The Character Movement

Help! My Seven-year-old Daughter Thinks She’s Fat

This post was written by Joe Beckman, Youth Frontiers Retreat Director. Joe has been a youth worker for 14 years and has three beautiful children. This article was originally posted on Cooper & Kid. For more of their posts, go to their website:

“Dad, do I have a big belly?”

My seven-year-old asks this as she’s pressing her shirt super tight and looking sadly into the mirror.

“No. Your belly is your belly. You don’t have a big belly or small belly. You simply just have a belly.”

Two days later she asked me again, and then a few days after that she asked me,

“Would you still love me if I was fat?”

Woah, woah, woah. I expected questions like this to be thrown my way… but at seven?

What’s up with that? And how do you respond?

Here’s how I did, and I’m not crazy about what I said:

“Sweetie – first off, you’re not fat. Secondly, I will love you no matter what. You could have a horn sticking out of your forehead. Your entire body could be covered in hair. You could tell me 100 times a day that I’m a stinky gorilla man. No matter what, I would still love you. Third, tell me more about why you’re even thinking about this. Are there people at your school saying things to you about it?”

“No, but I’m afraid they will. And if I’m fat they’re not going to want to be my friend.”

“Listen. If someone doesn’t want to be your friend because of how you look on the outside, then they’re not someone that you should be friends with in the first place. Friends – true friends – will never judge you based on your looks.”

Now you may say that this was a perfectly level-headed answer. Some of you might even be thinking about nominating me for the prestigious “Parent of the Universe” award (that I just made up). I appreciate your kind thoughts, however, I still can’t help but feel… off… with what I’m saying.

Let’s break down my responses.

  • Saying “no, you’re not fat” is technically a true statement. She’s not. She’s not even pudgy. But there’s still something that doesn’t sit well with me. I feel like the subtext to this is “don’t worry, you’re not fat, however if you were, we would need to have a separate conversation, because then yes… I would love you less.” Truth is, there are overweight kids… What does a parent who has a child on the hefty side say to them when that question is asked? Especially a seven-year-old?
  • Saying “I would love you no matter what” is also a true statement. But then I was fishing for a way to give examples without them being about her appearance. I failed on the first and the second attempts there, but then got back on track with the old “stinky gorilla” line. Classic.
  • Asking, “Tell me more about why you’re even thinking about this,” is something I feel pretty good about. In fact, I probably should have started with this and then continued to ask more questions – allowing her to unpack her feelings from there. In essence, guide her to give the appropriate response instead of giving it to her myself. i.e. “Tell me more.” “Do you think that’s right when someone is judged on their looks?” “Is that something you see mom or dad do?” (gulp!) “Is that something that you do?” “What’s most important about a person – their heart or their how they look?” (a message we’ve been preaching since she was in the womb).
  • Saying the whole thing about true friends. That also doesn’t sit well with me. We all know it’s not entirely true. Not the concept, but rather the follow through. That’s like telling someone who drinks a Starbucks latte everyday that the best way they can start saving more money is to stop drinking at Starbucks everyday. Is it true? OF COURSE! Is it something that someone is actually going to change? NO! Telling Sophia not to worry so much about what everyone else thinks, or that “true” friends will love her no matter what, is a logical answer, but to think that I’ve done my job as a parent simply because I dished out a little logic is just plain naive.
  • How many times has someone told you to “find meaningful work and your happiness will improve” or that “Cheetos are not good for you” or “Neil Diamond is old and washed up” or that “we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover?” The truth is that all of these statements are logical, but if I told you to not sing “Sweet Caroline” at the next wedding you attend, you couldn’t do it! Point being, logic many times doesn’t work with adults, why do we think it will just magically work with kids?

So at the end of the day, I guess I’m just looking for a little advice.

What do you say to a seven-year-old when she asks you if she’s fat? In fact, take the “seven-year-old” part out the equation. While you’re at it, take the “daughter” part out as well. What do you say to a kid who is self-conscious about something in their appearance? Your responses could be insanely helpful to A LOT of parents.

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