“Am I skinny or chubby, mommy?”
My 6-year old daughter asked me this question a few days ago.
It caught me way off guard, in part because it was sort of out of the blue and also because she seems so young to be asking this question.
I was also probably around her age when I started wondering the same thing about my own body and asking my parents a similar question.
Body image is such an insidious issue for women and girls.
And it starts young.
Kids as young (and younger than my daughter) are bombarded with images of what girls are “supposed to look like”. From Elsa to Dora to Shimmer and Shine, they start comparing their own bodies to the ones they see and admire.
Add to that any pressures from their dance teacher or gymnastics coach or even a parent to have a certain type of body and it’s a confusing mess of uncertainty.
Girls are also socialized to question and criticize their appearance constantly. This starts early, too. Adults comment far more often on a little girl’s appearance than a little boys. As the mom of both, I can attest to this.
Total strangers will stop us in the grocery store to tell my daughter how pretty she is or how pretty her dress is. And while they sometimes might tell me how adorable my son is, it’s far less frequent. And usually it’s accompanied by, “aren’t you smart,” or “aren’t you such a big boy.”
So when my daughter asked me “am I skinny or chubby,” my heart broke a little.
I took a few breaths before responding, just to give myself the space to consider my response.
When I asked my own parents this question, they told me my body was neither. They said I had a normal body. I didn’t know what that meant, though. And honestly, I just wanted them to tell me.
They were trying to protect me. My parents did the best they could to make me feel good and keep me from falling into the body image trap. They got me into therapy and did everything they could to make me feel loved, safe, and whole.
I still struggled with body image issues through my mid-twenties.
So when my own daughter, my sweet and smart and sassy 6-year old, asked me “am I skinny or chubby?,” I was so afraid to say the wrong thing.
I asked her, what she thought.
She said she didn’t know.
I asked her if she thought being chubby was a good thing or a bad thing.
She said she wasn’t sure.
I asked her if she thought being skinny was a good thing or a bad thing.
She said she wasn’t sure, but that one of her besties at school said that she (the friend) was really skinny, and that she wants to be like her friend.
I sighed. And totally understood.
I had felt the same way about my own best friend when I was 6 (and 7 and 8).
So I took a deep breath and said something along these lines:
“Milly, here’s what’s more important than being skinny or chubby. Being healthy. You can’t really tell if someone is healthy just by whether they look skinny or chubby.
Healthy is a lot more than that. Do you know what it means to be healthy?”
She responded by saying that healthy is being big and strong and eating foods that are good for you.
I said that all of that was true and that healthy can mean all kinds of other things, too.
Sometimes healthy means you’re not super tired and cranky all day long because you got enough sleep the night before (although feeling cranky sometimes is totally normal and also healthy).
Healthy can also mean eating foods that make you feel good instead of foods that make your tummy hurt.
I also told her that healthy can mean listening to your body and making choices that help your body feel good. And healthy can also mean you make choices that feel right for you, like standing up for what you believe in or sometimes letting yourself be sad when something happens that hurts you.
Healthy can mean you have a good memory – like remembering certain patterns or your address or the words to your favorite song.
I also got a little silly with it, saying that sometimes healthy means you can do things like push-ups.
I said, “can you do some push-ups?”
How many do you want me to do?,” she asked.
I told her 5 and she promptly did 5 push-ups.
Then I said, “what about jumping jacks?”
“How many do you want me to do?,” she asked.
I told her 5 and she promptly did 10.
Then I told her healthy might mean that you can do yoga or swim or dance to your favorite song or play soccer or go for a hike in the woods.
At this point the whole question of “Am I skinny or chubby” had gone completely out the window and we had a kitchen dance party. And a snack.
Is this a perfect solution?
Will this protect her from some of the massive struggles I had growing up as a girl and into a woman?
My hope is that it will be the beginning of a lifelong conversation for her about what it means to be healthy, which isn’t a question I asked myself until I was nearly 30.
I hope, too, that she’ll place more value on other qualities like bravery and creativity and learning and building strong relationships, than on how her body looks.
And while I can’t prevent her from wanting to be like other people or comparing herself to others, I hope she will also learn how to listen to her body and trust herself, more than she trusts the opinion of others.
If nothing else, my biggest hope is that she learns health isn’t about how she looks, but how she feels.
How would you answer this question if your own child asked you? And if you had a conversation about health, what would you want to impart to your kid? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
My daughter asked me “what does it mean to be fat?” last week. I paused, just like you and said “why do you ask?” She said, “I heard someone say they are fat. Am I fat?” I told her, “Fat is a substance your body makes to store energy. When people live outside or in places where food is sometimes or always scarce, they eat extra food to be able to store fat and energy on their bodies for when they cannot eat or food isn’t available. We do not need the extra energy because we have access to food almost all the time.” I also said, “perhaps your friend has heard someone else say that, and they don’t understand that fat is stored energy”. I also said “every person stores energy in different amounts based on their lifestyle.” She said, “oh, do I have a healthy lifestyle?”. I said, “yes you do!” My daughter then said “My body has the perfect amount of fat stored for me.” I said, “exactly!”. A different spin on it to acknowledge the necessity of fat but just the right amount of it.
This is so good. I have two girls, born 3 years apart, who have completely different body types, and so this conversation comes up frequently when they try to wear each other’s clothes. 🙂 They wear the same size, but one is ALL LEGS like her daddy and the other one is very long-torsoed like me.
I like the way you describe them as “healthy” rather than describing specific body type features.
At our last well-check, the pediatrician told me that we should focus on “healthy” snacks and lots of physical activity for the “rounder” younger one, completely skipping over my long-and-lean oldest child who also needs those things — I told her that they eat the same foods and participate in the same activities. Genetics are a powerful thing, and I’m not going to give my healthy 7-year-old a body complex because she’s not shaped the same as her sister.
Awesome response! Thanks for sharing!
Wow, great article and great response. zand great responss from your readers too! My boy is 2 but I’m super sensitive to this issue from a personal side and I’m already thinking about what I’m gonna say to him. relatives snd friends don’t realize the damage they do when they make comments about his body and he’s only 2! Its crazy how much emphasis our society puts on size. Great answers! Thank you.
Thanks for this, Ryan. I am so glad you enjoyed this post and appreciated my response. I totally hear you. Kids will absorb so much and we’re not always aware of how much they actually take in when they’re so little. All of those comments and words accumulate over time. It makes a HUGE impact. Wishing you a lot of love as you navigate this in the future with your son.