Guest blogger: Being an overweight kid

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.
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59 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Being an overweight kid

  1. You're the only one that has been rude. I have not insulted you, yet you feel the need to insult me. I attend one of the best universities in the nation, and I am well-qualified to analyze research studies. If you were educated at all in anthropological thought or methods, you would realize that labeling something as a disease – medicalization – confers benefits to those who claim to be affected by a given disease. Otherwise, it would not be considered a disease. By labeling something as a disease, overweight and obese people are able to point to a medically-accepted premise for being overweight, and are less likely to experience ridicule. I do not believe that being overweight or obese is a disease. Other cultures would find the notion absolutely ludicrous.

    I am not denigrating "what [I] do not understand". You are insulting me because I do not agree with your opinions. And the way you refer to "skinny people" is insulting. Not all skinny people are mean and cruel nor do they all make fun of overweight and obese people. My room mate happens to have a masters in public health from Tufts and is earning a PhD from Harvard in molecular biology and genetics – two of the best universities in the country. He happens to agree with me. Are you going to question his credentials like you questioned mine?

  2. Yes, I would question any person who has not studied all sides of an issue before making an opinion.

    If Harvard is not teaching the heiritability of traits (of which body mass, height, and weight are all in that category) then I would be skeptical of the credentials of which you speak.

  3. I was thin growing up until I hit 14 years old. My brother was diagnosed with leukemia and I dealt with the ensuing chaos by eating. I grew to 160 pounds on a 5'4'' frame. After he died when I was 16 I slowly reverted back to 120 pounds and have remained at an appropriate ht/wt level since (I am currently 55 years old).
    We don't know what is going on in people's lives to make judgements about why they may be the size they are. And, frankly, I don't find it that important – as corny as it sounds, it's what's inside a person that makes them valuable.
    And Samantha, yeah, let me get this clear with you. I have a few impressive degrees from a prestigious university but I would never use that to whack someone into submission around my opinion. Normally I would try to organize a person to a different way of thinking about something but you clearly aren't worth bothering with. People on this thread are expressing deeply painful experiences that they have thoughtfully worked to understand while you are sitting back and judging. I find it disturbing to think someone like you is going to have any hand in reporting/evaluating anthropoligal data but maybe I shouldn't worry. I'm guessing someone like you will have trouble getting along in a work site for any length of time. And, by the way, I find Beth far more credible than you or your "friend" – she is certainly more thoughtful and kind, qualities you apparently don't value.

  4. (I'm the post author)

    Samantha, I was very young once too, in my anthropology major days. That was two degrees, two children, 50 pounds and about 8 million light years ago. Someday you will know less, and that will be very liberating.

    Thank you to everyone for all of the kind comments. I would have responded earlier, but I had two extra kids in my house for most of the week. I am grateful to Mrs. Q for providing such a wonderful platform.

  5. Thank you for this post. We often hear now that part of the reason for so much childhood obesity is that many schools (including Mrs. Q.'s) do not offer gym class daily. I agree gym class should be offered daily, but the curriculum needs to be re-evaluated to ensure that ALL kids are encouraged to participate and do their best. I was a thin, but out of shape and uncoordinated, kid. Everyone was required to do the President's test. I could usually pass the sit and reach, thanks to my ballet lessons, but I could not do a pull-up or even the flex-arm hang to save my life, the sit-ups were iffy (and I don't think how many sit-ups you can do in a minute is regarded as a sign of fitness anymore, anyway) and I usually couldn't make the mile times. Additionally, 95 percent of the curriculum from fifth grade on was sports involving a ball…football, soccer, volleyball, softball, tennis…all misery for me, particularly volleyball, as I couldn't serve and had a tendency to duck when the ball came near me. I actually faked being sick once to avoid volleyball. I was picked on in school for many reasons, but gym class was especially bad. Since high school, I've gotten into rollerblading, figure skating and swimming and realized that while I will never be a gifted athlete, I can have fun at physical activities and will improve with practice. I still avoid team sports, though. The memory of my classmates teasing me in the locker room is burned too deeply in my memory for a casual game of beach volleyball or work softball leagues to be any fun at all.

  6. As I look at pictures of myself as a child, I really wasn't an overweight kid, I was just not an athletic kid. But because of how I was ridiculed, "Unathletic=Obese" I began to see myself as overweight. I never became overweight until I saw myself as overweight and started "dieting" (see-starving myself). My mother never corrected me because she was and still is overweight and has a poor body image. As of right now I would probably qualify as slightly over the ideal BMI for my height. I wear a size 10 in ladies pant size, and most people say I look healthy. I know I could be healthier, but I eat my veggies, I eat fruits and whole grains. I don't exercise like I should, but I get out and walk dogs and ride horses once a week. exercise doesn't have to be a chore.
    Body image and proper education on nutrition and exercise should be the focus of Mrs. Obama's campaign. I commend her effort for focusing on a future epidemic of diabetes and heart health issues, but she does need to have the proper focus. BMI tracking is not the right way. My 140 pound, 6'3" cousin was considered overweight because of his BMI for his height. He is stick thin, and has always been stick thin after he grew out of his "sumo-Baby" stage. I do not believe a BMI is a proper track of health. WEight isn't either. Again, as I have said, I know people who are overweight by BMI standards, even cosmopolitan standards, and have better cholesterol numbers than some of the fit and thin people I know. A friend of mine that was skinny as a rail turned diabetic in junior high. No one suspected she would, because she was skinny.
    Nutrition, exercise that is fun (I like walking the shelter dogs and working my horses), and proper body image (Its okay to wear a size 14…or its okay to be skinny as a bean pole) are all keys to making the "Let's move" campaign work.

  7. I am not insulting those that are overweight nor am I denying obesity's status as a complicated issue. I do not believe that everyone is at fault for being overweight or obese – there are several social and mental health issues that contribute to obesity. And when I say "mental health", please don't automatically think that I am being irreverent to overweight people. But just as anorexia and bulimia are mental health issues, I also think that mental health issues can contribute to obesity. And I know that not all overweight people have mental health issues. I have done the research and I, as well as dozens of other qualified scientists, do not think that genetics is a biological determinant of obesity. I understand that there are some scientists that do believe that genetics contributes to obesity. I am allowed to disagree with people on this thread and contribute a different opinion, and I think that I should be able to join the conversation without being attacked for my stance.

    I am also not disrespecting the painful stories that others are posting on this blog. I mentioned that I, too, was overweight when I was child. It was an incredibly difficult experience for me, and I hated the presidential fitness test as much as anyone else did. Just because I am not overweight now does not mean that I shouldn't be able to talk about the issue. I work with the boston public school system (it's a good side job to have as a college student in order to pay bills) and many of the young students I encounter are overweight or obese – it breaks my heart because I love them and see so much potential in them. There are serious health risks associated with obesity and I don't want my students – or any other person – to die young because of something that can be, on some level, prevented. And the author, while you have been gracious and I do appreciate your contribution, I think it's rude to assert that I hold my scientific opinions because I am young. Ageism is as real a problem as prejudice towards the overweight and obese. Judging me because I am younger than you stings a bit because I cannot control my age and I am not less of a person than you are.

  8. I agree with Samantha. I've been obese (as is almost all of my family), and I've been slim, but I always knew that my obesity was caused by my overeating and inactivity. When I stopped overeating and slightly increased my activity, I lost the weight, despite my family genes.

    Having said that, I absolutely agree that people should not be discriminated against or mocked because of their weight. My feelings about that are the same now as they were when I was obese.

    I think that common sense often gets lost in these theoretical discussions about obesity and health. Calories in versus calories out.

  9. Hmm it appears like your blog ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.
    I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any points for rookie blog writers? I’d really appreciate it.

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