Anonymous mom is a mother of two daughters, ages 9 and 7. Although she has her own blog, she’s written this post anonymously to protect the identity of her daughter. She does not need diet or exercise advice.
“Childhood Obesity” – even on this blog it tends to be discussed like it’s something esoteric and impersonal, like a bad weather system or a toenail fungus. As in, “how can I get rid of this awful childhood obesity, it’s so embarrassing when I go to the gym.” It’s a topic a lot of people like to grandstand about, like immigration reform or the importance of spaying or neutering your cats. Everyone, whether they have no children, or one skinny child, or maybe one or two slightly chubby cats seems to consider themselves qualified to dispense advice on the best way to fight flab amongst those under 18. Very few of those people will admit to any actual personal connection to the topic.
I was an overweight kid, and I have an overweight kid. My daughter and I inherited a strong build and the tendency to pack on the pounds from my Dad, who yo-yo’d between 200 and 300 pounds for most of his adult life. While my brother would come home from school, drain a milk carton, inhale a half a dozen bagels and never wear anything larger than a “medium,” I spent my childhood shopping in the “pretty plus” section and trying to develop the ability to appear invisible to classroom bullies. The adults in my life, though well-meaning, offered only one strategy for coping with the constant barrage of name calling: ignore it. They might as well have just told me flat out to envision the cheese crackers as all of my pent up anger and stuff them down my throat. Even teachers and others in a position of trust would see no conflict between telling me to exercise more and smirking while the other kids laughed at me in gym class. When I went to school in the 1980s, overweight kids were subjected to an annual abuse ritual known as the President’s test of physical fitness. Once a year, we’d prove to our peers what they already knew: most overweight children cannot run a half mile without stopping, or do chin ups. (Many thin children couldn’t either, but apparently out of shape thin people aren’t as funny.) In case you think marginalizing fat people is an effective motivational tool: it isn’t. I stayed inside most of the time where everyone would leave me alone. Even when I eventually lost the weight for the first time, I did it in a pretty self-hating fashion.
Fortunately, the world is a slightly kinder place to my overweight 9 year old. Although she’s a ball of fire and more interested in vegetables and sports than her naturally thin little sister, her weight is not even on the CDC growth charts. She looks a lot like I did at her age, but her school experiences have been very different. Since the 80s, our thinking on how to handle bullying has changed. Schools are adopting anti-bullying policies and parents are taking a more hands on approach to interactions between kids. While it’s true there’s a little bit of “helicopter parenting” going on, I’m glad my kid is growing up at a time when I can expect that if I contact her school with a concern about schoolyard bullying, they will take it very seriously and intervene. I know things will get much tougher as she approaches middle school, but I’m already strapping on my mama bear suit and getting ready. She has had some run ins with kids (mostly boys) who think it’s ok to call her names, but for the most part they are the exception. I’ve seen other kids stand up for her in a way that was pretty much unheard of when I was growing up. I feel cautiously optimistic that she won’t waste her adolescent years feeling ashamed of her shape, and I’ll be her advocate for as long as she lets me.
Of course, none of this relates to the “problem of childhood obesity” as we are supposed to regard it: as a public health issue. In reality, when we talk about combating childhood obesity we are confronting two separate but equally important issues: 1) Obesity and its effect on the health of individual children and 2) How we feel about obesity, how we feel about obese children and how they feel about themselves. In an ideal world, number 2 wouldn’t be an issue, but unfortunately the world is full of immature and emotional wounded people, ready to tear down anyone who shows a perceived weakness. It’s also filled with well-meaning but somewhat clueless people who are honestly under the impression that overweight people might not know they are overweight, or know that eating less and exercising might be a way to change that.
I support the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign and the movement to bring healthier school lunches into America’s schools, because I think they place the emphasis where it belongs: on systemic healthy changes rather than on individual obese kids. For people like me and my daughter who are genetically predisposed to being overweight, the sea of parking lots surrounding islands of sugar and fat that we have to navigate every day present endless opportunities to become morbidly obese. If school lunches can be made healthier for all children, chubby and skinny kids alike will benefit. If parents can get the support they need to feel safe letting their children play outside, all of America’s kids will have a more active and rich childhood. I don’t see programs like “Let’s Move” as an attempt to single out kids like my daughter, and I’m with them all the way.
I’m a little bit nervous, however, about the Let’s Move Campaign’s goal of monitoring each child’s Body Mass Index. It’s easy to imagine how this could become another annual humiliation ritual like the Test of Physical Fitness. I hope the founders of Let’s Move are putting a great deal of thought into how that would be implemented, and not just assuming that every school would administer such a program with great sensitivity to the emotional needs of its students. The truth is, teachers and school administrators already know who the obese kids are in their schools, and the kids know this, too. There’s no real need to call all the children in to be assigned numbers which they can then wield as verbal weapons on the playground. Let’s concentrate our efforts on giving all kids the tools they need to be healthy, and leave personal humiliation out of it.
You might also be interested in reading this Newsweek column, which inspired this post.