Why Does My 7 Year Old Think She’s Fat?

by Chrysula on December 8, 2011 in dreaming,empowering women and girls,mothering

There is steam coming out of my ears this morning (and this right after a post on struggling with my temper). The anger is not directed at my children, nor anyone close to me. It is aimed squarely at our culture. An amorphous shape-shifting enemy that at this moment I don’t know how to fight.

We don’t have cable TV. My children watch way too much, mind you–between DVDs, the Netflix subscription and You Tube clips, there’s plenty of consumption going on, but very little containing advertisements and what my kids watch is strictly monitored. A few years back we canceled all our glossy subscriptions except two news magazines. I have been known to rip off a cover or tear out an ad very occasionally. Yeah, I’m that kind of mother.

But of course there’s time at friends’ houses, extended family with much older cousins, and shows that are pitched to little girls but set in teenage environments. There is princess culture and Barbie dolls and imagery every which way. And I can’t keep it all out; I can’t fight every single piece of it.

My seven year old has great taste and a high level of self awareness. She’s been quite ill for that past week and probably lost about 5lbs of her none-to-spare frame. This kid is skinny! When I asked her to put on her puffy winter coat this morning (as the temperature had dropped by 20 degrees from the day before) she vociferously protested. Full melt-down, tears, the whole deal. As it turned out, the emotion was all because she thought her coat made her look too fat.

We had a talk and a hug. She’s wearing the coat and is happily off to school. I, on the other hand, am angry. And I am at a loss. A little piece of me (my inner 7 year old girl perhaps) is utterly devastated.

I discovered this documentary, Miss Representation, through various sources and it is on my must view list. I know another piece of my heart will break when I see it. Even so, it is essential. I heard Kathy LeMay (speaking at a conference this week held by Working Mother Media on Corporate and Social Responsibility) say,

this work is heartbreaking but we have to allow ourselves to feel it. We must live in the humanity of (it)… that is what leads to tectonic shifts for the world to change.”

Watch the trailer. It contains some images of women that are degrading and hard to watch, but they are important to see to contextualize what our daughters and sons are up against.

Tell me what you’re doing in the comments so I can learn from you whilst my little girl is still open enough to hear and feel the truth, and let those positive messages settle deep in her core.

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Julie December 8, 2011 at 9:46 pm

In our case, it was the school. While they ladled out fried foods and ketchup as vegetable in the school cafeteria, the kids were surrounded by posters about obesity. The kids got the constant drum beat of dieting and losing weight, which my kids did not need. I get why, I get the problem. I just did not like the approach (any of them, which was a bigger problem). We pulled her out (for many reasons) and she now attends a small private school that serves healthy food and daily exercise, without beating the kids over the head with SCREAMING 2X4 CONSTANT OVERLY GENERALIZED BRANDED MESSAGING. They just model good choices, which reinforces our family, which models (usually) good choices.

I’ve never heard my younger, turning 7 next week and in 1st grade, worry about size, which is good because she is even skinnier! That one, oy, she was my fail to gain weight kid! She still is a teeny sprite.

My husband and I, as middle aged people over 40 with slowing metabolism etc., work very hard to keep weight down and exercise up and as crappy as I feel somedays with my changing, aging body (now there’s a talk!) I work so hard to not be negative in my body image or call myself fat. So it was frustrating.

I know everyone can’t remove themselves from school especially for one thing so try asking her where she hears about fat, why she thinks it applies to her, and if she’s at all in to American Girl they have some good books that were positive and helpful, and appealing to the kids.

/very long comment lol

Chrysula December 12, 2011 at 9:04 am

Julie, your very long comment has taught me a great deal! Thank you for taking the time. School lunch (which we participate in 1-2 x per month) and the conversation around obesity is a pivotal part of this. I live in a town that generally focuses on healthy living, but certainly being this close to NYC we’ve got our share of mothers always on a diet and kids hearing that story over and over. I’ve already looked up the American Girl books you mentioned. Gratitude!

britt groosman December 8, 2011 at 10:26 pm

This is such a complicated issue because as much as I feel like a feminist, I also like feeing pretty and hate my little blubber belly (although not enough to actually regularly exercise but that is my guilt issue for now). I do remember my father once insinuated I should loose weight (I was probably about 16 or so), and I will never forget it. I then had a boyfriend a couple of years later who would make references to the perfect body of his girlfriend. Good riddance there!

What I have tried to do is praise the beauty of my children, including their body and mind, on a very regular basis. I praise them daily. For now this seems to have worked, my children feel beautiful. With regards to TV, we no longer watch any Icarly, Disney or anything like that with very thing young women being served as a role model for 7-year olds. This was made much easier with our move to the UK. My daughter and son now watch BBC nature shows and kids’ game shows, which have kids, not young adults, as people to cheer for and identify with. It has also taken away the dating and sexuality issue which is a bonus!

I also make a point of pointing out beautiful women and men of all shapes and sizes (how gorgeous is Christina Hendricks, how gorgeous is Botticelli’s Venus or Titian’s women), and especially how amazing are women with brains, wit and grace – regardless of their looks!

When my husband decided he needed to get healthy and loose weight a couple of years ago (and boy did he loose it), we made it all about being healthy and making sure we get the right vitamins. We never spoke about the weight issue. Papa was eating vegetables because they were yummy and better for him, he was at the gym because he enjoyed it and it was good for his heart and bones.

At school in the UK, there is definitely a “eat healthy” campaign, but it is all about health. They even use super heroes to present the five food groups (and they are all there not just fruit and veg). I think any reference to obesity in school is just plain wrong.

Lastly, I NEVER talk of my dislike for my blubby belly in front of my kids and always let them have some cookies or deserts. Instead I do portion control (not more than one ice-cream a day ☺) and make sure I give them healthy alternatives. That and encouraging them to keep active.

Sorry for a long response but this is such an important issue, I hope she will not be bringing it up again soon. Positive reinforcement!

Chrysula December 12, 2011 at 9:08 am

The example of how your husband approached his campaign as a “get healthy” initiative is super helpful. I am actually on the curvy side, but have never dieted in my life. But I do run and the kids see that. We talk about strong bodies, healthy bodies, not fat or thin bodies. I’m with you on the treats and such – total withdrawal is not sustainable nor wise. They have to understand how to navigate and be wise.

My 9 yr old has her pot-belly (I’ve had one since I was 5 :). and has never mentioned it. I pray she’ll love it for as long as possible. And a comment can never be too long when it’s filled with this much wisdom. Thank you my friend.

Jennifer Prestholdt December 8, 2011 at 11:08 pm

Thank you so much for writing this! I had the same discussion with my 6 year old daughter recently and had the exact same reaction that you did. We talked about what it means to be strong and healthy, as opposed to “fat” or “skinny”. My gut feeling is that she was just repeating what she was hearing other girls say at school (she is quite tall and slender) but it is still so upsetting. It’s a good reminder that this kind of talk starts early – even in preschool – and we have to keep pushing back against the messages our girls get from the media and their peers. Here is one resource on how to Challenge the Media: http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/uploads/take_action_handout_gr_7-8.pdf
My boys are a little older but are getting the same messages from the media. I blogged about my reaction when one of them told a sexist joke – and also cited Miss Representation. http://open.salon.com/blog/the_human_rights_warrior/2011/10/20/raising_boys_not_to_be_total_jerks

Chrysula December 12, 2011 at 9:12 am

Thrilled to have these additional resources from you, Jennifer. Thank you! And so appreciate your conversation with your boys. I do know that how i teach my boys is equally critical to any shift in the zeitgeist.

Meanwhile, it just kills me that your 6 year old and my 7 year old have friends who are talking about their “fatness” already. The push back has begun in earnest in this household.

Liz December 8, 2011 at 11:32 pm

Great post. I feel for you. Last year I heard that some first grade girls were refusing to wear their puffy winter coats at recess for the same reason – they didn’t want to look fat. I blamed it on mothers who are obsessed with weight and talk about their diets at home. Turns out, my (very skinny) daughter was one of them! I don’t diet and I don’t discuss weight. I know all about Miss Representation. I consider myself media literate. And I still can’t stop it. The media sends a powerful message. I think we need to bring Miss Representation into our communities and schools. If we wake up more mothers to this very real problem, we can find a solution.

Chrysula December 12, 2011 at 9:14 am

Right! That’s the thing! I cannot ever remember a conversation about diet and weight in my house. We talk about wise portions, coming back for seconds rather than loading up first time, and learning to stop when we are full, but never in the context of weight. Rather in terms of health and feeling comfortable.

I am on the bandwagon. I always have been, but now the gloves are off.

Chrysula December 8, 2011 at 11:55 pm

So much gratitude to you all for these comments, full of wisdom and valuable perspectives. I will reply at length later, but suffice to say, you are inspiring me with more tools and approaches. We too NEVER discuss weight or being too fat. My kids have seen me run a half marathon and we emphasize strength and healthy bodies. We allow treats and a spot of junk, they don’t binge and make great choices for the most part. They don’t do school lunch, and ours is O…K… ish anyway.

What you’re all pointing too, and where I came to this morning is, conversation, conversation, conversation. And luckily she and I do that a lot. Now I have a new and complex topic to add to that mix. Meanwhile, I’m on this bandwagon and my sons are just as much a part of it as my daughters.

Jenn December 9, 2011 at 12:45 am

This post made me cry! What has our culture done to our beautiful young children that at such a young age they already struggle with their self image?! I am already so worried about this with my 3.5 year old. I too remember my dad telling me as a young teenager that I needed to “tone up.” I was super, super thin, struggled with an eating disorder, and desperately wanted to be as thin as a super model. Every day I tell my daughter how absolutely perfect and beautiful she is. I don’t know how to combat the negativity from outside other than to reinforce it with positive in our home.

Chrysula December 12, 2011 at 9:19 am

Oh Jenn, I ache for that. Dads have ENORMOUS power over their daughters’ self image. I still have memories of any hint of my darling Dad’s disapproval over my clothing and body.

Positive in the home is pivotal. And it has to be across the board of who our children are – praising how hard they work, good choices they make, kindness they show, fears they overcome. An older gentleman from our church met my two girls tonight and the first thing that came out of his mouth (fully intending to be complimentary and kind) was, “oh you are such pretty girls!”. And they are. But I want him and every other person to see behind their eyes and praise them for things they are and do and achieve, and not the luck of their genetics. Sigh.

Tiffany December 9, 2011 at 1:52 am

Sometimes I feel what I have to say is so overpowered by the big world of media out there, but ultimately I do believe our children will remember what WE tell them, not what THEY tell them. Talking, talking, talking to our children is hopefully the key. Seems to me you are handling it magnificently. Perhaps somehow and sometime we ca be will be a part of the change that will hopefully take over the world.

Chrysula December 12, 2011 at 9:20 am

Tiffany, this is what I am counting on. Conversation, conversation, conversation. There are lots of things I am not great at as a mother. But I am good at this part. And I am praying every day it will be enough. Thank you for your encouragement and support.

reading this story December 9, 2011 at 4:59 am

hello there….this is such an important topic yet there are only two comments…yet some silly subject receives millions of views and comments…..just goes to show how dumb we really are …. a sad day in the life of all humans…female and male….i welcome your feedback…by the way i am male and i believe 100% in females being more if not equal than males so there!

Chrysula December 12, 2011 at 9:21 am

Thanks for your encouragement! Equally yoked, side by side, and different in beautiful and powerful ways. Men, we need your voices on this pivotal topics.

Jen December 9, 2011 at 5:45 am

Your daughter is one of MANY 7 year olds who is finding their bodies somehow ‘unsatisfactory’ at such a young age, myself included. It was not until I had my first baby that I realized how incredible, gorgeous, and powerful the female body is and that is it divinely created. By sexualizing women and degrading their roles as mothers, the media is destroying the normal and healthy image of the female body. I do not have much advise but can say that your best defense in this war is to continue working on your relationship with your daughter, your dedication to her developing talents and strengths, and maintaing a healthy body image yourself. I believe the more she feels she can contribute to the world other than just her body and appearance, the less she will focus on those things. She will be ok (and you will too!)

Jen December 9, 2011 at 5:46 am

i meant to say- myself included at that age. I felt the same way at age 7. that did not sound right.

Chrysula December 12, 2011 at 9:24 am

Jen, thank you for this reminder. I do remember feeling dissatisfaction with my body all those years ago. I just don’t recall it starting quite this early. I had an epiphany about 15 years ago going through old photo albums at my mother’s house and seeing all these photos of me as a child – with a lovely figure! All those years operating under the falsest of impressions. Gratitude for your thoughts and counsel.

Meredith December 10, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Oh, my! This breaks my heart, thank you for sharing. We do the same things at our house and I worry, like you, about this very thing. So, I do what you do. No TV ads by default through not having cable, etc. However, your daughter is older than mine. Right now I just hold mine tight and gather thoughts to use as ammunition for the time when the inevitable conversations need to take place. Gratefully teaching a 7 year old what beauty means is easier to imprint than trying to reach her first at a later age.

Chrysula December 12, 2011 at 9:26 am

Meredith, you are right. In that one way, having this conversation now, and her willingness to let me know that what the reason for the resistance to the coat at this young age, gives me more time to get in there and undo as much as I can before it gets more serious. Fortunately, we have had a wonderful few days together since I wrote this post and her vibrance and joyous self is at the fore! We will change this. In our family. In this country. And for girls everywhere.

Chrysula December 13, 2011 at 9:34 pm

I just found this from http://www.thepowerofmoms.com that speaks beautifully on some good solid how-tos on similar topics. “Straight Talk : Beauty, Brains, or Both?” | The Power of Moms http://bit.ly/vwC7ya

Sue December 14, 2011 at 2:04 am

Here is something to bring joy to your hearts. We were watching Victoria’s Secret annual show last night and my 19 and 17 year old daughters were complimenting the athletic models and condemning the skinny ones. This was with full agreement from my husband.

Chrysula January 13, 2012 at 9:20 am

I just came across this post via my friend Liz at http://www.helloladies.com ~ it’s exquisite and thought some of you might enjoy it.


Courtney January 21, 2012 at 12:23 am

Reading your post, I felt like I was reading something written by myself. I googled Miss Representation suitable for my 7 year old and came across your site. I saw the trailer and a friend told me it will be screened at the university that I’m attending (as a 37 y.o. single, mom, artist, grad student, heterosexual, feminist… whew!) You get the picture. I was teary-eyed after seeing the trailer and I do feel it is up to us as parents and more so, women to start (continue) to “write” our stories. Meaning, it is important for our daughters to see what a woman’s view of women is. As a culture regurgitator and maker (read- artist) I feel this is even more important. Please see my website for work that I’ve done in this realm.
While we are in the same position of not having cable and not subscribing to said glossy magazines, I have witnessed similar (and the same – puffy coat thing) sentiments regarding appearance and actions that I find curious as to where these things might have been absorbed.
I have to return to my Feminism Without Borders book, but would really like to figure out whether or not to bring my child to this screening. I will most likely go and digest it all with the intention of working it into my own artwork and parenting.
I will keep up with your site as there are so many similarities in issues and parenting.
Thanks and luck.

Chrysula March 8, 2012 at 8:55 am

Courtney, what did you think? Has it helped in navigating conversations with kids? Your question “where these things might have been absorbed” keeps rattling around in my head. And I wonder, “didn’t we get it mostly right? We worked so hard to keep these influences out of our home.” But we’re fighting a culture that is so vast and steeped. Things have definitely improved for my daughter recently. No doubt this will come up repeatedly, but for now we are in a good place and that gives me hope.

Emma March 3, 2012 at 2:26 am

Hi, just logged on as my 7 year old son, keeps getting upset because he thinks he is fat, which he is seriously not. 7 Days a weeks he partakes in some sort of spoting activity. He eats a healthy, balanced diet, plus the the odd junk food..bar of chocolate, which I am happy with as he is a child as is active and healthy. I always respond to him by asking what makes him feel like that. I don’t dismisss it as that doesnt help him, but i tell him he is perfect with a lovley body and good strong muscles. I would like to know if anyone has some good advice of how i should react to these comments, as I worry… although I know all things can jsut be a phase with kids, but this is not the first time he has said it. E.

Chrysula March 8, 2012 at 8:51 am

Emma, there are some great words of wisdom already in the comment stream. One of the things that has worked for us, is to stand side by side in the mirror and really look together, at ourselves and each other. And I ask my daughter what she sees. We have been able to move past “fat” and as she has described her hair, her eyes, I point out her bony bum, which always makes her laugh. We dance and hug. Since I first wrote this post, we’ve only had one episode in nearly four months. Also, focusing on how hard she works at things, her effort, her mind, rather than her physical appearance, is always important and we’ve upped the ante on that front.

Jennifer November 12, 2012 at 8:15 pm

The video was good, although it irritated me that all the negative video footage was from Fox. I watch Fox a ton and they are not anti woman. How about footage of people like Rachel Madow, Chris Mathews, David Letterman and a host of others attacking and denigrating Sarah Palin? Mow about Newsweek’s cover picture of Sarah with a bunch of guys looking at her legs? The way mainstream media treats conservative woman is the worst out there. And yet it goes unchallenged. It is offensive and they get a pass, but we pretend a few bad comments on Fox is all that’s out there, it will get worse. There needs to be outcry by feminists of the treatment on the left and in the supposed mainstream media too.

As for the 7 year old, my daughter said it this morning too and was in near ears when I wanted her to wear her puffy jacket. It broke my heart. She is not fat, she is a great weight for her height and a total little athlete. I showed he the Justice catalogue and said see all these girls in those jackets. They are the popular jacket and they look nice on everyone. They are supposed to be puffy. Didn’t work! So she wore a different jacket and was happy. But I feel terrible… I don’t want my little 7 year old thinking that about herself. I want to raise a confident, happy kid! I don’t know where she got it…. But I need to really try to make sure she has a better image of herself!

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