more than me in my class and the rest of them are little and skinny. Am I fat?" All the years of your own weight obsession are hanging right there in the room with you and your fear of creating that for your daughter is warring with your fear of her actually GETTING fat (because that's still a fear of yours)! And all of your "You are strong and beautiful, and everyone grows at their own rate, and be thankful for your healthy body..." sounds like "blah, blah, blah" as she's giving you rolled eyes and says "but everyone wants to be the little skinny one...or likes them best..." The one thing I do is keep us active, and put less emphasis on food. We go for walks, bike rides, swims, or something almost every day.

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answers from Tampa on

My advice is to never use weight for anyting only getting healthy. Like when I am counting calories My son will try and get me to eat something I shouldn't..I'll say I can't hunny I am trying to get healthier. When we go for bikeride/runs....we are excersizing to get healthy and strong! I never use the term "fat" or "overweight" We don't talk about it alot. At 4 all you have to do is tell them eating healthy things make you healthy and strong, eating bad things all them time (rot your teeth..its a good one) or gives you less energy and makes you tired. Don't stress, the more you stress the more your daughter will ....eventually, it could be an issue. Just use the terms "healthy" "stronger" never use the words "fat" "overweight" "lose weight". Good luck, you will do fine, remember just no stressing over it :)

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answers from Kansas City on

I too try and avoid using the words fat and skinny as much as possible, which I know probably sounds obsessive, but I see them as words that can easily hurt people's feelings. My daughter is very slim and so many people are always calling her skinny (she's 4 too) that I'm afraid that will give her a complex too...and I don't want her to ever feel like she has to meet this expectation of always being skinny. On the flip side, my husband's sisters have been overweight and their parents were always very hurtful with the things they said to them, so that's in the back of my mind too, that people can be so cruel when it comes to weight in general.

Anyway, we talk about everyday foods and sometimes foods, as some others mentioned. Candy, ice cream, etc. is sometimes food. We talk about it is bad for our teeth and doesn't give our body the right kind of vitamins and nutrients to fuel it properly. Around the holidays those sometimes foods are more prevalant and it's hard, but I usually let it slide a little, especially yesterday and today, LOL!

I understand why you're sensitive, I mean I haven't dealt with these issues personally and I'm sensitive over it. Do the best you can, be reasonable and maybe change your vocabulary just a bit, because I agree that you probably shouldn't use phrases like "that will make you fat". Hang in there, and she'll be okay! (and so will you!!)

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answers from Dallas on

I could have written your post, word for word. I am still a skinny person who looks in the mirror and sees a fat person. I struggled with anorexia and bulimia for many years. When I first became a mother, I thought long and hard about how to handle discussing food and weight with my children. I wanted them to grow up having a healthy relationship with food. My boys are 7 and 14.

My husband (who has no issues with food or weight) and I decided to focus on the health benefits of food ONLY. We don't talk about weight at all, but both of our boys are healthy weights, they're actually a bit on the thin side. I'm not sure how we would handle it if they were bigger. We would have to handle it carefully. We eat healthy foods in our house, not much junk, and we talk about the benefits of healthy eating, as well as the benefits of exercise.

Neither of our boys worry about their weight now, although our youngest worried us for awhile when he was about 5 and he decided he was horribly overweight. He was actually quite underweight at the time. We ended up taking him to the doctor to have him convince him he was a healthy weight. I don't know what brought that on.

Anyway, I commend you for realizing this is a hot topic for yourself, and wish you luck in dealing with it. I've always been thin, but food issues are a lifelong battle for me, and I'm working hard to prevent that for my boys. I know you are doing the same for your daughter. Good job, momma! :)

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answers from Las Vegas on

My daughter is a big 6. She wears a size 8 or 10. Along with that, she wears a size 2.5 or 3 in shoes. Since she is bigger than nearly every kid in her class, it is a touchy subject here.

I like teach more along the lines of, we don't insult people with our words. With that I mean, fat is a word, but we don't call people fat. I let her know that calling people names insults them and hurts their feelings.

Now in her first year of kindergarden, she has been called fat. It really hurt her feelings, but she got over it.

So in your household, what is wrong with eating dessert everyday, but not a sweet treat everyday. Fruit can be a great dessert. If you serve ice cream, serve one spoon in a small dish. Just enough to get rid of the sweet tooth.

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