Is “Thin” a Four-Letter Word?

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Childhood Obesity News has been exploring the idea that “fat” is a four-letter word, not literally, but in the sense of being forbidden, vulgar, and offensive. Sometimes it seems as if “thin” is equally reprehensible, because people object to the idea of children being told that thin is better than fat. This is partly an artifact of the epidemic of anorexia that swept the country not long ago. When children and teenagers become obsessed with keeping their weight down, ugly things can happen. No one doubts it.

But when children and teenagers totally disregard their overweight, unhealthy bodies, other things can happen that are just as ugly. Is it possible that we worry too much about hurt feelings, at the cost of hurt bodies, suffering from diabetes, or tempted into questionably effective surgery?

How much do doctors, schools, government agencies, and parents need to pussyfoot around the necessity to intervene? Where is the happy medium between saying “Kid, I’m gonna give it to you straight — you’re too darn fat,” and enabling a potentially fatal condition?

The question has also occupied others. In Macleans magazine, Jessica Allen wrote about her personal wake-up call:

Two years ago my doctor told me I was overweight […] in the privacy of his office, during an annual physical, and in a sensitive manner. The result? After calling him terrible names in my head, I lost 20 lbs over the course of five months. And the next year, I weighed in just about right. It’s been the most effective weight-loss tool I’ve ever encountered because every year I know I have to get back on that medical scale, and I don’t want to disappoint the doctor, or myself.

On the most recent visit, Allen had gained back five pounds, and expresses gratitude that “my doctor gave me a bit of stink eye for gaining it.” After all, she asks:

If we can’t count on our doctors to call the kettle fat, then who can we count on?

In Canada, 59% of the people are obese, and nearly half of them don’t know it — they think they’re “just about right.” Allen’s claim to that description was verified by the scale and the doctor. But many overweight and obese people are just plain oblivious, or in denial. It’s true of adults looking at themselves, and even more true of adults looking at their kids.

Allen mentions the hassles in America over childhood obesity billboards and the widely publicized closing of a Disney World attraction because of criticisms over alleged insensitivity. There is perhaps, she suggests, just a bit too much concern over bullying and stigmatization.

Dr. Pretlow has similar thoughts:

We need to bring childhood obesity out in the open, so kids won’t be teased or bullied and so fat is not a bad word. Kids want obesity to be out in the open. They want to talk about it. Currently, they can’t talk to anyone about their weight, not even their family or friends. If we continue to hide ‘fat,’ we continue to give ammunition to the bullies and stoke the fire. If we take away the power of the word, bullying will abate. There will be some ‘collateral damage’ to overweight kids in the near term, but it’s worth it. If we do it fast the damage can be minimized.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “When it comes to being fat, we’re simply too polite,”, 05/26/12
Image (modified) by colros (Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose), used under its Creative Commons license.

2 Responses

  1. I agree completely with everything you said in this post! It has become such a sad reality that children and adolescents cannot talk to their parents about their weight and and issues they may have with it, whether it be too thin or overweight. It’s crazy that parents shy away from the topic because they feel as if they’re going to hurt their child’s feelings. It’s okay!! Kids are much tougher than they are given credit for. And like you stated in your post, we are too worried about hurting feelings and forget about the hurt that is happening to the body by the child being overweight or obese. By get the fat out in the open and taking away the bad or negative connotation, children will be more willing to discuss their weight with parents, teachers, doctors, etc and if it is an issues, they will feel more comfortable talking about ways to reduce their weight. Children and adolescents needs encouragement, support, and motivation from their parents and family, so that’s what we shall give them!!!

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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