Why I want you to stop commenting on my son's body size

My son's body shape and size is not up for discussion.
My son's body shape and size is not up for discussion. Photo: Stocksy

Last night at our weekly sporting game my son endured a further two comments about his size on top of the thousands he has copped in his lifetime. He is tiny for an 11-year-old and perfectly formed just like his gorgeous father. 

I chose his dad for my life partner for his intelligence and wit, and his looks certainly didn't hurt his prospects with me either. He's 5ft 7in and one of those guys who still fits into his high school uniform. If he still had it, he'd fit into his Year 10 uniform too.

Sixteen years after our first kiss, we have three wonderful sons, the eldest of whom is exactly like his dad in every way except hair colour. He was born on the 50th percentile for length and over his lifetime has dropped to under the 5th percentile.

Now he's about to begin his high school journey and never has it been more apparent that his stature isn't changing like the other boys. Some are quite literally two heads taller and a whole lot heavier. He's just fine health-wise though - we had bone density tests done just to make sure and surprise, he's just like his dad. Which is fine by us, so end of story, right? Well not exactly.

My son's size has been commented on his whole life but now as he enters adolescence the comments come thicker and faster and laced with (mistaken) correlations about his physical and mental abilities. 

Adults do it too; as often as kids do. 

Here are the standard ones he hears every day:

"You can't be 11, you look about 8 or 9! Are you sure?"

"Your brothers are so tall, why are you so short?"

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"Wow, you're so tiny for your age, I never would have thought you're 11!"

"So amazing that he is so small compared to his brothers and that his younger brother is taller than him. Aren't genetics weird?"

"This kid thinks he can beat me in soccer but look how short and skinny he is. As if!"

"You're short and skinny."

Well there goes Captain Obvious.

It's time to stop commenting on people's size and it starts with parents. Having a very small-statured son, I'm attuned to how many times people mention the physicality of others in passing conversation and it's little wonder kids think it's okay too.

I'm aware this is a relatively small burden to carry in life. He's a privileged child with loving parents, plenty of food and a great education, but it'd be great if every second person didn't take it upon themselves to point out to him how tiny he is, especially in front of him, to him directly and comparing him to his tall younger brothers.

My cousin Gabrielle agrees. She has twin boys and says, "My boys have always been little for their age, when people ask how old they are, they always respond, 'Aren't they little!' They absolutely hate it."

And the effects are showing, both in the things they worry about but also in their determination. She says, "They're 17 now and currently worrying about how tall they're going to end up, eating special diets to try and grow. But it hasn't stopped them playing in football teams with huge grown men and tackling them even though they're twice their size."

I can see the same determination in my own son, so a little adversity isn't all bad.

When we take a deeper look at the messages behind size-shaming, the sinister side starts to creep in. In a study about face shape, body size and masculinity, Iris Holzleitner - PhD student at the University of St Andrews' Perception Laboratory -says that "Masculinity has powerful effects on attractiveness and a range of other attributions, such as leadership and trust," and that the taller and heavier they are, the more masculine they are perceived.

Toxic masculinity is all about power and some kids target the one they believe is weaker. There can be further ramifications in adulthood when internalisations about body size, masculinity and entitlement can erupt into violence against women, children and other men. Then there are the other issues of discrimination, self-esteembullying, social isolation and suicide.

We are lucky that our son is resilient at this stage and puts a lot into his sport and physical activity. He is also socially and academically competent. In our family we acknowledge that we all make judgements about other people's bodies, however, taking the extra steps to both believe these judgements are valid and air them to the person, is not acceptable. I tell my boys to question themselves when they start to think about a person in a certain way because of the way they look. 

I took to Facebook to vent a little frustration and it was there that I realised this is very common. 

xxxxx
Photo: Supplied

The replies from family and friends were numerous and varied; both boys and girls targeted for not fitting some supposed norm.

"I spent all my school years being told I was short and skinny. People love to state the obvious."

"Yep. Tall skinny here. Was hell at school. Kids are cruel."

"[My daughter] is 11 too and is nearly as tall as me, and I'm tall. She's also on the plump side. So she just dwarfs most of the kids. The comments are so bad that we've had to make a joke of them because otherwise you'd just cry. People mean well but they don't think."

"Oh god yes. I was the tallest girl in my year. I have a spinal curvature from stooping down all the time when I was younger. Trying to shrink an inch or two to be at everyone else's level."

Just look at all those emotional scars grown adults carry to this day. To top it all off there's this from my friend Daina, which puts it all into perspective.

"My daughter was ill all through kindergarten. She was only 15kg and had to have all her food puréed. She was shunned by the other kids. After her enormous tonsils were removed she had a new lease on life. We put her into gymnastics to improve her physical fitness. As she ate real food and started to exercise, her health returned and she marvelled about how strong and well she felt. To this day, she remembers how awful it felt to be sick. So, even though she is still very short and people comment about it all the time, she just loves the feeling of being strong and healthy."

That kid is now a state-level gymnast and hasn't even clocked up a decade of life yet.

So, what to do if your kid is also at the receiving end? I like my friend Janet's advice; "We focus on lots of other things - what she's good at etc and talk about it - not all the time but when necessary. Also lots of love and positive reinforcement at home. And humor."
And those with kids who may not be aware of the power of their words, there's this from a friend who says being better humans starts at home. 

"We talk to the kids about not commenting on anyone's appearance. Policing other's bodies is not their place. Does it work? Probably not well but we are trying and if they are gently reminded of it regularly hopefully it will start to sink in."

As another mate says, "Kids are brutally honest really but it can be a reflection of behaviours they believe sanctioned by elders or fitting in with their peers."

Let's resolve to let people be, whichever body they arrived in.

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