Children can be cruel to each other. Calling names especially using body parts which seem to be different from ‘normal’ is a common trait in kids and they don’t realise how harmful it can be in the long run. Fat shaming is one of the cruelties that carries on over to teenage years and even in adulthood. It is traumatic and can lead to dire situations. Writer Sudesna Ghosh, having suffered both severe fat shaming and negative body issues ever since she can remember warns us of their dangers and provides valuable suggestions for handling it in children.
I have hated my body for as long as I can remember. That’s me; an overweight adult who was an overweight young child and an overweight teenager. To most of the world, I seem poised. They know that I work out at a gym and that I weighed 100 kg a couple of years ago. But hardly anybody in this world knows about the pain that lies behind my seemingly calm exterior.
During my childhood, I gathered a series of photographs in my mind, that are as clear as the day the events happened, of the girls in class calling me fat. And then even more painful, the boys.
Fat shaming: A teenage trauma
In fact, when I was writing my first book What Would I Tell Her @ 13, my research made me re-live my school days. That’s when I realised that the Terrible Teens can be extra terrible for kids who are fat shamed/body shamed. When you are in that phase of your life where fitting in is a priority, feeling repulsed by your own body doesn’t make things easier. I remember classmates saying I should not sit on benches because they would break from my weight. I also remember being told that I shouldn’t expect any role, other than that of a round fairy godmother, in school plays. A fat Cinderella can’t exist. No, it’s wasn’t easy being a fat kid.
In the past, I’ve seen girls who’ve gone on crazy diets and lost oodles of weight. The female classmates responded with envy and praise while the boys wanted to date a girl who had been labeled ‘fat’ earlier. And then there was this male classmate in school who tried to eat everything in sight because he knew that people thought he was too skinny.
So yes, children of any gender and with all kinds of body types can be a victim of this shaming. Being the butt of nasty jokes and name-calling can leave long term scars that can affect future body image too. When it happens to kids, I worry more because parents, teachers and psychologists rarely step in to nip the effects of negative body image, before things go ‘out of control’.
Negative Body Image Patterns are set in childhood
Let me explain ‘out of control’ from my own life and that of some other women I know who are in their 20s and 30s.
At age 10 I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) due to which I began to put on weight. By the time I reached the 20s, I had gained a lot of weight. I was at my heaviest. The main reason was an episode of depression but you’d be shocked to hear that it was also because I stopped caring about the way I looked. I kept on telling myself, “Hey, you’re so fat, unlike the other girls around you. Nobody will ever want to date you. Why bother dressing up?” A bit later, hormonal problems flared up due to my PCOS.
Being the butt of nasty jokes and name-calling can leave long term scars that can affect future body image too.
It was only years later I realised that these self-attacking thoughts were just like the ones I used to have when I was in my teens. The thought pattern was ingrained in my mind. So, even when I did lose weight or dress up, I’d quickly go back to hating my body. Then I’d spend a few years hiding from people (other than my colleagues because I couldn’t avoid them). Why? Because I was petrified that everybody would look at me and call me fat.
And, it isn’t just school where overweight people are called fat to their face. Adults do it all the time with hateful comments such as, “How will you find a husband if you are so fat?” Add up hundreds of such comments down the years and you’ll understand the trauma.
Coming ahead to age 30, I had purged myself of some emotions through writing the book for teenagers. I realised I had wasted over 10 years hating myself. Sure, I’d made a few good friends but I avoided people as much as possible. I spoke to a mental health professional. I let it all out in another book:Just me, the Sink & the Pot. I started reaching out to women who were dealing with the negative body image that they had been afflicted with since their school days. A 29-year-old friend who is overweight and is always worried that her new boyfriend will call her fat, told me how painful it is to shop for clothes.
I can relate to that. I think I have come a long way to accepting my body for what it is. Adapting a healthy lifestyle and talking openly about my body image issues has helped me.
I’m not going to say fat is okay because health matters and kids should exercise in some form to be fit. Being physically fit makes one more confident and mentally healthy as well.
Talk to your kids and tell them that we were all made differently.
Have they ever seen anybody else who looks like them (except if they are identical twins, ofcourse)? J How about making a deal with your kids that they will never ever make fun of the way somebody looks? It’s time we adults helped our children learn empathy by practicing it ourselves. After all, don’t they learn by watching what we do? Let’s also teach them basic values which can last them for a lifetime.
It’s time to kill the negativity before it spreads and damages others in the long term.
Sudesna (Sue) Ghosh is an author based in Kolkata. Her latest book, Just me, the Sink & the Pot, about a little girl’s journey with negative body image, is available on Amazon Kindle. When she isn’t writing, Sue is busy trying to do her bit for animal welfare.