Virginia Sole-Smith’s new book offers advice on how to discuss the stigma around weight, arguing that the fixation is triggering ill health and preventing us from finding real solutions. By Sophie Morris
When, a few years ago, I received a letter from my daughter’s school about the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP), I opted out. This programme weighs all children of Reception age to find out whether they are overweight or obese.
I can see my daughter’s size with my eyes, but her actual weight wasn’t the point. Five is far too young to be telling children that there are right weights and wrong weights, good sizes and bad sizes, acceptable bodies and bodies that make most of Western society feel uneasy.
Is there a right age to start talking to kids about dieting? The truth is, I don’t want Percy to think about her weight at all, ever. Whatever the number is. But I know that this is impossible.
“Recent research suggests that kids as young as three years old already associate fat bodies with negative traits,” writes journalist Virginia Sole-Smith in her book Fat Talk: Coming of Age in Diet Culture (Bonnier Books, £16.99), published this week. It’s full of advice on how to approach “the talk” in all sorts of contexts, from with your child or teen to with teachers, doctors, friends and partners.
We need to talk about fatness `
Fat Talk isn’t an easy read. Sole-Smith has spent years researching anti-fat bias, as a journalist and via her podcast and newsletter Burnt Toast, and repeatedly calls out parents - without blaming them - who say they want their children to be healthy and to love their bodies, when really that means they don’t want fat children.
“We see staying thin, especially if you do it via a plant-based, locally sourced, whole-foods diet, as the same kind of virtuous, socially responsible act as limiting your child’s screen time or saving for college,” says Sole-Smith. Guilty as charged.
She also says we should get used to using the word “fat”.
“That may feel scary, especially if the word has been weaponised against you in the past,” she says.
“We can’t edit or rewrite every cultural message our children get. Instead, we must teach them how to recognise and reject these messages - even when they hear them from us.
“We need to redefine fat talk. To stop making fatness the worst-case scenario and start reclaiming it as a perfectly good way to have a body.”
The bit that trips me up, though, is where she questions the links between obesity alone and many illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The NHS, meanwhile, states unequivocally that obesity increases your risk of those conditions.
Sole-Smith’s main argument is that fatphobia actually causes more health issues than fatness, and that our fixation on weight as the trigger for ill health is preventing us from finding genuine causes and solutions. What’s more, she says, efforts to control a child’s “food environment” through education and better parenting haven’t worked so far.
This strikes a chord. I grew up fat and came of age in the diet culture that Fat Talk unpicks. I know from experience that dieting doesn’t work, but it’s a hard habit to break.
My mum and her friends were on every diet going, from Cambridge to cabbage soup to Weight Watchers to Slimming World. So was I. Hands up who remembers “points free” days mainlining toffee Müller Lights? My favourite was, and always will be, the wine and boiled egg diet.
Fight fat stigma
My biggest fear is passing any of this down to my daughter. I opted her out of the weigh-in because she’s too young to think that weight matters. But I know I can’t shield her forever, and I doubt it did much good. If anything, she probably wondered why she was singled out not to have the surreptitious health check.
Still, Sole-Smith says that objecting to official weigh-ins has value. “It is important to do even if your child is thin, or otherwise not troubled by getting on a scale, because when fat kids are the only ones who opt out, sitting it out becomes just as stigmatising.
“Talk to your kids. You might say, ‘We know that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s unhealthy for kids to focus on their weight’.”
I didn’t mention the weigh-in to my daughter. I hid it from her. But I can’t pretend she has never seen a set of scales, because I have some in our family bathroom. I am proud - #blessed - to have given up dieting 15 years ago. Now I get to eat what I want and gradually put on weight, instead of starving myself and gradually putting on weight .
But we do need to lose weight, right? We’re all getting fatter. The figures prove it. In the UK, as in the US, obesity is rising across all age groups. Using the “blunt tool” (as Sole-Smith terms it) of BMI, the body mass index that uses your height and weight to work out if you’re at a healthy weight, the proportion of obese adults in the UK has risen from 14.9 per cent to 28 per cent since 1993; 10.1 per cent of Reception -age children. were reported as obese in 2020-21.
Weighing too much is a problem to be dealt with, we are told, whether through diets, questionable quick-fix drugs such as Ozempic, quack health remedies, medical intervention or government-approved calorierestriction programmes via global corporations worth a billion dollars, such as WW International .
Give children. free rein But the evidence shows that dieting doesn’t work. Fat Talk even takes on Michelle Obama, who made childhood obesity a priority in the White House with her Let’s Move campaign and spoke openly about restricting her own daughters’ eating. Obama aimed to reduce obesity in a generation, but it has been steadily climbing.
Sole-Smith’s two daughters are allowed to eat what they want. They don’t have to clear their plates to win pudding or eat their greens to get white carbs. They can eat ice cream whenever they choose.
Sole-Smith evolved her approach from an official method called Division of Responsibility eating (DoR), designed by the dietitian Ellyn Satter over 30 years ago. The adult provides a meal; the child decides what they will eat from this. It puts the responsibility on to the child to eat what feels right for their body, and asks the adult not to make them eat something from every food group, or force them to finish.
My major mealtime stress is how long it takes Percy to eat. I want her to eat enough not to then announce she’s hungry at bedtime, without dinner taking over an hour. I try Sole-Smith’s approach for a single weekend. It is unexpectedly challenging. I feel conflicted when she goes for the Easter chocolate straight after a breakfast of pancakes, then reassured of my excellent parenting when she eats three plums.
She asks for lasagne for dinner on Saturday. I make this from scratch and she eats only a few bites along with a plate of her favourite food, pickles, and some broccoli.
On Sunday, I let her choose what she wants for lunch from the fishmonger. I fry the squid she asks for and also offer some leftover tuna pasta, which she eats, followed by rice cakes with peanut butter and some chocolate. Unsurprisingly, she isn’t hungry at the party that afternoon and sucks on lime wedges before finding a cookie.
None of this gives me cause for concern. I know she’s getting enough nutrients because she eats a range of foods. But when she comes home from school on Monday and asks for sweets, I really don’t want to hand them over. When I do, she eats a few then puts them back. As with the plums, I am flushed with pride, as if it had been me who had been able to approach the sweets with moderation.
I’m not sure I could live this way though: kids are unpredictable and I simply don’t have time to cater to Percy’s every food whim. But it does also make me think about relaxing a bit when it comes to her diet and letting her take the lead a bit more.
Fat Talk gives countless heartbreaking examples of children. and teenagers put on diets who end up with eating disorders. Destigmatising fatness will help everyone’s children., whatever their size, to grow up with a healthier attitude than we did - a healthier attitude about weight, whatever their approach to food.
But I do have reservations: it’s easy to accept that a fat person can be healthy. It’s less straightforward to believe that fatness isn’t making some people unhealthy. There is a very high correlation between obesity and type 2 diabetes, even if no causation. But there is also a strong correlation between poverty and type 2 diabetes and Sole-Smith is urging us to look beyond obesity .
Public Health England agrees that deprivation and ethnicity can also increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, but is clear that “being overweight or obese is the main modifiable risk factor”.
Fat Talk doesn’t tackle why we eat so much more than we used to, and why so much of our diet is ultraprocessed food, which can lead to early death. I imagine this is because doing so would support the anti-fat approach that certain foods are bad for us, as is being a bigger size, and that eating large portions is wrong.
Even if we accept that being bigger won’t kill us, and our children. grow up with less fatphobia than we have, our addiction to overconsumption, and to super-size portions of highly processed and overpackaged foods, is killing the planet.
‘Fat Talk: Coming of Age in Diet Culture ’ by Virginia Sole-Smith’s out now (Bonnier Books, £16.99)
THE SOLE-SMITH APPROACH
Don’t worry that by talking about fatphobia you’ll teach it to your children. Parents don’t cause eating disorders but they can teach behaviours and beliefs.
Weight gain is normal during puberty and shouldn’t be seen as a problem to solve.
Use any discussion of body size as an opportunity to talk about fatness. This means deciding that thin bodies and fat bodies are equal, and that fatness isn’t wrong.
“If your tween asks, ‘Do I look fat in this?’ you can reply honestly: ‘No. But why would looking fat be a bad thing?’”
Don’t lie to them. “When we say something like, ‘You’re not fat, you’re beautiful’, we are telling our fat kids two terrible lies: one, that we think their body is something other than what we both already know it to be (fat), and two, that fat bodies can’t be beautiful.”
Let your teens know that their body is never the problem.