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When Fat Kids Get Bullied... at Home

Claudia Garza as a child. Photo via CNN.

We’ve already talked about how fat kids are more likely to get bullied at school just because they’re fat, but what about kids who get picked on by their parents? According to CNN, “A 2006 study published in Obesity found that 72 percent of nearly 2,500 overweight and obese women had been stigmatized by family members because of their weight.” What happens to children who are made fun of for their weight by the very same people feeding them?

Mandy Perryman, a counselor at Lynchburg College in VA, says, “If there’s criticizing among family members, emphasis on dieting, putting people down, kids internalize that.” Which leads to emotional eating, of course.

Claudia Garza, who shared her story with CNN, says her parents called her a “fat slob” and “gordita” and told her to “eat only half” at mealtime. How aggravating and confusing, to be told by your parents to eat only half the amount of food they laid in front of you. That’s like being given three assignments by your boss and then being told to complete only one and do the other half-heartedly. It just doesn’t make sense, and feels like a trick.

When I was little – in the 80’s – portion control was a far off notion, familiar only to leotard-clad ladies who liked to jazzercise and eat cottage cheese for lunch. I was always told as a kid to clean my plate, but then as a teen I was criticized for my fat thighs. By the time I got into college for musical theatre, my Dad would often say things like, “How are you gonna be a choreographer if you’re fat?” And then take me out for ice cream.  (I’m not sure why he thought I wanted to be a choreographer.  Maybe it was the way I danced every time we ordered pizza.)

The thing is, I wasn’t obese. I was chubby at best. But young women have distorted body images, and to be told by your father – the man who is supposed to see you as beautiful no matter what – that you’ll never do something because of the way you look is disheartening to say the least. The irony is, my father was fat. And my mother and grandmother. I come from a long line of fat women. (Well, more like a short, wide line, really.) And when a tendency to be overweight runs in the family, your parents just want to protect you from their fate. Unfortunately, misguided attempts at threatening kids into being thin don’t work when you’re wagging your finger with one hand and making five-cheese lasagna with the other.

Garza started emotionally eating at age 6, after a stressful move and having to learn English as a second language.  “My mom would buy junk food, I would eat the entire thing in one sitting. It wouldn’t last a week. I’d eat it the same day she’d buy it. I constantly ate,” she says.

“I think probably one of the biggest ironies was that even though my parents would say, ‘Don’t eat this or that,’ they’d have [junk food] in the house,” Garza said.  Exactly.  People that are constantly obsessed with food tend to both loathe and love it.  They’ll ‘be good’ for a while and then binge.  It’s a never-ending, self-destructive cycle.  That’s why the First Lady is doing everything she can to educate people about nutrition, to get them to look at the foods they eat in an objective, less emotionally-charged way.

Rebecca Puhl, director of Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at Yale University, makes it clear that emotional eating is a real problem for children.  “What we need to recognize is stigma is a serious form of stress. For children who are overweight, it’s a chronic stresser.”  And Perryman adds, “Trying to scare kids into losing weight can do more harm than good.  Kids develop depression, anxiety, eating disorders, body image disturbance.”  The most important thing parents who want their children to be healthy can do is to practice what they preach. 

Garza, 29, is still coping with the effects of the abuse she received at home.  “After hearing it every single day, you start believing it — that you are fat, you are ugly, you are a slob, you’re not good enough,” she says.  She yo-yo dieted through high school in order to lose 60 pounds, and she ended up being anorexic and addicted to drugs.  She’s been in recovery for five years now, exercises regularly and feels at peace with her family.

“They meant well,” she says.  Indeed.

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