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Fat is the new ugly on the playground

By Katia Hetter, Special to CNN
March 16, 2012 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Kids are becoming increasingly concerned with weight at a younger age.
Kids are becoming increasingly concerned with weight at a younger age.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Today, children as young as 3 years old worry about being fat
  • When parents, media worry about weight, children are likely to have the same concerns
  • Parents who talk about dieting around their children can have a negative influence on them

Editor's note: This is the third part of a six-week Friday series on the perceptions of beauty. Last week we looked at the counter campaigns against society's beauty ideal. Next week we take a look at men who are struggling with body issues.

(CNN) -- Marah Rhoades remembers when her daughter, Emilia Cooper, started to worry about weight. She was 5.

That's when boys at her Brooklyn school started calling her fat. Emilia, now 9, has always been taller and more broadly built than most of the other kids in her class, and she quickly learned her body type made her a target for teasing.

"At that point she became very aware of weight," says Rhoades. "She started coming home and telling her 3-year-old brother, 'If you eat that you're going to get fat.'"

"We all exercise a lot, and it's definitely just her body type," says Rhoades. "We started having a dialogue about it, but it's hard for her to understand that there are different bodies."

Fat is the new ugly on the school playground. Children as young as 3 worry about being fat. Four- and 5-year-olds know "skinny" is good and "fat" is bad. Children in elementary school are calling each other fat as a put-down.

As our country becomes more obsessed with increasingly skinny ideals of beauty at the same time that we're getting more obese, "Fat hatred has become so pervasive that it is part of the fabric of our language and interactions," says Dr. Robyn Silverman, author of "Good Girls Don't Get Fat: How Weight Obsession is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It." "Fat and thin are no longer simply assessments of size or weight, but rather of character. So you can imagine why adoption of these attitudes, diet talk and disordered behavior is happening earlier as well."

Worrying about weight starts early

Children pick up on stated and unstated messages from their parents and media starting from the time they can open their eyes, quickly learning what the ideal person for their gender looks like. When parents are more concerned with weight, the children are more likely to have the same concerns. But the larger culture of movies, television, Halloween costumes and mass market T-shirts tells young people at a very early age that fat is bad and thin is good. It doesn't even matter if your children don't watch television, adore Disney movies or adore Barbies.

"It's such a strong cultural idea that children are going to start picking up on it immediately, just like gender and what it is to be properly feminine," says Dickinson College professor Amy Farrell, author of "Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture." "It's not just TV, it's the entire culture. Fat children are treated differently than slimmer children from the time they're very young. We hear concern from parents about their babies being fat. We think someone is less intelligent if they are fat."

Readers recall their own childhood experiences

The "fat is bad" language can start in preschool, where children don't know what "fat" means but they know it's not good. "We hear that girls of all different weights worry about being fat because it's such a lethal hot button for other girls to use," says Silverman. "They associate it with being blameworthy, ugly, lazy, unpopular and all the polar opposites of being happy, well liked, popular and good. It may have nothing to do with how they look."

It doesn't matter if you don't watch any television and send your children to schools that don't allow children to wear any mass market commercialized T-shirts or bring brand-name toys to share. Western culture's obsession with weight goes deeper than anything a parent can consciously do to limit its influence, according to Peggy Orenstein, author of "Cinderella Ate My Daughter." She limits her daughter's exposure to mass media but still heard her talking about weight at age 6, spelling the word "fat" in a whisper.

In television, movies and toys, the messages are usually pretty clear: The thin characters are usually good and smart and the fat characters are stupid or evil. Magazines and billboards emphasize the idea that skinny is the goal. "Fat people are portrayed as evil or stupid," says Orenstein. "It doesn't take much exposure for kids to understand that message."

What's the impact?

Emilia Cooper is an ice skater but won't lift her arms during her routines because she thinks her arms are too fat. Her mother worries she's not thinking about more interesting and healthy topics: having fun while skating, learning new routines, her homework or having fun with her friends.

People who diet a lot -- and therefore regularly spend a lot of attention and self-control on what they eat -- often don't have enough focus for math problems or other exercises, says Jennifer Thomas, a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School and assistant director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program.

It's also true that growing children and teens need to eat healthy, well-balanced meals to grow into healthy adults. In people who severely limit their food intake for prolonged periods, brain scan studies show their brains shrink, says Thomas.

Talk with them, not at them

Aylin Ellenburg, a Miami mother of 17-year-old triplets, tackled the topic of body image and body disorders with her daughters in a group setting. She helped create a book club with mothers and daughters from her children's middle school. When they read a novel about a popular teen with an eating disorder, the girls got to share their concerns and hear their mothers' struggles without feeling like it was a lecture.

"We did it at that early age so they would understand the consequences of being overly concerned about weight and understand that someone could look 'perfect' and be hurting inside," says Ellenburg, who has two girls and one boy. "The girls really talked about it and us moms got to put in our two cents. The girls enjoyed being at the same level as the adults."

Stop talking about food in moral terms

Parents whose weight is normal but who talk about how they need to diet or lose weight around the children all the time can have a negative influence on their children, whether it's Mom talking about dieting because she's gained a couple of pounds or "being bad today" by having a piece of cake. "Children pick up on the idea that their parents think [the parents] need to lose weight and get in their heads that they [the children] need to do the same," says Debbie Rhea, an eating disorders specialist and kinesiology professor at Texas Christian University.

To that end, author Orenstein realized she was sending a signal by not ordering an ice cream cone when her husband and daughter each had one. "I'm going to have to get an ice cream cone so she knows it's OK that I do," says Orenstein.

Remind your children of your values

If you truly believe in treating people respectfully and celebrating diversity, the buck stops with you. Don't just talk to your children about your values. Talk about them with other people when your children are listening, live them in the way you treat others and include yourself on the list of people who shouldn't be criticized for your body type. Don't accept anyone, even the in-laws, criticizing you or your children for body shape or size.

"Teach your children that everyone deserves to be treated well, no matter size, shape, skin color or how expensive their shoes are!" says Farrell, "We come in a diversity of shapes and sizes. Enjoy your body, enjoy physical movement, eat tasty and good-for-you food and celebrate the fact that you are alive."

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