Care and Feeding

I’m Worried My In-Laws’ Fatphobia Will Influence My Son’s Self-Image

Is there a good, positive way to have a conversation with them?

Boy standing on and point to a scale.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ben_Gingell/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am worried about my son being influenced by my in-laws fat-shaming themselves. My sister-in-law hates her arms. My mother-in-law refuses to be photographed without preparation and is constantly talking about what diet she’s on. I understand they are self-conscious and uncomfortable. My husband, while concerned about his weight, doesn’t let it impede his daily life; however, he also has scars from being on the heavier side when he was little. I readily admit that I cannot relate; the only time I was overweight was during my pregnancy.

My son is appearing to be following in his father’s footsteps. There are so many pressures to be thin in our world that I’d hate for his family to add to it, even unintentionally through poor self-image. I feel like I can’t broach the subject without potentially being insensitive. Is there a good, positive way to have this conversation with them? Or do I just have to reinforce positive body image at home and hope it counteracts any examples they set?

—Trying to Be Constructive

Dear Constructive,

Be intentional about celebrating the diversity of bodies. Talk about this fatphobic culture of ours, and how harmful it is to so many people. When your son observes fat-shaming, talk to him about that too (“It makes me sad when Grandma talks about always dieting; I wish she saw herself as beautiful no matter what size she is,” “Wasn’t it awful when they bullied that boy in the movie about his weight? There’s nothing wrong with how he looks and no one deserves to be treated that way”). Say affirmative things about his body and his appearance. You can’t shield him from the fatphobia of the world around him, but you can contextualize and attempt to challenge it.

Talk openly with your husband about his own history. What would have made his road as a heavy kid easier? What are the words he never should have heard at home, and the ones he needed to hear but never did?

As far as your in-laws, you can also ask them to keep the self-deprecation to a minimum around your kid, but I wouldn’t expect much to come of that if they’re still deeply locked in a war with their own bodies. Try: “We really try to avoid making negative comments like that about ourselves in front of Billy because we want him to feel good about his own size, I hope you understand.” Good luck to you.

—Jamilah

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