For Children, The Stigma of Fat Is Worse Than Ever

Written by Caie Kelley

ORINDA, Calif. — “She’s not fat,” my mom always used to say about my younger sister. “She is just big-boned.” For a while, that explanation worked. Then she went to kindergarten, where new words began to creep into my sister’s youthful vocabulary: unattractive, lazy, shame, diet.

Obesity is a growing epidemic in the United States. A third of Americans are obese; another third are overweight. In California, statistics show that one-in-three adolescents age 9-11 are at risk of or are already overweight. And obesity is associated with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea – it is a very real problem.

But when did a little extra weight on a five-year-old become a source of withering judgment and shame?

Before kindergarten my sister always saw herself as the same as everyone else: there was nothing wrong with the way she looked. Then came school ‘wellness’ programs that taught her about the dangers of that baby weight she’d never quite grown out, and peers who reinforced the lesson; that she was overweight, that larger kids were unhealthy, dirty, more likely to get sick, and that this was an issue of personal responsibility that needed to be fixed.

Fat is a relative term. My little sister was larger than most others in her grade, sure, but she was not huge to the point of being unhealthy – not even close. Unfortunately, weight perceptions pervaded many of the assumptions that were made about her. My aunts would pinch her cheeks and exclaim, “Oh, you little piggy! Eat more vegetables!”

Ironically, my sister was healthier than I was. She ate more than enough fruits and vegetables, drank plenty of milk and water, and exercised everyday. I received no admonitions about my eating habits, despite my absolute refusal to eat anything green. At dinner, my mom would gently advise my sister to split her meal in half or forgo starches and fried foods. If she chose to have desert, she was made to feel guilty about her choice. I didn’t help; slipping in comments like, “Are you sure about that?”

I’d gone from not even noticing my sister’s size to adopting a patronizing, superior tone as I judged her weight. Stigmatization, in short, made me believe that there was something wrong with being large.

In elementary school, we learned about the dangers of excess fat. We began to stereotype and assume that overweight people were all unhappy and unsuccessful. It’s their fault, I remember thinking, why don’t they just eat better and exercise more? I came to see my sister’s size as a result of bad personal decisions and laziness. She wasn’t motivated enough to address her problem, and it was my job as an older sister to teach her that she needed to change.

One memory in particular stands out for its well-intentioned cruelty. We were back-to-school shopping at the mall, and my sister found a bright striped dress that she loved. “Mom, can I buy it? It’s on sale!” My mother’s expression was full of sympathy. “Well, stripes make you look larger than you already are. You should probably stick to dark colors too, because you don’t want to draw attention to your body.” I bought the dress.

Now in high school, I still hear those same attitudes echoed in classrooms and among my peers in hallways. While today’s emphasis on obesity has led to a push for change, it has also fed into the stigma that comes with one’s looks. And, as we all know, high schoolers can be cruel.

While a healthier physique isn’t in itself a bad thing, losing weight is not that easy, and negativity won’t help a struggling teen address his or her problems. On the contrary, greater stigmatization makes it okay for us to look upon our friends and associate their extra weight with the side effects and generalizations made about those who are obese.

How does greater knowledge about the dangers of obesity justify giving someone a hard time for being big?

A couple years after the mall incident, my sister had a major growth spurt. Today, she has healthier eating habits, is taller, and is a size 0, probably partially as a result of all the chiding she experienced for eating as a kid. But while she no longer has to deal with endless assumptions about her lifestyle habits, many others are not as fortunate.

In a time of public acceptance and tolerance of differences, stigma associated with weight remains a problem. True, Americans must tackle obesity. The trick will be to find a way to solve this problem while still respecting individuals who are a little bigger than the rest.

This post was originally published by New America Media.


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New G.
W. C5 years ago

Thank you for the article.

Valerie A.
Valerie A5 years ago


James M Nordlund
jamesm Nordlund5 years ago

Excellent and informative blog, thanx! PTV, GOTV Vote early, Acts, each one reach one, please! This petition on Care2 . com: Political and Cultural Inclusion:

Thanx for all you do! reality

Nancy C.
Nancy C5 years ago

With a few pounds extra, my peers called me chubs in 3rd or 4th grade. I was such a happy child, it rolled off my back until 6th grade. When I came back to 7th, I was a svelte, cool preteen dancer, cheerleader with a Barbara Streisand haircut.

I had danced from age 3. In a NJ ballet company (age 11-18) and in the pro world, I was always just a few pounds over "their" expectations. My mom had me eat normally and nutritiously and told me to watch the snacks! With a very slow metabolism, I have battled that few extra lbs always. Of course, standing next to anorexic dancers didn't help my image!!! I am very glad to still be healthy!

Colleen Prinssen
Colleen Prinssen5 years ago

go vegan?

they said on tv, some fat kids that over eat might have less powerful tastebuds. so they need more to enjoy a flavor.

is this healthy?

Jessica Larsen
Janne O5 years ago

"I came to see my sister’s size as a result of bad personal decisions and laziness."
Well, obesity comes from a mixture of genetics and bad eating and not exercising enough, so why is that so bad? If you wanna be thin, you gotta work for it, especially if your genes are "against" you.

“stripes make you look larger than you already are. You should probably stick to dark colors too, because you don’t want to draw attention to your body"
Horisontal stripes *do* make you look bigger. I didn't know that light colors drew attention to your body though.

"that she was overweight, that larger kids were unhealthy, dirty, more likely to get sick"
how did dirty enter the equation here? @_@

"when are we going to just see the good in each other?"
lol maybe when there's something good to see? No, I don't like people.

Maria D'Oporto
Past Member 5 years ago

Well there are many ways to encourage a kid to eat better, but there is something really importante and it is to make a kid to FEEL better; and love can teach them wiht out harm them, many memories come to my head and can remeber harsh words about weight and appereancethat relatives made to me, and still remeber the pain to feel embarrased about a comment made for someone close to you that are supouse to love you; when I grew up I learned to be happy with myself and now I try no tto diminish anyone with my words, words can hurt more than a knife sometimes and soul wounds are harder toheal that physical wounds, so please try to be gentle in the way to talk to others and guide them under the light of unconditional love and empathy, total acceptance is a safer environment to learn how to be healty.

Leena K.
Leena K5 years ago

Agree, do not make comments on looks as kids always follow your example, thanks for goo reminder!

Pam H.
Pam H5 years ago

Wow, that was really moving!

Shelly Peterson
Shelly Peterson5 years ago

Parents, teach their young children ATTITUDES AND COMPASSION AND UNDERSTANDING!!...if the kid is a bully, one or more of the parents are most likely bullys, like their parent(s) and or own life experiences...this is where pre-school, kindergarten and public school, REALLY COMES IN!!!...IF OUR CHILDREN ARE TAUGHT FROM THE BEGINING, IN SCHOOL AND EVERY YEAR...skills, to be friends and strength to stand up for their friends, think of what these next generations can do to solve the problems of the World, that WE are leaving them with!!...some "healthy" food for thought!