By B. Shanewood
An interview with author and therapist
Jane R. Hirschmann
It is 1969, and I am at the lunch table in the cafeteria,
sipping at my half-pint of cold milk and dreading what may await me in my Flintstones
lunch box. I look around. Caroline has her usual squat thermos brimming with saucy ravioli
or spaghetti loops with baby meatballs. That would be yummy. Of course, my favorite is
right across from me in Marias brown bag: peanut butter and grape jelly on airy
white bread, which is stained purple in the spots where the jelly has seeped through.
All I have been wanting for lunch lately is that
purple-splotched sandwich, but my mother calls it candy and says its too fattening.
Instead, I get tuna fish without mayonnaise, or chicken on whole wheat, a salad with
homemade low-cal dressing, and an apple or an orange. My sister gets a better lunch. They
say she is too thin and needs to put on weight.
Because my mother refuses to give me what I want, it has
become a daily struggle between us, resulting in tantrums and punishments. I seethe. Why
are there rules for my lunch that the other kids dont have?
I vow that when I have a child she will have whatever
she wants for lunch. I also vow that I will find a way to feed myself without my mother
It is 1989, and I am driving home from work when
something catches my eye. I pull over to watch a ragtag group of children playing
softball, coached by a handful of excited parents. Up at bat is a little fat girl. She is
the fattest of the bunch. Fatter even than I was as a child. She is fat. Her little round
belly sticks way out over the top of her shorts. I feel my heart start to pound and my
vision blur. They are going to laugh at her. Shell give up before trying to hit the
ball and let her turn go by, the way I often did.
But this little girl is not me. She swings at the ball,
tosses the bat, and surges toward first base, and then second and third and the ball is in
the outfield and has eluded everyone. All the adults and the other children are cheering
her on, and her stomach shakes and jiggles merrily as she runs, until shes home, and
I yell out for her through my window and pound my steering wheel.
Sadly, this scene is not typical when a fat child is
involved. There are many kinds of violence in this world, some of which we have begun to
address in the past few decades. But rarely do we address the emotional violence
perpetrated against the fat child in our society.
The subject is very close to my heart.
In the following interview, Jane R. Hirschmann, M.S.W.,
a well-known psychotherapist and eating disorders specialist, and coordinator of the
National Center of Overcoming Overeating, talks about the painful world of the heavy child
and how we can make it better.
Although Hirschmann graduated in 1969 from the School of
Social Work at the University of California at Los Angeles, she claims that her best
training came from the years she spent as a compulsive eater on "every diet
imaginable, going up and down, up and down, gaining it all back plus some more, once I was
off the diet."
She began to work on her own issues with food in the
early 1970s. Carol Munter, who, along with Hirschmann, wrote Overcoming Overeating
(Fawcett, 1988) and When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies (Fawcett, 1995), formed her
first antidiet group in 1970. In this group, in which Hirschmann participated, they posed
certain questions: Why are we gaining weight and becoming depressed and sullen? Who says
fat is bad? Where did we learn that? Is the problem with us, or with the diet industry?
Hirschmann began to believe that it might be possible,
to give up dieting, make peace with food, and love her body at whatever size it happened
And then she had her twin daughters and found herself
fascinated by what was going on in parks, playgrounds, and schools. A mother would take
food out of her childs hand if the child was heavy. If a child was particularly
thin, then he or she would be followed around by a mother wielding cookies and crackers
and trying to stuff them into her childs mouth.
Hirschmann wanted to take the approach she had already
been using to help women with their food and body image issues and teach parents to help
their children develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. She began to
talk with therapist Lela Zaphiropoulos. Their book, Are You Hungry? (reissued in
1995 by Gurze Books under the title Preventing Childhood Eating Problems), first
came out in 1985.
Hirschmann and Munters "Overcoming
Overeating" seminars have gone national, and Hirschmann has twice appeared on Oprah
Winfreys show to talk about children and issues of body size.
We began our interview where it all began for many of
us: with food.
Why did you write Preventing Childhood Eating Problems, and when do the problems
I became very interested in how we might raise children without food and weight problems,
how we might raise them to be totally comfortable with whatever size they arebecause
we come in all sizes and shapes.
As I see it, the problems start as soon as a mother
takes her child for the first visit to the pediatricians office. The infant is
placed on a scale, and at that moment every mother knows whats happening: it is she
who is being weighed in. It has nothing to do with the weight of the child. The mother
asks herself, "Am I doing well at this job of mothering? So right at that first
doctors visit, the mother not only questions her own abilities to mother, but weight
is being flagged as potentially problematic as the pediatrician starts to chart the
childs height and weight.
Now, the doctor should tell the new mother, "You
know, theres a broad range of weights for children, and we want to chart your child
to see that your child stays on his or her path." But thats not what happens.
What happens is, if the child is in a normative range, the mother breathes a sigh of
relief. But if the child is in the high percentiles, the pediatrician will start
discussing what the mother can do. What is she feeding the child? How much? How often? And
the doctor might try to persuade her to manipulate the childs appetite, which also
manipulates the mother. If the child is in the lower percentiles, the pediatrician coaxes
the mother to feed her child more food more frequently.
Nobody says, Isnt this wonderful?, the way one
might discuss the color of your childs eyes. Youd never think of changing your
childs eye color or height or shoe size. So mothers shouldnt get so caught up
in numbers. The important thing is that the child is healthy. And you can tell that by a
number of factors: appetite, skin tone, and activity level, for example.
The book talks about self-demand feeding. What is that?
The body is self-regulatory, and eating is as natural as going to the bathroom or
sneezing. Nobody has to tell you to do these things. But eating has become an obsession in
this country, and we think that we should manipulate peoples hunger and satisfaction
cues. Weve been so manipulated by the diet industry to lose weight that the natural
connection between hunger and eating has been severed.
Demand feeding is the process of eating when your body
is hungry, exactly what your body requires at that momentwhich only you can know,
because that information comes from inside youand stopping when youve had
Now, if we believe that infants know when theyre
hungry and when theyre full, why would we think that the infant cant use this
information throughout life, as a child and then as an adult? Why should we tamper with
this basic instinct? Because as soon as that spoon hits the childs lips for the
first time, unfortunately, we lose confidence in her ability to feed herself in her own
way, on her own time clock, at her own pace.
What about parents who are obsessed with maintaining thin bodies: how can they help their
heavy children develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies?
HIRSCHMANN: You see,
thats the problem: parents worry about what size their children are going to be
because they themselves have not made peace with size issues. They have not figured out
how to feel fabulous and beautiful and entitled at whatever size they are. They do not
know how to be in the world the way they want to be, and they do not know how to let go of
the notion that theyre not good enough just the way they are.
When a child is laughed at, or picked on, or not picked
for the team, its very painful. Its important that parents not collude with
the culture. Even if theyre struggling with their own issues about self-acceptance
and self-image, they must speak up against fat hatred on behalf of their children.
Parents need to say, "Theres really nothing
wrong with my childs size. Whats wrong is that the seats arent
comfortable, the desks arent large enough, and the clothes arent
comfortable...." Or, "Yes, my child is large, and she would like a candy
bar." And thats perfectly fine, because you dont have to be punished for
being large. She or he can have what everybody else has in this world. All children want
If you stand up and take the subject on, you teach
people that size is just a physical description, not a moral indictment. When a loving
aunt says, "Do you think that she really should be eating that? Dont you
think she should be losing some weight?," parents get very thrown off. They either
get very defensive"Dont tell me what to do with my kid"or they
get quiet. This sends a message to the child that there is something wrong with her body.
What parents could say instead is, "You know, I think she should direct her own
eating. She is a large child. She looks exactly like Uncle So-and-So, and shes got
our genes, and shes just terrific."
So we have to make this issue of size a nonissue.
Right. We have to be willing to speak up about it. We have to take on the subject wherever
we see it even when kids are watching television. My kids are sick of me: here she comes
with the social commentary. But you have to say to your children, "How many of the
people you know look like the people on TV? Do you know many people who are this thin?
Lets look around and see all the shapes that people come in." Or, "Why are
they making fun of that fat person? What is so funny about this?"
I want to tell you about a talk show I saw last week.
The topic was teenagers over 400 pounds. My kids called me in to see it. The shows
heavy kids are depressed and crying and saying how terrible they feel. Then they bring on
Richard Simmons. For forty-five minutes, he asks the kids in all different ways if they
are ready to make a commitment. I remember thinking, What the hell is he talking about?
What is he asking them to commit to? None of us could understand it.
Then he brings out each kids folder and talks
about how many hours a day they watch television and asks if thats what they want to
do for the rest of their lives.
The best part was the surprise the shows host had for Simmons.
There was a heavy boy who had been on the show a year earlier, and Richard Simmons had
worked with this boy, who was very desperate to lose weight. They bring him back on for a
surprise reunion. So the boy walks out on stage, a lovely boy, who looks almost the same
as he had the year before, which seemed perfectly fine to me. He sits down and someone
asks him how much weight he lost in the past year, and the boy says twenty pounds.
Simmonss face drops. "Well, I guess youre just gonna have to
recommit," Simmons says. And the boy says that he has new role models. Simmons is one
and Rosie ODonnell is the other. He says that he wants to be an actor, that nothing
is going to keep him from his dream, that he used to walk down the street with his head
lowered because he was so ashamed, but now he walks down the street with confidence.
But for Simmons, this isnt enough. He tells the
boy that hes been lazy and that he has to recommit.
It was so sad. The boy has confidence and goals and
self-esteem, and all Simmons could say was that he had to lose the weight.
How can we help children of substance develop a healthy sense of themselves?
"Children of substance": Thats an interesting phrase. I see all
children as children of substance: it has nothing to do with size. Children are creative,
spontaneous, and inquisitive. But adults often try to take that substance away by molding
children into what they think is appropriate. Why would we want to do that?
One thin mother of a very large daughter came to see me
because she wanted to know what to do with her daughter, who loved parading around in a
bikini. The child thought it was just terrific. She loved the rolls on her body and
wasnt ashamed. She loved to dress up in clothing that showed off her body, and she
enjoyed her body. She liked to move, liked to dance around, and was an athlete. The mother
said, "I know its my problem, not hers, and I want to know what to do about
it." This child was lucky to have such a mother.
But often, even if a large child seems to be thriving and enjoying life, no matter what
the kid does or achieves, the focus is on the weight.
True. I was working with a parent whose daughter was a very gifted rower. The daughter was
gaining weight, and the school became concerned about whether or not she could go in the
boat and stay on the team. She was headed for college rowing and was a very skilled and
powerful athlete. Everyone wanted her to lose weight, and I told the parent that it was
really the wrong way to go. I suggested that the mother go to the school and say that her
daughter was becoming more and more powerful, that maybe her position in the boat was the
wrong position, but that her daughter didnt need to change her body size. Further, I
said, just because she didnt look the part didnt mean she couldnt
play the part.
The parent had to work within herself to be able to do
this, because she had swallowed the negative message about her daughter. Once the parent
got clear about the issues, she could start supporting her daughter, and they became a
What about children who are afraid to move their bodiesto play outside and to
exercisebecause theyre fat?
So often movement seems to be used as a punishment for large children. When you say to
your child, "Lets take the steps instead of the elevator," who are you
kidding? That child knows that this is the punishment for not being the size that Mommy
and Daddy think she should be. "Normal" children are all taking the
elevatorpushing the buttons and getting to their floorinstead of using their
legs to get up there. The messagemovement is in the service of changing your body
because youre not rightis terrible.
Im very much for movement for children of all
sizes, if it can give them pleasure and help them feel competent. Thats the goal of
movement. So she likes to play volleyball? She should play volleyball. But to put her on a
sports team just so that shell move and maybe lose some of "that weight"
is problematic, because she will not be happy.
I would ask a child, "What do you like to do?"
Maybe shed like to dance. So lets go to a tap dance class. Who is this child?
Maybe this child doesnt like to move. Maybe she likes to read, or draw, or do
pottery. The goal is to think about what you would say to your child if she were in a thin
body. Moving the body is healthy for everybody, but some kids are active and some are not.
Thats who your kid is. Some kids are funny and outgoing; some are reserved.
Whats the personality here? Dont let the fat define the personality. Its
just one aspect of who the child is.
Im in the doctors office. with my heavy child, who is frightened about being
weighed, about the inevitable lecture on obesity, about being reprimanded and humiliated.
If you have a large child, you need to call ahead to the doctors office and speak to
the staff who are going to treat the child: all of them, office staff, nurses, doctors,
all of them. This is what you need to say: "I have a large child and were
coming in for an office visit. I dont want any discussion of weight. I dont
want it. I dont want you to talk to her about it. I dont want you to put her
down. This is a check-up. If what I want cant happen, then Ive got to find
If an office staff member says, "Well, we have to
chart her height and weight," ask why. Theres no reason to do height and weight
if you see a child regularly. Besides, the first one wholl know if a child is not
growing is the mother.
Many, many adult clients have told me how dreadful
childhood visits to the doctor were. Nobody was advocating for them. If you had a child
who was afraid to go to the dentist, you would take all precautions to make the visit a
smooth one. Youd alert the dentist to the anxiety, youd ask the dentist to
explain all the steps to the child. You would walk the child through it and protect her.
When we walk into pediatricians offices and let them say whatever they want to say,
it really is not fair to the child. The child needs to be protected.
The minute you hear a weight discussion coming, you have
to say, "Excuse me, were not going to have this discussion now. Please finish
what you are doing, and then later on, you and I will talk and Ill tell you some of
my views, because I think shes just fine the way she is."
A doctor is a paid consultant. You are paying him
or her to consult with you about your childs medical care, not to abuse your child.
If a doctor is rude and condescending and authoritarian, why would you be there? How could
you get good medical care that way?
If the nurse starts with the weighing business, you
could say, "You know, we dont do weight. We really feel that our daughter is
growing fine. Shes lovely just the way she is, and shes growing and shes
large. This is who she is, and we arent going to hop on scales. But if you want to
bring it up with the doctor, because I know its your job to weigh each patient as
part of the routine, Ill tell the doctor what my thinking is on this issue." By
witnessing this, the child will learn to protect herself in other instances.
So what do you say to the doctor who tells the parent in private that its unhealthy
for the child to be fat?
The doctor might say that he or she is so concerned about your large child, that its
so unhealthy, that we know all the statistics on overweight children becoming obese
adults. And you can say, "You know, all the statistics arent in yet on the
relationship between health and obesity. But one thing is for certain: diets are unhealthy
and make you fatter. We want our child to be very healthy and to live as long as she can
and lead a very productive life. Shes been very healthy. She goes to school, she
rarely comes to this office, she doesnt have a million ailments. She hasnt
been sick. Why are you focusing on this? I understand where youre coming from,
because there are a lot of phobias in this country about fat people. And misconceptions:
not all fat people are going to be sick as dogs and die early. My daughter is
Now if you have a large child who isnt healthy,
youll need to go another route. You might say, "You know, its true that
my daughter has had a lot of colds this year. Lets think about what we can do to
prevent that for next year, because shes missed a lot of school. But lets not
jump to the conclusion that its because shes fat. Lets get clear on
this: I have a fat kid. Thats who she is. Were not putting her on a
weight-loss regime, because then shell get fatter and fatter and fatter. So are you
willing to work with me on giving her good medical care?"
How do we stand up for our heavy children in the school environment?
I support parents who try to help teachers become more aware of issues concerning
children. A parent can go in and say, "My child comes to school and things are said
that are very painful to her, not only by the children, but also by the adults. I really
want there to be some awareness in the school about what it means to be large in this
society, and for you to take this on as an issue, the way you take on other issues with
Suppose a child says that gym class is upsetting. Perhaps she never gets to choose sides
for softball or basketball, or perhaps, despite the childs obvious trepidation, the
gym teacher forces the kids to compete with the more athletic kids.
You call up the gym teacher and say that youd like to know why your child never gets
chosen as a team captain. Children go to school to learn a lot of things. Why
shouldnt all children have the opportunity to move their bodies and play sports? Why
should the gym teacher be determining ahead of time what the children are good at and what
theyre not good at? We just cant know unless we give everyone a fighting
chance. A parent could say to the gym teacher, "I know that theres a lot of
prejudice out there about fat kids, that they dont run as fast and may not be as
good as others at certain sports, but they have just as much a right to enjoy something as
any other kid in the class. Why not choose two large children to be captains next
If you get nowhere with the gym teacher, you go to the
principal. You organize with other parents, bring in articles, and start discussions. If
the same problem happened in an academic class, youd move in quickly. Whats
important is for children to enjoy gym class and not feel upset about it. Why not figure
out a way for the kids to do something in gym that everybody will have fun doing and be
good at? Maybe get a friendly teacher to help you organize new activities.
If you could change school curriculum to help children learn about the issues of body
size, food, and eating, what would you do and when would you start?
HIRSCHMANN: When would you
start? In nursery school. Absolutely. You need to start sensitizing kids when they are
really young. People are going into junior high and high school these days, but I
dont know that anybody is starting with the very, very young. When my children went
to nursery school, they did life-size body drawings and hung them up around the room. The
kids lay down and traced one anothers bodies and then decorated the drawings and
discussed the differences between the bodies in a nonjudgmental way. This kind of thing
needs to be structured into school programs, and issues of body size need to be made more
a part of the curriculum. Bring in people who are large to talk to the kids. Allow the
kids to ask questions. Start educating them.
We want to help large kids get rid of what Carol Munter
and I, in our book When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies, call bad body fever.
We need to make sure they dont stay infected with this disease into adulthood. We
want to work not on slimming the children down, but on helping them get rid of all the bad
body thoughts and accept who they are and their bodies. Parents can do this by all kinds
of modeling and by speaking up.
Ill tell you a wonderful lesson that I learned
from a woman who was a member of REDO, the Rochester Eating Disorders Organization. She
was a very short woman and very large. On our way to Rochester, where I was going to give
a talk, we stopped at a mall to pick up food for the conference. We walked into the mall
and suddenly a little girl said to her mother, "Mommy, look at that fat lady!"
Her mother hushed the girl up and began to pull her away, totally embarrassed. My
colleague walked over to them and said, "You dont have to hush her up. You
dont have to take her away. This is not an embarrassment." She said to the
little girl, "Yes, I am probably one of the fattest ladies youve ever seen. I
am very fat. And you know what? Im also a schoolteacher, I love to paint, and I have
a son your age. What do you like to do?" And they started to talk back and forth.
That was a very early lesson for me in size acceptance.
It was fabulous. The large woman didnt feel defensive. She taught the mother
something, and she taught the daughter something: Im not embarrassed about who I am,
is what she said, and, Yes, this is me. And theres much more to me than my size. Let
me tell you how much more there is. And who are you? This is the kind of exchange we need
to make available to children.
So how do we help our fat child in a similar situation, when she comes home from school
after being confronted about her size and feels demoralized?
We have to help the child learn to speak up. She could say, "Yes, Im fat. So
what? Why is that a problem? I dont like the tone of voice youre using. I
think youre trying to make fun of me, and I dont get it. Just because Im
fat? Do I make fun of your height or the grade you got yesterday? I dont do that and
I dont like what youre doing." Or, if the kid cant do this, she
might just say, "Ouch. That hurt."
Theres no standard response. But you have to say
to your child, "Whats wrong is not you. Whats wrong is the children who
are being cruel. You dont have to hide or be ashamed of who you are. Lets
figure out how you can respond. How might you stand up to these bullies? Well work
on it together. Well practice."
Youve got to help the child find her voice. We
need to tell her that it can be a tough world out there. You might say, "There will
always be cruel children wholl pick on other children, so I dont think
its a question of changing your size. I think its a question of learning to
speak up for yourself."
What should a teacher say to children who tease the large child?
I think that teachers need to be aware of all kinds of teasing, and they need to stop it.
They might say, "We dont speak that way here. We dont like to see
children attacked. Any kind of attack hurts." A teacher who sees a fat child being
teased could jump in and say, "Yeah, thats right, Susies fat. Its
part of who she is. Youre short. Hes tall. This one has blue eyes. This one
has brown hair. What do you think is wrong with being fat?"
The kids might reply, "Well, its not good to
be so fat. She cant run like we can."
And the teacher might say, "Maybe she cant
run like you can. Can you do math like she can? Can you spell like he can? You know,
were all different here. We all have different qualities. Where did you get the idea
that everyone has to be skinny? What do your mommy and daddy look like? Is there anybody
fat in your family?"
"Yeah! My grandma!"
"How does it feel to hug your grandma?"
"Oh, I like it!"
"Its nice to be hugged by someone fat,
isnt it? Who else knows fat people? Let me tell you about some people I know who are
very successful and very fat."
Then the teacher could teach a history lesson on various
fat people: musicians, historical figures, movie stars, and so on. She could bring in
pictures and put them up. She could ask the students to bring in a list of the five
fattest people they know and love. With very young students, Santa Claus and Rosie
ODonnell would be at the top of the list!
It seems that in the media, fat children are depicted as buffoons or weaklings or sad
sacks or crazies. Many children rebel against the very idea of socializing with a fat
child, even before meeting the child. How do we begin to turn this around?
We have to believe that change is possible and begin inside ourselves. Many of us have
swallowed the cultural ideal, and its necessary to challenge this thin ideal. Then
we can look at our children and say to ourselves, There is nothing about my child that
needs fixing or changing. What needs changing is the fat hatred in the world.
We need to see the beauty in our children. ©
B. SHANEWOOD is a teacher and writer from
Connecticut, where she lives with her two cats, who are teaching her about peace of mind.
back to the Kids Project