Posted on April 30, 2023

Diet Culture Can Hurt Kids. This Author Advises Parents to Reclaim the Word ‘Fat’

Tonya Mosley, NPR, April 25, 2023

By the time they enter kindergarten, most American children believe that being “thin” makes them more valuable to society, writes journalist Virginia Sole-Smith. By middle school, Sole-Smith says, more than a quarter of kids in the U.S. will have been put on a diet.

Sole-Smith produces the newsletter and podcast Burnt Toast, where she explores fatphobia, diet culture, parenting and healthIn her new book, Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, she argues that efforts to fight childhood obesity have caused kids to absorb an onslaught of body-shaming messages.

“The chronic experience of weight stigma … is similar to the research we see on chronic experiences of racism or other forms of bias,” Sole-Smith says. “This raises your stress level. This has you in a constant state of fight-or-flight, and stress hormones are elevated. That takes a toll on our bodies for sure.”

Sole-Smith says parents can combat American diet culture by reclaiming — and normalizing — the word “fat.” {snip}


Interview highlights

On the harm of anti-fat bias

It becomes a really concrete barrier between fat people — fat kids and fat adults — and access to health care. … So the fact that the first thing we’re all asked to do at a doctor’s office is to get on a scale, right there, you’ve immediately given the doctor this number to focus in on that doesn’t tell your full story about your health, but that narrows the focus of the conversation down to weight. And if you’re fat, that means that that’s really all the doctor is going to focus on is weight loss, weight management. {snip}


On thin privilege

Thin privilege is a concept that is tricky to get our heads around, because if you have it, you don’t really see how much you have it. I mean, it’s a lot like white privilege in that way because you don’t see how much it’s benefiting you. But what we’re talking about with thin privilege is the fact that if you are someone who can wear “straight” sizes [0 to 14], you can walk into The Gap or Target or whatever and find your size easily on the rack. …

It means when you go to the doctor, your weight is not the first and often only thing that’s talked about. It means you can sit on an airplane and not worry about buckling the seatbelt. You can go to a restaurant without worrying, Will they have booths that are too tight for you to get into while the chairs have arms that are too tight? Physical spaces are built for your body. And whatever your own personal struggles might be … your body is not a target for the world in the way that someone in a bigger body is.


On how thinness upholds white supremacy

The thin ideal is definitely a white ideal. When we trace the history of modern diet culture, we really trace it back in the United States to the end of slavery. And Sabrina Strings‘ book Fearing the Black Body is the iconic work on this that I would refer people to. But her research talks about how, as slavery ended, Black people gained rights, obviously, white supremacy is trying to maintain the power structure. So celebrating a thin white body as the ideal body is a way to “other” and demonize Black and brown bodies, bigger bodies, anyone who doesn’t fit into that norm. So this is really about maintaining systems of white supremacy and patriarchy … I think a lot of us are really working to divest from those ideas, but we haven’t given ourselves permission to stop dieting or to accept our weight wherever it might fall.


On why the BMI is a very flawed way to measure health

The BMI, the body mass index, was developed in the 19th century by a Belgian astronomer and statistician. It was never intended to be a measure of health. He developed this formula to measure what he called the average man, by which he meant Belgian white men in the 19th century. Which is not any of us today. … It’s not a relevant body measurement anymore. And the formula has changed very little since then.

It is still primarily a tool that’s used for measuring population growth. It’s useful to epidemiologists who are tracking population size across the country on a global level. But it does not tell us anything about anyone’s individual health. It’s only because the life insurance industry adopted it in the 1920s as a way of deciding how to price out insurance premiums that it got connected to health in the first place.