“Janet is fat”

“Janet is fat,” Thalia told my mother this weekend. She didn’t say it matter-of-factly. That would have been easier. Instead she said it in that sheepish, timid way that indicated she was testing the waters with her description of her preschool teacher to see how we would react.

“What does that mean, fat?” my mother (ever the Socratic scholar) asked, and Thalia just shrugged.

I tried it myself.

“Well who told you about fat?”

She didn’t answer. She just did that cute thing where she clutches her hands together under her chin and sways side to side.

“Do you know what fat is? How do you know that Janet is fat?”

“I just know. I can see her fat.”

“What is it that you see?”

“It’s a big belly,” she finally admitted. “A big round belly.” And I suppose she was right.

I just thought I’d have a little longer. A little longer where she didn’t see things like fat and freckles and frizzy hair and moles and lisps, and all the superficial traits that children use to divide the world up cruelly. A little longer of being the kid who said she could tell McCain from Obama because McCain’s hair was white. A little longer of knowing Janet not as the fat teacher, but as the teacher who played REM for the kids to dance to, treated each magic marker scribble like a hallowed piece of art, and simply loved Thalia to pieces.


31 thoughts on ““Janet is fat””

  1. I think the hard part is learning about differences is that they are wonderful and special, and not learning that they are a way to cause hurt and pain. That all eyes, hair and skin colors are beautiful. All body type and noses and smiles are what makes us each special and awesome.

  2. When my own son began to notice such things, I just explained to him that people come in different sizes and colors and shapes, but because some people are mean to people who are fat– mean for no good reason, mean just because some unfortunate people don’t know any better than to be mean to people who do not look like them– it’s not considered very nice to <>call<> someone fat, even though no slim person seems to get upset if you call them skinny.

    It helped that I had already explained to him that some incredibly silly people used to be arbitrarily mean to people who had red hair. He took special offense at this idea, being a redhead himself.

  3. I’d go a little further with this — it’s very likely that the word, the concept and using it to describe her teacher mean very different things to Thalia than to us grown-ups!

    Not in a mean or interrogatory way of course, but does she think it’s a bad word to say…or a bad thing to be, do the other little kids say it to be mean to the teacher or is she just testing the waters of what we do and don’t say about people and where it’s appropriate and where it isn’t, etc.

    I’d mostly be thankful that she said it just to you and your mom, though, and didn’t feel like testing out the word/concept somewhere more public and with the person right there!

  4. Since you walk the talk, and since Thalia will learn how to honor differences by the way you and Nate live your lives, I doubt you’ll have much of a problem. This is a beautiful post. My point is made!

  5. I highly recommend “It’s Okay to Be Different” by Todd Parr. It’s really cute (all of his books are) and kids love his books.

  6. Maybe try to coach it differently, and less dramatically, by saying, “Yes, Janet is quite lovely isn’t she and a really great teacher!”

    You don’t say she isn’t fat, because then it becomes just a descriptor and it loses the shame and vitriol.

  7. These suggestions are all awesome. Thank you!

    What I did tell her is that people are all different sizes, but when we think of the people in our lives there are so many things that are more important than that. And that when we describe someone as fat, it’s a word that can hurt their feelings.

    It was an awkward first stab, I know.

  8. You’re not alone. My 4 1/2 year old daughter just told me that she doesn’t want to wear a particular dress because “it’ll make me look fat”. What the … ?

    Mind you, she’s not even near being chubby herself. Turns out she just heard somebody else say this idiotic phrase and put it up as an excuse not to wear the dress (she didn’t like the particular colors that day).

  9. I can’t believe you’re lumping freckles in there!

    But, really, so what? she noticed that she was fat. Unless it means not as good as thin, I don’t see a problem.

  10. It is so hard. My In-Laws are kind of “old school” and sometimes will say things like, “Look at your fat belly!” to our son. (Who is 5 and not overweight.) I know they are saying it in fun – but I still cringe every time.

  11. It wasn't too long ago that Q-ster told me “the black guy said hello,” indicating a (Caucasian) person in a black t-shirt. He started telling me that a particular boy in preschool is “mean,” but no other descriptions have been forthcoming of other children. He places kids into two categories – those who know Star Wars and those who don't. If the world could be so simple.

  12. In most cases, my almost-7-year-old still will describe someone by what they are wearing and not skin color or disability or even whether they wear glasses or not. It's nothing I taught her, she just seems to have an innate sense of …whatever it is.

    I will be very sad the day it changes. I hope it won't but that's not realistic.

    I mostly think that it is wonderful that Thalia could talk to you about this without fear of being reprimanded or without shame. Shows a great mom in my eyes.

  13. It’s especially hard to guard against discriminating qualifiers when every children’s book about opposites out there has the fat/thin category. You hope that you don’t have to even bring up those distinctions to your kid until he/she’s a little older but it’s too late… they already know what fat is. My son has made comments about “My dad eats a lot” based on (I think) because his dad is a big guy and has a belly. I fear he’s going to call his dad fat any day now (which is not a word I use).

  14. The hardest question I was ever faced with came from the 8 year old. She said, “Am I fat?” The answer is no, but how do you make someone 8 years old understand that.

  15. Please know that Thalia said it as a fact, an observation — and most likely — not as a criticism. Did you ask her is she cares if her teacher is fat or thinks her teacher shouldn’t be fat? I bet she doesn’t. She doesn’t care, she just knows.

    I taught preschool and one day, in a circle holding hands, a sweet face looked up at me and said, “You have a big bum.” I said, “Yes, as a matter of fact I do!” Of course it was funny to me, but considering her eye level, I’d say it was an astute observation I decided to attribute to my teaching skills!! 🙂

  16. Kids constantly use “fat” prejoratively while they would never comment negatively on anyone’s diability or skin colour. Being overweight seems to be the last acceptable prejudice in our society.

  17. If she IS fat, is it possible your daughter was merely stating fact, as opposed to conveying her thought that fat was a negative thing?

    I wonder if adults project that negativity or if it really does start that early. Unfortunately it’s a bit like the chicken and the egg and we’ll probably never really know…

  18. When I was a kid, my mom took me to a doctor’s office. There was a heavier woman there, and I asked her why she was fat.

    My mom was mortified, but the woman was very nice about it. She explained that she had just been made that way and that people come in all different shapes and sizes and colors. Just like she was black and I was white. We were all different on the outside, but made of the same good stuff on the inside.

    That’s how I learned about race and ethnicity, but it’s also how I learned not to discriminate. I’m sure that it must be difficult to watch your daughter’s innocence melt away in this regard, but at the same time I’m sure that she’s learning wonderful life lessons that make up for it.

  19. I would like to think that the determination of whether or not a person is fat is left up to that person or their Dr.
    My response to that type of characterization is, “So?”.
    Really, does it change how wonderful/awful a person is? Fat, anemic, tall, short, skinny, one eye, cleft lip, all of that doesn’t matter to the personality that is inside.
    Tease me about being a jerk or rude or an ass.
    Compliment me for being nice, thoughtful, or friendly.
    Don’t charactarize me because of my skin, my hearing, my accent.

  20. Years ago my 4-year-old nephew and I were sitting together. He said: you know how men have moustaches and women’t don’t?

    Me: Yes…

    4yo: Well, you do.

    Oh, I suppose I could have chimed in that we’re all different but I opted to get a wax instead.

  21. I was telling my 3yo that he was a big boy. “But at school they say I’m a little kid. I’m just a little baby and I’m the littlest boy in my class.”
    (Yeah he really talks like that)
    “Who says that?”
    “All the other boys.”


  22. Some really great responses here. Later, we make sure to tell our kids that that weight can be affected by a lot of things – genetics and illness as well as eating and exercise habits – but that to try to figure out why someone is the weight they are is usually an exercise in wasted time. Just know that there is the possibility that someone is sensitive about their weight or looks, and that when noting such things in anyone's company for whatever reason, it's best to do so very carefully…and really, to ask yourself first “Why am I noting this at all?”

  23. Ah, I still remember the time one of our neighbors was asking about another and referred to him as “That black guy next door to you” and my then-3 year old daughter saying “Him's not black, him's brown and a fiah-man!” He is indeed a brown fireman. I was expecting my younger daughter (quoted above) when we became neighbors & my older girl was 2.
    When I was growing up, neighborhoods were still divided by color. I'm glad that's not the case for us now because my girls would have missed out on making friends with some great kids.
    Ame in TN

  24. Kind of sad, huh? My 3 and a half year old now says that, too. Not in a mean way, but observent. It doesn't help that he's heard me say it about myself “Argh I'm fat I can't fit into my jeans!” I think they are just at a reallly observant age, and being hte oh-so smart kids they are, what do you expect, you know? 😉 Once on an elevator a really tall guy got on and my son asked me why he was so tall, and I just told him that everyone is built differently, some short, some tall, etc. and he totally got it. He's just observant and just talks out loud sometimes…

  25. So far my response is that people come in all shapes and sizes and, because I don't want “fat” to be considered a hurtful (bad) word, I tell her we just don't comment on how people look unless we are saying they look “nice” (an obviously nice word). Why? I tell her it's because some people are happy with how they look and some are not, and we don't know how they feel, so we don't want to hurt their feelings by commenting on something just in case they are sensitive about it.

    Not sure if it's the right answer, but I hope it doesn't put a value judgment on different aspects of appearance, but rather on how the person feels. We'll se, I guess…

  26. Differences are real, and there's no way to avoid them…question is, how best to acknowledge them without making one style/appearance/quality better than another. It's ok to say a kid “has dark skin,” “has yellow hair,” so why not “has a round belly?” It's tricky to know how the “power of small” works when you're trying to choose your words…


  27. Ah yes. We watched college gymnastics with our 5-year-old, who as nonathletic as she is, just LOVES gymnastics. “Is this the Olympics?” she asked. “No, it's college. These girls are studying to have a different job outside of gymnastics, but are also competing in gymnastics.” I was trying to pique her curiosity about higher education and sports when she asked, “Is that because they are fat?”

    Granted the last gymnastics competition was the Olympics with the 9-year-old Chinese children, but a part of my ached for the time when she would have thought they were wonderful. Instead she assumed they weren't good enough for the Olympics because they were too fat. Worse, they were tiny.

  28. My 11 year old son has Tourette Syndrome and was diagnosed at age 6. We have always had the different talk and it has evolved over the years. But one thing I can say about our talks is that it usually ends in, “I'm glad everyone is different. What a boring world it would be if everyone was the same.” Being different is hard. But I think Jacob has it a bit easier when it comes to accepting the differences of others whether it's weight, color or religious preference.

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