When your perfectly healthy four-year-old thinks they’re fat

'I never, ever, use the word fat to my babies.'
'I never, ever, use the word fat to my babies.' Photo: Getty Images

My house is not shy on the 'F' word. It's a colourful word that enhances many a sentence regardless of whether something is good or bad. Obviously, my kids don't say it, and I don't use it when speaking to them, but I love the 'F' word.

However there is another 'F' word that I try to never use, so when it came out of my cherubic four-year-old's mouth I was at first shocked before my shock turned to fear.

She had been getting dressed for the day but was struggling to find something she wanted to wear.

"I don't want to wear anything," she complained. "I'm too fat."

At first, I thought I'd misheard so I asked her to repeat what she had said but there was no mistaking my baby had said the 'F' word that I hate.

I had a terrible relationship with my body from the time I was 17. I left home about this time and my diet deteriorated rapidly. I gained a little weight, lost a lot of self-confidence, and embarked upon a 10-year-journey with bulimia and self-loathing.

Eating disorders and self-image issues are not simple beasts to overcome but after I had children my feelings about my body changed and now I love it. I don't love it every day, I am only human, but I am cautious to never show my children anything but respect and love for my amazing machine.

I never, ever, use the word fat when referring to myself, to other people, and certainly not to my babies.

I immediately called her Dad to tell him the words that had so casually slid off her tongue and he confided that she told him that when she grows up she "just wants to be skinny."

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My daughter is a healthy kid. She is not chubby or chunky; she is tall and strong. I was a solidly built kid, and my kid takes after me. Her brother delights in noting how skinny he is. That he can suck his stomach to reveal a xylophone of ribs.

Is it this simple? Does she feel fat because her xylophone is not defined and her brother taunts her with his?

I turned to From The Leftfield's child psychologist, Dr Sasha Lynn, for some answers.

"I've seen this a few times so firstly don't feel alone in it. At this age they can pick up all sorts of things from all sorts of places, but mostly it's still concrete level processing," she says.

"Just try checking in with her about what skinny might mean, and reframe those ideas. It's more ensuring that she's not taking active steps in body control – so restricting/refusing food, preoccupation with food, over-exercising, hurting herself etcetera."

I honestly don't think my daughter connects food and fat at this age. We eat superbly and we talk about food that makes you feel good, and makes you strong and food that we don't eat every day but is still really yummy. This wasn't a food issue, it was a "fat" issue.

"She might have overheard something as simple as media or a person saying 'you'll die early if you're fat,' or 'being fat makes you sad,' and is worried based on what might happen if she is 'fat,'" says Dr Lynn.

"If it's happening across settings such as at kindy and other places too, then just try to ensure that everyone is using the same language and giving her the same message you are."

The language we use around bodies is about being healthy, strong, fit and active. We talk about eating to feel energised, and to power our brains. Our language is healthy, so how can my baby feel her body is not?

"Have her draw pictures of what a healthy body looks like, what we do to stay healthy. It's awful to hear your baby talk like that, but just keep an eye on things and see if there's a trigger that set her off," says Dr Lynn.

I called her kindy and asked if there is any chatter there, or taunting amongst the kids. I was assured that there had not been anything of note. But now, her school, her father and I have formed a taskforce of body reassurance to make sure she knows she is simply perfect, and healthy and strong is the best kind of body, no matter how you compare to others.

If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, contact the Butterfly Foundation.

Lifeline: 13 11 14